Winter in Glen Lyon

110 cloud break, meall a bharr

One of my favourite John Muir quotes says that ‘everyone needs beauty as well as bread.’ I have learned from these past years in Glen Lyon that wild places have the power to heal and transform as well as inspire.

Just outside the village of Fortingall in Highland Perthshire a single-track road leads into one of the most beautiful places in Scotland. It winds into a glen through a mountainous pass above the swirling black waters of the River Lyon. The road then heads west, gradually climbing for more than twenty miles through fertile pasture, woodland and wild moor.

At Loch Lyon the road ends and the hills, scored with tumbling burns, take complete hold. Scramble to one of the peaks and you can see the Ben Lawers massif, Rannoch Moor, Glen Coe and even the humped cap of Ben Nevis in the far distance. This landscape so fired my imagination that I moved into Glen Lyon back in 2001 and I have been exploring it with a camera ever since.

My love for photography started when, as a boy, I lived for a few years in Glenelg on the West Coast. My father, who was a geologist, mountaineer and keen photographer, took me on long walks with a camera and few rolls of black and white film. He tramped me up my first Munro when I was nine and I have been hooked on hill walking ever since.

Before moving to Glen Lyon I worked as a photojournalist in South America, living in Chile and then Bolivia for a number of years. During this time I shot a lot of travel and street photography in colour which tends to be fast moving and unpredictable. I realise now that this had a big influence on the sort of black and white photos I ended up taking in the glen.

Landscape photography can be slow and deliberate. But when I set out to explore the wildest corners of Glen Lyon I wanted to keep moving, to let the fickle light catch my eye rather than set up shots. So I carried a small and light Leica M6 film camera and took photos in all conditions. Some of the images are in snowstorms, others in falling dusk light. The results were often strange and moody but for me they captured the Highland winter’s true northern soul.

There is an intimacy in the images that can only come from getting to know and love a single landscape. I have walked pretty much all of Glen Lyon and will often return to my favourite spots; a ridge, remote corrie, stretch of woodland, single tree or rocky branch in a burn. I spent one winter walking the edges of the shadows cast across the bens by the low sun.

Before moving into the glen I had never really done any proper winter walking so finding my feet on snow and ice was a real learning curve and I now can’t believe some for the risks I took out of pure ignorance when I started. Gradually over the years I’ve picked up the basic skills and experience and am more confident, although I will always be hugely respectful of the hills.

I’ve had some unforgettable hill days in Glen Lyon. Looking back one of the most memorable was climbing up Meall nan Tarmachan in a gale with my old walking buddy James. Just before we reached the summit I looked over to see him waving at me. We couldn’t hear each other over the wind and, guessing he was just being friendly, I waved back and carried on up to the top. He had actually somehow got his crampons tangled together and was clinging to the slope for dear life!

Once he had managed to untangle himself and made it up to join me the wind dropped away and we had an incredible walk across the ridge. The air was crystal clear and I remember that wonderful feeling of being granted privileged access to the roof of the world. Several of the photos from that afternoon alone made it into the book.

The other moment that sticks in mind was on the Ben Lawers range last February. I had just headed up to the summit of Meall Garbh with fantastic views across Loch Tay when I was overtaken by my friend Joe’s dog Seamus. I hadn’t paid Seamus much attention on the way up the hill but he now scrambled up a frozen pile of ice and rock and put his nose to wind. In that fraction of a second I caught a really evocative image of him, like a wolf surveying his territory. It is one of my favourite pictures.

The wind picked up that afternoon and by the time we walked off the ridge it was shearing off a constant stream of ice crystals. I’ll never forget the sound they made as they were torn off the summit and into thin air, like constant breaking glass.

Any study of Glen Lyon wouldn’t be complete without its people.  Even in the glen’s most remote corners I’ve stumbled across mossy imprints of sheilings, hut circles, forts, castles and ghost roads through high passes. Today’s community in the glen, with its post office, primary school and sporting estates, make up an important part of my book. I have huge respect for the shepherds, farmers and stalkers who make a living working day in and day out in this landscape and am grateful that they let me document their lives.  

Tracing my eye back through this book feels like drawing a finger across the slender lines of an old map, plotting ten years hard lived in Glen Lyon. I lost both my parents and gained a son during this time and now see an emotional journey of exile and return reflected in these images beyond the physical landscape. One of my favourite John Muir quotes says that ‘everyone needs beauty as well as bread.’ I have learned from these past years in Glen Lyon that wild places have the power to heal and transform as well as inspire.

With wild land under more pressure in Scotland than ever before these images are a fleeting record of a vanishing frontier. I am a big supporter of the Mountaineering Council’s efforts to protect Scotland’s wild land and hope that more and more people discover, explore and share the wild places that are closest to their hearts. Only then can we truly value and protect the Glen Lyons of this world and the wildness within ourselves.

Scottish Mountaineer, November 2013

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