I recently returned from a trip to the Cairngorms, where I based myself next to the quaint village of Kingussie. This holds a special place in my heart. The reason for this connection is that the last time I visited was 20 years ago, when I'd decided that it would be a great idea to become qualified as a white water rafting instructor. I would have been 28 years old and I was very dissatisfied with working in an office. It really wasn't suiting me at all. In my wisdom, I thought that becoming an outdoors guide would be an exciting new career opportunity full of adventure and good times in the wilderness. Of course, that's all fine when you're 28 with no health issues or responsibilities. I never did become a white water guide but I had a lot of fun becoming qualified as one! It was also an introduction to the UK's largest wilderness area.
Photography wise, I've neglected the Cairngorms, always favouring the apparently more dramatic nature of the rugged mountains out in the North West of the Highlands such as Assynt. Skirting the edges of the Cairngorms in a car, one could be led to believe that they are a featureless plateau, a bit like the North York Moors on steroids, and seemingly difficult to photograph perhaps? The mountains in the Cairngorms, however, are almost twice the height of diminutive Stac Pollaidh in Assynt. Once we walk into the Cairngorms, we begin to realise that this is a serious wilderness and not to be taken lightly, particularly in winter. Winter hill skills are needed for even the 'easier' Munros (a Munro is a Scottish mountain over 3000ft, of which there are 282). Munro bagging is fun, and I have a whopping two to my name, both of which were easy enough in summer. I've no desire to bag the lot but I'd certainly like a few more when conditions are suitable and I intend to embark on a winter skills course.
Like all wilderness areas, from a photographic stance, the Cairngorms is daunting. It always takes a few visits to an area to form some ideas photographically, particularly if you're attempting to put your own stamp on a location. I'm experienced enough to realise that this trip would very much be a recce photographically and I wasn't expecting to come away with much in that respect.
The trip was very good for me mentally however. The last couple of years have been hard, suffering with anxiety, tinnitus, and a thyroid condition. There has also been the challenge that we still face of a global pandemic thrown in for good measure. For the first time in my life I'd had suicidal thoughts. Once those type of thoughts enter our mind, they are very powerful. But the increasing tinnitus noises in my head, feeling unwell every day, and just in a general state of despair, well, it was feeling like more than I could handle. Thankfully, with help and support those feelings have passed. In fact, in the moment of typing that they have passed I breathed out a large sigh of relief. I do not mention this for sympathy; in fact, I questioned why I would share it here. I think the act of sharing is cathartic in some way. I won't dwell on or make the blog post about these feelings. I will say, however, that if you are struggling, reach out to someone, anyone; there is always a way forward.
Back to the trip, and the air in the Cairngorms is amazing, alpine fresh in fact, and it does give one a real boost while walking through the mountains and forests, passing by rivers and streams of crystal clear mountain water. It's such an uplifting experience and often brought a huge smile to my face. It felt like the real healing that I need. The plan was just to walk every day, cover ground, and hopefully see some compositions that I'd like to come back to photograph. I started with Glen Feshie (where the cheesy self-timer shot above was taken). Glen Feshie is undergoing a large scale rewilding phase which is evident as we move through the landscape. It has a real wilderness feel; indeed the Glen itself is access to some very remote hills and mountains. I didn't have great light or see anything that would make me set up my tripod at first, despite its beauty. After an hour or two walking through this terrain, however, something in the mind changes. We arrive at that place of non-thinking. Suddenly there is a clarity, our problems seem to diminish, and our vision is clear. No longer daunted by the landscape, instead we have come home to the landscape.
For this trip, in fact in general, I have been shooting film, a mix of black + white and colour. Creatively, I'm at an interim place. I'm not quite sure where it's taking me but I have learned to simply go with whatever feels most natural rather than panic about a lack of output. I embrace this feeling of uncertainty in the hope that I might surprise myself. Shooting film means that I currently have no images to share as they are being processed in the lab as I type! Not that I think I have much to share from this trip. I am heading back to the Cairngorms again this weekend with a few more ideas, and hopefully it will pay off. Whatever happens is all part of the journey.