Why do we create images of the landscapes around us? Is there a need to record them? Is there a need to share our experiences, or invite others to our favourite part of the world? Do we do it for fame or fortune? Maybe we do it because it satisfies a desire to spend time with nature. To breathe the air, smell the sea, watch the weather and seek the horizon beyond.
There can be no doubt that spending time in nature promotes our physical and mental health. Sometimes we just need to find some personal space, away from the city, social media, endless daily tasks and, dare I say it, people. For me, there’s nowhere better suited to all the above than the Hebrides of Scotland.
The Outer Hebrides are a chain of islands off the northwest coast of Scotland. I have been visiting the islands since 2004 when I moved to Scotland having worked in the USA. They were not a high priority location to visit, to be honest. The names of Uist, Benbecula or even Harris were not on my radar at the time. It was my wife’s parents, who had fallen in love with the islands and their Gaelic culture years earlier, that persuaded us to holiday there.
When I first arrived at Lochboisdale on South Uist, I was struck by the lack of any natural landmarks as we made our way over the peat bog. This chain of islands is exposed to the full force of the Atlantic storms, so trees are a rare find. It can take a day or two to tune into this landscape, but it does get under your skin and you fall in love with the wilderness and extreme beauty.
Each of the islands has plenty to offer photographers. Barra and the connected Vatersay are the southernmost populated islands, which are famous for their stunning, unspoiled beaches. Barra is home to the world’s only beach airport where daily scheduled flights from Glasgow land on the expansive cockle strand (at low tide of course). It’s a bucket list moment for many, and the low key airport allows for selfies with the captain, and baggage reclaim is a table outside the café. One day, I too will skip the ferry and take this magical flight.
The central portion of the Hebrides is made up of Eriskay, South Uist, Benbecula, North Uist and Berneray, all of which are connected by causeways. The eastern portion of these isles is rocky, boggy and a complex water world of tidal lochs and freshwater lochans. Hills like Eaval on North Uist and the chain of Hecla, Corrodale, Ben Mor and Ruebhal on South Uist dominate for miles around.
These areas are sparsely populated and are one of the few true wildernesses left in Britain. A superb place for wildlife, whether your interests are botanical, avian or marine. The western portion of the isles could not be more different. They are home to the machair, a strip of fertile but fragile sandy land rich in biodiversity.
If you visit in late May or early June, the Machair is a dazzling carpet of wildflowers untouched by human hand. The machair supports many ground-nesting birds and is home to the elusive corncrake. The sands have preserved sites of human habitations from Viking through to the Neolithic that is still easy to make out today. These islands are not to be missed on a visit to the Hebrides.
The northernmost islands in the outer Hebrides are Lewis and Harris. Lewis is the most populated of the Hebridean islands, with Stornaway the only settlement resembling a mainland town. Much of Lewis consists of boggy moorland, with fertile land and settlements hugging the coastline. There many incredible natural and human sites to visit. There are the dry stone and thatched blackhouses of ~150 years ago in Arnol and Gearrannan, Iron age brochs like Dun Carloway, and Neolithic standing stones can be found throughout the island.
The magical Callanais standing stones are on the edge of Loch Roag next to the village of Callanish. There are 46 stones that date back 5,000 years, much older than Stonehenge. They are awesome in any weather and are a must-visit. You will find a good number of tourists at sunset in the summer thanks to the Outlander TV series. You can get your shot, but you will need to be patient. There are also two other substantial stone circles close by. Stay local and get up early for sunrise or do a night shoot (I can recommend an excellent guest house). You will be alone and awestruck.
The jewel in the crown of the Hebrides has to be the Isle of Harris. The juxtaposition of the high hills of the north of Harris with the sandy beaches and colourful seas of the south is outstandingly beautiful. It is a coastal photographers dream. There are so many compositions to be had. Couple that with changeable weather and the different colours of the sea throughout the day. You will leave the island both excited by your images and experiences and disappointed by what you were unable to achieve.
Those feelings make you come back again and again. A favourite of many is the white sands of Luskentyre, accessed by the side of the graveyard, where you may have an encounter with the local grey ponies in the dunes. Better still is Traigh Rosamol, at the end of the Luskentyre road. Here you are closest to the north Harris hills and the isle of Taransay, which are superb backdrops. This is an excellent place to be in poor weather. It’s an incredibly moody place
The best light always seems to follow a shower, so embrace the weather. The clouds move quickly and the perfect moments can be brief. I recommend exploring the tidal sands of Luskentyre bay at low tide for interesting patterns in the sand, the salt marsh near Northon and the beaches at Seilebost, Traigh Mhor and Scarista in particular. You can find beautiful gneiss rocks and outflows merging into the pure sands. Wonderful leading lines can be found in the dunes or streams. Spend some time to explore and you will find unique compositions. It will take me years to get through them all.
Above all, there is one principle actor not mentioned yet: the sea. On a fine day, the waters in a sandy bay transition from gunmetal grey to blue to green to turquoise to deep blue again as the sun rises and falls. This profoundly changes the ambient colours around you and the mood of your images. I don’t know anywhere quite like it. The waves at Rosamol, Traigh Mhor and Scarista are remarkable in that they are bottle green. This is a great place to photograph waves when there is a strong swell.
This is also an ideal location for abstract seascapes using intentional camera movement (ICM). A fast pan across the horizon combined with a long exposure can give very pleasing abstract results. The images are both calming and fascinating in equal measure. The detail of the landscape is simplified down to the elemental colours of the scene and often better describe the mood of the moment. I love taking these images when the weather is at its temperamental best. Harris and the Hebrides are under my skin. They will probably get under yours too.
Adam West is a landscape, nature and travel photographer based in Glasgow, Scotland. His favourite locations are the islands of Scotland and the southern coast of Portugal for their outstanding beauty and diversity. His work has been published by National Geographic, the BBC and Visit Scotland among others. Adam also works with interior designers and tourist agencies to deliver unique and beautiful images of the natural world.