Torridon, Glencoe and the Isle of Skye have attracted photographers and landscape artists over the centuries. The highlands of Scotland are vast and breathtaking without interruption – a great country indeed. It is the internationally perceived face of Scotland – a meticulously sculpted land of peaks, valleys, lakes and shores. And rain or mist to make or break the scene depending on your layout.
But far from the West Bank, a vast pearl necklace awaits the most intrepid traveler. The Outer Hebrides stretch for 140 miles – a strip of land 40 miles away lying on the horizon. They are made up of the common islands of Harris and Lewis, North Uist, Benbecula, South Uist and Barra.
Here is a different Scottish landscape. Pure and wild, beaches to melt, hills and lakes, abandoned farms left furnished some 70 years ago – a unique landscape linked to culture. Time slows down here. The clock is ticking at a different rate. There is a softness in the landscape that swaying at this rate.
Tarbert is a port town, a mooring place for the Skye Ferry but a taste of another era hangs in the air. Terraced cottages line the side of the hill. We rented a cottage for four nights and went to immerse our feet in the landscapes of Harris and Lewis. Not an hour and a half after getting off the ferry, we walked along Seilebost beach.
A bit of a tired trip – but the scenery absorbed and soothed us. I took a few first photos on the beach at the blue hour – just to get the camera out of the bag as the light was dull and subdued. We returned to Tarbert in the dark. We had indeed arrived.
At dawn the next morning, we sat in the sandy Rosamol parking lot as the sky offered a free car wash. There were two more cars and a motorhome – each apparently daring the other to get to the beach first. The rain eased and we walked the wet sandy trail to the big beach. The Harris Hills plunged into the clouds. The light was a dirty gray and the photographs taken that morning reflected the weather. But the hills and islands encroaching on the beach looked like an amphitheater and made an instant impression that would bring us back to this beach.
The east shore of Harris is pockmarked with tiny lochs that meet the sound of the Minch, the strait that separates the islands from the highlands. The West Rim couldn’t be more different – the rented beaches that rightfully act as a magnet for photographers and landscape artists. Beaches lend themselves to creating dreamlike impressions which longer exposures serve best. I expected my wide-angle lens would live on my camera body for travel, but found that longer focal lengths served my lenses better.
All the beaches along the west shore are worth a dedicated visit. The beach at Horgabost is compact and suffers from occasional drifts of dead algae, as happened when an unexpected burst of evening light necessitated an impromptu visit. Beach was not an option, so I rushed to the top of the dunes and pulled to exclude it – 6 second exposure to soften the marram grass as it merged with the Atlantic.
The next day we took the spectacular single lane road to Huisinis beach and witnessed golden eagles and a great red wing migration on the route.
It’s another compact beach that’s good enough to shoot independently, but the gem of the area is Tragh Mheallan. The beach requires a good 45 minute walk with an incline along a well marked cliff path.
An otter greeted me along the cliff walk. A white-tailed eagle flew overhead. The beach was huge and empty. The marram grass did not contain any human fingerprints but was cut by deer tracks. My composition was rushed as the light faded on a cloudy afternoon. An exciting place.
Luskentyre is Harris’ most popular beach – it’s actually a bay – Rosamol and Seilebost beaches on either side. I visited for two sunrises while we were there once on either side.
Rosamol should be your first choice because it was mine. The light of my visit at dawn was dull. The distant dunes and mountains, although impressive, deserved better light. A beach tends to do best in a duller light, so my favorite images were abstract in nature and the compositions mostly took shape on the sand. In Seilebost the light improved slightly and I played with a layered composition of rocks, sea, sand, mountains and sky.
And so we had spent 3 days exploring parts of Harris and had not yet ventured into Lewis – most of the island. A trip to this island wouldn’t be complete without a visit to Callanais Standing Stones and this is where our last day took us. The infrared camera is out of the bag for a midday photo of this archaeological wonder.
The afternoon was approaching but we continued further from home to the Mangarsta Sea Stacks.
The light was never going to be interesting, but seeing the scene and taking a picture for fun was worth it. And so ended our short stay in the Outer Hebrides.
Here are two videos from my trip to Scotland in 2021 showing my landscape photo outings in a vlog style:
About the Author: Jimmy Mc Donnell is a landscape and wildlife photographer from Co Wicklow, Ireland, passionate about capturing images that reflect the beauty of the natural world. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. You can find more of Mc Donnell’s work on his website and Youtube. This article was also published here.