Rannoch Moor: a name full of romance.
Alternatively: Rannoch Moor – fifty square miles of boggy, high level moorland consisting more obviously of water than of land, with what land there is being less than firm and universally wet.
I went for a wee donder across a corner of this last week, from the isolated, road-free Corrour railway station down into Glen Nevis; it seemed a romantic way of reaching Fort William, especially since the train journey to Corrour started at Ribblehead in the Yorkshire Dales, itself not the most metropolitan of railway stations: only I joined the train at Ribblehead; only I left the train at Corrour :-)
I was carrying 10Kg of assorted camera bits, plus another 5Kg of ‘useful stuff I might need when crossing remote marsh with all the rivers and streams in spate from persistent rain and snow-melt’. Nothing came out of the rucksack; I never took it off. I did make a few ‘record’ snaps with my compact camera, but the dSLR remained untouched all the way to Fort William. I’m happy with that choice.
A lovely day out?
I’ve just deleted the first version of this sentence … I was going to say that ‘the traverse of this corner of Rannoch Moor was too enjoyable to stop and play with the camera‘, but that’s not exactly true. Yes, it was enjoyable, though in the slightly masochistic way in which achieving an objective despite adverse conditions can be enjoyable. Any given instant of trudging through ankle-deep marsh, fording alarmingly large burns, and being heavily rained upon whilst pushing into a 30mph headwind was, I have to recognise, not in itself ‘enjoyable’. The enjoyment was retrospective and holistic; all about the location and the short journey, rather than the minute-by-minute progression towards Glen Nevis.
The sense of place, of isolation and remoteness; that was the enjoyment of descending from Corrour, following the bank of the Abhainn Rath, and crossing the east/west watershed, where water from numerous sources collects and meanders, seemingly at random, before choosing to go westward, to form the Water of Nevis and emerge into Loch Linnhe at Fort William, or eastward, to empty into Loch Treig. After a few hours of seeing no-one and nothing but gently sloping hills and saturated ‘ground’, the cloud hanging just a few metres above my head and the rain on my hat muting sounds, the feeling of being ‘involved’ with the long valley was immense, pervasive, and only broken when I met the first other people of the day, just above the Glen Nevis gorge itself, at Steall Ruin.
The whole experience, though lasting only a few hours, was quite genuinely mesmeric and would have been disrupted severely by stopping to capture my surroundings on camera, let alone by taking time to explore and find compositions.
So entrancing was it that I was able to re-imagine the atmosphere when I returned from the Glen Nevis road-head a few days later, intent on photography, even though the land had by then been transformed into a verdant, welcoming, springtime paradise, bathed in warm sunshine … Except, it hadn’t, of course; this is Scotland after all. The conditions were actually rather similar, merely with somewhat less persistent and lighter rain, higher cloud and considerably less wind. Still grey and assuredly dreich though.
This was a good thing! I was returning towards the watershed area precisely because I wanted to attempt to capture something of the atmosphere which had found me so mesmerised earlier in the week; sunny and warm would have ruined it.
Separating experience and photography
The images which accompany this article do not show ‘how it was on the day’, but they do, for me, capture some of the sombre mood of the crossing and the overall grey-green immensity of the place.
That’s really the point of this piece: to photograph on the original walk would have spoilt it; the atmosphere would have been lost to me by the sheer act of stopping and fiddling with metal and glass high-tech. Not only that: I also suspect that I’d have been unhappy with the resultant images; both experiences would have been diminished. Instead, looking back, it was far better to enjoy the traverse in its own right, develop a feeling for what made it special to me, then return to attempt to make images which at least remind me of how I felt about the glen at the time. With luck, they may also evoke similar emotions in viewers who’ve not been there, or who’ve had the misfortune to do so on a sunny day!
It’s certainly possible that photographs made at the time would have better represented the crossing itself, but I’d have missed the immersive experience, without doubt. Writing this, days later, it feels far better to have absorbed the mood of the place on one day, thought about it for a while, and then used the same landscape later to interpret it photographically.
Not a unique idea …
This particular realisation was reinforced for me earlier this week when I received my copy of a stunningly beautiful photographic monograph, ‘Johsel Namkung, A Retrospective’ and read that he ‘walked for miles without a camera, looking for places to return to. Not searching for a picture, but for a place to return to where a picture might occur’. Perhaps a strong, emotional response to a place is best developed in isolation from capturing its reflected light? Maybe stronger images can result? And I would most happily have foregone the weight of all that glass and metal on the original walk! (Thanks to ‘On Landscape’ magazine for the review which prompted me to order the book.)
At the very least, compartmentalisation into walking and photographing allowed me to fully enjoy both the grim grandeur of a gloomy, Highland day and the subsequent, emotionally different time of using the landscape to make images. On this occasion it happened almost accidentally, but perhaps it’s worth adopting as a deliberate approach sometimes?