Scottish weather is a fickle bitch, and few places are as fickle as the Isle of Skye. Sharon recalls the story of her family’s visit to the island as a teenager. She remembers crossing the bridge, sitting in the car in lashing torrential rain for an hour, then her parents giving up and leaving again.
When researching our trip I came across hundreds of frustrated and anxious travellers on forums asking the best time to go, and for how long, hoping to get the best of the highland weather. The answer was both complicated and simple. The experts’ replies were consistently inconsistent, but for one thing: every day is a roll of the dice.
Which brings me to the Old Man of Storr. The beautiful rocky sentinels on the Trotternish Peninsula were the main reason for my attraction to the island, and are blessed to receive the first sunlight of the day on the islands eastern shore. A handful of fortunate photographers have captured the Storr’s dragons teeth bathed in orange light against a cloudy pink sky. I wanted to be one of them.
This isn’t going to be easy though. This is the northern hemisphere, in spring, which puts sunrise somewhere close to 5am. The hike to the best location is a good 45 minutes. The drive from our bed and breakfast is another 45. Allow 30 minutes for getting lost walking in the dark, and setting up the camera. I set my alarm: 3am.
The wind is howling when I wake up, and it takes some convincing that this is even worth it. It’s now or never. In my haste to get out the door before I changed my mind, the torch is left behind on the bedroom floor. It’s too late to go back though. Fortunately I can almost drive by moonlight, so I’m convinced it won’t be a problem. It’s a welcome sign of clear weather, too. I’m not the only crazy one today: a car pulls up and a man starts sorting his camera and tripod. Instead of fumbling in the half-light (did I mention I had no map?) I wait until he was ahead and follow his torch light up the hill.
The steep climb is relentless. You just need to remind your legs that it’s one of the reasons this is such a great photograph. The Storr juts out of the hillside, which falls away sharply to reveal the fields and sea below, and the sun rises to the immediate right. Postcard perfect. My free mountain guide and I are the first up the hill, but we’re soon joined my likeminded idiots not content with seeing the Storr in the daytime like everyone else.
Peering through the dark you can just make out the Storr ahead of us. Whilst we set up our cameras the sky is clear. Ten minutes to sunrise we’re all smiling, prepared for a treat, but the highland gods have other plans. Behind us grows a thick fog. It creeps past us and rolls down the hillside. We watch as the Storr slowly disappears from view. A long, painful death. Merry to misery in five minutes, it’s a harsh lesson on Scottish weather. Sunset arrives and we can’t see each other, let alone the Storr.
The wind brought the fog, and the fog brought the cold. Shivering in the darkness I’m wet, and even the best wind proof jacket does little to stop the knife sharp air cutting to the bone. My hideously expensive new camera, rated for extreme weather, shuts down. Hunched in a ball I attempt hibernation for almost an hour. The fog hasn’t cleared, and the best light has gone. It’s time to call is quits, and I’m pissed.
A fellow fool offers an excursion closer to the Storr for some moody fog photographs. I decline in case he’s cursed and the weather gods clear the skies as punishment for impatience. He’s not, so I must be. Walking down the hill I wonder what could have been. Thousands of miles for nothing. Snapping a few half-arsed frames, it’s clear it was all a waste of time. But it’s getting warmer though. Much warmer. A gap has started to form in the mist. My eyes are like dinner plates as the small crack widens to reveal clear blue sky. I have never run up a hill so fast in all my life.
Let this be a lesson in nature photography. And Scotland. Your plans are only as good as the weather. The fickle bitch.