A Little Highland Fling

Once in a while a job comes along that reminds me exactly why I became a photographer, and why I sometimes put up with all the trials and tribulations that often go with it. I got a call in January from one of my oldest clients, Men’s Fitness magazine, asking if I wanted to spend 4 days up in the Highlands of Scotland in February, shooting a story about a journalist trying to use basic survival skills in the most remote part of the British Isles.

Given how much of my spare time I spend in places like the Highlands (and the fact that I’d actually been to the very place in question about a decade ago) I said yes without hesitation. And then the fun began.

The journalist in question was Mr Nick Hutchings, the features editor of the mag. He’s far fitter than I am, and has lots of experience in mountainous areas doing trendy things like snowboarding. However, he had almost no experience of navigating, camping or surviving in a place like the Scottish highlands, particularly in February. I was called in not just to take the shots, but to “consult” as it’s called these days, on our overall plan of action.

Given my years of tramping round locations like the highlands, I initially started out with a very cautious approach, warning Nick of just how remote we were going to be, how cold it could get, how bad the weather might turn, what the hell we’d do if something went wrong and so on. Initially Nick seemed very confident, but as time passed we seemed to swap places, and with a few days to go before the trip I got a couple of slightly tense calls from him, whilst I felt more and more like we’d get through it and have a good time, even if it didn’t quite go according to plan.

Highland expedition kit
Highland expedition kit

The itinerary was:

Sleeper train to Inverness, leaving London 8pm Sunday, arriving 8am Monday, pick up hire car, drive to Kinlochewe, walk to a spot we (I) deem suitable for camping in, taking a few snaps along the way, overnight at the site, Tuesday to be spent getting up to the most remote point, and taking all the “survival” shots, overnight back at base camp, then on Wednesday break camp, walk back to the car, drive to Inverness and catch the 8pm sleeper back to London, arriving back at about 7.30 on Thursday morning.

Our first challenge was when the power failed in our carriage on the way up. There were no other berths left, and we didn’t fancy squeezing into seats for 12 hours. A train travelling at about 90mph is quite draughty, and in mid-February it can get bloody freezing. Coupled with the complete darkness, and we ended up cracking out much of the camping gear before we’d even got off the train.

The trek up to the campsite was uneventful, but a bit damp, and, frankly, bloody exhausting. Walking on paths and tracks is all very well with 17-18KG on your back and a camera strapped round your front, but when it comes to yomping across the open moorland it starts to become quite arduous. This of course was going to continue for the entire trip – alleviated slightly on the 2nd day when we didn’t have to carry the tent.

Finding a suitable place to pitch the tent proved very difficult indeed. For those of you not familiar with the wilds of Scotland, soft, grassy, level areas are a bit thin on the ground, and we ended up pitching very gingerly on the least spiky bit of heather we could find, taking great care not to pierce the groundsheet. After a little evening stroll down to the the perfectly still Loch we cooked a nutritious and healthy ready meal, played some cards, read a few survival guides and went to bed. Nightlife in the most remote part of the highlands is a little lacking I’m afraid.

Tuesday morning was very, very cold, but perfectly clear – not a cloud to be seen, though lots of frost on the tent. We were planning to spend the day making our way to the “official” most remote point in the UK, taking lots of the required survival shots on the way. In the end we failed in the first task because we spent too long on the second. Even without having to set up lights and things, it still takes ages to get all the shots done when you’ve got to cover a large area and photograph everything from navigating, building shelters, to gathering wood and making fire.

By the afternoon of the Tuesday a problem was starting to develop. One which we’d both been reluctant to talk about, and even now I shall have to tread carefully in my description of forthcoming events. Since Sunday neither of us had felt the need to, shall we say, tear a sheet off a roll of paper. Whilst there was still daylight available we took my brand new ultra-clever folding shovel and dug a small latrine, only for same shovel to snap just as we dug out the last sod. Nick’s need was greater than mine, and so he was privileged to partake of the proper facilities – cold running water, splendid views of the Western Highlands, and all the heather you could want to wipe your arse with.

Another splendid dinner was followed by another evening of witty conversation, dancing, backgammon and shove ha’penny, before we retired to bed. Sleeping in a tent in the middle of nowhere is never the easiest thing, even when tired, and when the slightest movement exposes a new bit of you to the cold, slumber rarely comes quickly. In my case I had another factor working against me. My “lower half” was becoming increasingly uncomfortable, but the prospect of going out into the sub-zero temperatures was in no way appealing. I spent a good hour or so going through the same thought process we’ve all used at one time or other before I was prompted by a grunt from the other end of the tent -“sorry mate, I’m going to have to climb over you and go out for a piss”. So that settled it, and I set off shovel-less to find a suitable spot.

It was still a very clear night, with an almost full moon, and frost on almost every surface, and whilst it’s not an experience I want to repeat in a hurry, taking a crap in such a remote location is not something I’ll forget anytime soon, and I’d urge you all to do it before you die.

By Wednesday morning things had turned nasty on the weather front, and we hurriedly broke camp, trying to keep things as dry as possible, and in the process I LOST A GLOVE AND BECAME QUITE ANGRY ABOUT IT. We skipped breakfast (a stupid thing to do) and headed back, fully laden, as fast as our legs would carry us, which in Nick’s case was subtly faster than mine. The return trip to the car with full packs on our backs was something of an endurance test, and to be honest, the last 2 miles were basically achieved on willpower alone. We both adopted variations of marching rhythms simply to persuade the correct leg to swing forward at the right moment.

Returning to Inverness we were disappointed to find no fanfares heralding our arrival, though clean dry clothes, a curry, and a couple of pints more than made up for it.

A few lessons learnt:

  1. The 5D didn’t need it’s battery changing the entire time I was there. I started shooting on Monday morning, and carried on for 48 hrs. I took 380 shots, and did loads of chimping. When you consider that the temperature often fell below freezing I find this performance quite superb, and can’t recommend it highly enough. Neither did I ever need to call on the services of the 20D, loaned to me very generously by an old friend. There was no way i was carrying a “1” series body on a job like this, which leads me to my next point.
  2. Sticking with gear, a glance at the packing shot will make it obvious that I took relatively little in the way of camera equipment. This comes from previous experience of doing shoots where I have to transport myself under my own power (walking/running/cycling/climbing) and still take shots. After having done this a few times I can safely say that it’s better to carry very little gear, but be able to move freely and fast, thus permitting me to keep up with if not overtake the action, rather than carrying the kitchen sink, and although prepared for any photographic eventuality, miss out on most of the shots due to physical exhaustion.
  3. No amount of training could have prepared me for how physically demanding this trip was going to be, but I was flattered in a perverse way when Nick said at the end that it was one of the hardest physical things he’d ever done.
  4. It was quite a lot of effort to go to, just to have a romantic poo.

An edited set of piccies is on Flickr, and you can read Nick’s article, which differs slightly in approach from mine, in the current (May 2008) Issue of Men’s Fitness. The only real downside to the trip was that after 4 days of not eating/drinking/sleeping enough whilst exerting myself quite a lot physically, it left me a bit vulnerable, and the cold that developed almost as soon as we got home very quickly matured into a proper flu that knocked me for six.

Now, I know what you’re saying – “he only had man flu”, and I shan’t protest too much, only to add that it’s the first time I’d been ill in 5 years (the last time under almost identical circumstances after an expedition to Borneo), and it caused me to take the unprecedented step of cancelling a job at the very last minute as I knew I was simply not physically capable of shooting it! Given that I don’t get any sick pay, being laid out by illness is not something I do very often – in fact that’s only the 2nd time in 10 years, and I hated every second of it.

Apart from lying on the sofa watching Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, which I rather enjoyed.

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