The whole of the west Highlands was sat under the cold clear air of a winter anticyclone on this February day. I had driven up from South Yorkshire the day before, enjoying the clarity of the views over Rannoch Moor and the still air over an ice-covered Loch Ba, so I was delighted that the conditions were matched in Torridon.
Exploring the islands of Loch Maree had been high on my list of trips to do, so I wasted no time in getting on the water at Slatterdale.
Equipped with stove, food and camera gear, I was soon afloat. Conditions on the water were superb, barely a breath of a breeze to stir the surface of the loch and a weak winter sun shining through a haze of cloud. The scots pines on the shoreline stood out against the regiments of spruce and larch on the slopes behind.
Crossing the loch to the islands I enjoyed the ease of paddling over still waters. Ahead the ridge of Beinn Airigh Charr was dusted with snow, just emerging from a blanketing mist.
After a short crossing of around 20minutes, I made my first landfall on the islands, on the southern arm of Garbh Eilean. The rocks looked smooth but grated harshly against my hull as I came ashore. The tea flask was the first thing unpacked, and after a little pause, the camera gear followed.
Wandering along the shore it was immediately apparent just how much denser the forest was on the islands than the main land. It was sometimes impossible to make my way through the trees.
Near the edge of the wood I found this mature scotts pine. These trees really are amazing subjects. They have fascinating forms, and the colour of their bark ranges from silvery grey to a rich mahogany shade which complements the dark green foliage nicely.
Back on the water I paddled round the headland of Garbh Eilean into the bay it formed with the neighbouring island of Eilean Subhainn. There were many smaller islands dotted around the loch to explore. Slioch began to dominate the view more as I moved further east, and I made a number of images from different perspectives as I travelled through the archipelago.
I was particularly pleased with this image. The small island in the foreground nicely mirrors the form of Slioch on the horizon, the symmetry of their shapes matched in reflection on the waters of the loch.
In the shelter of the bay, the water grew even calmer, barely stirred by the lightest of airs. The low winter sun was not far above the ridge of Beinn Eighe as I drifted the canoe over the mercury surface of the loch, the low cloud acting to diffuse the light. Choosing to shoot contre-jour, I found this image of Eilean Dubh na Sroine, in near silhouette, almost perfectly mirrored on the water. Beinn Eighe sits on the horizon, hiding in the haze. It is, I think, one of my strongest images from 2015. Certainly it brings me back to a memorable day in a beautiful and unique location.
The conditions held throughout the morning, though once out of the shelter of Eilean Subhainn, the light breeze did create a very slight chop on the water. I decided to continue over the loch towards the north bank, breaking my journey on Eilean Eachainn to stretch my legs.
This island is quite close to the south shore, separated only by a fairly narrow channel, so I wasn’t surprised to see some evidence of deer around. But it didn’t seem that they were here in numbers big enough to impact on the trees. There were plenty of young trees still low to the ground.
I wandered over the island for a bit, enjoying views both ways along the loch. This image sums up so much of the Torridonian landscape – scots pines, steep-sided mountains and the expanse of a loch.
After exploring Eilean Eachainn, I crossed to the north side of the loch. Setting foot on Letterewe has been an aim of mine since my first visit to Loch Maree, so it was very satisfying to finally do so.
The character of the landscape is completely different over here. The rocks are a different colour, the form of the landscape correspondingly changed by their different erosion. Instead of pines, a thick growth of oaks huddle into the hillside, ducking into shelter against the wind. I landed on the narrow strand, and made images looking east and west along the shore. The forests here had been decimated for use in a local iron industry, now long-gone though still evident from map markings, and also for military use in the wars of the last century, so I was pleased to see a decent area of mature woodland.
The fresh tracks of a deer ran along the beach but there was no sign of the animal itself. With the wind beginning to freshen a bit, I made my stop brief before continuing to Isle Maree for a longer landfall and lunch.
Isle Maree stands out in the loch, and has many myths and legends around it. The ancient burial ground has the bones of Vikings, the grave markers still there to be found among those of locals from more recent centuries. I traced the bounds of the graveyard, reading those inscriptions still visible against the weathering and the moss. Something about the atmosphere of the place seeps into your mood on the island – quiet but not entirely relaxing.
Leaving the burial ground in peace, I went back to the shingle beach I had landed on. Curving round, it created a sheltered bay facing eastward, backed by a gravel bank, an ideal spot for lunch. the stove came out, and I enjoyed a hot meal in splendid isolation.
Sat on the shingle, I noticed these grass stems just in the water. My eye was caught by the warm gold of the stems in the gentle light.
One legend that stuck in my mind on Isle Maree was that a visitor should make sure they took nothing from the island when leaving, or an ill fate would pursue them. Apparently the boatmen who ran trips to the island would even rinse the gravel from their boots before reboarding their vessels. Accordingly I too made sure that all I left with was what I had brought – paddling solo in such a vast landscape decided me against tempting fate!
The wind had increased again during my stop, and was blowing fairly briskly from the north east now. I decided to use it to my advantage, and made a quick passage down the outside of the islands, heading for the strait between Eilean Ruaridh Mor and Garbh Eilean. I was tempted several times to explore the small waterways around the islands on the outside of the archipelago, but at the same time was a little concerned that I might get caught that side by high winds as a cloud bank built on the horizon.
Reaching the gap between the major islands, I paused briefly to enjoy the view towards Beinn Eighe, truncated as the mountain was by cloud, then continued west.
Turning the headland of Eilean Loiste, confused waves rebounded off the rocks, making for an uncomfortable transit until I cut inside some of the small islets into shelter.
On my final leg now, I spent a while exploring through the maze off Eilean Ruaridh Mor, before returning to the beach at Slatterdale.
I had been privileged to explore this special place in superb conditions, but had only the one day free to be on the water. Coming ashore I felt I had made the most of it, but would most definitely be back among the islands in the future.