Winter in the Highlands of Scotland can be harsh. It’s cold and the weather can become extreme. Snow and ice is the norm for January, February and March.
Where I live is coastal and so changeable, with regular days of bright sunshine and others of endless rain and darkness. The dark days are enough to bring out the Seasonal Affective Disorder in the best of us, and the bright ones bring out a child-like wonder and appreciation of the beauty in the natural landscapes in which you find yourself.
With harsh weather comes inevitable dangers to the residents and workers in such remote Highland coastal areas. Many locals work on boats, fishing and transporting goods or people across the bays and inlets. The seas are cold and the tides unforgiving. On average over 50 people drown in Scottish waters per year, twice the UK average.
In 2020, approximately 100 people drowned in Scotland. Many of these were fishermen, locals, as well as tourists visiting and being unaware of how rapidly and powerfully tides can come in and claim their victims. Falling over the side of a boat or getting into difficulty and drowning in the freezing cold waters of our section of the North Atlantic Ocean, the Sea of the Hebrides (‘An Cuan Barrach’) or within one of the many lochs is common.
Talk to any of the locals and they all have stories of friends and family who worked on fishing boats, and tragically fell overboard and drowned, or who got into trouble in one of the lochs and couldn’t be revived, or of tourists visiting who had to be airlifted out of the sea or were found some days later by police divers. Even in summer, the water here is deathly cold. People die here, frozen to death, enveloped in cold amidst such stunning beauty it is quite literally breathtaking.
I love it up here. It is remote, hard to find work, hard to get around without a car, and brutal in winter. Yet it is already a part of me – the landscape suits my solitary, introspective and slightly feral, independent nature. I feel I am where I should be.
The wildlife and semi-natural landscapes (and the promise of future rewilding projects in the Highlands as well as other parts of Scotland) are the attractions which drew me here. As a Zoology graduate and Biological Photography masters graduate, the North West Highlands is the perfect location for me to spend my time photographing local wildlife and landscapes. Making a living here is the hard part.
I continue to suffer from bouts of depression. In the midst of one of my drops in mood and a sense of overwhelming misery and unhappiness which took hold and would not let go, hard frosts hit us, along with snow on the surrounding mountains. In spite of my mood drop I look out at the world and I’m rendered silent by the beauty of it all. It is truly awe-inspiring. Frost coats everything, and remains for days. The mountains glow as the sun rises and fades across their snow-laden peaks, often turning ice-cream pink in the evenings.
In the morning my walk to a nearby beach begins with me standing and marvelling at the frost-encrusted sand, something I have never seen before. Small burns which pour into the sea across the sands have frozen overnight but are just beginning to thaw. And littered across the beach are the bodies. Frozen bodies. Ocean-tossed, dismembered, ripped apart and previously living bodies.
As I pick my way between each piece of jewel-encrusted sea debris and peer at it, inspecting it, photographing it, it becomes apparent to me that I feel a bit like a forensic photographer photographing a crime scene. I peer into seemingly random seaweed strands and visions of sadness and horror peer back.
Bodies are scattered across the ground. Bleached bones twinkle with frozen moisture, lying abandoned across other bones. Strands of hair lay spread tragically across frosted sand. Tendons and joints jut out at disconcerting angles. A section of brain nestles into a dip in the sand. Limbs grasp each other for comfort. Bones protrude in defiance of death. Legs spread and bodies hang limp. It is a gruesome sight. A gothic horror scene on the beach.
I feel compelled to photograph it exactly as if I were a crime scene photographer. Choosing angles which capture the essence of this cold, frozen and dramatic landscape in micro; details in the frozen matter stand out and almost sing to me. It’s an old sea shanty, a song of lost loves and family departed, people taken by the sea and washed up overnight on the frozen sands of a beach in the high reaches of north west Scotland.