The Grit of Scots

A week of camping in the Caledonian Forest of Scotland

April, 2015

I honestly had no idea where I was going until one day before. I only knew I wanted to live in the forest for a week. Living meaning photography too. The previous week was spent on the Isle of Skye with an amazing group of people so very open to experiencing the landscapes and the misbehaving weather of the north. Organizing photo tours is still something as rewarding as it is confusing for me. I mean teaching people photography is next to impossible. Forget stuff like technique or composition. That can be taught one way or the other, but concepts like art or feeling in photography can only be suggested, debated and pondered upon. A real teacher inspires, doesn't teach. And so by the power of example, I told my beloved students that I was going to be a hobo in the forest after I wave them good-bye at the airport. I also told them I really wanted to get home and that I was a bit afraid. So much for the inspiration...

My not so photogenic one-person tent

So they say that Abernethy Forest is the largest remaining remnant of the Ancient Caledonian Forest in Scotland. It seemed like a good place to explore. After some very much appreciated advice from Alister Benn (thanks, mate!) I went to an area close to Abernethy that's called Speyside. No sign of Speyside name when you arrive there, but Invereshie and Inshriach Nature Reserve is where I went. With no expectations whatsoever and a growing pain in my left achilles tendon that didn't allow for too much uphill movement. But no complaints. I could move slowly through the woods with a backpack larger than life containing mostly useless stuff like whisky, power adapters and dirty t-shirts from the week before. A big thank you to my support team aka the students from Skye who left me a lot of food.

In the beginning, just like any other forest. Right before sleep, horror movies would suddenly pop into my head.

I won't give any details like how I spent the first night in the town of Aviemore next to a cemetery, but head straight to the forest part. In a way, it's much like the forests of Romania. The beauty and the feeling of being there is the same. It's only that some large areas have exclusively Pinus sylvestris trees like Romania has spruce for example. Some of them are 200 years old and a Scottish gentleman I met told me that 500 years old specimens live higher up in the reservation, probably the oldest in the whole Scotland. As he was telling me this, I was thinking regretfully how a minor injury in the heel is enough to keep you away from going on steep higher slopes. This and the insane weather that the Highlands can get. Cairngorms National Park, the area I was actually in (I know, many different and confusing names) has peaks in the 1,000 metres range, but the weather can get severely bad. Think of mountains close to the Atlantic in the northern part of Europe and you get the idea. It's quite a combination of elements. In areas like these, Scott and Amundsen found good training grounds in their race for the South Pole.

Silhouetted against the alpine grounds where the highest recorded wind speed on Cairngorm summit was 278 km/h. Over 160 is something common.

For the first three nights in the forest I had the comfort of a bothy - mountain refuge in Scottish slang. Truth be told, I was mostly out as it was way colder inside, a feeling not to be really excited about when you have wet boots from the first day (7 years of use took their toll). Do you know how long they take to dry out in single-digit temperatures? Well, forever. They're still a bit wet as I'm writing this from the comfort of a hostel in Edinburgh next to two Spanish dudes drinking Scotland's finest. But at least I didn't have to hug my backpack for three nights. It's the only way to get everything inside the tent. And it's not even ultra-light or easy to put up. Don't get me started on wind resistance. I still like it though.

What looks like fog is actually snow

On the first day I met a Sarah, a nice lady from England who did a 70 miles trek in 6 days sleeping in a hammock in wintery conditions. Top that, men reading this. After that, I chatted with the occasional passers-by and had long conversations with a robin bird that was fearlessly entering the bothy. The little fellow knew exactly his position and was able to leave the premises in a split-second. He reminded me of a similar small bird who entered a mountain refuge in Fagaras Mountains (Romania), a while ago. She was desperately trying to escape, while we were desperately trying to free her. I was the one to hold it in my hands in the end and I vividly remember the explosive heart beats of that tiny soul against my palm. She had the energy of ten mountain climbers as she flew into the landscape like she knew exactly where she needed to go. And indeed she knew, because suddenly she didn't feel trapped. I believe we human beings are split into drifters and sailors. Most of us are drifters, a few sailors. We can't know for sure where we're headed, but we can control and enjoy the ride if we choose to. Not my case.

And then the weather changed

The main challenge with photographing a forest is the forest itself. There's great beauty in the ordered chaos, but it's visually and conceptually very challenging to extract the essence and create meaning. But that's the fun part, when you're searching and wandering. I find this approach of being constantly aware of your surroundings in an almost unconscious state is very rewarding for the spirit. And after only one day spent there, I really felt happy and eased. You know, that kind of strong happiness that's very rare. When you have absolutely no worries at all, much like when you were a kid. Since I quit my job, a year ago, I was in a continuous state of worry and pressure because everything felt so uncertain. But now I think I've finally managed to be at peace with myself, although I'm aware that uncertainty is and always will be a major component of life in general and creativity in particular. That's obvious, right? Tell it to my subconcious.

I'm not going to lie you, the sudden weather change also helped to my well-being. On the second day, the temperatures dropped and it started to snow. It was thrilling to say the least. The forest would come to life in images shaped by the cold spell. The trees would stand out against the blank canvas of the transient snow. Everything was silent, but immediate and gripping. Being alone could only accentuate the feeling.

The first two images were made in a 15 seconds interval, so swift were the changes. Don't forget to click them for a larger view.

I had a fascination with forests since I got into photography and some of my favorite images are of the trees. And as years have gone by, the subject choice has shifted towards the moment rather than the landscape. And those special moments are everywhere. It's the reason I didn't make any plans before arriving here and the reason I chose a forest. Being so complex, the visual aspect is tough to translate into simple images. That's why I was in constant wander getting lost a couple of times. The best thing about this though is the encounter with the unexpected. It didn't find me at work because hunger came as swiftly as the snowstorm. While I was preparing dinner, the ever-present rice, and being content with how the day went, a break in the clouds made the unexpected happen. Luckily for the limping hobo, 50 metres behind the bothy sits this imposing old Scots pine. And so Caledonia granted me a look into what I thought to be my imagination. But it was real. Just like the hunger of which I totally forgot.

A break in the clouds before sunset with snowflakes catching the light. And one of the biggest Scots pines I've encountered.

In my journeys to the north part of Europe in the last years I have come to admire the people who inhabit these places. They seem to be shaped by the rough weather and the simplicity of the land in a manner that brings out a reserved and calm appearance. Yet on the inside, from what my short encounters suggested, they are warm, respectful, curious and always willing to help. But to be fair, I strongly believe that most of the people on this planet are like that. One thing that might separate those living in harsh places like the north is that they are more in tune with the natural environment. Now unpredictable and cold weather is usually dangerous, there's no doubt here. So it takes strong determination in face of adversity to live. Simply put, it takes grit or the perseverance and passion for long-term goals. It's a trait they needed to have back in the days in order to survive.

As for the Scots pines, they are survivors whose grit have surely helped humans develop in unwelcoming territories. Deforestation has a long history in Scotland (like any other place in the world) and what were once 1.5 million hectares, now it's reduced to a few patches of wilderness. The story goes they even burned the forest in order to eradicate the wolf. Hard to imagine such a thing. That gentleman I met on the trail also told me that during World War II, Canadians came and brought down the pines (plenty of resources were required to support the war) to the point where the slope was too steep and too high for them to harvest the pinewood. He showed me the distinctive line where they stopped the cutting. Good thing the war ended. I'm sure they would have found ways to clear-cut the whole area.
But there is still hope. The nature reserve I visited is owned by the Scottish Natural Heritage. They are carefully monitoring the regeneration of the forest and the wildlife. One of the measures is to control the red deer population. The problem with the red deer is that once an area has been clear-cut, the grazing of the deer stops the trees (whether naturally occured or planted) from growing there again. At first glance, it seems nature is against nature. But converting wild land for agriculture and killing the big predators like the wolf have lead to this.

 After spending a week with my thoughts (and ocasionally talking to birds - ok, and to myself) it's easy to realise how loneliness isn't hard to find in the city. Nor is solitude in nature. And while urban environments build a grit for the material, nature builds a grit for something more meaningful. That something leaves you wondering and feeling. That something is useless, yet required for happiness. I can't tell you what that something is. But a forest, a peak or a mountain trail surely can.

Powered by SmugMug Owner Log In