Adam Burton Photography

The Old Man of Storr

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‘I’m sure the path is just around this corner’ I said in the most reassuring way I could muster, but inside I just wanted to curl up and cry.  The truth was, we were lost and with time running out before dawn the pressure was building.

Back in December I was on the beautiful Isle of Skye in Scotland leading a landscape workshop.   This was entirely new territory for my clients from Germany and Finland and I had already built their expectations by praising the fantastic landscapes Skye has to offer.  To start the workshop with a bang I had decided to treat my clients to the world famous Old Man of Storr as the first location.  It is a location that I have photographed on several occasions over the years and one that never ceases to amaze me.

Perched precariously high up on the slopes below the Storr mountain, the Old Man of Storr is one of several towering basalt pillars.  These pillars make for dramatic photographic subjects in their own right, but it is their lofty setting against a backdrop of lochs and mountains which makes them so perfect for a landscape picture.  Indeed, people from all over the world come to Scotland to photograph this view, and now it was my group’s turn to sample the delights on offer.

Or that was the plan.  Moving forward to day one of the workshop, we arrived on location nice and early, giving ourselves plenty of time to make the hour hike up to the key viewpoints and be set up well before sunrise.  In a little trail of headlights we began our ascent through what used to be an atmospheric winding trail through a magical pine woodland.  Unfortunately, most of that woodland is now gone, the Forestry Commission are in the process of obliterating the plantation to eventually repopulate it with endemic deciduous trees.  When that happens the first part of the trail will be magical again, but in the meantime the whole area has been replaced by a muddy wasteland reminiscent of a battleground from the Great War.

Of course, in the darkness none of this matters too much.  As long as we stay on the winding path we would eventually climb above the Somme and arrive on the mountainside good and proper, where the first view of the Old Man would present itself.  But the trouble on this particular morning was staying on the path.  You see, in darkness with only a dim headtorch it can be challenging to identify the messy path from the messy non-path, especially when every now and then a well worn track made by Forestry Commission machinery crosses over the footpath.

At some point about 10 minutes into our walk, I mistakenly guided my group off the footpath and onto one such track.  The group continued up the mountainside in blissful ignorance for several minutes, while an ever increasing doubt grew in my mind that we had taken a wrong turn.  As the mud grew deeper I eventually realised my mistake, and rather sheepishly informed the group that we had ventured off-piste.  Without knowing where we had gone wrong, we decided against retracing our steps and instead pressed on in the hope that we would soon rejoin the trail.

Trying to remain positive I pushed on through the sometimes knee deep mud, inwardly panicking that we were going to miss the most spectacular sunrise ever witnessed at the Old Man.  Although we were lost, I knew that just one sighting of the basalt pillars through the gloom would enable us to work out our location and therefore get straight back on track.  I saw a nearby summit and quickly rushed to the top to get a better view of my surroundings.   But the Old Man was nowhere in sight, and in the darkness all I could see of the landscape before me looked unfamiliar.

Reluctantly, I looked to the east and my heart immediately sank when a tiny sliver of colour emerged in the dawn sky over the Sound of Raasay.  Please, don’t let this happen; we’re still lost and the world’s most fantastic sunrise is just about to emerge!  But I wasn’t going to give up without a fight.  By this point we had climbed fairly high, and so must be nearing the mountainside.

As the darkness gradually lifted we picked up our pace, eventually leaving the mud only to be met with a hillside of felled trees.  Still the Old Man wouldn’t show himself but by now I was acting purely on instinct and, changing direction to avoid the trees I soon spotted a gate in the distance.  Never have I been happier to see a gate!  My spirits surged as I rushed towards the gate, for the first time recognising our location. 

We could do it, we were back on the path and half way up!  If we kept our pace up we could be on location for sunrise, and I wouldn’t be the world’s worst workshop leader after all!  With lungs almost exploding we raced up the track and made the final ascent to our viewpoint.  By this point I was so hot and sweaty from the exertion that the first few drops of rain were a welcome relief.  But when I reached the viewpoint my senses returned and I had to summon all my remaining inner strength not to curse out loud.

It was piddling down with rain, and the cloud was so low it completely obscured the Old Man.  No wonder I couldn’t see it on the way up, I couldn’t even see it now I was standing above it!

Without getting our cameras out we waited for an hour on the wet, cold and windy mountainside before making our way back down for a welcome breakfast, this time taking the easy route!

What a mix of emotions to deal with, firstly a sense of relief that I hadn’t wasted the groups chances of capturing a beautiful sunrise at this incredible location, while at the same time complete dismay that all our efforts to get back on track ultimately were in vain.

Four days later we were doing it all over again.  It was the last day of the workshop, and with a promising weather forecast we again set out in the darkness, this time making sure we kept to the track!  One hour later we were once again standing at our viewpoint, only this time we were to be richly rewarded for our efforts.  In fact, we were in for an absolute treat.  Not only could we see the Old Man, not only had a recent hailstorm sugar-coated the mountainside, but to top it off we enjoyed a fantastic sunrise at one of the worlds most beautiful views.  Job done. Phew.

This article originally featured in Landscape Photography Magazine, July 2014.

1 Comments

Lovely tale Adam. I don’t yet have the skill, knowledge or courage to organise (let alone lead) a workshop, and I can only imagine how stressful this must have been. Great interview on the B&H podcast too. It was refreshing to hear a landscape photographer with a commitment to capturing reality and to the use of physical filters. Get it right in camera is a great principle.

by Simon on 01st February 2017

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