Everyone agrees: Scotland is a wonderful place. It is an enticing world to any image-maker and home to an untamed, mysterious, moody scenery: the desolate ruins of a castle rising out of a tawny field; low-lying snow-swept mountains; swampy lochs stagnant with brackish water; and dreary moors overgrown with heather and cotton grass.
“There is nothing but the sound of the wind, humidity, and that particular mist,” observes Sarah Arnould, who first visited the area in 2017. She fell in love with Scotland and returned there last January. “I went there at a time when there was no one there, deliberately picking that isolated corner, the very end the world.”
The country is a perfect backdrop to a photographer like Arnould. Above all, it offers endless variety. “You go from sun to rain to thunderstorm, and there are lots of rainbows in between. There is a dramatic side to it that I really love,” she explains. Photographer Richard Gaston, who became passionate about the local landscapes, chimes in: “Scotland offers various forms of atmosphere; dull and moody weather but also, more rarely, magical light that dances through the clouds.”
Such changes in the weather are also what appealed to photographer Nicolas Marbeau. Just eighteen when he went to Scotland, he crossed the country almost exclusively on foot, traveling nearly 500 miles! “That’s what’s so great about Scotland,” he comments, “it’s the ease of access. The mountains are no higher than 5,000 feet and the paths across the moorland are often well marked. It’s easy to walk and you can do it alone, unlike in other countries.” The result? “You can empty your mind, daydream, think, wander.”
“There really is a mystical side to it,” says Sarah Arnould. “On Lismore Island, there was an old castle in ruins. People said it was haunted. There are a lot of legends about it. All the lochs seem mysterious with their murky waters. You can’t help but think there must be something to all those stories! Besides, the landscapes were once battlefields. You necessarily think about the wars of Scottish independence and clan struggles. When you are attuned to history, you can feel a certain energy.”
The photographer also recalled a beautiful, random encounter with long-haired cows. “They came out of nowhere, right in the middle of the road, and I was so thrilled to be able to do a portrait of one of them. I haven’t eaten beef since.” Nicolas Marbeau, in turn, met a Scottish couple who did not think twice about giving him some money when he was broke. Such powerful encounters are perhaps more likely in a country on a human scale.
The bewitching mist
“This is one of the few countries in Europe where you can camp out anywhere,” says Nicolas Marbeau, “you have really free access to nature.” This accessibility plays a major role in the pleasure of photography. Richard Gaston confirms: “Lonely beautiful places can be reached in a couple of hours from the main cities. The landscape is diverse, each region offers a change in topography; the northwest with shapely rugged mountains and the east, home to rolling hills and vast plateaus. The clouds are often low, providing a moody atmosphere.”
These three photographers are so taken by this atmosphere that they recommend going there any time of the year. “Winter is great,” admits Sarah Arnould who went spend a New Year’s Eve in Scotland. “We rented a typical cottage, there was nobody there, it was perfect.” For those in need of solitude, the large deserted, windblown swaths of land are an ideal location around winter holidays. According to the photographer, summer is less atmospheric, with more tourists and fewer of those bewitching mists.
While the desire to capture natural beauty is the primary motivation for going to Scotland—and was even at the origin of Richard Gaston’s photographic vocation—one should not stop there, advises Nicolas Marbeau. He notes that there also ideal conditions for portrait making: “The diffuse, milky light, due in particular to numerous clouds, creates a perfect setting for portraiture.” There is no shortage of reasons to spur photographers to pack their bags and head straight for Scotland.
By Jean-Baptiste Gauvin