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Glen Affric - The Return Visit

After my weekend in Glen Affric earlier in the year with Icarus Owen Photography a return trip was always on the cards. When we last visited the glen it was May and the new growth of spring was starting to turn an otherwise barren landscape into one of vibrant greens and new life. We had used the two days to explore the surrounding countryside in what turned out to be glorious weather for so early in the Scottish year.

Back in May as we worked our way through various locations I always knew that a return later in the year would be required; it’s one of the most beautiful glens in Scotland and being a National Nature Reserve it has a diverse population of native tree species. With such a variety this means in autumn the colours are spectacular. For any revisit timing was always going to be tricky, when will the colours be at their best? How do you know if you’ll be a week too early or two weeks too late… It is always a gamble, especially when weekends are precious (unfortunately I have a ‘normal’ job) and the distance from Aberdeen means we can’t just pop down the road and see what is happening!

Timing also has to fit in with family life (well, it does now! My wife and I have an 8 week old…) and as I planned to return with Jason (Icarus) it also had to fit in with a weekend he had free. So, with all of the associated parties happy with the chosen dates the only thing we had no control over was Nature, would we have autumn colour or would we be too early on the first weekend of October? Would we also have the weather on our side whether it was in full autumn colours or not!

We arrived in the dark, at around 22:30 on the Friday night, our only aim was to find a suitable spot for the tent and to retire for the night with alarms set for 06:00. We would find out what was in store when we woke for sunrise. Saturday dawned fairly overcast but with mild temperatures, the cloud obscuring any sun until well into the middle of the morning. We did take a few shots here and there but, with the less than ideal conditions we settled for enjoying a seat by Loch Beinn A’ Mheadhoin with the stove cheerfully heating breakfast and boiling water for a welcome cup of tea.

Breakfast heating on Saturday morning.

Breakfast heating on Saturday morning.

Early morning light over Loch Beinn A' Mheadhoin.

After breakfast was out of the way, and we’d tried a few more locations in the vicinity of the breakfast table, we moved back down the glen to the Dog Falls car park. With a slightly dull morning we concentrated on trying a few new locations along the River Affric, I even had a pair of thigh waders so I could move further out into the river (worth a try but it just didn’t work unfortunately). I did have a few photos I was happy with mind you - careful positioning whilst making use of the various stones and rocks in the river proved more fruitful than the waders!

The rapids on the River Affric as the water flows past the Dog Falls car park.

By now it was mid-morning and the sun was making a better effort to emerge from behind the clouds. It was at this point I suggested we should head over to Plodda Falls and see what it had to offer. Plodda Falls is a waterfall marked on the Forestry Commission maps and found to the south of Glen Affric to the west side of the village of Tomich. It was a location that we hadn’t ventured to on our last visit so it was good to be scouting somewhere new and the possible shooting opportunities that would present themselves.

The drive to the Plodda Falls car park isn’t particularly far but it is along a fairly rough forestry access road, not one to take your fancy sports car along!! Once we had arrived, we grabbed our bags and wandered off along the way marked trail not knowing just what was in store for us… As the path made its way downhill it opened up after a short while, ahead of us was a wooden structure and with the sound of rushing water filling the atmosphere it turned out to be a viewing platform that juts out from the top of the waterfall. The end of the platform has you standing in clear air directly above the falls with a drop of 60-70 metres below your feet to the upper pool. The path does continue down the hillside (over slightly less steep gradients) and brings you out at a lower viewing point where you can look directly into the waterfall. We paused here to try a few photos but I wasn’t happy with the location. From there we could see that the shore at the lower falls would be the ideal place to be so, while Jason finished up, I disappeared down the rest of the (now quite steep) path to the river bank. This was to see if there was any way across the river without it either ending in a swim or some form of injury… Thankfully there was a ‘path’ across using the stones dotted through the river, it was passable with care and the use of a tripod as a crutch. Although we were to be shown a little later by some local lads that it was still perfectly possible to end up going for a swim…

Now that we had accessed the river bank below the lower falls we were able to set up and look back up both waterfalls with the lower pool directly in front of us. It wasn’t the most comfortable place - it is permanently damp due to the water spray with various mosses and slime covering the rocks. It was however, just the place to spend a few hours moving a few (careful) inches this way and that while trying various compositions. It was after about 45-60 minutes that we were joined by four lads in their high street finest, they had clearly seen us from the viewing platform and thought it would be good to join us… Of the three that crossed the river to our side I think one went for a swim and the other two ended up with wet feet/trainers and jeans.

Plodda Falls and the viewing platform.

Realising the time we then packed up and headed back up to the car, lunch beckoned along with another cup of tea! After lunch we drove back to Glen Affric, stopping here and there looking for new views and possible locations. We ended up at the road end in the last car park around mid-afternoon and passed an hour just sitting watching the world go by, it was remarkably busy with various people coming and (mainly) going as the sun showed signs of setting for another day.

Before we set off for the night I wanted to walk the short path that looped around the river bank, if for no other reason than to say I have done so. As it turned out we came across a small set of rapids that would have been good to try a few shots of but, we could only watch as the sun filtered through the birch trees and played across the water’s surface - the cameras were back at the car.

The cloud had reappeared and as the sun disappeared behind the blanket of cloud fairly early on. So, with no real sunset to look forward to, we decided to retreat to the Slaters Arms in Cannich for an evening meal and decide where camp would be set for the night. It was also a useful time to check in with those back on the east coast as Glen Affric has little to no phone reception, it’s surprisingly refreshing to know that there is no point in checking phones or even carrying them unless an alarm clock is required!

Dinner over it was time to pick a spot and pitch a tent, we chose to head back to a spot that we had used on the Friday night back in May as we felt it would be the best for the following mornings sunrise. With it pretty much dark from 19:30 we were in sleeping bags by 20:30 with alarms set again for 06:00, the main question in our heads – Would the cloud cover we went to bed under clear by the morning? And if so what sort of sunrise would we witness?

Early colour in the sky - the sun was still well below the hills at this point.

We woke to a chillier morning (after much procrastination we were up about 06:45), no frost but the temperature had definitely dipped much lower than the previous night. Upon sticking a head out of the tent it was noted that the sky was clear, possibly not the best for photography – a few clouds would have been nice but it was certainly more promising than Saturday morning! Sunrise was to be at 07:41 so we had plenty of time to set up and decide where we wanted to be, normally we would strike camp at this point but as the tent was covered in condensation we decided to leave it up until later with the hope it would dry out as bit before being packed away.

Reflections and mist - Loch Beinn A' Mheadhoin.

Reflections and mist - Loch Beinn A' Mheadhoin.

Jason 'in the zone' as the first rays of sunlight filter through the trees.

Jason 'in the zone' as the first rays of sunlight filter through the trees.

As it turned out we didn’t have any actual sunlight on the lower slopes and shoreline until just before 09:00, however as we waited we watched a light mist gently form over the still loch surface as the early sun caught and lit the tops of the surrounding hills. There were also patches of low lying cloud hugging the slopes of the hills on the southern side of the glen. All of this lead us to become quite excited as we waited for the sun to appear. The loch surface remained mirror calm throughout the time we were shooting, something that is quite unusual, normally with the sun above the horizon a small breeze generally appears to ruffle any water. We continued to move and work the location taking full advantage of the perfect mirror at our disposal. Once we had exhausted what opportunities we felt were in front of us we turned our attention to breakfast (which was starting to cool rapidly) and reflected on another weekend adventure.

Sunlight filtering through the pines and catching the mist on the water.

First light on the tree-lined shore of Loch Beinn A' Mheadhoin.

Once breakfast was over it was time to pack the tent and sort ourselves out for the return drive to Aberdeen. So, to answer the main question that we had when we set out – Will we be too early for the full autumn experience? The answer, unfortunately, was yes. While there were the first signs of the trees and shrubs turning the still dominant colour was green, the birches were starting to yellow and the summer bracken had gone a deep burnt orange but that was about it. Another week or two would have had us there at the right time.

Autumn Reflections

I’ve the slim possibility to be back on the 22nd of October as I will be on my way to Skye for a week’s holiday so we will see. I’m hoping the Skye trip will be the subject of another blog on here and there may even be an update on how Glen Affric has changed as autumn progressed.

Camp with breakfast heating as we enjoyed the early October sunshine.

Camp with breakfast heating as we enjoyed the early October sunshine.

Any comments or questions then please feel free to leave them in the comments section. Feedback and shares are always welcome.