Glen Etive

Failed astro shots but stunning scenery

I had taken Friday off work as I had to get the car headlights sorted. I’ve banked a load of days to take for my sliding addiction and need to start using them before the end of March. There is still a severe lack of snow around so I’ve been seeking alternatives to snowboarding. So I decided to pack up camera gear and a sleeping bag, find replacement headlamps then aim for the hills.

After as short stop at Halfords where the headlamp issue was resolved, I checked the weather forecast, and decided to visit Glen Etive. It never fails to impress when it comes to scenery and the weather looked like changing from misty to clear overnight. I wanted to shoot some astro photos followed by a morning taking in the views.

It was near dusk as I drove down the Glen on a recce drive. Glen Etive can be busy, and I wanted to see how it looked. As I drove down the road made famous in the James Bond movie Skyfall, I spotted a cyclist making his way towards me. This would be a nice spot to cycle I thought. I’ll put that on the to-do list.  Stopping frequently, I took some moody evening shots with mountains disappearing into the low cloud then eventually made it down as far as cars can go. I pulled up in the carpark and sat back, contemplating just staying here for the night. It was around 5pm, I had enough food and my stove to see me through, but then people started turning up. I’d hoped that in January it would be quieter, but it wasn’t to be. The visitors unloaded a couple of tents and started setting up for the night. While I cant begrudge them the beautiful camp spot, they kept shining their head torches into the car. They probably thought I was a weirdo sitting in a darkened car park and were worried for their own safety! I decided to head back up the road, I get something to eat and look for another spend the night on the way.

My thought was to go to the Kingshouse Hotel for some dinner, but on arrival I found it was closed for renovation. Luckily they have set up bunkhouses and a The Way Inn where I could get some food. It was a bit sparse and cold looking compared to the old world charm of the Kingshouse, but it is only a stop-gap until they complete renovations.

I ordered something to eat and got chatting to the only other guest who turned out to be the cyclist I passed earlier. We got talking about skiing, hiking cycling the Western Isles and its archeology.

At around 8pm I decided to get back to Glen Etive and seek out one of the spots I found earlier. There were a few vehicles parked up, many of which would be climbers planning an early assault on the hills. My spot was 5 minutes from the end of the Loch and consisted of a grassy turnoff, with raised banks either side that hid the car from view. It also meant I could get a bit of height above the road when taking starry photos later in the night.

So I settled in for the night, tucking myself into my sleeping bag in the passenger seat of the car. Sticking a movie on my iPad I never made it to the end and drifted off to sleep.

I woke up around 5:30am with a bright moon shining though a frozen passenger side window. There were still a few hours of darkness left so I did the best I could to ready my gear and get out to photograph the stars to the North. I thought I could capture a nice circumpolar shot. I tried to remember all the settings and timings and fitted my intervalometer, with a view to capturing around 300 star shots over the next few hours.

So once set, I left my camera shooting away and returned to the car to get reheated and stop my finger tips from turning blue. I drifted back to sleep listening to podcasts in the now warm car.

As the sky lightened I plucked up the courage to face the frost outside and collect my camera and review the images I’d captured. On picking up the equipment and was alarmed to see that my lens was completely covered in condensation. A patch of warmer air must have passed by and condensed on the cooler glass. I was hoping out of three hundred shots, I’d get a few minutes time lapse. Unfortunately it turned out that the mist must have arrived shortly after I left the camera as the resulting footage turned out to be only 3-4 seconds at a paltry eleven frames per second – major fail on my part. Someone on Instagram kindly suggested I try strapping some hand warmers to the lens to prevent this in future. Better luck next time, you live and you learn.

The disappointment from my astro photography was alleviated briefly with a warming coffee brewed up on my stove and a fruit salad breakfast followed by a granola bar.

The sun was getting higher, not yet over the hill tops as I drove down towards the loch head and the carpark I’d visited the evening before, stopping a couple of times for a few more shots. I left the car and took a wander down to the pier area. This pier consisted of a steel hull with to piles for legs. This hull was coated in a very slick frost and I was risking a fall as I shuffled my way across to get views up and down the loch. The moon was still visible and the sun light was skimming the very high peaks above the valley.

The still waters and shady valley was the subject of my photography for a while before I  returned to the car to make my way back up the Glen, hoping I could get a shot of a stag or two as I’d passed many in the darkness of the previous evening.

As I left in the car I passed the ‘Smiddy’ which I think is a rental property and was very disappointed to see the grounds littered with ‘tonic wine’ bottles, empty beer bottles and pizza boxes. The remnants of what I’m sure was a great night under the stars, but I was saddened the occupants hadn’t bothered to use the bins provided. It looked like they were sleeping off there hangovers, but all the oncoming tourists I passed on the way to this beauty spot would have been faced with this sight on arrival. Glen Etive and its residents have been facing an increase in unsavoury behaviour from passing visitors. This has become more of an issue since wild camping bans have pushed more people out of the national parks. You can find out more at the Facebook page devoted to this issue here:

My journey up the glen improved under bright blue skies with occasional fog banks that hugged the sides of the hills. I kept an eye out for deer and in particular stags which are well known for frequenting this road, but I only found one youngster who turned out to be less than cooperative when it came to having his portrait taken. It was a Saturday morning and many a visitor was making the most of it. So maybe the deer decided to take themselves to  higher pastures and make the most of the fair weather themselves.

As I passed the Buachaille, the most famous of Scottish mountains I watched a drone whizz along parallel to my route. I’d never seen one in the wild before, and it wasn’t long before I saw my second further along on Rannoch Moor!

I stopped in at Glencoe Mountain Resort, for a second breakfast of roll and sausage, which has to be done. If they cant arrange for enough snowfall this year, then at least I know I can still get a tasty snack in their cafe! Its also a great place to catch grab some wifi and edit some of my shots while staring out go the large glass wall with probably the most impressive views from any cafe in the United Kingdom.

I  didn’t get the star shots I aimed for, but the weather had been beautiful in the morning giving me some serene images to go home with. Still a success in my books.