Up Helly Aa

St Ninian's Isle - one of many stunning places to discover along the Shetland coast

It’s a long way to Shetland. When you get there, there’s a good chance it’s probably wet and windy and looking magnificent for all that. Countless islands and inlets make for a never ending coastline to explore, and a culture firmly rooted in the sea. Oh, and there’s the Vikings...

Of all the festivals and traditions around Scotland, Up Helly Aa may be one of the most enigmatic. Various communities around Sheltand have their own Up Helly tradition, the most famous being the one in Lerwick on the last Tuesday of every January. You’ll probably have seen photographs in the papers, or segments on the telly; the torchlight procession, led by a squad of vikings through the centre of the town is famous. It’s really only half the story though. Which is not to say that the procession isn’t epic!

This year there were no less than 900 torchbearers to escort the Jarl’s Squad and their Galley, the Falcon, through the streets to the Burning. It’s a sight not soon forgotten. Visceral and utterly awe inspiring, it assaults all the senses at once, with the wind driving the rain through the ranks, the stench and heat of the paraffin torches, the sound of the band and of the squads revelling in their moment. They’ve earned it.

There are no half measures here, this is not some little parade where old trinkets are brought out of storage every year and traipsed around town. This has taken dozens upon dozens of people months of graft and planning, and in return it gives the occasion a sense of gravity and solidity that it might otherwise lack.

The torches alone took months to prepare. The galley saw a team of over 40 men working several nights a week for months to bring it to a beautiful finish, all for a short journey through town to a fiery end. Each member of the Jarl’s Squad will have spent hundreds of hours and thousands of pounds hand making their Viking uniforms just for this festival. 

With so much time spent together in preparation, the Jarl’s squad is more than just a collection of men dressed as Vikings. When they walk through town it is as one unit, together.

The procession will be what you see on the news, or hear described on the radio, but it marks the beginning of the night, rather than the end. Once the galley is alight, the squads and the crowds all quickly disperse to various community halls around town. The Squads will take it in turn to visit each hall through the night and into the morning. Each has a rehearsed turn to perform on arrival, before sharing a drink with the people in the hall. It’s an impressive feat of organisation, and each and every squad has put time and effort into their routine... Some are better than others, and by 6am some may be getting a bit ragged around the edges! 

Circling the galley, before the burning.

Looking around the hall though, it’s impossible to tell without talking to people who live here and who are just visiting.  This is very much a local festival, but you’ll be welcomed in like an old friend and treated like family. It is the party that tops all parties and a tradition entirely befitting of the Lerwegian’s generously riotous natures. 

Come to Up Helly Aa, come for the procession if that’s what motivates you. You’ll leave remembering the welcome you had at the halls. I’d love to share some photos from that part of the night, but I was having far too much fun to take any.

Book Progress

It's been a long time in the making, but things are finally starting to take shape on the Photographing Scotland guidebook that I've been working on for the last two years. It's not all been plain sailing, but as they say, "a calm sea does not make for a skilled sailor." Regardless of the weather, the start of the  month saw the demise of my trusty campervan, which decided to break down at the furthest point from Glasgow of the trip.

Since then I've replaced the van, and taken the new machine out for its first test run, staying relatively local in glen Coe and Glen Etive for the first time out. The very first morning of the trip saw one of the most spectacular sunrises I've ever witnessed, with a perfect temperature inversion around the Bauchaille and Glen Etive! 

The morning just kept getting better and better... The light once the sun broke the horizon was incredible, and I eventually trudged down the hill with some of the best landscape photographs I've taken in a while.

The conditions prevailed through the whole of the first trip, and I had a great time on Rannoch Moore and down Glen Etive, ticking off locations and writing up notes for the Scotland Guidebook. Maybe it's an omen, and the new van will bring a little luck! Or maybe it's just coincidence. I'm hitting the road again tomorrow for a few weeks, so fingers crossed for more of the same either way.

Solar Eclipse for the One Show

Today's shift started at 04:300. In my book, that's kind of anti-social, especially when you're crawling out of bed in Glasgow rather than out of a tent on a mountain somewhere. Then again, it's not every day that you've a chance of seeing a solar eclipse, and rarer yet that you've been asked to take some photographs as part of a feature on BBC's One Show. Four photographers from around the UK were to be sent out to see who could get the most evocative photograph of the events of the day, and I was chosen to represent Scotland… No pressure then!

Not sure I like this end of the camera...

Not sure I like this end of the camera...

The weather forecast was looking pretty sketchy, but it's not like you can put off the eclipse until the next day when it's clearer, so we set off for Edinburgh, where the met office said there was a slim chance of catching a glimpse of the eclipse if we were lucky. We figured that worst case, we could get some good shots of the other folks that were bound to be out on the off-chance too: it was all about catching people enjoying the moment rather than trying to photograph the sun (heck, I can't compete with the big telescopes! Sometimes size does matter).

Calton Hill seemed like a good spot, and we were there early enough to get a prime spot with a cracking view out over the city… Sure enough, by 09:00 the place was packed! People were viewing the eclipse in progress through everything from proper viewing glasses, to collanders and home-made pinholes. For once the Scottish weather came good for us, and we had pretty much ideal viewing conditions.

We had a bit of a scout around to make sure we had the best shot we were going to get, and then recruited a young family to pose for our photo. Young Samuel and his mum were absolutely brilliant in front of the camera, and I reckon we went away with a pretty good shot - it was exactly what I'd hoped for. Ok, so the Welsh team's photograph of the Meerkats won the competition on the night, but I had a cracking day out, saw something truly incredible and went home with a good photograph in the bag: that's a win in my book!

The Outer Hebrides

The Commute

It's a tough life, being a landscape photographer. All the driving, the cleg bites, the knowledge that the midges are almost here for the summer... All in all though, when you consider it, the office space more than makes up for the 04:30 starts and the 22:00 finishes, especially when you packed lunch contains a bar of chocolate and a miniature of cask strength Laphroaig.

I'm not long back from spending two and a half weeks on the road shooting landscapes for a long-term project that I'm working on. Being able to go away and focus on nothing but getting the shots I wanted was stunning: it's amazing what you can achieve in a couple of weeks with a little planning and a lot of bloody-minded alarm-setting!

The weather wasn't wonderful for the first few days of the trip so rather than pushing through to the islands immediately I meandered north, meeting a few friends and ticking a few landscape boxes I've wanted to tick for a while. The Buachaille, for example: everyone has a photograph of the Buachaille, but perhaps for that very reason it's very difficult to find a shot that you feel is your own. And Ben Dorainn was one of the very first places I ever went specifically just to take a photograph and has been overdue a re-visit for some time.

Ben Dorain

The Buachaille

I started at the southern end of the islands on Barra and Vatersay. It took a day or two to get into the groove, but Barra is definitely the place to be if you're trying to relax into your photography again. It was an act of discipline to catch the ferry on the saturday morning to head north for Harris and Lewis... there's just so much to see and to shoot out there, you could easily spend weeks on Barra alone.

One of the nice things about shooting landscapes is that you're often at a location either very early or very late to catch the best of the light. When I turned up at Callanish at 05:45 one morning  I was kind of expecting to have the place to myself: it was 05:45 - it's not the most sociable of hours. The sky was perfect, shaping up for an incredibly intense sunrise too: perfect.

Except for the 30 or so folks all stood holding hands in a ring within the main circle chanting to each other! There's not a lot you can do about that sort of thing (apparently it's bad karma to chase them off), but I've never seen so much stone hugging and sun worship in the literal sense.

I shall spare you more stories here, instead here's a few selected highlights from the trip: personal favourites, as they stand for the moment. Hope that you enjoy them, and if you do then spread the word and be sure to check out my facebook page.