Scotland – Scenic Speyside

Scotland – Scenic Speyside

Queen's View Approach
Queen’s View Approach

I love to travel and love to capture the sights, sounds and stories of the places I travel to. Even before I started to enjoy a drink, I had always wanted to do the Whiskey Trail in Scotland. Last summer (Summer of 2012), I finally got around to doing it. When I went around making the bookings, I realised there were 4 different trails on offer – Islay, Highlands, Lowlands and Speyside. I am partial to Speyside whiskeys, so I chose that.

Till I reached Edinburgh, my excitement was all about the various whiskeys I’ll taste. On leaving Edinburgh, our group made our first stop at a large, almost empty parking lot. We did not know what to expect. Our driver-cum-guide, Andrew, requested us to disembark.

We made our way on a narrow dirt trail in to the woods. Once we were inside the thick oak forest, despite it being morning, it became rather dark. We walked in silence for about 20 minutes, and suddenly, we hit a clearing, or what we thought was a clearing. In fact we had exited the forest and had reached a breathtakingly beautiful locale.

Jersey cows, lazily grazing in Scottish Highlands
Jersey cows, lazily grazing in Scottish Highlands

We were on the banks of a cluster of lakes (or lochs, as Scots call them). The lakes extended till distant horizons, and then faded and merged in to the sky. We stared speechlessly, for what seemed like hours. The lakes had some waterfalls, and the vegetation ranged from giant oaks to ferns of various varieties. Another prominent flora included colourful wild heather.

Andrew told us that we were just about 2 miles from a small scottish town, Pitlochry. He mentioned that the place is Queen’s View. That moment on, I had forgotten all about the whiskeys, and had fallen in love with the trail instead. The scenic landscape, the gorgeous blue skies, thick but gentle clouds, colourful wild plants, verdant green grasslands dotted with jersey and highland cows, undulating terrain and once-in-a-way sighting of agile, yet shy, red deer was to be a routine for the next 3 days – a routine we all loved.

Glenlivet Distillery, Scottish Highlands
Glenlivet Distillery, Scottish Highlands

We moved from town to town, and distillery to distillery, but the nature’s beauty continued to surprise us at every curve. Pitlochry, Grantown, Elgin, Braemer, Knockando, Tomintoul, Blairgowrie – all had their own charm. Grantown, for example, lies partly in Moray region, and partly in Highlands. It is on the banks of charming River Spey.

The architecture in these towns was colonial, marked by low-rise construction, beautifully maintained facades, and patches of green all around. The streets were clean and had sparse crowds. There seemed to be no stretching of infrastructure. Despite their miniscule sizes, these towns had their own cute main street markets complete with restaurants, open-air roadside cafes and bars, daily needs stores, and other items locals and tourists may need, to get by.

Garth Hotel (how much more Scottish you can get!) was to be my home for next couple of days. It was extremely clean and surprisingly well equipped to cater to any leisure traveller’s needs. Despite being an 18-room hotel, it had its own chef who conjoured up tasty meals at every dinner I had here.

Scotland scenic speyside
Grantown Main Street

This pleasant little hotel was on the main street, and had started business as an inn in 1850s. Unlike in India, the main street here was not crowded – in fact you’d be lucky to spot a car or bicycle pass by; and was spanking clean. Another surprise was the rich, bright carpet of greenery, which covered the entire area.

During these 3 days, we saw many castles which Scottish countryside is famous for – Drumin castle, Braemer castle, Balmoral castle and Corgarff castle, to name a few. What strikes you about these castles is their location. These are mostly away from the nearby towns and are located in splendid isolation. The castle building normally forms just about 1% of the area of the estate. The rolling green meadows and gardens leave you gaping.

Corgarff Castle
Corgarff Castle

On day 2, we entered Cairngorm National Park, which is the heart of the Whiskey trail. The park offers a lot more than we saw. It has ski slopes, wildlife preserves, museums, activities for various age groups including hiking and rafting, etc.

Cardhu Distillery, Near Archiestown, Moray, Scotland
Cardhu Distillery, Near Archiestown, Moray, Scotland

Day 3 brought us to the countryside that houses Glenlivet and many more distilleries. In a one-horse town called Tomintoul, I saw a Guinness Book of World Record holding single malt bottle. This bottle holds 105.6 litres of Tomintoul single malt, is 1.44 metres tall, and is housed in Clockhouse, a restaurant here. This little town also has a world-famous whiskey store – The Whiskey Castle. It boasts about 400 different brands of whiskeys.

Quiet town, Tomintoul
Quiet town, Tomintoul

Rivers we passed during the trail were many – Tay, Northern Esk, Southern Esk, Dee, Spey, Forth, etc. These ranged from small, gently flowing ones to monstrous, noisily gushing ones. Some passing through thick cover of forest, while the others through vast open meadowy stretches. Each, more beautiful than the other. For a small area, Scotland has about 50 rivers and about 3000 lakes. The region sure is flush with fresh water sources.

River Forth, on the outskirts of Edinburgh
River Forth, on the outskirts of Edinburgh

My interaction with Scots left me with a feeling that as a nation, they are proud of their heritage, ancestry and their country. Like Indians, Scots are also extremely hospitable. As a race, they are rather rugged looking, yet, gentle.

Those 3 days have long gone, but I still can feel the sights, sounds and stories, as if those happened just yesterday. I have made a promise to myself – of visiting Scotland again. This time, not for just 3 days, but for at least a fortnight, if not more. And, this will not be a whiskey trail tour.

7 Photography Tips for shooting Scotland Scenic Speyside:

  1. Try not shooting against the light, as the dynamic range on offer will be a severe challenge.
  2. Generally, during a normal, bright, sunny day, shooting landscapes with blues of sky and details of landscape intact can easily be managed. Just meter on the brighter, lighter greens of the grass. Also, shooting in raw format will help address the dynamic range better (maintaining details in darker areas).
  3. Typically, indoors in Scotland are rather dimly lit. You’ll need to stop up considerably to manage a decent exposure.
  4. To cut the mid-day haze (which can be very pronounced here), do use a polarising filter.
  5. Do get down on your knees while shooting the landscape. You might find yourself shooting interesting bluebells or Scottish thistle.
  6. While shooting landscapes here is a joy, do not ignore shooting the quaint little towns and villages you pass through. These offer a variety of subjects with character, ranging from tiny houses, cemeteries, local people, roadside cafes, to little streams, picnic spots along the banks of rivers or lakes (lochs), boats, etc.
  7. Most images you capture in Scotland are likely to be high-contrast. Though beautiful in full colour, these will look stunning even in B&W. Do attempt converting some during post-processing.

Note: Since this article appeared in ‘Asian Photography’, a photography magazine; hence, there are some photography tips here.

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