The Hairy Loch – Jim Richardson

The islanders on Skye call it the Hairy Loch. I call my image of it Skye Pan I. The photograph was stitched together from frames 14, 691, 14,692 and 14,693.

I’ve always loved the Hairy Loch and have driven past it often. The intricacy and regularity of the reeds in the loch was always alluring, but at the time I had no idea of just what a complex and storied place it was. That would come later when I explored the history of the Hairy Loch, properly called Loch Cill Chroisd.

For all the times I had seen it, I had never really gotten a picture of it until this morning when I was hurrying to the Glasgow airport to take a flight home. Once, some 13 years before on a previous National Geographic assignment, I had stopped here for a gorgeous sunset and tried to photograph it but was defeated by the dreaded Scottish midges (or midgies, the way Scots say it.) The midge is species of invisible, flying piranha known to eat the flesh off the bones of a photographer in minutes. I gave up.

When this scene of Loch Cill Chroisd unfolded before me, I had to stop the car. The sun was rising, the fog for thinning, and I worked frantically to photograph this view before it was gone. I asked myself, “Why the hell had I lingered for so long at the loch up the road when this was waiting for me here?”

The scene cried out for all the detail I could capture. Oh, the great heap of Beinn na Caillich rising above the horizon didn’t need the detail. It was the the water’s reeds, dappled with floating leaves, that needed detail. They needed a subtle rendering that would give each blade of grass its due credit in making up the matrix of life in this stunning landscape.

The ability to stitch several digital images together to form a panorama is a powerful tool for landscape photographers. And it results in a huge file, brimming with information that renders fine detail precisely and maintains lush tonalities. So grabbing my tripod, I quickly mounted the camera, leveled the head, and started shooting multi-image sets of images for later processing in the computer.

There are ways in which the digital processing actually removes distortion from images. Before joining one image to the next, the software takes out some of the stretching that lenses inevitably produce when rendering the real world onto a flat surface. (It’s a necessary byproduct of optics, roughly analogous to the kind of stretching that happens when you project a spherical earth onto a flat map.) But readers of National Geographic remain shy of anything that smacks of “digital manipulation” (as we all should be) and so when we published the image, we duly noted that it was a panorama made up of several images.

The resulting image had a strong sense of serenity. Several of the other variations I tried had this same sense of calm, but this particular set seemed to have the best harmony. Plus, the detailed rendering suggested something more.

Perhaps one of the reasons I love the landscapes of Scotland is their long history of habitation. People have been living amongst its lochs and beinns for a long time. Places like this gather more than just wrinkles inflicted by geology. Myths and tales grow on them a surely as grass and trees.

So it is with Loch Cill Chroisd.

The name itself has meaning. The church, the “cill”, is just up the road. And “Chroisd” mean Christ. Thus: Christ Church. Legend has it that an evil spirt dwelt in the loch and poisoned the water until St. Columba (who brought Christianity to Scotland in the 6th century) chased it away. After that another spirit — an each uisge or water horse — set up shop in the loch, turning itself into a handsome young man to seduce passing women and drown them in the deepest part of the loch.

Further legends of this landscape abound. High atop Beinn na Caillich is a cairn (large pile of stones) said to be where a young Norwegian princess wished to be buried. She hoped that she could feel the winds of her homeland around her grave for eternity. Or maybe not. Maybe it really is the home of the giant woman from the days of Fingal (for whom the cave on Staffa is named, and where we will be going soon.) The Gaelic-to-English translation, “Hill of the Old Woman,” would lend weight to that story.

Regardless of legend, real history was at work here, too. The Gaelic Mackinnon clan defeated the Vikings there on the north slope of Beinn na Caillich. The clan lost all its property, including this beinn, when they took up the Jacobite cause and, some say, aided Bonnie Prince Charlie in his escape. Geographer Thomas Pennant climbed to the peak in 1772 in the first recorded ascent of a mountain on Skye. (I can scarcely believe no one climbed this beinn before 1772, if only to take their sheep up for grazing. But then sheepherders aren’t known for record keeping.) More recently in 2004, young Alan Cope of nearby Broadford ascended the mountain 10 times in one day for charity.

I like places like this, where human regard, caring and observation imbue the land with such common lore that the names themselves have depth of meaning. To the locals, the loch is just “The Hairy Loch” and the mountain is “The Beinn.” Landscapes are more than pretty scenes. We project our dreams on them and make them carry our history. Sometimes it is difficult to separate the external physical landscape from the inner landscape of our minds. We give the land meaning, and it carries our meaning long after we are gone.

The beauty is in the details.