Top 8 Landscape Photography Locations in the Scottish Highlands
My earliest connection to this landscape was forged in weekend wanders into the farmland that skirted the post-industrial town were I grew up in North Lanarkshire. With an over-active imagination, I always longed to see what lay over the Kilsyth Hills in the distance, beyond the reaches of my wee legs.
They teased a fantastical voyage to the wild places that lay beyond. Magical glens where faeries glimmered in the deep, dark woods, and rows of jagged mountains rose like dragon teeth under swirling, mythical skies. To this day, the Scottish Highlands stir in me the same childish glee. It still washes over me in anticipation of any trip north with my camera.
The area encompasses well over half of Scotland’s land mass, with the diagonal trough of Loch Ness and ‘The Great Glen’ marking the middle, and the highland boundary fault line in the Trossachs denoting its start.
It’s an incredibly diverse landscape, full of contrasts: from lush, rolling farmland and pristine coastlines of glittering sands, to dense forests of ancient pine alongside wild, windswept moors and primordial mountain ranges.
Proximity to the Atlantic and Gulf Stream make for an array of conditions, predominantly wild throughout most of the darker months, with the promise of glorious, sun kissed scenes in the summer months that rival any destination for natural beauty. Any forays to the Highlands should be planned with weather in mind, and routes must be well understood and researched beforehand.
I’ve highlighted some of my favourite areas to visit for landscape photography, which is a difficult thing to consider. Despite having travelled to practically every region here, I still feel I’m only scratching the surface of what the Highlands have to offer. I’ll never tire of discovering new areas and finding images in which I can capture even a wisp of the magic that this place offers.
1. Corrour and Loch Ossian
Corrour estate lies on the north-eastern reaches of Rannoch Moor and is only reachable (excluding private roads) by train or on foot. Corrour station, on the West Highland Line, was immortalised in the 1996 film ‘Trainspotting’, and holds the title of highest mainline railway station in the UK.
Historical deforestation of the area contributes to the feeling of emptiness and scale, but the waters of Loch Ossian are an enchanting oasis within this otherwise bare landscape. A relatively short amble to the east of the station house, you will find a few island clusters of majestic Scots pine, with more growing along the banks around the little hostel here.
The ‘Road to the Isles’ trail is a great option for a brisk but picturesque walk, where you can witness the spectacle of these wild and rugged expanses.
Once on the higher portion beneath the ridge of Carn Dearg, you can behold the vast moorland beneath. It is peppered by a multitude of lochans and snaking rivers, the diagonal streak of Blackwater in the distance, and the hump of Leum Uilleim sleeping in the west.
The route begins at Loch Eigheach near Rannoch Station, going northeast for about eight miles before reaching the shores of Ossian. It’s also a good opportunity, leg tiredness permitting, to try a circuit of the loch for alternate takes on the area.
Given the aspect of the landscape here, I would recommend trying a few panoramas to capture some of the area’s essence (whether by stitching several exposures, or using a 2:1 or 16:9 crop on a single image).
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2. Glen Etive
The pass of Glen Coe is undoubtedly the ‘poster-boy’ for the Scottish Highlands, given its inherent rugged beauty and accessibility. During my earliest years of landscape photography, I spent countless exhilarating days rambling over and under its imposing mountains, searching for great images. I inevitably expanded my hunt for new inspiring scenes by exploring nearby Glen Etive, which still never disappoints.
The gateway to the glen lies at the foot of the mighty Stob Dearg (Buachaille Etive Mor), where a left turn just past the Kingshouse Hotel (coming from the south) takes you roughly parallel to the river Etive. This delves south-west for about 12 miles, rushing through a visual feast of magnificent peaks. Its turbulent waters crash through a series of spectacular gorges before gently fanning out across the delta at the head of Loch Etive.
There are many spots to pull up by the river on the first leg of your journey. Lochan Urr, nestled about two-thirds down the glen, is a must see, with its backdrop of Stob na Broige. Care must be taken when driving down the glen, especially here, where you will stand a good chance of meeting some of the resident red deer population.
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Glen Etive is an increasingly popular neighbour of Glen Coe, featuring in many films, most notably the 2012 Bond film ‘Skyfall’. So, I would recommend visiting outside the summer months, when the light and conditions are actually better for photography.
However, the road less travelled can offer greater rewards. The route from Inverawe, near Taynuilt, along the southern portion of the loch provides some splendid mountain panoramas (by following the private track to Ardmaddy).
A notable detour can be made along the way by following the river (Noe) a kilometre upstream at Glen Noe, where you will find a delightful waterfall hidden in plain sight.
Once past Inverliver Bay and up on higher ground, you can compose the head of the loch between the glacial curves of Beinn Trilleachan and Ben Starav, with the pale delta sands of the River Kinglass beneath. It’s especially beautiful to witness in winter, when the surrounding peaks sport a handsome dusting of snow.
3. Glen Affric
Glen Affric is one of the most beautiful glens I’ve ever visited. The idyllic waters of Loch Beinn a Mheadhoin and Loch Affric run the length of this glorious nature reserve, where the stately peaks of Beinn Fhada, Mullach Fraoch-choire, An Tudair, and Sgurr na Lapaich gather to frame a delightful haven of ancient Caledonian forest.
The Am Meallan viewpoint, a short walk from the car park between the two lochs, offers a picture-perfect scene that displays the finest representation of Scotland’s beauty.
If possible, I would make the effort to arrive here in time for sunrise, preferably in winter or autumn. I recommend using a long lens to frame the pine-crowded lodge, loch, and distant hills.
There are plenty of way-marked walking routes in the area. Highlights include Dog Falls, River Affric, and longer circulars around Loch Affric and Loch Beinn a Mheadhoin. The 44 mile Kintail Way also passes through here, and there are numerous side trails to wander down with your camera.
Another highlight nearby is the glorious spectacle of the thundering Plodda Falls, dropping over 150ft beneath the viewing platform amongst mighty Douglas fir, redwood, and larch. Access to the glen is made by following the A831 from Drumnadrochit (near Loch Ness) to Cannich, and following the signed left turn for Glen Affric near the Cannich Bridge.
Useful link: Glen Affric information
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4. The Isle of Eigg
The Isle of Eigg lies about 7 miles due west from the Scottish mainland (at Arisaig). It is part of the collection of islands known as ‘the Small Isles’, also comprising of Muck, Rum (the largest of the four), and Canna. Ownership shifted to the Isle of Eigg community trust in 1997, and the current population is around 110 people.
I have visited Eigg a good few times over the years, usually around the time of the celebrations to mark the anniversary of the buy-out, on the 12th of June. It’s one of my favourite locations for many reasons, not least the hospitality and kindness of the folk who reside there. If you are looking for a glorious hike with stunning 360 degree views, you should set aside a day to climb ‘An Sgurr.’
The highest point on the island at 393m, ‘An Sgurr’ is a sloping hulk of prehistoric geology resembling (to me) the upturned keel of a gigantic ship, and is a prominent fixture visible from miles around. An added bonus is the selection of freshwater lochans nearby, that are definitely worth exploring with your camera.
By far the most beautiful place to find yourself at sunset on Eigg is the Bay of Laig in Cleadale. As well as the fantastical formations of jurassic rock found here, the captivating views across the pale sands to the imposing, symmetrical peaks of Rum are arguably the finest in the British Isles.
Ideally you should be making use of your tripod here, as it’s an exposed stretch of coast that’s frequently windy. Also remember to make use of a neutral grad filter (if you have one), to expose for dark, rocky foregrounds that include Rum in the distance. Please bear in mind that sand is a potential ‘camera killer’, so find a safe place to change your lenses away from the deadly grains!
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5. Loch Lomond
Less than an hour’s drive from the centre of Glasgow, this famous loch lies within the Trossachs National Park, and is the largest body of fresh water in the UK. Given its relative proximity to the central belt of Scotland, it’s an extremely popular destination for both native and international visitors.
Opportunities for photography abound, and the ‘bonnie banks’ are good to go whatever the season. There are postcard perfect villages, sleepy bays, mysterious islands, and the venerable heights of Ben Lomond presiding over it all.
The main access route for the loch is the A82, which hugs the western edge from Balloch in the south to Ardlui in the narrower northern stretch. You also have the eastern end to explore, from Balmaha to Rowardennan, and, if you want to properly fill your (walking) boots, the famed ‘West Highland Way’ follows the entire length of this side.
There is a wee spot just north of Tarbet that I like to scramble down to, if conditions are looking good. Look for the green forestry sign on the left as you leave the village, and take a left turn up an incline to a good sized parking area. Head back down to the road on foot, and cross to the clutch of oak trees on the opposite side.
From here there are numerous compositions where you can use the various rocks dotted along the gravelly shore, with little Tarbet Isle in the mid-ground. Try utilising a polariser to cut through reflections, providing more interest in watery foregrounds.
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6. Loch Coruisk
The ‘misty’ Isle of Skye abounds with some of Scotland’s finest landscapes.
The capricious weather conditions, brought in by the Northern Atlantic, can conjure some of the most startling displays of light to behold. Its diverse geology makes for memorable images that convey an otherworldly atmosphere.
Popular photographic destinations include the Trotternish Ridge, Elgol, Kilt Rock, Talisker Bay, and the colourful harbour town of Portree. In many ways, the Isle of Skye has become a victim of its own success. Locations like the ‘fairy pools’ of Glen Brittle have seen extensive erosion caused by excessive footfall, so I would be mindful of congestion during the high season.
Having utilised the old bothy at Camasunary Bay a good while back, I recently revisited the area and pushed deeper into the heart of the nearby Cuillin mountain range. Referred to as the ‘Black’ and ‘Red’ Cuillin, separated by Glen Sligachan, they contain some of the highest Munros in Scotland, and beckon to intrepid mountaineers and hardy hillwalkers from all over.
The Black Cuillin are remnants of a giant volcano, with ragged ridges and sharp peaks that offer a glimpse into the earth’s primordial past. A short boat trip from Elgol will take you into the heart of the Black Cuillin, alighting at Loch na Cuilce near one of the shortest rivers in the UK, the Scavaig, where Loch Coruisk spills into the ocean.
An ascent of Sgurr na Stri, not necessarily to the top, will provide you with an inspiring view over the full range circling the water below. Loch Coruisk and the Cuillin can also be reached by hiking over from the Sligachan Hotel by the A87.
Given the arduous terrain and likelihood of strenuous hikes, it pays to dress for the elements and travel light here. I recommend keeping your camera kit to a minimum, taking one wide and one telephoto lens, and carrying a lightweight tripod.
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7. Assynt and Coigach
The region of Assynt is a designated National Scenic Area and, although it is one the least inhabited areas in Europe, it’s densely populated with some of the most quintessential Scottish landscapes.
Unlike their southern neighbours with their huddled peaks, the ancient monoliths of Stac Pollaidh, Cul Mor, Cul Beg, and Suilven stand proudly and dominate the scenery. Their distinctive outlines are reminiscent of the American Wild West; it’s Scotland’s very own Monument Valley.
As the quality and direction of light changes throughout the day (and seasons), the native gneiss and sandstone shift in hue, from greys and pinks to ochre and bronze.
The coastline of Assynt is no less fascinating. The blonde sands and turquoise tides of Achmelvich look almost Mediterranean on a warm summer’s day, and the staggering geology on display at places like Clachtoll is a must-see.
In terms of inland water features, there are a multitude of lochs to explore. The largest of these, Loch Assynt, is also home to the atmospheric ruins of Ardvreck Castle. I absolutely love this spot on brooding, overcast days that amplify the mysterious quality of the scenery.
For waterfalls, two of the most impressive cascades are the Falls of Kirkaig and the Wailing Widow Falls. The former requires a 2 mile hike, and the latter a short, albeit rocky, scramble to reach it.
Waterfalls that are striking to behold in person due to their size can sometimes lose their impact in translation to a two-dimensional photograph. So, including comparative elements in your composition to convey a sense of scale is always something to consider doing.
The sensory experience is one to be enjoyed, but the incessant streams of water crashing down can give off billowing clouds of spray, so be prepared and bring a cloth to continually wipe off the front of your lens when shooting close to the base.
The A835 and A837 encircle most of the area, with the road south from Lochinver to Drumrunie completing the loop.
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8. Glen Nevis
Glen Nevis lies just a few minutes from the Highlands community of Fort William, and is easily accessible by car from the town centre. The River Nevis rushes though this spectacular glen, fed mostly by the tributaries and streams that carve their way down the slopes of mighty Ben Nevis.
There is a lot to see on the journey down Glen Nevis, so be prepared for some pit-stops along the way, in order to capture some of the many aspects of its unique character.
The first stretch of road heads south, following the fringes of the Nevis Forest on one side and the river to your left. At Achriabach, where the route bends eastward, there are great views of the Polldubh Cliffs. Just a short stroll from the sizeable car park, you can witness the impressive drop of the Lower Falls. The adjacent narrow road bridge gives you the perfect position over them.
On a technical note, there isn’t adequate space to safely set up a tripod here, for a long exposure to smooth the flow. Instead, use the bridge’s side barrier to steady your camera.
Continuing eastward from here, between the heights of Carn Dearg and Sgurr a’ Mhaim, takes you to the end of the road and the beginning of a marvellous expedition through a cyclopean gorge to reach the second highest falls in Scotland.
The well marked route from the car park inclines up the Eas an Tuill Valley, with a great overview of Sgurr a’ Mhaim and the river snaking through the landscape below, before finally revealing the flat moor at Lùib Shonnachain, a sizeable bend in the river.
It’s here you will get your first glimpse of the white waters of Steall Waterfall, streaming and spreading down over the craggy slopes of Coire Dubh an Steill. However, this is not where the adventure ends!
To reach the base of the falls, you may have to get your feet wet by fording the river across one of the wider, shallower portions, or daring a careful transition over the water via the steel rope bridge nearby.
The colours here come into their own in autumn but, given the proximity of some of Scotland’s highest Munros, there is a shortage of light penetrating into the glen during these months. So, an early start is highly recommended to give yourself enough time and opportunity to enjoy this incredible location with your camera.
Just like the practice of photography in any genre, the success of a visit to the Highlands will depend on a combination of luck and preparation. The micro-climates that abound in the mountainous regions, combined with the unpredictable weather fronts coming off the Atlantic, can contradict all the predictions of man and technology.
However, there are some good app and website tools, like www.windy.com and www.clearoutside.com, that will give a great overview of what to expect.
Also, be sure of exactly where you intend to park at each location and use SatNav GPS when possible. Google Street View is also handy to get an impression of an area before setting off.
Be sure to dress for the occasion: a sturdy pair of walking boots is a must. Reading user reports for well-known routes on www.walkhighlands.co.uk will give you handy pointers, such as route durations and terrain.
Given that you might find yourself walking over considerable distances with varying difficulty, it pays to travel light. I would recommend restricting yourself to two or three lenses and a lightweight tripod. I like to keep a long lens on-camera, switching to a wide-angle when I find good foreground interest.
Lastly, don’t forget to absorb every drop of the experience. The Highlands landscape is so dynamic and continually changes in character, depending on the season and the direction of the light.
It’s an incredible feast for the eyes, that can be overwhelming at times when those fleeting moments of magic reveal themselves, so remember to not only capture them with your lens, but also with your heart.
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