Travel photography: Scotland 2015 - Part 1

June 14, 2015


Every photographer has a list. They may not tell you or might not be consciously aware of it themselves, but they definitely have a list. A list of things they want to take pictures of, or less specifically, a list of places they want to visit before their body takes on room temperature. You know like - the half dome in Yosemite in the early evening light, the transition between a sunset into a sunrise above the polar circle, the aurora borealis over a Norway fjord, rays of light piercing through Antelope canyon, the bewildering structures on top off Machu Piccu in Peru, or the Old man of Storr on Skye.

As it so happened I was lucky enough to tick off some items on my very own list when I visited Scotland just recently. Scotland, best known for its spectacular landscapes, changeable weather and its national animal - the unicorn, has a wide variety of photographic opportunities, combined with an abundant cultural legacy to offer.

I flew to and from Edinburgh and travelled by car into the Highlands, visiting the administrative center Inverness and the surrounding regions, continued to the Isle of Skye where I spent only a brief period of time, followed by a stay in Oban at the west coast, and concluded my trip in the industrial center of Scotland, Glasgow.

[Special thanks to for letting me use this map of Scotland for free!]


A classic view over Edinburgh from Calton Hill with the Monument of Dugald Stewart.

Edinburgh, the capital and financial center, and the second largest city of Scotland, is home to the Scottish Parliament, the National Museum of Scotland, the National Library of Scotland and the Scottish National Gallery. Especially the old town offers a very picturesque scenery and is a UNESCO World Heritage with its medieval narrow street layout and old high-rise residential buildings.

Left: View over Lawnmarket on the Royal Mile.
Right: As soon as you wander off the touristy main roads, you can find yourself in an empty courtyard with Reformation-era buildings amidst the old town.
Edinburgh Castle on top of Castle Rock dates back to the 12th century. It is the dominating feature of Edinburgh's skyline and one of the most visited tourist attractions of the country.

From left to right and near to far: The clock tower of the famous Balmoral Hotel, the Parish Church of St Cuthbert (green rooftop) and the three towers of St Mary's Cathedral. The extreme telephoto field of view makes them appear in close proximity while the structures are actually more than a kilometer apart.

Sometimes when I take pictures with a clock in the frame, I like to compare the time with the timestamp in the EXIF data – just to make sure my camera's time was set correctly. In this case while doing so I made an interesting observation: the clock face shows a time of 10:37 while my EXIF data tells me the picture was taken at 10:34. I regularly set my cameras clock to the exact time (mainly for geo-tracking purposes) so I was quite perplexed where the comparatively big deviation came from – until I read on the hotels website: “Our hotel's majestic clock defines the city's skyline and since the day we opened in 1902 it has run three minutes fast to ensure you will never miss your train."

I also checked the room prices and have my doubts that many people who stay there travel by train.

The General Assembly Hall of the Church of Scotland at the Mound.
One of my favorite views on the castle, close to Grassmarket square.
Edinburgh skyline while the sunlight is piercing through the clouds, with the castle in the center.
The Salisbury Crags - 46 meter high cliffs in Holyrood Park.

Of course no visit to Edinburgh would be complete without climbing the city's landmark hill, so on the third day of my stay I set out to do so. What I hadn't expected was that the moderate elevation causes wind speeds to peak. When I was slightly below the summit, the wind got so strong that I wasn't able to stand up straight but rather had to lean into the wind to continue walking – although it should maybe rather be called stumbling due to the strong gusts that almost prevent following a straight path.

As if following a steep trail in intense side wind wasn't challenging enough the typically changeable Scottish weather struck and added some heavy rain to the mix. Luckily, the low afternoon sun shone through below the clouds and caused a spectacular rainbow. I didn't want my camera to get wet but I wanted to miss the rainbow even less, so after a few minutes when the intensity of the rain decreased, I started taking pictures.

Views from Holyrood Park on the neighborhoods of Portobello and Duddingston. Although the images have a very peaceful mood the wind speeds were so high that a significant percentage was in fact motion blurred since it was basically impossible to keep the camera steady.

Scottish weather can be a treacherous thing. Even in bright sunlight the risk of rain remains high – a fact I was about to learn at this moment. After some initial snaps the heavy rain returned and soaked not only me but also my equipment. The decision whether to keep shooting or trying to cover the gear from the elements wasn't an easy one, but I opted for the former. Risking the chance of water damage on my (only) camera, right at the beginning of the trip, wasn't a particularly safe bet, but the confidence in the 5D3's weather sealing prevailed.

Arthurs seat from the southeast. To the left Castle hill is slightly visible.

The alteration between heavy and very light rain repeated itself for a few times and the especially strong wind blow dried my stuff within minutes. I remember that the completely dripping camera was dry in less than a minute and my jeans (there was no time to change into something weather resistant) went from 'fresh out of the washing machine' to 'dry as a bone' in about ten minutes - while wearing them of course. Convenient!

Downtown Edinburgh shortly before sunset seen from the top of Arthur's seat.

City Wildlife

Urban areas are better places for wildlife photography than you would might expect. Due to the constant proximity to humans, animals reduce their flight distances and are easier to observe and photograph up close.

Seagulls gathering nesting material are a common sight in this time of year.
A grey squirrel with a taste for the delightful things in life.

The squirrels in Princes Street Gardens are commonly fed by pedestrians and make very easy and yet appealing subjects due to their complete lack of shyness.

The grey squirrel is actually only native to North America and has been introduced into parts of Europe. This is problematic since it has almost entirely displaced the populations of the local red squirrels in Great Britain.

The open spaces are also a natural habitat for a variety of songbirds.
Top: A dunnock on the lookout for prey.
Bottom: A chaffinch taking a quick bath.
Duddingston Loch, just south of Holyrood Park is a very well-known location for birdwatching. Unfortunately the southern shore is not open for public access. It is however still possible to make some interesting sightings like this pheasant performing his mating calls.

The Loch is also a welcomed resting place for geese.

A mother on watch while her goslings feed in the low grass.
Greylag geese goslings.
An adult Canada goose with its offspring.
Male Canada geese commonly display agonistic behavior especially when a larger flock is residing in a limited space.

Night Photography

Blue-hour shot of Edinburgh old-town.
The still busy Princes Street shortly after sunset.
I'd like to conclude this article on Edinburgh with the same image I started it with – this time only after sundown.

The journey continues

The next article in this series describes my experiences as I travel through the Highlands.

» Continue to part 2 »

Thanks for reading!

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