52 Weeks of Historical How-To’s, Week 30: A short mountain walk
When the idea for the Historical How-to’s series was first mooted both Norman and I immediately wondered how we might turn it into an excuse to get out into the hills. With a wonderfully broad spectrum of writing and photography in our collection on the subjects of travel and mountaineering in Scotland, and beyond, we felt that we would have no problem devising a suitable expedition.
A quick dip into the collection, however, revealed that we had far too many possibilities to choose from! We quickly discounted the idea of recreating “Hamish’s Mountain Walk” on the grounds that, although it would have been nice to mark the walk’s 40th anniversary, we couldn’t spare the necessary 112 days. Similarly any thought of ascending Mont Blanc by a new route and without guides, inspired by the Rev. Charles Hudson and Edward Shirley Kennedy (For DQ841.M7H8), was rejected because we felt the Library probably wouldn’t agree to pay the travel costs. The records of the University Mountaineering Club (UYUY911/Mountaineering) might have provided more practical opportunities, but in the end we decided that we’d look to our photographic collection for inspiration.
As a result of an idle conversation at coffee break (is there any other kind?) it occurred to us to investigate the collection of landscape photographs taken in the first half of the 20th century by Robert Moyes Adam. Adam was an illustrator in the Royal Botanical Gardens in Edinburgh who used photography both to record botanical specimens in the field and to record the wider Scottish landscape. His landscape photographs in particular gained wider fame, being published regularly in The Scots Magazine in the 1940s. While some of his photographic expeditions were undertaken as part of his work, it seems clear that he spent a great deal of his own time travelling with his camera. Never considering himself an artist, his photographs nevertheless were carefully and sensitively composed and revealed a true love and affinity for the Scottish landscape.
Having decided to recreate one of Adam’s mountain landscapes we had to narrow our selection considerably. Robert Adam covered most of Scotland in his decades of work, and we have over 14,000 of his images in our collection. For the sake of practicality and achievability we agreed to limit ourselves geographically to a reasonable distance for a day-trip, and then to limit ourselves temporally to the year 1914. The centenary has no particular meaning – we just felt that 100 years is a nice round number!
After all of our complex deliberations (it almost sounds like a well-reasoned, organized process when written down!) we settled on a gorgeous three-shot mountain panorama taken from somewhere near the summit of Creag na Caillich, at the west end of the Tarmachan ridge above Loch Tay. It’s only a couple of hours from St Andrews, making it achievable in a day, and it offers a range of possible routes for different abilities. Our aim was to ascend the hill, identify the exact spot where Adam set up his tripod, set up our tripod, take pictures, and then wander back. As a homage to the dedication of the early landscape photographers who carried large cameras, bulky tripods and heavy glass plates up into the mountains, I decided that it would be fitting to do the same. I cheated somewhat, substituting a lightweight carbon fibre tripod for the heavy wood, and only taking a small supply of 8 frames of sheet film – substantially lighter and less fragile than glass! The camera, however, was delightfully authentic, being an Una Camera by Sands, Hunter & Co. This folding half-plate field camera was built in the early years of the 20th century and is similar to that used by Adam. Norman and others sensibly decided to stick with reliable, modern, and pocketable digital cameras.
The day decided for our expedition, the 4th of May, dawned rather cold and cloudy. A small but hardy band assembled at the car park below the Lochan na Lairige dam, grid ref NN604383. From Special Collections came Norman, Jane and myself (Eddie), bringing partners Elspeth, David and Tracey respectively. Full of hope and vigour, in the face of low cloud and drizzle, we agreed our plan of campaign and set off. We decided to take the lower path towards Creag na Caillich, intending to ascend to its summit, take our photographs, then return to the car park via Meall nan Tarmachan and its ridge. As we strode along we kept each other’s spirits up with assurances that the cloud was definitely lifting, and that it seemed brighter than when we left the car park. Our meteorological optimism decreased as we climbed, yet spirits remained high. Pausing only for a quick play in the snow we pushed on into the thickening cloud to reach the 916m summit of Creag na Caillich just in time for a spot of lunch.
Following a period of eating, deliberating and debating, the team decided to follow the shoulder of the mountain down towards the assumed viewpoint of Adam’s panorama, hoping to get beneath the cloud layer while still retaining enough elevation to duplicate the photographs reasonably accurately. While in essence a perfect plan, the cloud refused to toe the party line and we had to accept that we weren’t going to get exactly what we came for. Norman’s panorama however, taken from a point as close as we could judge to Adam’s original spot, has a stark and haunting beauty to it, challenging the viewer with its bold lack of background detail.
Another committee meeting followed and eventually it was decided that the weather didn’t justify the scramble along the Tarmachan ridge so we continued down the shoulder of the hill, with only one dramatic traverse (given a little extra drama in Photoshop), aiming to join the lower path and return the way we came. The weather seemed even less clear than when we started but as we descended we were treated to occasional patches of clear air between moving bands of drizzle. Taking advantage of these short-lived clear spells to set up a vintage field camera and take a couple of snapshots was no mean feat, but with a glamourous assistant holding the umbrella I was able to get a token image or two, justifying in my mind at least the hassle of carrying the equipment up the hill. I shot one vaguely Adam-ish landscape and a group portrait, and felt much better! The experience really made us contemplate Adam’s dedication and perseverance. To build such an enormous collection of images, in spite of the technological limitations and the unpredictability of the Scottish weather, was a truly remarkable achievement.
On the last lap, as we gained the path back to the cars, Norman managed to shoot a nice panorama that serves as proof that we were in the right area! A few hundred metres lower and further east than Adam, but definitely part of the same Loch Tay landscape. Finally, some 5 hours after setting off, we reached the car park and posed for a final group photo. Slightly more bedraggled but no less cheerful than when we started, we tucked into cups of tea and some of Jane’s lovely rock buns. We hadn’t quite got what we came for, but we had a great time trying!