Tristan Aitchison is a filmmaker and photographer based in the UK. He took the LC-Wide out on a 500 mile journey across the most northern and baron parts of the Scottish Highlands, famously named the North Coast 500. Join him as he discovers the hills, beaches and rugged landscapes of this sparse and beautiful area.
“That’s Friday 13th.” Mrs Mackenzie the B&B owner declared as I booked my room for the first night of my 6-day road trip around the far north of Scotland. “If you don’t manage to get here just give me a bell.” I look out the window. It’s still snowing. “I’ll make it.” I stubbornly reply.
When Lomography asked me to review the LC-Wide, their ultra-wide-angled version of the legendary Lomo LC-A+, immediately I thought of the North Coast 500. It is an epic 500-mile bucket-list journey of the northern Highlands of Scotland, the farthest reaches of mainland UK. CNN places it in the top 10 road trips in the world. However, to strike this adventure from my travel to-do list I didn’t need to travel across the world, paddle up the Amazon or drink fermented mare’s milk with Mongolian herdsmen whilst fantasising it was a pint of Sprite. All I had to do was drive to the end of my road and join the NC500, which passes by my home… oh and make it to Mrs Mackenzie’s B&B on Friday 13th before snow shut the road.
The first leg of my journey took me from my home on the edge of The Black Isle, in the east, to Lochcarron on the west coast. I didn’t begin, nor would I finish in Inverness, the official start and end of the route. My excuse, rule number 10 of the 10 Golden Rules of Lomography: ‘Life is about remaining true to yourself, not giving into rules and regulations or conforming to norms.’ I say road trip, my mind pictures an open-top car, Thelma and Louise and catching a youthful Brad Pitt’s eye in the rear-view mirror. Back in the real world, I was gripping the steering wheel of a Korean SUV, going 30mph whilst staring through the windscreen at a mid-winter snowstorm. As I approached the west coast and Lochcarron the weather broke, the clouds parted and postcard views revealed.
Most of those who travel the NC500 do so in the more hospitable summer months where the roads, often single track, can become hoachin with bikers, campervans and supercar rentals. Driving the route in early January meant I had miles upon miles of open road, in one of Europe’s last true wildernesses, all to myself. The down side, the short days. With sunrise at around 9am and sundown at 4pm driving the full 500 miles in daylight meant careful planning. These are not roads to mess with.
Waving goodbye to Edith, for Mrs Mackenzie and I were now on first name terms, my trip north along the coastline to Lochinver awaited. A leg I know well from family trips west. As a child, they were not my fondest memories trapped in the back seat of a Volvo estate on winding roads, retching on aroma of wet spaniels and Barbour jackets. As an adult, however there is no place on earth I would rather be; the majestic grandeur of the mountains which morph with the ever-changing weather that sweeps in off the north Atlantic Ocean. The lochs which turn from peat stained black to a silver mirror reflecting the surrounding beauty as shafts of light stridently illuminate them.
The Highlands, quite rightly, has a reputation for its beauty as well as other tourist tropes such as tartan, whisky, castles and coos. As a Highlander, you see your homeland differently from tourists. It is impossible to escape the landscape and weather. Its bipolar brutality has shaped man’s relationship with the land for centuries and this tussle is etched into the soul of the Highlands. As you pass yet another ruined croft with broken walls it seems that the landscape won. But it is more complicated than that.
The Northern Highlands are one of the most sparsely populated regions in Europe but it was not always the case. The lonely glens were once home to communities of Gaelic speaking tenant farmers and their families, eking out a life from their smallholdings. From 1770 to 1850s these communities were forcibly dispossessed of their land and homes torched. Aristocratic landowners saw more profit in sheep than people. The wool went south to make uniforms for the British empire’s forays into foreign lands.
Some of the unsettled families took the dangerous voyage to unknown new worlds of America, Canada and New Zealand leaving behind those not strong enough to travel. The ones left behind were forced on to inhospitable and unfertile coastal areas where they tried and mostly failed to start life again. It was the end of the Highland way of life. Known as the Highland Clearances this emotive period of Scottish history is often denounced as the first act of modern ethnic cleansing. A way for the British establishment to destroy Gaelic culture and the Clan System which helped facilitate the Jacobite uprisings.
Taking a day off driving and I hiked through the sea mist to the Old Man of Stoer, a 60-metre-high sea stack, near Lochinver. A truly immense spectacle as the power of the North Atlantic smashes against this impressive pillar of sandstone. It was one of those days that I love when the world around becomes monochrome. The heavy clouds hug the ground. There is no rain but they soak. The solitary Old Man of Stoer a misty silhouette. The ease to be by yourself is what I love about the Highlands. I was the only person I saw that day.
Back on the road heading north through Assynt. Turning every corner the landscape seems to slap you around the face and demand your attention. It is tough, rugged almost apocalyptic. All good road trips need a soundtrack and mine was Jeff Wayne’s War of The Worlds. Cruising through this foreboding terrain those 70’s synth beats of alien invasion, human destruction and baron landscapes seemed apt. Using the other brilliant Lomography wide-angled camera, the Sprocket Rocket, I was inspired to create my own Lomography tribute to this legendary album.
I spent day five exploring the many beaches and headlands of the north coast. The bays and coves provide a haven for migratory orca pods sheltering from the tides and currents of the Pentland Firth, which has some of the fastest tidal races in the world. On my last day, I enforced Lomography’s rule number 10 again and left the official NC500 route. Instead of travelling down the east coast towards Inverness, I journey know well, I went overland through Strathnaver. This glen once populated with communities is infamous for its notorious and ruthless Clearances. The history still hangs in the air, especially so at the deserted clearance village of Rosal.
As I enter the final straight towards home I don’t want my 500 miles to end. The snow has now gone only clinging to the highest hilltops. I contemplate past journeys, the Trans-Siberian railway and traversing the Indian subcontinent. The NC500 might just top them. It is my home and I feel proud.
Tristan Aitchison is a filmmaker from the Northern Highlands of Scotland. His feature documentary ‘Sidney & Friends’ about the transgender and intersex community of Kenya releases to international film festivals in the summer of 2017. Images taken with LC-Wide on Fomapan 200 and self-developed in Kodak D76 1+1 and Lomography Sprocket Rocket on DIY Agfa Vista 200 Redscale and Lomography Color Negative 400.