Olive and Mabel — a photographic companion
I don’t consider myself a proper photographer at all. I put most of it down to luck, in truth. And, yes, although it is said that the more you do something the luckier you get, I still think that most of the snaps I take are little more than putting myself in the right place at the right time.
Over the last few years I’ve been fortunate enough to go out hillwalking with Andrew Cotter and his irrepressible dogs, Olive and Mabel. Most of the trips we make are in the Scottish Highlands, and generally in winter. Photography in such settings becomes easier, as the availability of jaw-dropping backgrounds is such that you’d be hard-pressed to take a duff photo even if you tried. Notwithstanding this, it was nice to see a selection of my photos appear in Andrew’s first book, ‘Olive, Mabel and Me’. As I looked at the photos in context they reminded me of the circumstances in which each one was taken.
It occurred to me that some of the book’s many readers may be interested in the back-stories behind these photographs. I’ve listed them below in the order they appear in the book for those that do.
- Page 153 — Beinn Trilleachan, 22nd July 2020
To be honest, this picture was probably the highlight of an otherwise forgettable trip. I had arranged to meet up with Andrew for a summit camp on a very photogenic hill by the side of Loch Etive, called Beinn Trilleachan. However, when we arrived at the rendezvous point it was like a scene from Carry on Camping. Hordes of people in tents made for a bizarre spectacle in this isolated glen at the head of Loch Etive. The weather forecast was miles off, too. Instead of clearing skies for some nice sunset and sunrise pictures we got cloud and driving, sleety rain at times. In the end we aborted the trip and descended carefully through the bog, pausing only to throw Olive and Mabel over a fence that we encountered during a ‘short-cut’. We drove back to the Central Belt of Glasgow with our tails between our legs. Probably just as well, as I suspect we’d have developed trench foot or hypothermia if we’d stuck it out.
Anyway, prominent in the background of this photograph are the distinctive hills of Glen Coe. Olive seems to be distracted, as she often is. Only God knows what Mabel is thinking.
2. Page 158 — Beinn Udlamain, 26th January 2018
This is the first of quite a few photographs from a trip on 26th January 2018 that made it into the book.
In summer the four hills around the Pass of Drumochter near Dalwhinnie are largely benign and straightforward affairs to walk round. Under unbroken snow and blue skies, though, the story is very different. The landscape is transformed from a boggy heather-hop into a proper winter adventure amid grand and wild scenery.
This photo was taken on the third of the four hills that day, Beinn Udlamain, with Andrew and the two dogs strolling on lovely firm snow towards the edge of the hill. In the glen below lies the long Loch Ericht. We hadn’t seen a soul all day up to that point, and there was a real feeling of wilderness. The dogs were in their element, marveling at us sliding down steep slopes on our backsides. Over the course of the whole day there wasn’t a cloud in the sky.
3. Photo section 2 — Sgairneach Mor, 26th January 2020
This photo is the second from the ‘Drumochter Four’ and was taken on the first of the four Munro (3,000ft) hills climbed that day. This trip was Mabel’s first time on deep snow, and not long before the picture was taken she was charging around valiantly (brainlessly?) trying to catch mountain hare (a futile task) and ptarmigan (an even more futile task). As can be seen, treats are in the process of being doled out to the obedient O&M. I had asked Andrew to try and get the dogs to stay still whilst I took the picture, so I suppose — being labradors — the best and probably only way of doing that is through bribery.
In the background of this photo is the magnificent Ben Alder, one of the truly great hills of Central Scotland. With a winter jacket hanging on its cliffs and gullies this day, it looked particularly beautiful.
4. Photo section 2 — Ben Lawers, 15th March 2016
A rare pre-Mabel photograph*. We were so lucky on this trip. All around us the hills were enveloped in thick cloud, with only a few of the highest summits poking above the gloom. Despite it being very cold when we started the climb in the clouds, once we emerged into the warm sun of the inversion we were skipping along the ridge in t-shirts. One of the handful of walks I did that year where the scenery could justifiably be labelled ‘Alpine’.
(* The original photo was taken on Andrew’s camera by me, so I don’t have a copy of it. This one was taken at the same place and time.)
5. Photo section 2 — A’ Mharconaich, 26th January 2018
The third photo from the Drumochter Four day. I think I can state without fear of contradiction that this shows Andrew in his absolute element. Dogs, snow, hills, and possibly in that order. The snow here was boiler-plate hard, making walking on it a joy. The insipid winter sun failed to soften it, making progress relatively quick. My only gripe with this photo is that I wish I’d shot it in a wider angle to capture the majesty of the scenery in the background. Nevertheless, I’m quite pleased with how it turned out, for the dogs’ faces and stances if nothing else. The human in the photo even manages a smile, and why not.
6. Photo section 2 — An Stuc, 23rd January 2019
“I’ve forgotten my crampons,” said Andrew as he rifled through his rucksack.
This wasn’t the best of news. I knew that the steep slope of An Stuc was tricky even in summer. But in winter, with lots of ice and snow around, it would be doubly difficult without spikes on boots. Turning back wasn’t really an option either. We agreed that if the direct advent was too difficult we’d find another way up. As it turned out, though, loaning Andrew my ice axe proved sufficient for him to haul himself up some icy ledges and to the summit. Mabel makes it look easy here with her sharp claws. (Olive is probably off somewhere trying to eat deer or sheep droppings, as is her wont. )
The photograph shows the steepness of the terrain quite well, and it was not a place to come to grief if it could be avoided. Over 1,000 ft below, the icy-cold waters of Lochan nan Cat wait to gobble up climbers who slip and tumble down the rock-strewn slopes. The only consolation is that if we had slipped we’d likely have died before we hit the water…
7. Photo section 2 — Chno Dearg March 4th 2020
I think this is my favourite photograph I’ve ever taken of Andrew and the dogs. The composition was just right when I took it. Olive and Mabel flank Andrew, who peered just over his shoulder at the time I clicked the button. I was lying on the snow with my lens fully extended when I took it. This gives added depth to the background, complete with swirling snow and blowing grass. The shadows add a bit of drama as well, suggesting the sun trying to escape from behind the cloud.
This trip was Andrew’s first ski tour, and although I was able to pass some instruction as to technique when going uphill, his effortless descending put my lumpen turns to shame on the downhill run. This was a very fine day out, despite poor Mabel whining a lot at being out of her comfort zone.
8. Photo section 2 — Sgairneach Mor, 26th January 2020
Just before this photograph was taken I said to Andrew to go ahead so I could get a photo of him and the dogs giving perspective to the wonderful light and shade of the plateau and corrie. I also said that I thought it would be a good idea to have the dogs on leads for the final pull up to the summit. The photograph shows the big, big cornices of snow leaning over the lip of the corrie. These are notoriously unstable, especially when direct sunlight shines on them. But in all honesty if either Olive or Mabel had gone over it’s likely, due to the nature of the very soft snow, that they would simply have rolled down a very steep bank for about 1,000ft and come to no significant injury. However, the prospect of it happening was just too hideous to countenance, not least because the 1,000 ft descent and re-ascent would’ve been tear-inducing.
9. Page 258 — Sgairneach Mor, 26th January 2020
I really like this photo. Technically it’s nothing special. It’s just a half-zoom with a 200mm lens from about 400 metres away, just as we approached the summit cone of the first hill that day. What I like about it is the sense of scale, with the walker aiming straight ahead, intent on the summit. The emptiness of the surroundings adds to the wildness. No heather, bushes or even rocks are visible, nor any footprints ahead to where we’re going. We were the first people to walk on the virgin snow that day, and when you’re walking in Scotland in winter there’s no greater feeling than that.