Like the prickles of the fierce, resilient thistle, should it be handled without care, Scotland gets under your skin. Visit once and you may well succumb to enchantment, as if spellbound by the “little people” said to live within the Isle of Skye’s Fairy Glen. And then you’ll find yourself returning again and again, falling deeper for the country each time, much like Gavin Hardcastle. The photographer, who was raised in England but lives a continent and an ocean away on Vancouver Island, British Columbia, returns to Scotland as often as twice a year.
His images from these trips reveal a rich, evocative topography, lonely and precious, with graceful waterfalls, skies slate-hued and candy-colored too, and verdant forests. Here and there are man-made structures, though they appear forgotten, isolated by time. Hardcastle first snapped images on Scottish soil two decades ago, when he visited his parents in the southwestern village of Auchencairn, where they had retired.
“I fell in love with the landscape instantly,” Hardcastle recalls. “I’ve explored the Highlands as well as the East Coast. I’ve also spent a lot of time in the Southwest, where some of my favorite forests, like Carstramon Wood, can be found. I love the beech trees during bluebell season … Scotland offers that perfect blend of amazing natural landscapes and historic sites. It’s a land of rich culture, myth, and legend.”
Along with thistle—the country’s national emblem—bluebells are one of Scotland’s most beloved flowers. According to folklore, bluebells are believed to house fairies who cast spells on cloddish humans trampling the blossoms. Hardcastle must tread lightly, for he has shot images of the flower without repercussion. Or perhaps the fairies simply love his photographs, such as the one he snapped on an overcast May afternoon in Ballachulish, a stone’s throw from Glencoe, in the untamed section of northwest Scotland called the Highlands.
The area, celebrated for stunning mountain scenery, has been featured in a number of films and appears in the opening credits of every Outlander episode. In Hardcastle’s photograph, the blossoming bluebells, all the brighter for the gray skies, are seen in the foreground. St. John’s Church, built in 1842, sits lovely and a bit foreboding further back. But it is the small rectangular building to the left of the mist-daubed graveyard that holds the historical appeal.
In 1770, Bishop Robert Forbes used this simple stone storehouse as a place to preach. Forbes was famously a supporter of Bonnie Prince Charlie, who began the Jacobite rising of 1745, one of a series of rebellions that aimed to restore his father, the deposed James II of England (and James VII of Scotland) to the throne. Forbes was forced to sermonize from this secular site due to Britain’s Penal Laws, which barred Scottish Episcopal parishioners from their places of worship. Today, the wee building stands picturesque and perfect in the middle of one of Scotland’s most cherished and notable landscapes.
Hardcastle, who was born and raised in West Yorkshire, began pursuing a career in landscape photography about five years ago as a way of submerging himself in the natural world he loves so much. “Spending time in nature is good for the soul,” he says. “Feeling that connection to the earth is reason enough to spend as much time out in the elements as possible. Being able to create inspiring art while I’m out there is the icing on the cake.”
Every year, Hardcastle holds workshops in locations across the planet, including Patagonia, the Faroe Islands, and of course, Scotland. Next year will see Hardcastle leading his students to Scottish shoots in Inveraray, Glencoe, and the Isle of Skye. Perhaps if they’re very diligent and a little lucky, they’ll walk away with a shot of Eilean Donan Castle like the one Hardcastle captured.
Standing guard over an island in the Highlands, surrounded by three great sea lochs, the castle was first built in the 13th century. Partly destroyed in the 1719 Jacobite uprising, it stood in ruins for two centuries until members of Clan Macrae restored it to its former glory. Hardcastle’s photograph, taken as a melon-colored sunset lit the sky behind Eilean Donan and was reflected in puddles before it, is breathtaking. It’s also proof that, despite rumors to the contrary, it’s not always raining in Scotland.
Other iconic Scottish locales where Hardcastle has managed magnificent images include what he calls “the Fey Realm.” Hidden deep in the Highlands, it’s swathed in green and graced by a waterfall over which perches what looks like a stone bridge made for a mythological beastie, perhaps a unicorn. (After all, Scotland recently adopted it as one of its national animals.)
But according to Hardcastle, his favorite place to shoot is Finnich Glen, outside Glasgow. Featuring a circular rock known as the Devil’s Pulpit, Finnich Glen is bisected by a river that runs eerily red. Used as the setting for the truth-inducing-waters scene in Outlander, the gorge is said to have been a secret gathering site for ancient druids. Looking at Hardcastle’s photograph of it, it could be possible. There is an undeniable sense of magic and mystery to the place.
While Hardcastle is preparing for his trip to Scotland next year with his photography students, he’s also hard at work on his YouTube channel “to give subscribers a feel for what it’s like on my photography adventures and to hopefully inspire others to get out and connect with nature,” he says. “With photography I’m out in nature all the time. One day I could be shooting the sunrise over a frozen lake in subzero temperatures, the next day I could be standing next to molten lava as it pours into the ocean. Life as a photographer is difficult but very rewarding.”
For more information about Gavin Hardcastle’s images and workshops (he’s now taking bookings for 2020), visit fototripper.com. For more information about Scotland, visit visitscotland.com.