Wim van Velzen photography - articles

Mustn't grumble

account of a 2006 Scottish family holiday

part three - Wester Ross and conclusion

part one: who, why and where
part two: around Loch Tay and the Grampians


on beauty and penance

Shieldaig is a very special place to us. In 2000 we stayed here for a couple of nights on the campground. There is no official campsite here, just a field where you can put up your tent or caravan. There is a large bin near the entrance as well as a cold water tap. A donation box is added to show one's gratitude.
The campground is located on a raised beach - a level piece of ground where in the last great ice age (not the smaller one 10000 years ago) the real beach was. When the ice covering of several kilometers height (comparable to Greenland now) melted away, the land was relieved from the heavy burden and emerged about 30 meters out of the sea, creating the present shoreline.
The village of Shieldaig is actually a single row of houses along the shore. At the end of the row, just below the campground, there are public conveniences with toilets, cold and warm water. Above the village, as a kind of attic, is the campsite and some newer houses. The entire village is facing the sea - not surprisingly for a place built as a fishing village.

The small villageshop offers more product diversity per square feet than any other shop I know. I suppose they even sell medication against claustrofobia, but I am not sure. The atmosphere is very friendly. Most costumers in Summer are tourists. I wonder if the shelves are filled with maps, cards and local-interest-books in Winter too.
The shop opens at 9.00, but as I discovered, fresh bread only arrives at 10.30. Well, pancakes make a good breakfast too.

The most attractive point of Shieldaig is not the lovely village itself, but its gorgeous setting between the Torridon mountains, Applecross peninsula and Loch Shieldaig with its many islets. They do great sunrises too!

But of course, there is a big BUT. Beauty never comes alone. He who wants to enjoy all this fabulous splendour of nature has to endure one of nature's most dirty tricks: midges. O mighty midge, militant and miserable, I joyfully would offer thee a day's ransom of my blood, but please let me give it - do not take it thyself.
Before offering you more miserable poetry, I should explain that this little biting insect is in itself quite harmless. It comes with no noise, a small bite and just a tiny bit of itching. It brings no illness either than a bad mood or downright despair.

The problem is in their innumerable hosts. I have counted more than a hundred at just the back of my hand. They tickle around your ears, in your neck, in your hair, everywhere. Simple actions like lacing up your booths are almost impossible to do without a severe discipline.
Of course you can kill some of the beasts, but as soon as you do, a couple of hundred come to attend the funeral.
And then afterwards: some fifty bites on a small portion of your leg mightily itches. Or is it the repellent that makes your skin feel so bad? Either way, bloody beasts they are.

There are a couple of better characteristics too: they don't fly on windy or very rainy days, or in severe sunshine. They only bite in July and August (you know, the months everyone is coming to Scotland). Some humourists would add that they are not that bad, because only the female Culicoides impunctatus bites. Yeah, sure.
You might wonder hasn't modern science come up with a brilliant solution?. Well, there are several repellents. The one I use contains DEET, and shouldn't be used for children under 12, pregnant or breastfeeding women, hypochonders and people with sensitive skin. And please, don't spray it on your glasses, rain coats or other plastics as it will burn small holes into it. Nice stuff.
And it sure helps the midge to find you, because they can smell you from over half a mile. A real win-win situation.

Scotland lovers often comfort each other by expressing the idea that the midge actually is a good thing: it keeps away the large numbers of tourists. Cognitive dissonance anyone?

OK, OK, you are right. Too much cheap wording, amateur psychology and false feelings here. Well, let me tell you just an example of what happens. Mere facts and nothing but.
One overcast afternoon, near beautiful Loch Carron we want to sit down, make a cup of tea and have some lunch. I decide to scout the place and sit there for two minuts as a guinea pig, while the family watches me from behind closed windows inside the car. Were I to be attacked at the time, we would have to go somewhere else. If not, the place would be safe.

After two minuts the area is declared to be midge free. My wife and oldest son get out of the car too. They take the chairs and bring them to the proposed picnic area. I take the bags with the coffee, bread and everything else we need to have a nice lunch.
My wife comes back to the car for her book, Klaas for some toy and I unlock the safety belt of Teun's seat. I pick him out of the seat, have him stand on his legs next to the car. I unlock his buggy (left and right), get it out of the car, unfold it, take up Teun, place him in the buggy, fasten his belt and roll him to the picnic area.
I fill two cups with hot water, make some coffee and tea and the family is seated. And then they come.

A hissing yell, shouting some bad words (I ought to go to the naughty mat), pick up the chairs and bring them to the car. Pick up the bags, throw them in the car. Roll Teun in his buggy back to the car. Unlock his belt, pick him out of the buggy and hold him with one arm. The hand of the other arm opens the door, I put him in his car seat again.
Fold the buggy, open the car's back doors, hang and lock the buggy again (left and right). Run back to take the cups of tea and coffee and jump in the car. During this entire exercise you are waving with your arms - at least, as far as the bags, children or what else allows you - itching your ears by your shoulders and saying mantras to yourself about the unity of the cosmos and that there are worse things that can happen in life.

There are just a few of them in the car, less than fifty. Still in anger I try to kill most of them by means of a paper towel, flattening them against the window. While doing so I hit the cup of coffee on the dash board (now I understand why these American cars have so many cupholders) and it fells over my trousers. A huge draught hits the maps in the car's door.
I utter some more bad words.

Afterwards my wife comes with an interesting theory that I think is most probable.
Like the bees, the midges live in a highly organised class society. As soon as fresh meat, like us, arrives, scouts make an analysis and rapport to the officers. The officers call together all the women to their arms. They gather in the grass around the meat, but do not attack.
As long as the meat walks to and from the car to get more stuff, the officers keep shouting hooooollld on!! hoooollld on!! and they do not attack. As soon as they see that the meat is seated, the officers shout: rrrrrrready? nooooooowwwww!!!. And they do a mass attack.
They waited, of course, till all the stuff is out of the car, as they know that it will take the longest time then for the meat to get back in.
The whole image sounds a bit like the Braveheart movie, but we are in Scotland after all.

Spiritually, I suppose we have to see the midges as a form of penitential excercize. To avoid hybris, a human being should not be allowed to experience the beauty of the place without some thorn in his flesh (or stings, actually). Just to keep everything witin cosmic balance. Mankind should know its place.
In support of this view, the black musquito net I have to put over my head looks very much like a Medieval black cap worn by a penitent, humbling himself before his maker.

we did not grumble indeed

Whatever Shieldaig's beauty, we decide to go to another campsite with less midges. Better drainage and a more exposed place near the coast, with more wind, would help against the terrible beast.
And so it did. The Laide campsite, with a sandy beach and a bit more wind, has far less midges. The area is just 30 miles North of Shieldaig, but instead of high mountains, we are surrounded here by gentle peninsulas and lovely views over the Summer Isles.

The days we spend here are filled with some swimming, meetings with flocks of sheep and cows, huge home made scones in Gairloch's bookshop-tearoom and lovely dinners in 'Mustn't grumble' restaurant in Melvaig.
The bookshop offers a strange mix of Scottish interest, mountainering stories, the typical humorous books about cats / wives / Englishmen, gardening and heaps of New Age stuff (no the tao of midges though, alas). Its tearoom does good coffee, tea and choclate and great cakes, pies and scones. I surely needed three mountainering stories to loose the weight again...

'Mustn't grumble' is our last discovery of the holidays. After returning from the edge of the world at Rubha Rèidh light house, we have dinner in this former Free Church building.
The atmosphere is great, with nice views to Skye and the Outer Hebrides. But it is the sight of the mustn't grumble crumble dessert that I will never forget. And of course the delicious Highland lamb, the wild salmon my wife ordered, etc etc.
We even like it so much that the next day we decide to come all the way back and have another dinner. We sit outside, see some sheep running and look at the Lewis hills, 50 miles to the West. Grumbling is the last thing we would think of. How beautiful life can be...

in conclusion

I write this final part of our holiday story at the end of August, four weeks after our return. A couple of things occur to me now.
First of all: looking back we have a much more positive feeling about these weeks in Scotland than we had during the trip. Yes, it took at times a lot of energy to handle the boys, to stay calm in chaos and good humoured when things were not that easy. But this misery is soon forgotten, sublimated in nice stories for friends and family. What stays is the larger picture of the beautiful mountains, the forests, the coast and all the countless isles at the horizon.

A second thing is that in the past we often ignored the Lowlands. This year on our way home we drove through Dumfries and Galloway and enjoyed the rolling hills, the unexpected heights of Leadhills and quiet towns as Muirkirk and Sanquhar.
We should do this more often and enjoy it as a kind of mustn't grumble crumble dessert!

Finally some observations with respect to my photography. In an earlier article on landscape photography I discuss different approaches in landscape photography, which I call documentary and glamorous.
I then said I work mainly documentary, in subject matter, like houses and roads, and light conditions. Looking back at this year's photos, I think I still include more of the human influence than most other landscape photographers, but light and colour are getting more important. I am more and more looking for 'glamorous' moments.

This also has to do with the kind of weather we had this year. It was dominantly sunny and bright, making it attractive to work early and in the late evenings, which is preferable for the family anyway.
A second thing is that we tend to stay longer at the same place, which makes it easier to get back to a specific location in better light.

Or using a metaphor often used by photographers: I used to be a real hunter - constantly moving around to find a place to shoot. Nowadays I tend to be more of a fisher. Once you know a great spot, just wait for things to happen.
Using 1:50000 Ordnance Survey maps really helps here, as a general understanding of weather patterns.

And in complete contrast to last year, one can even have too much of bright skies and sunny weather. Sure it is nice weather, but without much beauty. Mere sunshine in Summer has no soul, no poetry. Like a story about two people who are perfectly happy with each other. Nice for them, boring for the reader.
That said - throw in some clouds, and no reason to grumble anymore!

Some websites:


part one: who, why and where
part two: around Loch Tay and the Grampians
part three: Wester Ross and conclusion


This article is written by Wim van Velzen, © 2006.
Comments and questions are always welcome!

Most of the photos in this 3 part article are placed in the following portfolios:
Breadalbane (2006)
the Grampians
Wester Ross (2006): from Applecross to Shieldaig
Wester Ross (2006): Torridon and Gairloch
Wester Ross (2006): Gruinard Bay and Dundonell
Culross (soon)