6 Dec 2009

Shifting light in Glen Etive

Past the desolate beauty of Rannoch Moor, a monstrous peak rises up and signals the entrance to Glen Coe.

Buachaille Etive Mòr is one of the most photographed peaks in Scotland and so dominates the landscape that it is easy to miss the single track road that winds away to the south of the mountain.

Known also as “the great herdsman of Etive,” Buachaille Etive Mòr is a silent indicator to slow down and take the drive through 14 miles of peaks and valleys, forests and stone, until you reach the gaping shore of Loch Etive itself.

The afternoon we visited Glen Etive was one of the first clear days that followed more than a fortnight of raging, stormy weather. The air was cold and held a freshness that is left after heavy rains. Next to the river the rocks emitted a sweet, almost metallic scent and the dried grasses at the sides of the road added the sugary aroma of earth and their own dying. Once in awhile the wind would deliver the hint of snow from the mountaintops, swirling it into the mix like invisible ribbons.

The road through Glen Etive ends where the sea loch starts, so there is no need to rush or worry about getting sidetracked. We saw few other cars but did spot the red Royal Mail truck as well as some brave kayakers in the river and a couple of fellow photographers marching along with their tripods on their shoulders.

Over and over JP stopped the car so I could clamour around and take photos. Winter afternoon in the mountains makes the light shift dramatically. At times I felt like I was inside a pop-up book that was being closed, the lengthening shadows spelling the end of the tale.

There we were beneath the blue sky, the almost-solstice sun blazing low on the horizon and down a deep valley, at the end of which two snow-capped mountains rose up like giant salt shakers. How could it get any better?


At the end of the road the loch stretched out like a melted crystal ball, and if it weren’t for the presiding cold, the wide fields that surrounded the last surges of river could have been African plains in the dry season.

Then it was time to turn the car around and head back through the deepening light, which brought out the amber tones of the mountains. All around us the cold was settling into the glen like a blanket. I found it hard to imagine that this place just keeps going through the night, all of its intricacies hidden by the darkness. I hope we can go back here when the days are longer so we have time to hike and maybe have a picnic beside the loch.

The next time you visit Glen Coe, don’t forget there is host of other magic places surrounding you. You just have to look for the signs and be ready to turn.

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