As I look out of the window onto the peaceful suburbs of Perth, the rain falls gently from an overcast sky, marking the end of one of the longest spells of dry, warm, sunny weather in recent years. While I’ve been largely desk-bound editing wedding photographs these past few months, my landscape photography kit has been gathering dust in a cupboard in my house at the other end of the A9, and my much-loved bike has been languishing in my shed since a mild day at the beginning of February. Along with my walking boots, running shoes, and gardening gloves, my landscape photography kit and bike were resigned to waiting for a gap in my calendar later in the year.
I filled many evenings this past winter with talks to camera clubs throughout the length and breadth of Scotland. As I shared with my audiences a profusion of images captured throughout the north west Highlands and islands between 2009 and 2012, the voice in my head bemoaned the lack of time I’ve had since re-locating to the Highlands in 2013. Ironically, since settling somewhere as scenic as Ross-shire, I’ve had fewer opportunities than ever before to switch off my mind and venture outdoors with a camera. I’ve come to accept my all-too-frequent breaks from landscape photography; something which used to occupy almost every waking moment of my free time when I purchased my first DSLR camera nearly a decade ago.
At times like this, when a glance at my pedometer gives me a sinking feeling in my stomach, when the artificial light radiating from my 27″ monitor feels more familiar than sunlight on my face, when the clickety-clack of my fingers on the keyboard drowns out the birdsong on the other side of the window, I have to pause and remind myself of the many advantages of being self-employed, feel thankful for having turned my passion into my profession, and trust that I’ll find a work/life balance again in the not-too-distant future.
During a visit to the local hospice this week, I made my way upstairs to the day unit to participate in a relaxation session. I accepted a hot cup of tea from a nurse and took a seat on a green lounger in a room filled with people like myself; happy and smiling on the surface but no doubt experiencing a myriad of stresses and strains underneath. I pushed back in the comfortable recliner until my feet were level with my head; my mind still on the emails piling up in my inbox and the mountain of digital images on my hard drive waiting to be edited; not to mention my father, asleep downstairs in the hospice in-patient unit.
The therapist began the session by playing a CD of soothing music and encouraging us to relax our muscles and focus on our breathing. After a few minutes of gradual de-stressing, she asked us to imagine we were on a beach, with the sun gently warming our skin and the sand, soft and moist, under our bare feet. Whilst remaining conscious, my mind drifted away from the hospice to the clean windswept beaches of the Western Isles. I thought of the blue, gold and turquoise colours of Luskentyre on the Isle of Harris where I married my husband last year. I recalled a picnic on the beach at Balranald on North Uist after cycling through a nature reserve to the calls of corncrake from the road verges and surrounding meadows. I remembered pedalling frantically through the wet sand on an Eriskay beach, with the wind in my hair and a smile on my face. I pictured myself at the peaceful Bàgh à Deas on the southern side of Vatersay, with the low-lying clouds touching the highest point on the island of Sandray across the water.
The soft tones of the therapist’s voice gradually brought my wandering mind back to the here and now and I opened my eyes to the sight of the air conditioning unit overhead and my mother and brother stretching their limbs in my peripheral vision. I quickly brushed a couple of tears from my cheeks and slowly sat up. As I walked downstairs, heading towards the familiar surroundings of my dad’s room, I had the feeling that a magic spell had been broken but I could still feel its effects. Ten minutes of picturing some of my favourite places in my mind’s eye had worked wonders for my stress levels.
As I opened the door to the in-patient unit and passed a painting of the sun setting over a Scottish island, I made a promise to myself. Once this summer is over, after the peak wedding photography season has passed and my family has taken its first tentative steps towards a new chapter in our lives, I will reward myself with a trip to the Western Isles. I’ll turn on my out-of-office reply and stand on the deck of a ferry as it sails across the Minch. I’ll kick off my walking boots and paddle in the cold turquoise waters of the Hebrides. I’ll lie down in the sand, look up to the sky and feel a weight lift from my shoulders. I’ll pedal along quiet single-track roads in search of a secluded picnic spot. I’ll anchor my camera to my tripod and capture a landscape image for the first time in months. I will find peace.
The landscapes of the north west Highlands and islands have provided solace, inspiration and joy throughout all stages of my life; during the good times and the troubled times. My parents introduced me to these landscapes as I was growing up and bought me my first camera, walking boots and bike when I was very young. Walking and cycling provide me with an unlimited sense of freedom and adventure, and the ability to connect with my surroundings. Photography has enabled me to record these experiences and capture precious memories that I will treasure until my dying days.
Life is cyclical. I have experienced many phases of struggling to get out with my camera, gradually coming to accept that creativity cannot be forced and waiting patiently for inspiration to strike. I had low expectations before the visit to the hospice day unit, but it provided much-needed ‘time out’ and the opportunity to escape to the Scottish islands for a few minutes within my own mind. I wondered about the other locations around the world which were recalled by other participants during the relaxation session. At the risk of sounding biased, I’m willing to bet that the coastal landscapes of the Hebrides which filled my imagination were amongst the most beautiful. The next holiday-sized gap in my calendar looks to be a long way off but, in the meantime, I’m filled with a new determination to seize the day and schedule the occasional break to venture out along the coast in my walking boots or set off down a quiet country road on two wheels with a camera in my rack pack.