Never visit Glen Coe in summer.
As the gateway to the Scottish highlands and to the real wilds, Glen Coe is awkward in summer. It’s a husky in the tropics: confused and out of context, out of place in its own space. It has a relentless drive for life that is exhausted in the heat and the itchy, biting wildlife that buzz above the bogs.
It was made for winter.
This is obvious in the jagged, cracked peaks that erupt from the soft colours of the springy heather. Bare rock and empty wilderness is its natural form. You could stand in the middle of the long winding road into the valley and find no car in sight. Life here is meant to be quiet.
Glen Coe has a winter personality: slightly aloof, obviously treacherous, brutally honest. The colours - a palette of siennas and yellows - are more sincere than when it dresses itself in the vivid valley greens of summer. Glen Coe is best when understated, and empty.
There are 9 hours of daylight in early November. Long walks are a planned affair, with full rucksacks and strapped up bodies with one eye on the horizon in case the sun winks out behind a storm. Turn up an hour after sunrise at the base of a mountain and you’ve still beaten the light: it moves slowly in these parts, and climbs agonisingly over the mountains before setting the valley alight.
Glen Coe dictates its own dawn, and teases out the sun to make the golden hour last all day.
But the nature of landscape photography is that its uncontrolled. You have no power over the strength or consistency of the light, the state of the ground or of the air, and this is more true in a country like Scotland than it is most. You have to work with whatever Glen Coe gives you, and this is as like to be a snowstorm as it is a bitterly cold sunny day.
Sometimes, it’s just a matter of waiting an hour. The best thing to do is be prepared for everything, set a steady pace, and walk upwards to meet the sun.
There is a real sense of powerlessness when confronted with the highlands in winter, but this is a freeing sensation that makes you hyper aware of every capture. At any moment you might be confronted with a flurry of snow that finishes as soon as it begins, or turn around from a startling vista only to see a dangerous black wall of fog has crept up behind you.
Any walk may have to be cut short just before the final climb to the summit. This can be cruel when the entire horizon is made of mountains. You could just walk to that next peak, or the next, the distance colouring the munros from slate grey to soft grey to barely there, to hidden behind the clouds.
The people you meet here are of a different breed. Walkers are here all year round, of course, but they come into their own in winter. Not just the cheery hello from them now - now they will coalesce into brothers and sisters upon meeting each other in a blinding snowstorm, with a delighted gasp that someone else is up here to give this intensity some context.
They will become your fast friends and adventurers. They may not keep pace, or they may appear just once, from a mile off, silhouetted in the sun, before meeting you on a plateau before the long climb. They are the milestones you use and the people you keep in the back of your mind, knowing that there is help ahead if you get into trouble.
You may even meet them on the very summit and stand in rapt silence together, sharing in the secret of Glen Coe in winter.
And then you will walk back down and nod wordlessly, speechlessly to each other, before splitting off and driving away.