Driech* is pretty much how the weather has been in the far north for the last few days. Just as well we’re used to the vagaries of Scotland’s summers and have learned to pack accordingly. The local outdoor and fleece shops have done well enough from us in past years, so now we’ve got lots of warm layers to peel off as the mercury rockets up to and occasionally past 12 degrees C.
This is the North Coast 500; 500 miles starting in Inverness, around Scotland’s extremities and back to our starting point – all in five days.
Regular DS contributor, Bob Hamilton and I planned this trip late last year, following a big write up and some spectacular photographs of the route in one of England’s daily newspapers. Bob made the necessary hotel bookings, setting our rendezvous and starting point as Beauly, just a short distance north of Inverness. DS’ Pascal was also supposed to join us, but sadly (for us) family commitments took him to Australia instead.
Quickly filling Pascal’s place was the other DS-er Philippe, who signed-up, but as quickly opted out as personal circumstances overwhelmed his plans at the last moment. So, Bob and I set off as a duo.
Not co-incidentally, I discovered that Beauly is the home of Ffordes, from whom Bob had arranged the loan of Leica’s new SL and its sole boat anchor-sized lens, the 24-90 zoom. I arrived the shop as he hefted the camera/lens for the first time and I wondered aloud whether Charles Atlas had arranged a loan of much needed muscles as well. It’s a beast of combination and I was keen to see whether mass and quality were joined by a straight line.
Why was I there and not at the hotel? I’d caved and arranged the purchase of a used M9, which Ffordes had very kindly kept to one side, pending my arrival. This was to be my first serious foray into Leica-land and I was keen to discover whether I liked it and more importantly, whether I was correct in thinking that neither adapted NEX-7, or Fuji X-Pro were doing sufficient justice to my M-mount lenses.
More about that later.
Our route was to take us from an overnight in Beauly to Helmsdale, Bettyhill, Rhiconich and finally, two nights in Gairloch, before heading back to Inverness. 500 miles – 800km – in five and a bit days. Easy.
Well, not quite. It’s easy if you drive at a gentle pace and don’t stop every few metres to drag out tripods and cameras. Then you’ll cope well. If like us, every shadow and rain cloud held photographic promise, getting into the hotel du jour before dinner was always going to be a struggle.
This is high summer in Scotland. Bob was born here and I’m married to a Scot, so we were both well prepared for the vagaries of the weather. We saw everything from brilliant sunshine to thick lowerin’ clouds, rain, high winds and at one stage, a promise of sleet. Still, it was brilliant and we both shot the big landscapes, mountains, lochs and tiny intimate views that this incredible route delivers at almost every turn.
From Beauly to Helmsdale, past the many famous distilleries on the way. A stop at Glenmorangie to stock up on some fine Scottish Communion Wine was followed by a brief visit to a (thankfully) clear John O’ Groats and a splendid view of the sea stacks at Duncanby Head.
It was here that Bob’s bad feelings for the SL came to a head; after several attempts en route, he’d become aware that the camera/lens simply didn’t focus correctly – he was testing it against his own S type and knew exactly what he was looking at/for. So, the genius camera went back into the photo bag and didn’t re-appear until it’s hand-back at Ffordes several days later. A shame really, it promised so much.
Meanwhile, my Leica foray was going gangbusters; I’d quickly learned the basic quirks of the M9 body and aside from focussing in portrait mode, was having few failures and lots of very pleasing success; 60% of the shots I’d taken on the 500 were with the M9 and around 20% of those were (in my rating system), keepers.
I really enjoy the M9’s focussing, the light metering and gentle, understated colour. At 18mp, it’s fine for landscapes and I’m looking forward to a run with it in London to see how it delivers in (coversion to) black and white on the street. What has become clear already, is that I was right – at least in part – in thinking the adapted NEX-7 and X-Pro weren’t delivering all of these lenses. The outrageous cost (even second hand) of the M9 being easily offset by the uptick in image quality I’m seeing.
Lens-wise, my series 2 35mm f2 Summicron is a stellar performer on the M9. So is my decades old 50 f1.4 Summilux. It’s curious; there seems to be a constant hubbub in my bag when that and the 35 are side-by-side, out of use, as though they are jostling for my attention.
A final note; the previous owner had replaced the red dot on the front plate with a black logo, which disappointed me at first, but I’ve got to quite like its stealthy persona…
From John O’ Groats, we motored past Thurso, the nuclear station at Douneray and on to Bettyhill. Day three took us through some pretty wild countryside to Rhiconich and then our final stop at Gairloch. Day 6 saw us heading back to Inverness, Bob to return the errant SL, me to Farr for a couple of night’s R&R prior to driving south to Grantown-on-Spey. More of that in the next post…
* Urban dictionary: A combination of dull, overcast, drizzly, cold, misty and miserable weather. At least 4 of the above adjectives must apply before the weather is truly dreich.
All the details of the North Coast 500 are here: North Coast 500