Saturday, 10 September 2011

The Solway Firth

Thistle:  National Flower of Scotland
Sometimes when I look at the work of other photographers I marvel at the location.  I think how much easier and exciting photography must be in locations where the sky is always blue and the water crystal clear. In these places the flora and fauna also seem so much more colourful and exciting. Yet, such a simplistic view is to undervalue the challenge of good photography. Even in great light and with wonderful subject matter the challenge is always how to make that picture more than just a snapshot. It's about mood, atmosphere, interpretation and of course the creativity of the photographer. It's also about that sense of 'place', wherever in the world that may be. 

I'm Scottish and proud of my nationality but for years I have bemoaned the grey mist that all too often envelopes the landscape and the rain that some weeks just won't stop. If I am being honest that is still the case if I am trying to do a particular weather-dependent job. Yet I have come to realise that it is just a different version of a similar problem if you are shooting in some exotic sunny clime. Having often taken my photography gear abroad I know from experience that the sun just gets too bright, the light too harsh and the temperature too hot for both the wildlife that I may be trying to capture and also for me. Much as I love a bit of heat in some foreign land I have also come to appreciate what is on my doorstep.

Sunset over the Solway Firth
I have the great privilege of living five minutes walk from the Solway Firth. It is a large estuary separating the western coastlines of Scotland and England where a number of rivers pour their waters into the sea. When I first came to this area almost thirty years ago and looked across the Solway it seemed a fairly unattractive mix of dirty water, sand and mud. How wrong I was. I have taken many photographs of the Solway and it never ceases to amaze me how it can change in a matter of sometimes minutes. It may not be a beautiful golden beach (although some parts are) but it is precisely the ever changing soup of salt water, fresh water, sand and earth that brings so much other beauty to this area. I am of course talking about the wildlife that thrives because of the conditions and rich food sources. It is such an environmentally important part of the country that some areas of the Solway have now been declared Nature Reserves or Sites of Special Scientific Interest. This affords specific protection to parts of the estuary and its wildlife.

Whooper Swans at dawn over the Solway Firth

Apart from all the usual wading birds to be found along the Solway merse (saltmarsh) the area is also home to the most northerly colony of Natterjack toads in the UK. Sadly their numbers have been diminishing for several years now and studies are in hand to find out why. However, the most famous visitors to the area are Whooper Swans and Barnacle Geese. Both species will start to arrive over the next few weeks and that heralds the overall arrival of several hundred Whoopers and about thirty thousand Barnacles. Winter on the Solway is spectacular. All the swans will have made the journey from Iceland and all the Barnacle Geese from the Svalbard Archipelago in the Arctic Circle. For many young ones of both species it will be their first migration. 

Barnacle Geese over the Solway Firth
Apart from the natural landscape and the wildlife the area is steeped in history. With a background immersed in Roman settlements, Norse invaders,  battles with the English and a few family feuds to boot, the landscape bears witness in so many ways to its past. It is a landscape of castles and kings, writers, artists and poets. A large part of the Solway coastline formed the 'beat' of Scotland's national poet Robert Burns when he was employed as an exciseman. It was his job to prevent smuggling from the boats that would try to offload their illegal cargoes under cover of darkness. Part of the area under his jurisdiction included the famous castle at Caerlaverock.

Caerlaverock Castle
More photos and information from the Caerlaverock area, including the famous Whooper Swans and Barnacle Geese, will follow over the winter months.


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Articles and photography copyright of Tom Langlands

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