The rugged wilderness and untamed landscapes of Scotland are one of the last corners of Europe where you can find genuine solitude.
Stretching from the southern lowlands, which border England just north of Hadrian’s Wall, to the Norwegian latitudes of the rugged Highlands and its remote islands, Scotland is united by a proud and distinctive identity. Through towering rocks, rushing waters, rolling hills and deep lochs, the vast wilderness of this sparsely populated country never fails to impress. Yet Scotland is much more than simply pleasing on the eye. From the craggy castles to brooming battlefields, every corner of its far-reaching landscapes are steeped in its multilayered past and have played a role in shaping the nation over many centuries.
For photographer Murray Orr, the lifelong affection of the open wilderness stems from his immersion in it from a very early age. “I’m the middle child of three, and from what I can remember, our parents were always taking us places,” he recalls. “In Scotland, we grow up surrounded by a rich natural environment, not far from beautiful beaches, woodlands, castles and hills. It was great.”
It was his fond memories that led Murray, who hails from Edinburgh, on a journey into the Northwest Highlands, a place he hadn’t visited since he was a kid. Lying barely a couple of hours from Edinburgh and Glasgow, two of Britain’s most dense and intriguing urban centres, the northwestern coast is perhaps the best embodiment of Scotland’s rugged natural beauty. Famous for its dramatic moors and magnificent Munros, the Highlands gains much of its character from the improbable, and sometimes impossible, shapes of the land. These unmanicured landscapes represent some of the best remaining natural beauty in all of Europe, even if sometimes it’s hidden under a pall of drizzly mist.
Along with his girlfriend, Murray decided to stay in a gorgeous cabin just outside of Ullapool. They knew that they wanted to get at least one hike in, and so for the one clear-looking day earmarked Stac Pollaidh, a mountain whose peak displays a rocky crest of Torridonian sandstone with many steep chasms along the way. The distinctive spiky-topped ridge was exposed to weathering above the ice sheet during the last Ice Age, while the ice flow below carved out and smoothened the sides of the mountains.
After scrambling over several rocky pinnacles, hikers are treated to sensational views of the northwest seaboard and Great Britain’s surrounding glaciated landscape that was formed some 1,500 million years ago. Stac Pollaidh sums up the stark beauty of Scotland’s northwest, show the area off at its very best. Suddenly rising from a maze of small lochs and rocky outcrops, the mountains in this region feel that much more surreal thanks to the other-worldly emptiness of the surrounding area.
From the skyscraping peak of Stac Pollaidh down to the nearby unforgiving seas, Murray decided to head next to the Rhue lighthouse, which has guarded the entrance to Loch Broom for ships bound for Ullapool for centuries. The lighthouse sits alone along the windswept coastline and rocky terrain, with good views down Loch Broom and out to the sea, including the Summer Isles. Despite the drastic change in scenery, the atmosphere remains consistently tranquil and introspective throughout.
Although its beauty is subtle, it’s easy to fall in love with the bare landscapes of this faraway corner of Great Britain. “It’s hard to explain, but nature just feels like home,” Murray explains. “I have moments when I think back to how these places would have been, how people would have lived a couple of hundred years ago and it blows my mind. There’s a connection here that I wouldn’t have anywhere else.”
The rugged wilderness has certainly been celebrated within Scottish culture for a long time now. “I saw a funny meme recently which sums this up quite well,” he says with a smile. “The premise was basically that there seems to be an age of people in Scotland, regardless of background or history or hobbies, that they just start hiking Munros every weekend.” In a failed attempt to remain unbiased, Murray firmly believes that Scotland should be at the top of every adventurer’s list. “There are some crazy landscapes that you wouldn’t believe existed, mad hikes, so much history, I mean the list goes on and on,” he says.
“There’s also the right to roam,” he jumps back in. “I’m not sure if anywhere else has that. Basically, it means that people can come and go as they please in wild spaces, as long as they behave responsibly.”
Murray’s journey also brought him through the beachside settlement of Achmelvich as well. Accessible only by a single track road, this village is spread out over the surrounding hillsides and pretty much consists of a small campsite and caravan park, a youth hostel and some enticing coastal scenery. It’s traditionally only known among savvy thrill-seekers in search of water-skiing, windsurfing and coasteering, another nod to Scotland’s untamed natural wonders. This secluded corner of the northwest isn’t paradise in the traditional sense, but instead, it has its own postcard-perfect charm.
It’s these wonderful surprises and authentic sights that fill Scotland’s northwest. With so much to take away, what’s one thing Scotland can teach its visitors? “The value of taking a break,” Murray exclaims. “It’s easy to get bogged down in the busy, going from job to job without any respite. Giving yourself some space to breathe is not only beneficial creatively, but mentally too.”
This is especially true for urban dwellers such as Murray. “Despite being Scotland’s capital city, Edinburgh actually has a lot of green space,” he says. “When I’m in the city, thankfully I still feel pretty connected to nature, but nothing compares to really getting out into the thick of it.”
Traversing the wild landscapes of Scotland’s Northwest Highlands offers an action-packed escape away from it all. It’s one of the last corners of Europe where you can discover genuine solitude and disconnect for a bit. “Experiencing the northwest in all its rugged beauty was everything I’d hope for,” Murray says.
Words by Braeden Alexander – Photography by Murray Orr.