A Year of Walking, Wonderment and Wildlife
[Many of you may know Ian from his lively participation in OSW workshops]
2017 was a year of walking. It started innocuously enough with a walk from my house in the suburbs of Aberdeen and was sparked by a comment by some friends on the beauty so close at hand. After a four-mile circuit I was surprised by what I had found. It’s not that I didn’t know it was there, but familiarity breeds contempt. Health concerns had made me keener than usual to get fit, and I started to walk daily, gradually building up to nine miles a day, four days a week. I’m not a great one for exercise for its own sake, so photography provided the motivation. Initially I shot with my iPhone, but it didn’t take long before I moved on to a Fuji X100 and then to a Fuji XT1 and XT2. I wanted the ability to catch wildlife on the hoof and also to play with the depth of field.
What a revelation. I found more and more places previously unknown to me, and all within a nine-mile circuit from the house. A medieval oak wood, a beech forest, a highland glen, waterfalls, standing stones and deserted riverbanks became part of my daily routine.
It didn’t take long before I visualised a book. I’m addicted to self-publishing. What is more the fantasy book was reinforcing in its own right as I planned a structure, a theme, pieces of text and a potential market. It was clear after a couple of months that this was going to be a book about natural history, landscapes and the creatures therein. It was not about huge houses, infrastructure projects like Aberdeen’s motorway bypass, or even farming. I set myself the task of choosing a daily picture from those taken, which I would post on Facebook to gauge the reaction of my Facebook friends, who include many respected photographers and artists.
The photographic task was a real challenge. I had to really open my eyes to the variety, while avoiding repetition or clichés. My yardstick became my own personal reaction. Well over two thirds of the pictures were taken in a state of wonderment. My aim was to transmit that to the viewer. I knew my eventual audience would be local. They would not be keen on anything pretentious (this is the most down to earth place I know!). But they would have an eye for a good picture and for the power of the familiar. I started to get up at 4.30am to catch the sun’s first rays, and was often out late at night. In this part of the world it is light until 10.30pm in midsummer and many more animals and birds were in evidence at the extremes of the day.
I was frequently in a tussle with myself in regard to specific species, wanting a good photograph, but determined that this should be a book about walking, not sitting in a hide on the riverbank trying to get shots of kingfishers or otters. In the end I had enough shots of wildlife to satisfy me, and the purchase of a Fuji 100-400 lens made it easier but there was the issue of added weight. However I captured otters at play, a surprised fox, numerous deer, many species of bird and a couple of red squirrels.
It was fascinating to watch the gradual changes with the passage of the seasons and my routine made me acutely aware of rhythms in the natural world. Looking back to last year from the point of writing this in November 2018, I think I was fortunate to have a long and vivid autumn and a frozen December, which made for many sky-scapes, with that clear light for which Scotland is justifiably famous.
The book, Under my very nose, was published at the end of October 2018 and its production challenges will be the subject of a subsequent piece. The project as a whole has changed the way I feel about where I live in quite a profound way. I feel more grounded in the landscape and more protective towards its little known treasures. www.undermyverynose.co.uk
Ian Macilwain is a retired psychiatrist and a great raconteur with a love of whisky. His enthusiasms have powered several books, amongst them Bottled History, which captured the neglected corners of Scotland’s whisky distilleries and the voices of people who had worked in them.