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Assynt & Quiraing

Do we really know what we are looking at?

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Douglas Griffin

Douglas Griffin is Scottish photographer based in Insch in the North East with a love of the quiet light



Introduction

Among hill-walkers and climbers there is a fairly keen appreciation of the correct names of Scotland’s mountain regions and the hills which lie within them. Having come to landscape photography from  such a background, I  have found  that the names used to describe some of our most photographed places are often at odds with long-standing place-name tradition. In this article I have highlighted a couple of examples of very well-photographed places where a lot of confusion seems to have arisen. I hope that this might encourage the practice of looking at the map and/or checking original sources rather than simply repeating place-names quoted by photographers who may not be all that familiar with the local geography.



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  • Thanks Douglas. I’m sure I’m one of a number who are guilty of some technical inaccuracies – either in relation to Assynt or other parts of the UK, and ideally we would all be accurate when choosing to reference ‘locations’. I had a look and I have an image of Suilven, Canisp and Quinaig made on Cul Mor – in the foreground are some rocks on Cul Mor. Was it inaccurate to call the image ‘Hills of Assynt’? I think artificial boundaries (which change over time, and are much less timeless than the landscape/geology itself) are relatively unimportant when making images. Personally, it’s all about what I see/feel/think – I don’t think about whether I’m technically on the boundary of Coigach and with my next step I’m technically in Assynt. And where does one draw the line? Why refer to an image (as you do above) as Inverpolly/Coigach when technically part of Stac Pollaidh is in Lochbroom, not Coigach!!! If you can’t get it technically correct, having written this article, then it’s no wonder that others don’t. I’m not trying to be a provocative – e-communication is terrible for this type of thing; just pointing out that getting locations technically correct isn’t always straightforward.

    Also, to someone who does not know the region well, the OS map they use may not reference the boundaries, indeed a large bold ‘ASSYNT’ gives the impression, on some maps, that Assynt is larger than it actually is. It’s perfectly reasonable from this to expect some people to get the boundary wrong, and refer to Assynt instead of Coigach.

    Regards,

    Michael

  • Douglas Griffin

    Thanks, Michael – I appreciate the feedback.

    In the example you give then I’d say that it’s certainly fine to call it ‘The Hills of Assynt’ – all 3 mountains you mention are firmly in Assynt, even if the foreground rocks aren’t. :-) Of course, particularly when you’re on the boundaries, it may be that more than one area is featured in the photo. In such cases, I’d suggest that both are named. For example, if Cul Mor had been in the photo, you could have said “The Hills of Assynt and Inverpolly”.

    I agree that it’s not always straightforward, particularly in this area – I can’t think of another in Scotland where the boundaries are so confusing – that’s at least partly why I wanted to write this article. The other reason was, more generally, to encourage people to look at the map and think about what they are photographing. I fully take your point that this isn’t always evident from the map! However, in some cases (e.g. “The Quiraing”), it very clearly is.

    As for whether artificial boundaries are important, well I guess that depends on your perspective. If it’s not, then there’s an argument for just saying “Stac Pollaidh” and leaving it at that, rather than giving the district as well. If the district/region/whatever is named, I think it ought to be the correct one.

    On your specific point – I don’t think I’ve made the mistake that you refer to! Stac Pollaidh is in Inverpolly, which is in Coigach, which is a district of the old parish of Lochbroom. I referred to Stac Pollaidh as being in Inverpolly/Coigach, because it’s in both. This was to highlight the fact that Sgorr Tuath/Sgorr Deas are in Coigach, but *not* in Inverpolly – the boundary runs between these hills, along the line of Loch Lurgainn, Loch Oscaig, etc.

    Cheers,
    Doug.

    [Incidentally, at least at the moment, the web version of this article hasn’t appeared correctly – the section on Trotternish has a part missing. The PDF version is fine.]

  • Hi Doug

    Thank you for taking my response in good spirit – I was a bit concerned about upsetting you! I’m sure you’re correct about Lochbroom – my ignorance. But if you look at a map of the area, you see Coigach and Lochbroom intersecting Stac Pollaidh – it’s not clear from the map that one of these is a parish…..which just shows how confusing it can be. If you look on highland.gov.uk, the Assynt, Coigach and Lochbroom boundaries are all given equal importance as Communiity Councils. It isn’t straightforward!

    Thanks, Michael

  • Hi Doug, I am too embarrassed to review all my captions in various books, but I suspect I am one of the many guilty slackers at whom your critical arrows are aimed. Annoyingly, my family all think I am a shocking pedant, but not, it would appear, pedantic enough! For what it is worth, I really do agree that this matters, but you can obviously see that the strange overlap of places and names northwest of Ullapool is especially confusing, certainly I find it so. Therefore your clarifications are all hugely appreciated and I will do my utmost to learn them thoroughly, and correct existing inaccuracies, where possible, in future. Sheepishly yours, Joe

  • Douglas Griffin

    Hi Joe,

    I too am no stranger to being called a pedant (which should surprise no-one after reading this article! ;-) ) and in fact I wondered whether anyone would be interested in this subject since it could be viewed as pedantry and little more. So I was exceptionally glad to read your words of support – thank you for that.

    I really hope the article doesn’t come across as being too critical – I fully understand the confusion in the case of Coigach/Inverpolly/Assynt, especially since, in view of their geological and physical similarity, there is a natural tendency to see these hills as being part of one entity. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with doing that and when I’ve stood at the top of Stac Pollaidh looking north and marvelling at the view, the thought of where the border between Ross-shire and Sutherland lies is one of the last things on my mind. But I do think that when we attach place-names to our photos, we ought to try to get these right.

    With All Best Wishes,
    Doug

  • Jim Robertson

    Hi Doug,
    I read your article on your website a while back ahd thought then how informative it was and immediately started looking at some of my photographs which I had titled! All the better to read it here in an expanded form. See you at Clashach sometime soon I hope.
    Best for now
    Jim

    • Douglas Griffin

      Hi Jim,

      I’m glad you found the article useful!

      Hopefully see you again soon, I’m due a return visit to the Moray Coast. ;-)

      Cheers
      Doug.

  • The Ross-Sutherland boundary is an ancient one, and Coigach has always been – and still is – a distinctly defined area for those who live there. Coigach’s formal history has tended to be written by outsiders, who see the ‘obvious’ fact that Coigach and Assynt both lie north of Loch Broom and so lump them together. Local records and deeds for the earliest medieval and early modern period were lost when a chest of Lewis Macleod clan papers went up in flames (while being stored at a rival’s house….odd that :- ).

    The lumping is reinforced by the modern road system, despite the signposts, as the Coigach Hills are those dark things on the left as you drive up into Sutherland. When the boundaries were being determined, travel was almost exclusively by sea. From that angle, it makes perfect sense that Coigach was for a long time part of the lands belonging to the Hebridean Macleods.

    Getting details right is what thoughtful photography is all about. We can’t all be walking gazetteers or encyclopedias, but it is easy enough to check facts with online info once you are back at home. I don’t, for example, bother to dig out the Latin names or the specific technical geological terms for all the rocks and trees I photograph, but I do try to distinguish between oaks and alders, gneisses and limestones.

    There’s no need for lynch mobs though, and it’s easy to toss the baby out with the bathwater. William Camden, who published one of the first geographical descriptions of the British Isles in 1586, seemed to think Assynt lay somewhere just north of Loch Long, but can be forgiven for this lovely description:

    “… Assinshire, a country much mangled with many inlets and Armes of the sea, inbosoming it selfe with manifold commodities.”

    • Douglas Griffin

      Hi Struan,

      The trouble is that a lot of the on-line info is not reliable. For example, Wikipedia states that Inverpolly lies in Sutherland and is part of Assynt, while discoverassynt.co.uk lists Stac Pollaidh among its hills in the section ‘Mountain Walking in Assynt’.

      It’s hardly surprising that people get confused!

      Doug.

  • I agree. But you get bonus points for trying :-)

    In any case, it is possible for a name to have a psychological truth, even if it is formally incorrect. Quinag is thought of as a Coigach mountain, as it forms the northern horizon in normal visibility. A clear day is a Foinaven day.

    MacCaig lived right on the boundary with Assynt, but chose the northern name for his identity, and for the whole area in his poems. There is so much other good observation in a poem like ‘Stonechat on Cul Beag’ that it’s churlish to be pernickety.

    Of course, Achnahaird is *not* Achiltibuie. That one carries the death penalty :-)

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