on landscape The online magazine for landscape photographers

Orkney and the Simmer Dim

The unearthly alliance between sea and sky

Nicki Gwynn-Jones

Photography became a passion for Nicki whilst living in Florida with her family. She uses the camera as a tool for expressing her love of art and nature in a creative way and will happily spend hours immersed in the Orcadian landscape in all weathers.

Nicki is a keen swimmer and a member of the celebrated Orkney Polar Bear Club. Swimming in crystal clear seas all year round without a wetsuit can be a challenge but is always a delight, especially for the encounters with curious wildlife such as seals and fulmars. A long tailed duck fly-past is always a special treat, however she is not so sure about the jellyfish. In 2012 Nicki was awarded a Fellowship in Visual Art by the Royal Photographic Society. She has exhibited extensively both in Britain and abroad and has work hanging in homes around the world.


I am a British freelance photographer living in Orkney, an archipelago of seventy islands lying ten miles off the northeast coast of Scotland, at the point where the Atlantic Ocean meets the North Sea. Of these islands, sixteen are inhabited and the capital city, Kirkwall, has a population of some nine thousand. I live on the largest of the islands, known as Mainland, where we have some of the best-preserved Neolithic sites in Europe, are world leaders in renewable energy research, and have the most northerly cathedral in Britain. Our beef and scallops are world famous, we have abundant wildlife and the islands are rich in myth and folklore.

Living on the 59th parallel does not come without challenges; we are three degrees of latitude north of Moscow and one degree south of St Petersburg, however, our seas are fed by the gulf stream, meaning that our climate is relatively mild, wet and very windy. Our winters are long - the days can be as short as six hours and the constant gales leave us scoured and battered. But in summer it does not get dark at all.

What a gift! Many artists come here for the exceptional quality of the light, and I am entranced by the perpetual twilight, or simmer dim as it is called here, that we experience for a month or so either side of the summer solstice.

It should be said that I really love my bed and I need plenty of sleep in order to avoid the grumps…however this can prove a challenge in high summer, even with black-out blinds, so I decide to fully embrace the simmer dim experience and stay up all night. The sun sets at around 10.30 p.m. at this time of year and rises again at about 4 a.m. so I pick a night that looks clear and set off to Birsay on the North West corner of the island, for an Atlantic sunset.

The arctic tern colony is never still. As most of us are winding down for the night they must be constantly delivering food to their tiny chicks whilst watching out for Orkney’s infamous bonxies - great skuas - who would as soon simply disrupt life in the colony as snatch a chick to feast on. Bully boy birds…not a pretty sight. But now the elegant terns are suffused by the softest pink light and the scene turns to magic before my eyes. This is the time for an artistic image - gorgeous low light, slower shutter speeds, and the chance to capture the essence of these hero birds.   

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