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Behind the Lens: Jim Richardson’s Dance with Scotland

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MacEwan on the highest hill on the Isle of Muck, which has been in his family since 1896.

Having covered everything from the prairie of his home state of Kansas to potato farmers in Peru, Jim Richardson is a familiar name from both National Geographic Magazine and National Geographic Traveler.

If you’ve followed Jim’s career you may have noticed his passion for Scotland. In Traveler‘s hot-off-the-press August/September 2012 issue, Jim’s evocative account of the Inner Hebrides convinces us to fall in love with their rugged beauty right along with him.

Traveler photo editor Krista Rossow interviewed Jim about photography and why Scotland remains his enduring travel muse. Here’s what he had to say.

Krista Rossow: Jim, you managed to make beautiful photos in a place where the wind roars, the rain pours, and the clouds gather and sulk. Do you have any tips for photographers who want to make the best of a gray day?

Jim Richardson: I love the Scottish islands for all of their diversity — because they are wild as well as beautiful. So when the weather turns brooding and temperamental, when the hills are wreathed in clouds, when the beaches are strafed by winds, then I feel like the full glory of the islands is at hand. In other words, don’t try to make the best of a gray day. Hope for more. Hope that the clouds will be lowering and menacing, not just blandly gray.

The opening picture of Lawrence MacEwan up on the hill would have been bland and without character on a bright blue day. Beautiful, perhaps, but somehow lacking in elemental truth.

Horses on the beach at Isle of Muck Farms.

On the technical side, our eyes deceive us on gray days. The sky looks dark but is, in fact, quite a bit brighter than the landscape below. So it washes out. The whole scene is lackluster. A half-gray neutral density filter is the cure for that problem. It darkens the sky, bringing back the scene to match what we saw in our mind’s eye.

KR: What are a few of your favorite images that didn’t make it into the story?

JR: The horses out on the beach near Lawrence’s farm on [the Isle of] Muck were just wonderful, nuzzling up and making pests out of themselves — but it was a scene of improbable strength and grace, too.

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The Eilean Iarmain Hotel on the Isle of Skye.

And then there was our evening at Eilean Iarmain, a wee hotel on the Isle of Skye, where the ducks paddled about the pond as the rain came in again.

Next morning, I photographed Rafael MacNeil, a young man raised in Lawrence, Kansas traveling the islands in search of his Scottish roots.

KR: It seems like the people you encountered were kind and generous of spirit. Folks from the Midwest, where you’re from, have a similar reputation in the U.S. Do you think that’s part of what draws you to the Inner Hebrides?  

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Raphael MacNeill, a Kansan who followed his roots to the isles of Scotland.

JR: They were generous and it made me feel thankful, something which is precious at any age. Funny to say, but yes they were much like my neighbors at home in Kansas. Not the bland stick figures imagined by urbanites, but crafty folk who live by their wits and wisdom, ready with both humor and help. Kind and generous? Yes, but aren’t people in most places like that? You just have to be open to finding them. To me it is the natural condition of the world.

Perhaps I just like the odd ducks of the world. I feel at home amongst rural people. I like their sense of independence — the way they invent themselves anew in these remote surroundings How they reach into their souls and come out with the improbable. Perhaps it is that I speak the language of remote places, about the basic needs of life, without the need to embellish.

KR: Tell us about one of the people you met during your visits to the Scottish islands that didn’t make it into the feature story.

JR: Well, the Knoydart Ukulele All-Stars got lamentably short shrift. What an evening we had with them in the Inverie town hall (where they were practicing) and then down at the Old Forge pub where the music went on, much abetted by free-flowing pints. And that in the community of a hundred people,

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The Knoydart Ukulele Club practices at the Old Forge Pub. 

with no road in or out. You have to get there by boat or hike in for two days. I didn’t know I could sing that loud while still taking pictures. I wanted to come home and buy a ukulele.

KR: How many times have you been to the Hebrides? Which of the islands are still on your list to visit? 

JR: I’ve been going to the Hebrides for over 15 years now [with] more visits to the Outer Hebrides over the years — which made the small islands of the Inner Hebrides particularly alluring. I still have not been to a bunch of them — Coll and Tiree, Raasay, Canna, Luing and Scarba, Ulva, Lismore and Gigha. So I’m in no danger of running out just yet. Oh, and yet to visit are the Summer Isles up north in Sutherland, and Handa (which is a bird colony,) as well as a whole bunch of rocks and skerries where just setting foot is arduous.

KR: Like many of the people you met on the islands, might I one day hear about you up and buying a house sight unseen in the Inner Hebrides? (And can I come visit?!)

JR: Aw, I’d have to settle down, then, and pick just one. How could I do that? But if I do you’ll be welcome and we’ll have a wee dram by the peat fire. That’s a pretty thought.

All photographs by Jim Richardson. To see more of Jim’s photography, visit his website and follow him on Twitter @JimRichardsonNG.

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