Caving photography in Assynt

Uamh an UisgeIn the Uamh an Uisge entrance to Cnoc nan Uamh. Assynt is one of the more obscure caving regions of Britain.

It’s fair to say there’s an air of mystery surrounding caving in the Highlands. Talk about British caving and it will be rare for Scotland to be mentioned at all, the majority of cavers concentrating on the classic potholes of the Dales, the Peak District, or on the vast cave systems of South Wales.

Scotland’s premier caving region is Assynt, a remote and sparsely populated place that many people won’t have even heard of. It lies at the North-West tip of the Highlands – a journey of 500 miles+ for the majority of cavers in the UK. Annual rainfall amounts can be huge so dangerously high water levels in the caves are frequent. Most of the caves require a far more strenuous walk-in than the majority of caves in England or Wales and during mid-summer the midgies can be a formidable obstacle. Cave surveys and route information can be pretty hard to find and many of the guidebooks are no longer in publication. If these aren’t reasons enough for not making the trip, the caves themselves are generally far smaller and arguably much less impressive than dozens of potholes that extend throughout easily accessible parts of England.

The Grotto‘The Grotto’. The third chamber in Cnoc nan Uamh.

'The Grotto'Calcite formations.

I’m fortunate enough to live only a couple of hours away from Assynt, yet until last week I’d never got around to doing any ‘proper’ caving up there. An extensive Google search a few months ago revealed that there are very few good-quality photos of Scottish caving at all online. In fact there are just generally hardly any photos. In an already obscure type of photography this shouted out as an opportunity to get some unusual images.

Cnoc nan Uamh near Inchnadamph ended up being my cave of choice. It promised a good trip up a fine streamway with a very large final chamber, and without any near for ropes and SRT gear I would be able to take a fair amount of photography equipment with me. My kit ended up being – my Nikon D7100 body, Tokina AT-X PRO 11-16mm F2.8 lens, Nikon AF-S 18-55mm lens, Nikon SB 700 Speedlite, Velbon 347GB tripod and a Manfrotto micropod.

'Landslide Chamber'‘Landslide Chamber’ – one of the largest chambers yet discovered in Scotland. My Tokina 11-16mm was a good choice to capture as much of this void as possible. Much more chamber to each side of the frame….

I won’t describe my trip through the cave but it exceeded my expectations. A lovely tumbling streamway, a couple of entertaining waterfall climbs, some nice wee calcite formations, a remarkable ‘waterslide’ feature and a very impressive final chamber. There weren’t any huge stalactites, curtains or flowstone cascades, and I knew that if anything my image compositions would have to be more carefully considered than in a Dales cave filled with beautiful crystal formations everywhere.

'Landslide Chamber'‘Landslide Chamber’.  Some fairly bright geology helped me get the most out of my flashguns. Caves ‘eat’ light like nowhere else.

A lot of my time was spent in ‘Landslide Chamber’, one of the largest cave chambers in Scotland, trying to find ways to portray its scale. This is almost always best-done by including a caver in the image, and as I was on a solo-trip as usual it was a case of using the interval timer and positioning myself for self-portraits. I’m pleased with the images I got of this huge chamber but I’ll be returning in the future with more flashguns.

I wanted to try and get some totally different caving images to anything I’d got before, and it was clear my best bet was to concentrate on the unique features of the streamway near the entrance. Using a blend of the available light from the entrance and the flashguns I was able to get some action-shots of me traversing the streamway that I’m very pleased with. I’ve never seen anything quite like the entrance ‘thrust’ features of Cnoc nan Uamh and I think there’s great potential for some more really interesting images there.

The WaterslideBlends of available-light and flash gave some good results. 

I’ll certainly be returning to Assynt soon and hopefully will be able to get into Uamh an Claonaite if water-levels allow.

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