On such a lavish morning and with a forecast of settled conditions from dawn to dusk, it seems the ideal day to be heading into the hills. I am making for the Fairy Lochs, a location above Gairloch in the North West Scottish Highlands that I have known about for a number of years but have not had the opportunity to visit before. The weather is beyond reproach, except for a chilled breeze from the north. There is fresh snow no more than ankle deep, but it is down to sea level and enough to transform the entire Highland canvas.
A combination of open sky and reflective snow means the pre-dawn light is already helping to reveal a route to the higher ground, although sunrise is still an hour away. The terrain is a mix of heather, peat and burn, and further into the hills I find ice on the sheltered ground, so care is needed despite the favourable conditions. With such agreeable weather and the prospect of a full day in the hills, anticipation should be running high. However there is a noticeable lack of spring in my step and I am well aware of the reason why. It is because of I am climbing this hill to visit a war grave.
On June 13, 1945, the crew of a USAAF B-24 Liberator bomber set off from Warton on The Fylde in Lancashire on a flight to America via Iceland. Early into their journey the plane struck Slioch, the mountain alongside Loch Maree, and then crash-landed next to the Fairy Lochs in the nearby Gairloch hills. The crew of nine and an additional six American servicemen who were passengers all lost their lives. The war in Europe had ended a month earlier and they were on their way home for good. The oldest member of the crew was 26. The pilot was 22 and all the others were in their early 20s. I am aware of this before setting off and during the walk I contemplate the significance of where I intend going.
But despite knowing about the tragedy I am still unprepared for what I see and what I experience when I arrive at the Fairy Lochs. Standing proud of the water is a single propeller blade, galvanised and twisted. Its presence and size shocks me. A single blade, yet it is the same height as my Land Rover. I try to visualise the other blades that accompanied it and how they would have attached to the plane's four engines. As I do this my eye tracks back across the loch and I no longer have to imagine the engines because one of them is still here, only half submerged in the loch. Again its bulk astounds me.
Suddenly I am conscious that at my feet and in the near distance is not all snow, heather and winter grasses. Amongst the white undergrowth is a very large metal structure which I then realise is the bomber's fuselage. For the first time I am aware of the extent of the crash site I have walked into.
From reading about the Liberator I had expected to see the memorial plaque that is attached to the cliff face and names all who were on board, but I am taken aback by the amount of wreckage that remains. For some considerable time I stand alone in the wind-chilled sunshine and think of those young lives that shone so brightly for such a short time. In an area where nature has the upper hand, the hills around Gairloch form a geologically ancient landscape. Now there is a human history too.
Around me are so many contrasts. There are mosses and mountains; rock both smooth and sharp. Here is an experience that is so intense but played out fully in the open air, a confusing mix of the cruel and the gentle.
Contemplation is a powerful distraction and I have to remind myself that I am also here to make photographs. However I feel no desire to photograph the crash site and I concentrate instead on re-tracing my route, step by step, so I do not disturb any of the wreckage. I then walk further into the hills. The air has a polished, almost brand new feel to it and there is silence everywhere except in the sky, from where I can hear the faint drone of high-level aircraft. Eventually I regain my sense of seclusion and solitude, the reward for heading alone into the hills.
At a lochan sheltered from the wind I sit with the tea flask and begin to think about photography again. By now the sunlight is fleeting. Clouds have built up and their chase across the sky is reflected in the still water in front of me. I decide to stay here for the rest of the day and make three different photographs before returning down the hill.
The winter day is short in the Highlands and I time my return so I arrive back on the main stalkers' path before dusk. It is almost black as I then walk along the unlit road to where I have parked. On the Land Rover is a thin rime of frost. Once inside I sit in silence and wait for the windscreen to clear. Never one to dismiss the role luck plays in life, I acknowledge mine then start the engine and head for home.