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Glen Lyon and the “Praying Hands”

Once described by Sir Walter Scott as the “…longest, loneliest and loveliest glen in Scotland…”, Glen Lyon in Perthshire is a fascinating place.
At the mouth of the glen sits one of the oldest living things in Europe, if not on earth, the Fortingall Yew – believed to be at least 5000 years old!

Is if that isn’t enough, the tiny village of Fortingall has another claim to fame: it is reputed that the biblical character Pontius Pilate was born here!
Son of a Roman diplomat and a Pictish woman from the tribe of Metellanus, who’s stronghold was near the modern-day village, Pilate returned to Rome with his parents when the delegation to Caledonia was withdrawn, only to find himself as Prefect of Judea in AD26…

Fascinating as all this is, this was not the reason I wanted to visit.
I wanted to visit the glen to explore the enigmatic “praying hands” stone formation…

Before I explain any more about these stones, it’s probably worthwhile giving a little background about why I wanted to visit in the first place:

Most ancient cultures have a creation myth. A story told around the camp fires to describe how the earth formed.

The most popular Celtic creation myth is surprisingly similar to the stories told by the ancient Egyptians, which, is understandable if you believe the claims of the early Scots (that we are the descendents of Queen Scota, daughter of an Egyptian Pharaoh who fled Egypt bringing the stone of destiny, the biblical “Jacobs Pillow”, with her)

In the Egyptian version, the sun god Amun created the world by raising the first land – a pyramid shaped mound called “Benben” – from the primordial waters.
Unsurprisingly, the Egyptians went on to associate the Pyramid with Amun and most Egyptian pyramids and obelisks were covered in gold at the top to resemble the Benben on that first dawn as the golden rays of the rising sun illuminated the land for the first time.

In Celtic mythology, the creation story is very similar, with the role of Amun being taken by the Celtic creator-god Lugh. It is believed by many that Glen Lyon is named after this god, just as the French city of Lyon was named for the same creator.

And so to the “praying hands”…

Creag nan Eildeag, a small hill 12 miles from Fortingall, deep in the heart of Glen Lyon, has an unusual pyramid shape when seen from certain parts of the glen. In particular, when seen from the direction of the “praying hands” the hill is very like the peak of Al-Qurn, or as the ancients called it, “Ta Dehent”, in the Valley of the Kings in Egypt.

Curiously, there is a small boulder, just visible on the summit of Creag nan Eildeag, which, when seen from the “praying hands” appears as a perfect pyramid. (click on the third image below to see it in more detail).

Considered geologically and archaeologically insignificant, the “praying hands” aren’t even mentioned on Ordinance Survey maps of the area; they are officially classified as an “erratic” (a “glacier-transported rock fragment which differs from the local bedrock”) – ie. big stones that are only where they are due to melting ice, gravity and random chance.

It’s odd that in a valley named after the creator god, just in front of a hill shaped like a pyramid – the very symbol of that god – that nature should choose to randomly melt a glacier in such a way that two huge (15-20ft high) stones should fall from the ice and find themselves perfectly (and precariously) balanced, pointing precisely towards the “pyramid” and looking for all the world like two human hands held up in worship…

It was an hour and a half walk from the car park and around a thousand feet climb to reach the stones… nature can be so inconvenient at times! Once there I began to take photographs. It’s sometimes very easy to be caught up in the atmosphere of a place and if I’m honest, this is one of those places. Looking back, I’m not happy with most of the shots I took that day, so I need to return soon to retake a lot of photos. I HAVE to shoot the scene at dawn…

Clearly more people than I have questioned the official designation of these stones as “random geological anomalies” as many people have left gifts and hand-written prayers amongst the stones.

I’ll leave you with a few photos taken that day. I’d love to know your opinions (not only of the photographs, but, also about their “official” designation as random boulders)
I decided that these photos should be in black & white as I think this is a subject likely to polarise opinion, plus I like that timeless quality of B&W photography.

So, what do you think?
Natural arrangement of randomly distributed glacial debris or unrecognised man-made tribute to an ancient god?

I’d love to know what everyone thinks, so I’ve set-up a poll to gauge opinion!

Please vote, and leave any comments below! 🙂

(For scale, the tufts of grass and heather poking out from the side of the nearest stone are around 6-7 feet from the base!)

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Glencoe

I came up to Glencoe today to deliver the first batch of calendars to the Glencoe Cafe. (Now available to buy “off the shelf” if you’re interested !)

Afterwards I decided to take a walk in the glen so I headed for the area known as “The Study” just above the Pass of Glencoe.

The weather wasn’t great, but I was hopeful that the sun might break through the thick cloud as it was quite windy and every now and then a small patch of golden light would break through onto a pumpkin coloured hillside. In particular I wanted to capture the sun breaking onto the three sisters of glencoe with the dramatic dark sky behind.

I love taking photos at this time of year in Glencoe as the fern and heather covered hills take on a deep orange colour that makes the final image almost look “photoshopped” – in fact on several occasions I’ve had to deliberately reduce the colour saturation because I’ve felt that no-one would believe it wasn’t an effect added afterwards by computer!

As I climbed the path up above “the study” I noticed that as I moved further from the road, the footprints in the mud were becoming less human and more deer, so I decided to just walk and see where I would end up.

Slowly the human footprints disappeared and the deer prints increased, but I continued to climb until eventually I reached a point where even the deer prints ended and I was on my own.

Confident in the knowledge that I was in a place where no-one / nothing else had visited for a while, I set up my tripod and camera and settled down to wait for the light to improve.
The strong wind carried the bellows of the rutting red deer stags down from the high corries and gave the whole visit a surreal eerie feeling, but it stubbornly refused to break the clouds and let through the low autumn sunlight…

I waited for two hours on my high perch, the sunlight never came, the deer remained elusive and the huge bird of prey that soared overhead remained unidentified (at least by me!)

Such is the life of the landscape photographer.
I almost wrote “a lot of effort for no reward” but that’s not quite the full story. Yes, it was a lot of effort – my camera bag and tripod are VERY heavy and I climbed a fair bit – but, although there was no award winning photo taken, the view and the two hours spent out of mobile signal, just sitting watching the world go by was reward enough for me.

I’m very aware that it’s a privilege to do what I do and today reminded me that I need to appreciate that a bit more.
I got to sit for 2 hrs high above one of the most iconic spots in Scotland, totally undisturbed. That in itself has to be worth carting all that kit up the hillside!

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I’ll post a few of the shots that I did manage to grab over on my Facebook page in the next day or two.

In the meantime, I’ve got a new favourite viewpoint in one of my favourite locations, so I’ll be back again very soon to sit for a while and listen to the deer – and watch the world rush by below…
It’s going to look incredible in the snow…

Japan 2014 – Day 12

Well, that’s it almost over.

I’ll lose wi-fi connection in about an hour when I check out of the hotel so just time for a final update.

I’ll spend my last few hours in Japan wandering around the tourist shops of Namba then it’s off to Kansai airport for the flight to Dubai, then after a brief stop over at Dubai, it’s onwards to Glasgow.

It’s difficult to tell from the small camera screen if the photos are sharp, exposed correctly, well composed, etc, but when I get home I’ll copy them over to my computer and have a look.

So far, I’ve taken 1673 photos in Japan so hopefully at least one will be good enough to share with you! 🙂

Thanks for sharing the trip with me and for all the nice comments and messages while I’ve been here 🙂

My final blog image is from the Neko-cafe I visited a few days ago; It’s how I’m likely to feel by the time I get home!

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Japan 2014 – Day 11

My final full day in Japan was spent back at Arashiyama on the outskirts of Kyoto.

After a nice lunch I returned to the bamboo groves then went on to visit Okochi Sanso, a private garden villa constructed by the Japanese silent movie actor Okochi Denjiro over a 30 year period before his death in 1962.
The garden is full of cherry trees, maple trees and pine and is a lovely place to spend an hour or two.

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After the gardens I returned back over the “Moon Crossing Bridge” and headed up the side of Mount Arashi to visit the Iwatayama Monkey Park, home to around 170 wild monkeys. (Japanese macaque monkeys)
As well as getting some photos of the monkeys, the view from the park, which is 160m (525ft) above the River Oi below is quite impressive so I grabbed a few shots of the town and Kyoto too!

Back at Osaka tonight, I had a last walk around the entertainment and shopping districts of Shinsaibashi and Dontonburi.

After the shops I decided to visit Burger King.
Now, I know that this doesn’t really sound like a particularly Japanese end to the trip but since last Friday, Burger King have been selling the kuro burger at outlets in Japan.
A Japanese exclusive burger, the kuro is presented in a jet black bun, cheese coloured black with bamboo charcoal and squid ink ketchup…

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So, my visit to Japan began with a curry containing squid ink, and ended with a burger coloured with squid ink…

Tomorrow I pack up and head off on the long journey home to Scotland.

I’m not sure what will be the hardest thing to adapt to when I get home: the temperature change or the absence of squid ink!!

I hope you’ve all enjoyed reading about my visit, please follow my blog and like my Facebook page to be sure of seeing all the photos from the trip! 🙂

Japan 2014 – Day 10

Today was spent at Japan’s ancient capital of Nara, which is about an hour away from Osaka by direct train from JR Osaka Namba.

Nara is a lot quieter than Kyoto, and everything is within walking distance, so today was a lot more relaxed than yesterday.
I even managed to avoid being mauled by the gentle woodland herbivores that I was so stressed about before the visit… (See yesterday’s blog if that needs explained!)

The visit started with a leisurely stroll from JR Nara station to the Kofukuji Temple, an important Buddhist temple which includes a three story and a five story pagoda.
From this point onwards the rest of the day was also spent in the company of hundreds of wild sika deer… which are considered devine heavenly creatures in Nara…

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After Kofukuji, it was a 15 minute walk to a traditional Japanese garden (Yoshikien Garden) which is actually three separate gardens (a water garden, moss garden and a flower garden).
While at the moss garden I stopped for a while to enjoy a traditional whisked green tea sitting on a mat in the sun on the balcony of a tea house.

After the gardens I had another brief walk to the famous Todai-ji Buddhist temple, until 1998 the largest wooden structure in the world and home to the worlds largest bronze statue of the Buddha Daibutso, which, even though seated, is 52ft (16m) high!

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From Todai-ji it was another brief walk past a lovely pond (Kagami-ike pond) teaming with carp and turtles, and with a small island in the centre which had a shrine and torii gate.

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My final location for today was the Shinto Kasuga Taisha Shrine, which was a brief walk away through some beautiful camphor woods.

I managed to take a lot of photos today which I’ll share on my Facebook page and here on my blog when I return home to Scotland later this week.

Tomorrow is my last full day in Japan and I’ll be spending it back at Arishiyama, where I’ll be visiting a monkey park, revisiting the bamboo groves and taking a boat trip down the Oi river in the hope of seeing some fishermen using the traditional method of using cormorants to catch their fish!

Hope you’re enjoying reading about the trip. I’m looking forward to sharing the photos from this trip when I get home! 🙂

Japan 2014 – Day 9

Busy day today in and around Kyoto.

I travelled by train from Osaka to Kawaramachi station in Kyoto, then walked to Gion-shijo station for another train to Fushimi-inari.

Fushimi-inari is the head shrine of the Shinto kami Inari in Japan. Kami are spirits or natural phenomenon that are worshipped as part of the Shinto religion. Inari are the kami of foxes, and of fertility, rice, tea and sake, agriculture and industry and general worldly success and prosperity.

Inari is one of the most popular kami in Japan with around a third of all Shinto shrines dedicated to them.

This particular shrine is famous for its thousands of torii gates.

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Fans of the film “memoirs of a geisha” will recognise the torii gates as part of the film was shot in the shrine.
I spent a few hours here and took lots of photos of the gates and surrounding shrines, so hopefully I’ll be able to share some of these with you when I return home.

After the shrine I spent some time in a neko-cafe near the train station.
This is basically a cafe where you pay to spend some time with some of the most chilled out cats I’ve ever met!

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After relaxing with some cats for a while it was back on the train to Gion for sunset so that I could grab some shots of the famous tea-rooms as they woke for the night.
I was also hoping to grab some shots of geisha on their way between their okiya and the tea-houses.
Unfortunately I didn’t manage to see any geisha on this trip but I did catch a few locals (men and women) in traditional kimono, so look out for them when I get home!

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I’m off to Nara tomorrow, ancient capital of Japan, and home to the Todai-ji Buddhist temple, the largest wooden structure in the world.
According to legend, the god Takemizazuchi arrived in Nara on a white deer to guard the newly built capital. Since then deer have been regarded as heavenly creatures and thousands of wild sika deer roam freely around the town.

I’m a bit nervous about this trip as last time I was there a deer BIT my backside…!

Japan 2014 – Day 8

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I travelled to Mount Koya today out towards the Pacific Ocean.

This is the first place I’ve returned to on this trip that I’d visited last time I was in Japan (except of course Osaka)

A rather long (3hr) series of train journeys / changes finishing with a cable car ride up the mountain side and a bus journey along single track mountain passes saw me safely to the gates of Okunoin, Japan’s largest cemetery and home to many sacred Buddhist temples and shrines.

After a lunch of rice and chicken with miso soup and beer at a nearby cafe, it was a leisurely stroll through Okunoin back towards the town centre.

The weather wasn’t ideal; dull and overcast, but I managed to grab quite a few photos from Okunoin on my way through which I hope to share with you when I get back to Scotland.

There are some fascinating places to visit in the cemetery including a well where it is said if you can’t see your own reflection in the water, you will die within the next 3 years, and a standing stone where legend has it, if you place your ear against the stone you can hear the screams in hell…
(For the record, I saw my reflection in the well AND put my eat to the stone – although I dare not say what I heard… 😉 )

After a long walk and some shopping it was back to Osaka.

Tonight was spent at the Hard Rock Cafe in Osaka, listening to some live music and having a few beers.

Tomorrow I’ll be returning to Kyoto and, in the evening, Gion, where I’ll be hoping to get some photos of the geisha and the traditional tea houses.

Japan 2014 – Day 7

Day off today at Universal Studios Japan.

The trip was straight forward: walk to JR Namba then train to Nishikujo and quick change of train then two stops to Universal City station.

I’m not really a huge fan of theme parks but if you enjoy overpriced plastic trinkets or standing in line for 1-3hrs at a time in order to take a seat on a 10 minute ride I can recommend it!.
I found myself on the “back to the future” ride, then “jaws”, “Jurassic park” and finally “terminator 2”
Also had a wander around Harry Potter’s Hogwarts.

Jurassic park was probably my favourite.

Tomorrow I’m off to Koyasan. The first place I’m returning to that I also visited last time I was here. (Excluding Osaka of course!)

Koyasan is a world heritage site and will celebrate it’s 1200th anniversary in 2015. It’s a huge series of Buddhist shrines and temples high on mount Koya which is around 2hrs from Osaka in the wakayama prefecture out towards the Pacific Ocean.

It is also home to Okunoin, Japan’s largest cemetery. (A little morbid I know but it is seriously photogenic!)

Anyway, early night tonight as I have a very early start. Looking forward to updating you tomorrow on my trip to Koyasan. 🙂

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Japan 2014 – Day 6

The weather was a little disappointing today as I made my way towards Lake Biwa and the town of Otsu. Still very warm, but grey and overcast and a little windy.

The trip was a bit convoluted: subway from Namba to Umeda; train from Umeda to Kawaramachi in Kyoto; a walk to Kyoto JR station then the train to Otsu.

I’ve been trying to think of a way to describe Otsu all day…
Lake Biwa is a beautiful area and very like Scotland’s Loch Lomond in terms of popularity and proximity to a major city (Osaka / Glasgow)
Unfortunately I didn’t get to see much of the lake, but on arrival at Otsu I imagine I felt the same way a Japanese tourist might feel if they’d travelled all the way to Scotland to see Loch Lomond only to accidentally step off the train in Renton…

A walk through Otsu in an attempt at finding a nice viewpoint proved fruitless, so instead, I decided to visit Shiga Midera, a nearby Buddhist temple considered one of the “four great temples of Japan”
The temple is huge and I managed to grab a few shots in and around the main temples and surrounding gardens. (Parts of the temple have a no photography rule)

Back in Osaka tonight, I visited a Ramen restaurant voted “best Ramen in Osaka” (called “Ippudo”) and had some nice Shiromaru ramen (with the obligatory Asahi beer to wash it down!)

Tomorrow is a photo day off as I’m going to universal studios, the movie theme park; so I’ll be busy all day dodging Jurassic park dinosaurs and casting spells as Harry Potter, etc…

I’ll try to get some photos in the evening though! 🙂

(PS: Apologies to anyone from Otsu / Renton… Or anyone not from Scotland who doesn’t get the reference)
🙂

Japan 2014 – Day 5

Headed to Arashiyama near Kyoto today.

Again another straightforward trip from Namba: subway to Umeda, train to Katsura then connecting local train to Arashiyama.

The main reason I wanted to visit Arashiyama was to see the bamboo groves of Sagano, but, during the visit I discovered the Tenryu Shiseizen-ji temple. This is the head temple of Rinzai Zen Buddhism in Japan, built in 1339 to venerate Gautama Buddha.

The temple sits within some beautiful gardens and with the mountain of Arashiyama (the storm mountain) beyond, it is a beautiful place to just sit and watch the world go by.

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I managed to get some photos of locals in traditional dress near the temple and some nice shots of the temple and the bamboo groves, so look out for them on my Facebook page and here on my blog when I return! 🙂

Tomorrow, weather permitting, I’ll be heading off to Lake Biwa, Japan’s largest freshwater lake, which lies to the northeast of Kyoto.