How my DSLR led a busload of Americans into a ditch

Scottish, thistle, Scotland, flower, emblem, purple, Outer Hebrides, Isle of Harris
A better looking Scottish thistle, found in a more obliging ditch

Amazingly, they all went into the ditch willingly, with no encouragement from me. Before you start to worry, I should point out that no-one was hurt.  They were bemused and confused, but perfectly fine in themselves.  If you own a DSLR, you may be familiar with the scenario I encountered.  Holding a DSLR is like holding the One Ring, it imparts a power on the owner which is so great, people around you start to think that you are a fountain of knowledge and capable of doing all sorts of things.

If you wander around with a big black camera dangling around your neck, with ‘Canon’ or ‘Nikon’ glowing on its strap, people tend to notice.  They then instantly presume that you know something about cameras and photography.  So far, perfectly sensible assumptions to make.  Some people, however, take this assumption to a whole different level, as you will see from what happened in the ditch.

Last summer I had the fantastic experience of travelling around the Outer Hebridean islands for a month.  I was up there to complete my dissertation project, zigzagging around the beautiful islands taking photographs for my book, documenting their stunning array of wildlife. This was Scotland though, so unsurprisingly the weather was changeable, to put it politely.  It was mid-June and I was sitting on a bench in Stornoway, still cold despite being in a ski jacket, hat, gloves and scarf.  I was feeling somewhat cheated out of a summer as a BBC news notification popped up on my phone to inform me that England was going through a heat wave.  Whilst inwardly grumbling about this fact, head buried in my woolly scarf, I glanced up from my phone to witness a Scottish schoolboy happily ambling past me in just a t-shirt and shorts. Scots sure are a unique group of people – I’m not over exaggerating when I say it was freezing! I speak as a person who stood in a snow storm during a fire alarm in my school uniform consisting of a short sleeved shirt, thin jumper, skirt and tights, yet I didn’t even feel chilly.

The fact remained that unless I was going for a ‘Where’s Wally?’ style book, I needed to get a lot more close up pictures to fill the pages of my book. So, regardless of what the weather decided to do each day, come rain or shine I was wrapped up, with my walking boots on and could be found clambering around the mountainsides and beaches hunting for rare orchids, eagles, otters and alike. The weeks were passing by and I was making good progress with my list of species, but I hadn’t been able to track down the usually common thistle.  A freak winter of uncharacteristically bad weather (who would have guessed it!?) had delayed the appearance of all the flowers. Given the thistle is the flower of Scotland, I felt duty bound to go the extra mile to try and find one, quite literally as it turned out.

One grey and rainy afternoon, whilst I was all cosy, snuggled up under a blanket editing pictures on my laptop, I was alerted to a sighting of a solitary thistle growing in the verge in the main village.  When I say the main village, I’m referring to Tarbert on the Isle of Harris.  As it is a rather rural place to visit, I’ll assume you probably haven’t heard of it, let alone been there.  Tarbert is where the ferries link to the mainland via the Isle of Skye.  It is therefore the island’s ‘hub of activity’.  I use this term very loosely as Tarbert is a ghost town for the majority of the time, between the boat arrivals and departures.  It is a quaint little hamlet with one cafe, two hotels, a manned petrol pump, a hardware store Ronnie Barker would be proud of, two tiny shops stocked with essential items (freezers full of Irn Bru ice lollies, gallons of Red Kola, a shelf or two of shortbreads in a variety of shapes and a lot of black pudding – seemingly the Scottish equivalent to our milk, bread and eggs) and most recently a massive ‘social distillery’.  I loved this.  On an island with a population of only 1,916 people, the locals had combined together to create their own distillery.  They lacked so many other things that the mainland has to offer,  and we take for granted, yet a massive distillery was deemed the next essential thing that the community needed.  Scots sure love their whisky!

With my camera packed, and tripod ready, I made the 10 mile drive across the island to where the elusive thistle had been seen.  At no point in my life growing up and living in England have I ever gone to such lengths to photograph what is essential a wild weed, but hey ho, Scotland is a different kettle of fish. As I drove, a layer of thick, dense grey clouds descended within minutes, hanging just above the road and the windscreen started to speckle with raindrops. By now, I was more hardened to the cold and increasingly indifferent to the wind and rain, so I carried on until I found the deserted car park in the village.

Much like whipping off a plaster, I was keen to hop out, get the shot as quickly as possible and then dash back to the warm indoors where I could hug a cup of tea and feel content. Hood up, sheltering my camera under my jacket, I rushed across to the verge and found the rather wet thistle growing proudly a few feet back, in the middle of the drainage ditch. In hindsight, the rain had made it look rather sorry for itself and the photographs I got weren’t usable, so I could have saved myself the trouble, but in that moment I was just keen to do whatever it took to get some kind of photograph of a thistle.  I needed a macro shot, which required being right up close to the top of the flower, so I had to jump in such a way that I could get a foot on each side of the soggy ditch, in order to try and hold still long enough to get the angle and focus distance needed for the shot.  The wet grass was slippy and by the time I had managed it, I was left pondering the series of events that had led to me needing to be in such an inelegant, straddling position.

By now it was raining in that way where it feels like the clouds are just sneakily spitting on your head to ensure you are definitely sodden through.  Harnessing my inner Braveheart I persisted and as luck would have it a rare orange bee, unique to the islands, landed slap bang in the middle of the thistle.  It was another species on my list so I rushed to try and get the shutter down in time, but the 2 second timer I had set for a steady shot thwarted my attempts and it buzzed away, much to my despair. So I’m there, squatting in the ditch, getting rained on, having just missed out on what I knew could have been my best shot of the trip, when I hear a drawn out American voice at my shoulder say ‘You could have got that bee, ya know? It looked great in the middle like that’.  Staring through the viewfinder, trying hard to hide my face of thunder, I muttered ‘Yeah, I know’ and carried on. The moment had definitely passed though and all concentration had evaporated as I tuned into the sound of the growing babble of American twangs forming behind me.

Cutting through the chatter I heard a conversation, which made my less than impressed expression instantly switch to a grin.  Two older ladies had been delayed getting off the coach and joined the back of their group who, unknown to me, had formed an orderly queue directly behind me. Anyone who teases that Brits like to queue might like to add Americans into that stereotype, judging by this scenario that I found myself in. I was on a sparsely inhabited island, in the middle of nowhere, in an otherwise completely deserted carpark, minding my own business, discreetly photographing a relatively mundane plant yet here they all were, lined up behind me to see what I was doing.  They had evidently absorbed Tarbert’s lively offering, as they drove in, and thought to themselves that any sign of life would be exciting enough to pursue and investigate further.

The conversation that cut through my frustration? One of the elderly ladies turned to the other, as she disembarked from the coach, and asked ‘What are we photographing?’, to which the other replied ‘I’m not sure, everyone just seems to be queuing here to see something’. The first responded ‘Oh…okay. I can’t see anything except for a ditch. Hmmm, I have no idea either but I had better take a photograph of it anyway. We should join the back of the queue’.  I can only imagine how exciting the rest of their holiday snaps were.

So, my being in a ditch with a fancy looking camera was enough to convince a busload of American tourists to queue up and follow me into the wet ditch, not knowing why they were doing it.  Now it may have been partly the “Tarbert-effect”, which led to this unexpected behaviour, but I think it highlights quite clearly that if you are a DSLR user, other people will view you as being a well-informed person who is worth copying.  I therefore warn you, when embarking on your next awkward stretch, ambitious repositioning or inadvisable climb to a better view point whilst chasing the best compositions, maybe check that there isn’t a queue of American pensioners following you to do the same!


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