Photographers and the Massacre of Glen Coe

Long before Glen Coe was famous for photography, it was better known for the massacre of the MacDonalds in 1692. Thankfully there have been no massacres since, but we may be witnessing a new modern day assault on the land by photographers and tour groups.

Whilst photography tour groups provide a welcome boost to the local economy, the numbers and size of these photography groups are on the increase, and there’s clear evidence that their footfall is adding* to the pressure already on the land. Not only that, but competition for “iconic shots” is resulting in anti-social behaviour.

It’s not uncommon for 50-60 photographers to be lined up at the foot of the River Coupall to capture the iconic shot of Buachaille Etive Mor. The twice daily traffic to get to the river bank has left a huge area of trampled vegetation, broken saplings and eroded parts of the river bank.  The gallery below shows damage seen at the River Coupall near Buachaile Etive Mor. The volume of photographers arriving at the location has resulted in erosion, landslips and even liquefaction of the soil in some areas.

And just to give you an idea of the area, here’s a couple of videos.


Ten years ago there used to be heathers, shrubs and saplings growing along the river banks.  But now the whole area is trampled to a quagmire with large areas devoid of plant life. More disturbing however is the deliberate vandalism in evidence. The image below is from two weeks ago and shows two small trees that were pulled out of the shrubbery.

7T3A9059Anti social behaviour

There are numerous reports that competition for tripod space has resulted in threats and arguments breaking out. I’ve also heard that people have had stones thrown at them for walking in front of someone’s shot. Whilst, I can’t corroborate these reports, I and several clients on my workshops have witnessed similarly rotten behaviour for ourselves. For example, we witnessed abuse being hurled at other photographers and tripods being kicked out of spite. We witnessed one tour leader who arrived late at the location and bullied his way to the front where he ordered his group to set up in front of everyone else. Others threw stones in the still water and others simply stuck their cameras in front of someone’s lens to take hand-held shots.

Matters aren’t helped by “brand name” photographers taking large groups to the area either. They typically pack in 12-15 photographers per workshop, charge ridiculously high fees and go to the same tourist locations as everyone else. And to put things in to perspective, one “world famous” landscape photographer presented to 50 photographers in the Ballachuillish hotel only last week, who all went to the same honeypot location the next morning. The same group were seen wandering aimlessly along the Ballachuillish bridge while traffic had to slow down for them.

The brand photographers obviously can’t be blamed for copycat workshops, but they can be blamed for what they teach – because it fuels the behaviour of others. For example, the same famous photographer above held a lecture in Edinburgh last week where he gave some appalling advice to his audience. He told them it was bad form to rearrange pebbles on a beach yet he described at length how he cut through a canopy of trees to capture a shot. Is it any wonder other photographers copy this type of vandalism?

Indeed, some “famous” landscape photographers believe they are above everyone else and hold rank in the landscape. For example, one particular hypocrite individual claims there are too many photographers in the landscape yet he runs workshops with 15 students. This same individual wrote that the blowing down of the dead tree on Rannoch Moor was “fortunate for landscape photography” – yet the same tree adorns the front cover of his book! It’s egotistical attitudes like this that feed into the psyche of others.

The demise of the Rannoch tree however, brings me the more deliberate demise of trees and plants around the shores of Lochan Na h-achlaise. Two weeks ago (and for only the second time in 30 years) I conducted my own workshop in the area. But apart from teaching the students photography, my workshop had an additional agenda. And that was to show them the damage being done by photographers and to educate them on how to respect the land we cherish through our images. Needless to say, the mess at the foot of Buachaile was a shock to the system but the deliberate cutting down of trees by the Lochan provoked anger and disgust.

As we walked round the lochan, I counted around 20 camp fires and a several trees that had been cut down. Now it could be argued that this was fishermen but being a fisherman myself, you can’t fish through ice and the fishing season has been closed since early October. The mess left by fishermen tends to be bait tins, floats and line and there’s none of that. The trees that were cut down were very recent, and the fires were very recent.

The gallery below shows what we encountered in some 200 yards of shoreline.


Whilst this damage is clearly unacceptable. it should be noted that in Scotland, and despite a popular misconception, this IS trespass and vandalism. Trespass IS an offence in Scotland and it is an offence to commit trespass in combination with encamping* on land and lighting a fire on or near a roadway. Damage to trees etc., is vandalism. Intimidation is anti social behaviour. (*Wild camping is not allowed in certain national parks under certain byelaws in Scotland)

It’s important to note that this article is specifically about one location and concerns photographers only. Other leisure and social groups cause damage at certain locations too, but photography groups are a relatively new addition to the problems, and if the damage and vandalism caused by photography groups adds to the current levels, then it is highly likely that local authorities will commence with enforcement and introduce byelaws such as those introduced in the Trossachs National Park in 2009. The east of Loch Lomond for example, was one such area that invoked a response from authorities to deal with the problems. The local community, Police, NPA and Stirling council got together to tackle problem such as the damage being caused by roadside and wild camping in the park.

So, we as photographers have a responsibility to ensure this does not happen.

No brand name photographer has the right to dissuade people from our landscape for their own selfish ends and no tour group has the right to intimidate other photographers. The land is there for all to enjoy and no matter your photographic expertise, so long as you enjoy and respect the land, you are welcome and as important as anyone.

4 thoughts on “Photographers and the Massacre of Glen Coe”

  1. photographers are to blame for sure but so are anglers, I’ve found lots of evidence of anglers leaving bottles and bits of gear, a few years back there was an orange divers dry suit left behind after it had been thrown on a fire. I used to black bag stuff but it became too much.
    The winds were blamed for the two trees which blew don on the moor a while back, I’m not so sure about that.
    The tree at Achlaise was bent back and almost double, looked like more than the wind to do that. I was there the afternoon before it fell and back the next morning to find it bent double.

    Then the lightning struck tree on the moor fell about two days later, seemed a coincidence at the time, but…

    I commend you work in trying to better the conduct of photographers,, but I might hesitate to call the vandals photographers.


  2. Thanks for your comment Dougie.

    I agree with you about anglers, but in this case the anglers hadn’t been here for months. This is just photographers an all the damage was days and hours old. I’m inclined to agree with you about the Achlaise tree too. First time I saw it, it just looked like it had been pulled down – not wind damage. The other dead tree I’m not so sure. It was on it’s last legs, but suffice to say there are some photographers who were glad to see the back of them both. (cue the X-files music) And you are quite correct, the vandals are NOT photographers.

  3. Hi Stuart,

    I’m heading over to Scotland in September/October and I’m heading over to Glencoe for the purpose of some photography. Reading this article has left me with a very unsettling feeling, that “Landscape Photographer” wouldn’t respect the actual environment that they are photographing. I suppose we have brought about this environmental pressure ourselves by trying to get that ‘perfect’ shot, and the critic that says “… it would be a great image except for that tree/branch on the side of the image”. Lets blame the critics/judges (this is me being sarcastic!!). In Australia we have ‘Landcare’ groups which can be in charge of particle areas to re-vegetate / rehabilitate. Maybe this is something the Photographers could contribute to either via physical work or financial assistance etc. I wouldn’t want to have such areas locked away, we have particle areas in Australia like that, but it has been done for the protection of those areas due to their sensitive nature etc.

    • Hi Andrew, and thanks for your comment.

      It’s photographers like yourself that we welcome very warmly in Scotland. I have been to Oz several times to stay with family and I have seen the stuff you do over there to protect the land. It’s wonderful and I wish we could adopt much of it in Scotland. The problem may be the land owners over here but I’m not sure if they would invest.

      I completely understand why you would feel unsettled but please don’t let that put you off. When you do come over, give me a shout and I can give you some tips. We have a very beautiful country with so much to see and Glencoe is a fairly big place. 🙂

      The area I’m referring to has (regrettably) become a pilgrimage for many photographers in recent years. I agree about blaming the critics. They fuel much of the “competition” and landscape photography at these locations is like a sport for too many. It’s also fueled by internet forums, sites like Flickr and greedy photographers who run tours up here. Most of these photographers don’t actually come from Scotland so they don’t care what they leave behind. I’ve witnessed this for myself.

      I like your idea that Photographers could contribute by repair or assistance but it would need some research to assess implications or permission from the estate owners. I myself would like to see a “photographers code of conduct”.



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