Tide: The story behind the photograph

Moonlight at St John‘s Point, Caithness, Scotland

St John‘s Point is a headland located on the north coast of mainland Scotland. Visible from this point is treacherous Merry Men of Mey – a tidal race which is formed by the rocks that extend across the Pentland Firth, channel separating the Scottish mainland and Orkney Islands. One of the fastest tidal currents in the world is the strongest on the ebb tide when the current flows east to west. Its speed can reach up to 11 knots (about 20km per hour). The tide is caused by combined effects of gravitational forces of the Moon and the Sun and the rotation of the Earth.

Tide is a phenomenon to watch out for anywhere in the world. Here, in Pentland Firth – the strait that separates mainland Scotland from Orkney Islands – tide is especially strong. In these perilous waters there are number of tidal races that make navigation difficult, even in calm conditions.

I chose to photograph at St John‘s Point for number of reasons. Topographically this place looks interesting even on a map. The promontory with certain imagination resembles an open hand with its rocky „fingers“ dousing the sea. The cliffs not as steep as in neighbouring Dunnet Head are also more accessible. Another reason for visit has been continuation of my photographic practice that deals with landscape and its use as well as man‘s impact upon it.

Several years ago I travelled to St David‘s Head in Wales to photograph location between Welsh mainland and Ramsey Island. This place (Ramsey sound) was chosen for an engineering research and development experiment when an underwater turbine was submerged in the sea in order to generate renewable energy in this channel known for its strong tidal currents. (The generating energy part of this project however, lasted only three months as the active sonar to monitor impact upon marine mammals developed fault and the turbine could not operate within its licence without this equipment being active; then the company behind this project went into administration)

Here, in the north of Scotland, between the Scottish mainland and the Island of Stroma is however an active tidal stream project. It is called MeyGen, also known as Project Stroma and it is being built by SIMEC Atlantis Energy. Topography of this location (similar to St David‘s Head), with its natural channel, was a significant factor for the placement of turbines due to high flows, medium water depth and proximity to mainland where the onshore power conversion unit building is located. The first phase of this project has been implemented and that meant the deployment of four 1.5 MW turbines. They will act as a precursor for later development of the whole tidal array in the subsea area. There are several phases for the whole project still to be completed.

Due to strength of tides and currents around Orkney Islands it is therefore not surprising that the European Marine Energy Centre (EMEC) based itself on these islands. They provide accredited open-sea testing facility to developers of both wave and tidal energy technologies. „We have been in a position recently where tidal turbines that have been on site, have been producing 7% of Orkney electricity, week in week out.....that is unique at the moment; what we have got to do is to make it a standard“, said Neil Kermode, managing director of EMEC in BBC ALBA documentary An Làn/Tide (A‘beartachadh an Lain/Harnessing the tide episode).

Getting to St John‘s Point wasn‘t difficult. Just a bit of walking, mainly downhill. There was a path among common gorse, a coconut-smelling thorny shrub with its yellow flowers that local people call whin bush. The sign at the end of this large overgrown area read: „This is a common land. There are sheep here on pasture. Please keep your dog on leash.“ The sheep were all around and in this time of the year grazing with its lambs. The path led me across a turfed outcrop which I later found out was a place where St John‘s chapel had stood long time ago. In 1919 John Nicolson discovered a stone slab during excavation within remains of a building. This slab, with finely incised outline of a cross, has been dated to 7th or 8th century.

St John’s Point - view towards Orkney Islands

St John’s Point - view towards Orkney Islands

St John’s Point - view towards Island of Stroma

St John’s Point - view towards Island of Stroma

What a view! I pitch my tent on the tip of the promontory. What a view! On the eastern side is uninhabited island of Stroma. On the northern side is Orcadian island of Hoy. And on the western side is elongated headland of Dunnet Head – the northernmost point of mainland Scotland. Everywhere else is the sea and the sky. The sun is shining and south-easterly wind blows steadily. Kittiwakes are flying in the air and the top of the sea stack called Man of Mey is a nest for oystercatcher. I patiently scan the sea to glimpse any signs of humpback whales, minke whales or orcas who come to Pentland Firth in late May on an annual passage through it. It is in vain though as I am too early for this extraordinary wildlife procession. I gaze long at the sea anyway. The Pentland Firth is a busy shipping channel. Tide is coming in and then going out leaving rocks of Men of Mey partially bare.

Before the evening comes, in full sunshine, I dip in the very cold sea breaking on the disintegrating jetty in one of the geos (small fjord or gully). This jetty was used in the recent past by local fishermen to land herrings, abundant fish stock in the late 19th and early 20th century.

When the sun comes down on the north-west horizon it becomes considerably colder. Different flock of small birds flutter together in the air. With darkness descending, one by one, the lighthouses in the whole area come alive. Their flashing light in frequent intervals serves for navigational aid to warn the boats and ships of dangerous areas. The Dunnet Head lighthouse (built 1831) on the mainland was designed by Robert Stevenson (1772-1850) whose descendants later designed most of Scotland‘s lighthouses. The one opposite me in the distance on Island of Hoy peninsula named South Walls is Cantick Head lighthouse (Thomas & David Stevenson, 1858) and there is another one on the northern tip of Island of Stroma simply called Stroma lighthouse (David A & Charles Stevenson, 1896) which is positioned very close to Swilkie Point – the most dangerous whirlpool in the Pentland Firth where four or sometimes five contrary tides meet. Although Robert Louis Stevenson did not become lighthouse engineer he was very much involved with the sea. He became novelist, poet and travel writer; author of notable works such as Treasure Island (1883) or The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886). He must have visited this place at St John‘s Point as he also wrote a short story called The Merry Men inspired by the infamous rocks and the tidal race (the collection of short stories The Merry Men and Other Tales and Fables, 1887).

Even though there are still buildings visible on the Stroma island, no one lives there anymore. In 1901 it still had population of 375 people. This tiny island was inhabited until 1962 when most people left. The last family, the lighthouse keepers however, abandoned it in 1997 as the Stroma lighthouse was converted to automatic operation, similarly like other lighthouses at the time.


The night is quiet. The tide had ebbed away and I shelter on the cliffs below my tent, making long exposure. Night is gently illuminated by the Moon. Being in the north in late spring means that the nights are short. It is only 2am but the clouds already display dawn colours of slowly rising sun. It has been a magical night and the light in north-east signifies it would also be a wonderful day ahead.

St David’s head (Wales) - view towards Ramsey Island

St David’s head (Wales) - view towards Ramsey Island