Drone Photography in Scotland – My Highlights so Far
2017 has been the Year of the Drone for this travel blogger. I’ve taken to the skies in a bid to see a very different side to Scotland, with the odd moment of sheer awe and occasional terrifying gust of wind adding to the excitement along the way. But where have my highlights taken me in year one as a UAV pilot? Our spectacular coastlines present infinite possibilities, our moody and remote ruins beg for a flyover and our vast glens offer up all sorts of challenges to your far-sightedness. Drone photography in Scotland throws up its fair share of challenges but, when all the conditions come together, it doesn’t half amaze.
Raving about our beaches is nothing new in my book and wide open, generally empty expanses of sand are ideal for drone pilots to let loose. While the dreaded wind is always going to be bouncing around in the back of your mind, beaches are arguably the most stress-free environments for pilots to operate. Regulations and chances of interruption are limited. As for where comes out tops…..
The Isle of Harris
Harris is the king of beaches and location choices here are infinite. Luskentyre and Scarista would be the most obvious but do suffer from being so gigantic that Visual Line of Sight* starts to get tested dangerously. On this year’s trip, I played it safe with the glowing sands at Northton. South facing and with glorious Ceapabhal as a backdrop, this is tropical Scotland at its best. The smattering of outlying islands and views to North Uist add to the spectacle.
Kildonan Beach, Isle of Arran
Closer to home, Argyll and the Isles have been brilliant drone spots for me this year. Kintyre, Kerrera, Oban….all have been great fun. But I think over the water in Arran is lodged most securely in my mind. Kildonan Beach on a sunny summer’s evening was simply beautiful. Shimmering, clear waters, views over to Ayrshire and Ailsa Craig and empty stretches of beautiful sand – what more could I ask for? Despite being a super-popular wee place, Arran’s southern coastline tends to miss a large number of its visitors. Giving pilots ample time to pick their moments when the coast is clear.
St Ninian’s Isle, Shetland
Now, Shetland is just about as challenging a spot as a drone pilot could dread. Fierce, brutal, no prisoners levels of wind velocity make even taking off an extremely unlikely prospect. The tombolo connecting Mainland Shetland with St Ninian’s is, though, a rare sight. The kind of sandy strip you just want to sprint down ala Rocky and Apollo. Along with the weather, Shetland’s multiple small airfields make airspace a complicated issue, as if the winds weren’t enough to contend with. On the bright side, Sumburgh is Shetland’s primary Air Traffic Control centre and first point of contact – making permissions slightly more straightforward (especially on Sundays, hint hint).
Personally, I don’t think aerial work can be bettered when you have a magnificent backdrop landscape with one focal point at the epicentre. Therefore, castles and drones are a match made in heaven. While I’ve clocked up a couple of dozen relics from above this year, my stand out favourites include:
To date my absolute favourite flight. I’ve been a Tantallon fan for decades as its dramatic clifftop location and atmospheric crumbling sandstone walls send my imagination into overdrive. Approaching from the east along the solitary coastline and involving quite a bit of rock clambering, I found my ideal vantage point as I set the bird loose. A slight haze and bright skies added to a jawdropper of a spectacle as I went over the water – between the mainland and outlying Bass Rock – and spent a good half hour fighting for ever-improving angles. Absolutely awesome.
Behind Dunnottar, Kilchurn is probably the most ‘droned’ of the Scottish castles. I actually prefer it because Kilchurn has been another ruin that I’ve spent so much of my life poking about from ground level. It’s abundantly familiar, and endlessly rewarding. But putting the drone over Loch Awe and approaching from above was another of those breathtaking moments you just never want to end. Without doubt one of Scotland’s top drone locations, this one is best done outwith peak season and ideally at the very beginning or end of a day to avoid the human risk factor.
Astonishingly this beauty was a complete newbie to me until this summer. The shame! Set deep in the heart of Dumfries and Galloway, its lack of accessibility meant that it had never registered on my radar. Part-moated and surrounded by luscious country and hilled landscapes, the views in all directions sum up one of our most underrated regions superbly. Remote and with very little chance of interruption, Morton is the ideal testing ground for UAV beginners. Not to mention the stuff of dreams for a castle aficionado.
Permissions to fly get very tricky when you operate in what are termed Class D Airspaces – tending to include towns and cities. As a result, I’ve been restricted in my urban adventures as all these permissions and regulation can take the fun out of flying to be honest. That said, brief (very!) early morning flights over Glasgow’s Kelvingrove Park and atop Calton Hill in Edinburgh were pretty unforgettable. Familiar views certainly, just with an extra couple of hundred feet to differentiate them.
I’ve deliberately steered clear of Skye this year as its well-publicised capacity issues mean that I feel obligated to direct my focus elsewhere. Drone images from Skye have also become so ubiquitous that they’ve lost a lot of their awe as well. Glenfinnan is another one in this category I fear. One trap that I couldn’t help but fall into though was Glen Coe. From desolate and barren Rannoch Moor, past mighty and iconic Buachaille Etive Mor and onto pristine Glencoe Lochan, images speak louder than words on this one.
Scotland’s lochs are also calling out for aerial investigating. To date, I had the most fun over Loch Lomond when an early morning flight presented immaculate water vistas over a body of water I’ve been known to splash in since I was first finding my feet. I also did my bit to reduce the midge population on this flight as the debris on the aircraft post-flight certainly testified. You’re all very welcome.
Being a Drone Pilot – The Requirements
Using a drone for any sort of commercial work, including my blogging and social media publication, requires a commercial licence, comprehensive liability insurance and approval from the Civil Aviation Authority (in the UK). Despite having these and having been through a series of tests (the process is similar to getting a driving licence) you must also comply with various laws, ones that are becoming more refined as time goes on. Namely:
- Always fly within Visual Line of Sight of your drone.
- Don’t fly more than 400 feet or 500 metres from yourself, the pilot.
- Beware of the weather at all times. Strong winds and any sort of rain mean you’re going nowhere.
- Never fly within 50 metres of a person or vehicle.
- Beware of hazards including roads, power lines and birds.
- Have permission to fly on, or over, private land. This includes the likes of my regular partners Historic Environment Scotland and The National Trust for Scotland, both of whom have their own drone policies. While the likes of Tantallon and Kilchurn don’t necessarily require permission as you are shooting from significant distance and not on private property, flights that fly directly over these ruins are a definite no-no. Keep a safe distance from the ruins and any nearby buildings, people or animals at all times. Coastlines are more open of course but watch out for crossing into Class D Airspace (generally near airfields) and seek permission from the nearest Air Traffic Control centre if doing so.
So while drone flying is becoming an increasingly complicated affair (and rightly so in my view) the rewards can still be quite magnificent. A successful flight has me skipping around gleefully as I get to see familiar Scottish favourites from radically different perspectives and, while I’m slowly starting to enjoy photography more generally, this is definitely something more.
For you fans of aerial imagery, where should 2018 take me?
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