The Secret Life of the Cairngorms by Andy Howard – Review
By Audrey Coldron
Hard on the heels of the publication of his acclaimed The Secret Life of the Mountain Hare comes another astonishing volume from the award-winning wildlife photographer, Andy Howard. It is an extraordinarily beautiful book. I turned over page after page of stunning photographs of birds and animals, many in close-up showing every detail of feather or fur, some gazing directly into the eyes of the beholder, or vividly in action, taking flight, or running past the lens, against luminous backgrounds, and in the craggy mountain wilderness.
This is however much more than a collection of skilfully-wrought aesthetically pleasing pictures. They have been thoughtfully curated by the photographer with accompanying text that provides illuminating commentary and anecdote.
The Cairngorms host the highest, coldest and snowiest plateaux in the British Isles and are home to five of the six highest mountains in Scotland. Distinguished writer Cameron McNeish, who lives in their shadow, writes in a foreword: ‘This beautiful book perfectly illustrates what you miss if you continue to walk with your eyes proverbially closed. The exquisite images, the rewards of Andy Howard’s infinite patience, remind us that these hills, scoured by wind, frost and snow, sculpted into corries and skirted by the finest natural forests, are like no others in our northern land.’
In the Introduction that follows Andy Howard narrates how his relationship with that extraordinary landscape was nurtured over many years and how he developed his interest and expertise in photography. He talks of being ‘a working artist with a camera’, responding to the environment and the wildlife, and of his ‘communion with a wild place and a hint at how the place enters the person as much as the person enters the place.’
The main body of the book is laid out in four sections. Loch and Rivers, Woodland and Forest, Moorland and Heath, and finally, as we reach the highest region, The High Plateau. Each section is prefaced with a couple of pages of text offering insights from his personal experience of the terrain, the habitat and its denizens – he’s an artist with words too – followed by the photographs of those denizens, taken in all weathers, along with occasional shots of the landscape, and grouped in such a way that I experienced them with new eyes, through Andy’s lens.
Each collection of pictures is interspersed with what he calls Field Notes to elucidate specific photographs. The first such note accompanies an extraordinary action photograph: What on earth is going on in this whirl of feathers? The note he titles ‘The tale of the osprey and the duck’ explains it all. An amazing encounter caught by his patient watchful camera.
There are creatures he finds especially attractive and in each section he features what he calls ‘Favourites in Focus’. In the watery world of the first section, Lochs and Rivers, he features the osprey. He lays out some ornithological information about the bird followed by a series of remarkable action photographs
I was delighted that among other favourites in the Moorland and Heath section he featured one of mine, the mountain hare shown in both white winter coat and summer brown and in some unusual postures.
Implicit throughout the book, but articulated in Andy Howard’s Coda: ‘Seasonality and Schedule 1’ is his respect for the fragile environment of the Cairngorms and the creatures that depend on it. Not only is climate change a threat but the human footfall, especially tourism, or visitors thoughtlessly tramping through the terrain. He is clearly so in tune with his subjects that he knows not only when and how to approach them but especially when not to.
I think the fittest way to conclude my comments on this beautiful, enriching book is with Andy Howard’s own words: ‘My intention in the field is to meet nature with all that I have that is human including the science of the camera, and so to become more fully human.’
I have been truly enlightened by this book and recommend it in the very strongest terms.
‘The Secret Life of the Cairngorms’ by Andy Howard is published by Sandstone Press, hardback £24.99