Photo: Uig Bay at sunset

Photograph by Jim Richardson

Photo: Photographer Jim Richardson

Photograph courtesy Jim Richardson

Contributing editor Jim Richardson is a photojournalist recognized for his explorations of small-town life. His photos appear frequently in National Geographic magazine.

A thousand years ago Vikings were playing chess here. Pleasant to think that the Vikings could kick back after a hard day of pillaging and have some quiet time. I was staying at the lovely little inn called Baile na Cille, situated just out of the frame to the left. The inn is on the west coast of the Isle of Lewis, the biggest of the hundreds of islands and skerries known as the Outer Hebrides of Scotland. After dinner I went out on the lawn and saw this scene—the vast Uig Bay.

Amazingly, Uig Bay drains entirely at low tide, turning it into a stunning beach. You can walk clear across if you like. If you walked about a mile [1.6 kilometers] straight into the picture you would come to where the Vikings lost their chessmen in the dunes a thousand years ago. Known now as the Lewis chessmen, the pieces lay buried until 1831, when Malcolm "Sprot" Macleod found them and then displayed them for a while in his byre—a cow barn, to you and me. Most of the Lewis chessmen are now in the British Museum. (A side note: That the chessmen reside in London can reliably be counted on to raise the ire of locals. Some will say that the set ought to be here in the isles where they belong, and I agree.)

On this evening, I was in no mood for ire. How could I be amid this idyll? I watched rabbits chase each other around their warrens. The tide settled itself after coming in, creating a mirror-smooth surface on the bay. A stone fence carved out a territory for gravestones, once part of a churchyard. Our clue is in the inn's name, Baile na Cille, with the word cille meaning church.

After the light was gone, I went back inside and breathlessly told innkeeper Richard Gollin what I had just seen. He humored me. He lives there and sees the bay every day. Now, I should probably recite the technical details of this picture, as photographers are wont to do. If I did, the rundown would go something like this: Nikon D3 with a Really Right Stuff L Plate on a Gitzo 1228 carbon fiber tripod with a Really Right Stuff BH-40 ballhead, PCL-1 panning clamp, and MPR-CL II rail so that I could center a 24mm Nikkor PC-E lens over the nodal point. This, too, was to be a multiframe panorama.

If you were able to follow all the preceding details, then you already know what I am talking about.

If not, it hardly matters.

It's true. All my cameras and tripods and ballheads have plenty of knobs I must adjust, and as good as the equipment is and as much as I rely on it as a photographer, none of it can make an evening glorious. I'd love for equipment to create a thrilling sky like that I saw in Uig Bay that night—or calm the waters or make rabbits jump in circles in a way that made my heart glad.

So rather than trying further to explain what is best seen, I suggest relishing the history of the Lewis chessmen, and, if you get a chance, go stay at Baile na Cille out at the end of the road in Timsgarry on the west coast of the Isle of Lewis. Tell Richard I sent you.

See the Hebrides story and photographs here »

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