Sea and Land

With camera, pen and guide

Professional photography may seem a bit of a shift from a background in genetics and a PhD in biochemistry, but although Charles Tait does occasionally wonder what he might be working on now had he pursued the scientific route, he feels with the imminent publication of the new edition of the Orkney Guide Book that things turned out pretty well.

Not only has he made a career out of a youthful passion, but he has also had the opportunity to travel widely, become acquainted with some less well-known beauty spots and places of interest and has been welcomed into the homes of many people to share a meal, a cup of tea or a dram.

The icing on the cake though is that he can keep on working for as long as he wants – no retirement plans on the horizon – knowing he has the back-up of a reliable team in his son Magnus and assistant Muriel Shearer.

An early start

His photographic interest began early, inspired to some degree by his father, his aunt – filmmaker Margaret Tait – and cousins, including Harold Shearer, who gave Charles the use of an old kitchen to use as a dark room. Although he has snapped around 500 weddings, his real interest has always been in landscape, wildlife and archaeology and it seemed an almost natural progression to turn that into a book.

It was obvious from the start that there was no way to make a living out of photography on its own in Orkney – at least not the sort of thing I wanted to do, so I branched out and started going to Shetland and the Outer Hebrides quite rapidly.”

Postcards came first, followed by guidebooks and over the past 30 years he has produced 15 of them – not counting reprints and new editions – covering Orkney, Shetland, The Outer Hebrides, Skye, The North Highlands, NC500 and as far south as Dorset.

It is perhaps logical that Orkney is the most well covered, and what originally began as a book on Scapa Flow grew to cover the whole of Orkney and later branched into a variety of publications of various sizes concentrating on different areas.

I get all the fun of going to different islands and places I’ve not been for a while. Recently I went to Stronsay for the day. I hadn’t been for quite a long time, so I had a very interesting day there. It’s kind of a labour of love, the Orkney ones.”

The production process

Rapid changes in technology over the past 30 years have also impacted on how the books are produced. The first one, The Orkney Guide Book, came out 10 years before desktop publishing, scanners and digital photography. Once text and photos were completed, everything was handed over to a printer, greatly increasing production costs. Technological advancement has halved the cost of that part of the process and although it is still time consuming doing this work himself, it is, as he says, his own time and he is no longer a rookie.

A framework has developed over the years which first involves a lot of background reading, numerous visits, speaking with lots of people and taking lots of photos – often after noting the spot in bad weather and returning for the perfect shot when the weather improves. A seasonal rhythm also develops with most of the writing taking place in winter.

I rely heavily on my son Magnus and my assistant Muriel to get it all done. Magnus works on the photos and makes them look good and Muriel does the proof reading. She also does a lot of editing and frequently comes out with things like ‘Charles you can’t say that!’ All the books have got a kind of generic way about them so if I do a new one, I’ve already got a framework for it.”

This sense of familiarity and knowing something of the layout and what to find within the covers, Charles believes, is important to those who buy the books and equally as important as the quality.

The fact the books are accurate and readable, with wonderful photography and state of the art printing, is another attraction. The price, of course, also has to be right.

Content is carefully considered, and a decision was made early on to exclude anything about accommodation and eating out.

Obviously as soon as you print something it is already out of date, but the sort of things we put in the guidebook – nature, history, archaeology, walks, what there is to see and do – those sorts of things don’t go out of date. We want to encourage people to stop and look. Don’t just get in the car and drive, but open all your senses and soak it in whether it’s the sounds of the birds or the feelings of places like Brodgar.”

Guided to Orkney

Despite ever-encroaching technology with many people using the internet to plan their holidays, Charles finds that once people have actually reached their destination, they like to have a guidebook to carry with them and he doesn’t believe this is necessarily confined to the older generations. While there are some people, perhaps day trippers, who might not require a travel guide, those who are interested in nature and cultural heritage like to have one with them – something that is easy to carry and access, even in remote areas where there might not be any wifi.

As with other aspects of life, the covid pandemic has left its mark. It devastated the tourist trade in Orkney, but Charles is quietly optimistic it will recover. Over the past 30 years he has witnessed a huge increase in the numbers of tourists visiting the islands, which has been good for business, but he has major concerns about the impact of mass tourism and believes that Skara Brae has already lost much of its unique impact. He also believes the local authorities in Orkney, Skye and the north coast of Scotland need to take action to develop facilities which currently have not kept pace with numbers.

What we want is responsible, sustainable tourism, not just mass tourism. Don’t think I’m talking bad about the day trips that come on the cruise ships, but we can only cope with so many before they start to impinge on the people that may be coming for a week or two weeks. The good thing about all of the island areas and the north of Scotland is that they are such big areas that visitors can always find somewhere quiet. Even in the height of the season in Orkney you can always find a beach with nobody on it.”

Covid also affected Charles’ own intentions for further development. Just before the pandemic he had plans drawn up to expand his premises which have not only been taken over by guidebooks but have also had to accommodate the new equipment which goes along with new technology, including a drone. He describes his computer filing system as possibly one of the most organised in Scotland – of necessity when it comes to storing and backing up files, and also to allow ease of access, not just for himself, but also Magnus and Muriel.

But if you came into my office or my house you would think Charles lives in chaos, but actually he doesn’t because his mind is pretty organised. When I’m writing a book, I’m all up to date with whatever’s in the book, I mean all the little details, and just fill my mind with all of that, and the same with photos, but as soon as I’ve finished it, I kind of put it in a compartment and get on with the next thing.”

Travelling on

Some of the books have gone through several editions which means revisiting places and updating information and Charles feels very much at home and connected with each of the places he has covered, although he never thought that 30 years later he would still be going strong.

Holidays are not a feature of his life because wherever he goes he takes his camera with him. A couple of years ago he went to Iceland. Another guidebook perhaps? Not this time, he says, the country is too big, although he does hint that he would not mind staying there for an extended period of time, and who knows what might come of it?

Icelanders are the same folk as Orcadians and as soon as they realise you are an Orcadian there is an immediate connection. All the farm names in Iceland are the same as Orkney so you feel very much at home.”

Right now though, he is about two-thirds of the way through the new version of the big Orkney Guide Book, which he is hoping to have out in time for Christmas. However, as all the work apart from the printing is done by himself, Magnus and Muriel and, following his father’s advice, he is not going to lose any sleep should it take longer than anticipated. And this is pretty much his philosophy of life.

These things take time, and it just has to take as long as it takes. You just have to get on with it. The worse it gets the calmer you’ve got to be. There is no point getting in a state.”

About the author

Mary Leonard

Mary Leonard began her journalistic career on The Orcadian. Since then she has lived and worked in different parts of the world. She now lives in Edinburgh where she works as a psychotherapist and counsellor and continues to enjoy writing.