It all started with a conversation with my Dad in 2015. He was into sea kayaking and had come across the WWII searchlight emplacements at Nigg Sutor – utterly abandoned and blissfully tucked away.

Searchlights - Dad's shot of the searchlight emplacements at Nigg Sutor
Searchlights – Dad’s shot of the searchlight emplacements at Nigg Sutor

The challenge to get to them was set that day, although I told him that I didn’t want to gain access to them by kayak – “that’s too easy and I’m big into ropes ennit!”

Over the next year or so I attempted to complete Dad’s challenge by gaining access to the searchlights from the top of the Sutor. To briefly summarise my trips in the early summer months of 2015: gauze and bracken well above my massive 5ft 5in stature, ticks everywhere, lots of falling, lots of sweating, no swearing, honestly; midges, crap visibility, no paths, chased by stupid cattle, one trip to hospital – broke my thumb after diving over an overhanging barbed wire military fence – and stupid cattle, like… big-uns.

During the height of summer 2015, I hacked my way down the Sutor and made absolutely no progress, down, up, down, left or right. I fell down on my ass, up on my ass and even finally heard a Search and Rescue chopper heading right for me.

Searchlights - Search and Rescue
Searchlights – Search and Rescue

“no way, there’s no way that’s here for me… FFS, is it?”

I had the GoPro rolling and thought I better start shooting some stills. I put one hand in the air with my thumb up as the SAR helicopter came right at me and then circled away.

Thinking back, I should’ve taken the lift, it was a nightmare walk back that time.

Challenged but undefeated, in 2016 I took Droney along (my DJI Phantom 3). I surveyed where I thought the old path went, made a map and made a plan to try again.

Searchlights - The route down
Searchlights – The route down

Late summer 2016 saw me hacking through it all again. Following my map from tree to tree, I managed to find the fence line, and then the gate! This was a big moment because I started to hear the crashing waves, and as I climbed the gate the searchlights come into view – amazing!

I went down through the tick-infested gauze that barely lets you see holes in the ground that are simply there to drag you and your gear in and spit you off the cliffs. I came upon a fencepost – anchor point – kaboom, I abseiled down the next bit and finally got to the first searchlight placement.

Success! It was time for a selfie and to message Dad – we had the craic and laughed until he said, “So how are you gonna get to the second searchlight? You’re not going over that sketchy collapsed bridge support are you?”

My face dropped as I looked at this thing – I told Dad, “Not today I’m not, it’s mental!”

That was my Dad all over – set a challenge, achieve it, set another and get on it.

Dad passed away in A few weeks later in October 2016.

A better death no one could ever wish for, God rest his soul. He was preaching in the Church right across the road from my house at the time.

His heart stopped and he collapsed.

A member of the congregation ran over from the Church to get me. As soon as I saw their face, and before I heard their voice I was already sprinting over through the gates.

Training kicked in and I started basic life support.

I got my breath in his lungs and felt his chest crush under my compressions, “Come on, Dad”. I cycled like this for about 15 minutes (I think) until Paramedics arrived. We continued with defib and shots of adrenaline, but there was nothing.

My Dad was gone.

I booted my Mini to the Hospital, waited for the Ambulance to get there and went in with the paramedic crew. We couldn’t get him back. Familiar faces of the medical staff greeted me and the Doctor on-call looked at me and put his hand on my shoulder.

A strong squeeze from the Paramedic. We cried.

I called my Sister and essentially debriefed her…I guess I wasn’t feeling any emotion at this point. Next, I called my Mother who was on holiday, she screamed and broke down, thankfully she was at her sister’s place.

I went for help, eventually.

Talking it all through really helped. I’m now working through the issues that PTSD has left me with. Mindfulness, meditation, and FILM PHOTOGRAPHY are getting me through.

To load film and go shoot gives me peace, focuses my heart, body, mind, and soul – it doesn’t matter what I’m shooting, I’m right there in the moment, I am part of that photo.

In time, I continued with my photography adventures, mainly along the coastlines, and got speaking to David S Allen initially through Twitter. Long story short, we’re into the same stuff and said how cool it would be to head out? Dave Lives in France, and I’m in the Scottish Highlands.

So of course, he came over for a week of complete mentalness.

Searchlights - Dave testing structure
Searchlights – Dave testing structure

What follows is our record of the sketchy shit we pulled all week long. Naturally, I was hellbent on getting across to that second searchlight. Dad had set the challenge, and I was gonna get there. This was in part for him – the incomplete challenge – and in part for me – showing myself I could do it.

Dave and I nailed it on our second trip down. We cracked open a Murphey’s and let the adrenaline subside whilst we shot film.

Searchlights - Dave and Si Murphey's
Searchlights – Dave and Si Murphey’s

We used all kinds of madness and magic to get across, literally. Taking large format and other analogue cameras only, we loaded our gear and set a small rope on Droney…. Droney was gonna be key whatever happened, we just knew it!

Dave’s put the footage of the searchlights together in two episodes, go watch them.

You might be interested in...

EP1: Simon and David Go Do Stuff:

EP2: Bring Droney Home:

Completing the journey to the searchlights was an emotional stretch for me.

There’s no one else other than Dave that I could see myself being able to share that experience with. Apart from anything else, the logistics of getting over there were sketchy as f*ck and I knew he had my back (even though we had never climbed together before).

After Dave crashed the drone I was so pissed off at the prospect that we wouldn’t make it over, but I wouldn’t let it go. Looking back at the experience, swimming across would have probably put other lives in danger, and been totally shit but I honestly was on the edge at one point.

We got over in the end by swinging across the rocks. It was crazy but perfect and so worth the risk. Accomplishment, fulfilment and achievement filled my blood and coursed through my pumping veins when I got to the top, but sadly and ultimately I felt truly crushed.

There would be no more challenges set by Dad, would there?

During the same trip, Dave and I went to the WWII fuel storage tanks at Inchindown where there exists no light or sound. They offer awesome potential for long-exposure and light-painting shots, not for steel-wool though – that would be a blast registered on the Richter scale, kaaaabooom.

On our last visit there, Dave had the awesome idea of setting the large format camera up at one end of the tank and walking to the other end whilst systematically using a flash gun to illuminate the tank at 5 pace intervals – we hoped to detail the entire tank and not show any lights. 

This shot got nailed bigtime, pretty much HP5 at 1600 ISO – f16 – 30-minute exposure (it takes a long time to walk to the end). When you approach the end of the tank you can hear your own footsteps approaching you. The tanks hold the record for the longest echo in the world within a man-made structure.

Searchlights - Dave and I
Searchlights – Dave and I

Dave is coming back over in February 2019 for an epic second part to the project: we aim to create what may be the worlds largest darkroom. We will shoot on the Intrepid 10×8 and 5×4 large format cameras, and then hit the flipmode switch to use Intrepid’s newly launched enlarger to make prints of our negatives in a set of four paddling pools.

Logistically, it works perfectly for the environment we’re going into, we can print big, and it’s just how we roll.

Since Dave came to the Highlands to see me, it was only right that I head to France and see him. I think on our first day we opened a bottle of Dom and got a bit pissed. The next day we built his darkroom and set his Durst 4×5 enlarger up.

Spending time with Dave and his family was such a breath of clean, fresh air. So much love and teamwork, and film photography made it all happen.

Searchlights - Dave and his Lomo lens
Searchlights – Dave and his Lomo lens

During the week we adventured into (what we thought was an) abandoned Chateaux, turned out it wasn’t, so how can I best put this? We didn’t really get much time to shoot, in fact, we had to leg it and grab our bikes.

Dave actually set me up here, as the bikes have the brakes on the opposite sides to every other bike I’ve ever ridden! It was a very sketchy retreat and I was super wonky with it all. Amazing experience though, culminating in choosing another building to shoot, climbing it, getting chucked out and not shooting any frames.

We then embarked on a 7-pitch rock climb where we took our Minox’s to document. I can say that this particular day really pushed me on in terms of getting some confidence back.

Searchlights - Dave bridging
Searchlights – Dave bridging

It’s common to become anxious and be hyper-sensitive after dealing with trauma. I remember some days not being able to pull out of a junction in the car without freaking out.

Hundreds of meters off the deck and anchored to the rock, I would lift the tiny Minox up to my eye and things would be calm, I could breathe and frame the shot. Would the same effect be achieved if the camera was digital? For me, definitely not to anywhere near the same extent.

Through Dave’s friend Danielle, we collaborated and shot film at an art exhibition of which was a truly amazing experience. One shot was centred around news and consumerism, the three of us spun ideas around and created one of our best photographs, I believe.

This day was all about feeling and being totally engrossed in the environment, the people, their souls, bodies and eyes. I don’t know how else to really explain the experience other than completely immersive. The challenges of shooting analogue on that day were just what Dave and I needed to bring out our best work.

Once again, we made some life-long friends and felt cleansed and uplifted by our interaction with life on film.

One thing I have to be aware of is that until such a time occurs that I can shoot like this for the majority of my life, there are going to be moments where I may feel low. To counter this, I have learned to embrace down-time and use it constructively to plan the next thing.

It’s okay to not feel okay

Jotting ideas down, sketching out shots, talking things over on video chat, for example, can all re-focus me and I’m closer to the next big thing.

I guess how this article links in with film photography is that I wanted to share the experience and say that it’s okay to not feel okay.

Do the things you love and share that with others if you can. Photography has brought me friends, real friends, brothers-and-sisters-for-life kinda people. Get out there and push hard for your goals. Don’t just shoot single exposures, shoot shitloads, experiment with everything, enjoy it, and remember to take some down days away from the madness.

That’s not gonna work for everyone, but it works for me.

Peace to all, and please reach out to someone if you’re in need. For me, I’ll pick the camera up, load film and get moving.

~ Simon

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Searchlights - Dad South Sutor
Searchlights – Dad South Sutor

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Simon Riddell

I know I’m a little unhinged and mad. I know what I’ve done, and what I want to do, I’m focused on that path in the present. When I was 18 I was diagnosed with diabetes – curveball. These days I work as a professional Fire Risk Consultant. I’m...

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  1. Hi Simon,

    I’d the impression that those structures were gun emplacements protecting the Firth. Yes I know there were searchlights there, and on the South Sutor, but thought they were separate, and outside of these. Also aware there are/were very much bigger guns on top of the North and South Sutors.

    If you’d been able to come the week before or after, the tide would have been out, and you have a shingle bank in place of the water swilling about under that remnant of the bridge. Less dramatic though!

    If links work in this post here’s how it looked back in 2010 (your father would have approved of the transport):

    Also, from inside one of the matching structures on the South Sutor, with links to a couple of other snaps from it (apologies no film camera that day):

    Many thanks again to you and Keith, for the recent Introduction to Large Format course in Inverness, and best wishes to you both. From that day:

    …Dave St…