From her window, Beth Robertson Fiddes can see the great mass of Cul Mor rising into the clouds above Assynt. The sun is shining, she tells me, but there is a snowstorm moving down the side of the mountain. A few minutes later it’s a whiteout, the trees bending in the gale.
It’s an interesting place for a landscape painter, even one who is currently prevented from going out to paint by the COVID-19 lockdown. “I can’t complain,” she says, wryly. “I’m stuck with a stunning view.”
In the last decade, Robertson Fiddes has emerged as one of Scotland’s most distinctive landscape painters, particularly known for her paintings of rocks and water, and always drawn to this landscape in the Northwest Highlands, its mountains and coasts. In 2013, she and her husband moved from Edinburgh to Ullapool, where she still has a studio, and just recently moved to their current home 15 miles further north in the crofting township of Elphin.
Her latest exhibition, Light and Tide, opened at the Strathearn Gallery in Crieff just before the lockdown began, and is available to view online. “It’s eight months of work and the gallery looks fantastic, but no one can see it,” she says, wistfully. “I just keep describing it to people.” Another show, a collaboration with the pianist Mhairi Hall, was due to open in Stornoway and has had to be postponed until next year.
Light and Tide brings together paintings from the dramatic coastlines of Clachtoll and Achmelvich (“Where I’d be now, if I could, it’s just the right kind of day to get the big tides and that splash of light”) with tranquil rock pools and inlets from Iona. “This show is all about the light,” she says. “I was going out trying to capture a specific kind of light, coastal light, light hitting water. Everywhere I went last year I was looking for that.
“Iona has just the most special kind of light. Sometimes blazing sun isn’t that great, but later in the day, I’d get bits of interesting clouds and light. It was a very fortunate trip. Quite a lot of the time I’ve planned to go somewhere and I get nothing at all, the sky is just dead grey.”
Robertson Fiddes spent the early years of her childhood on the island of Tiree and says this was fundamental to forming her sense of landscape. She studied at Edinburgh College of Art, where she became interested in bronze-casting, and graduated with a degree in sculpture, but she never stopped painting.
“It was always there, it never left me,” she says. “It’s something I did right through my childhood. Even at art college, I painted landscape when it wasn’t term-time. It’s just part of what I do to exist, it was even when it wasn’t my profession, it’s a bit like breathing.”
While raising a family in Edinburgh, she would take solo wild camping trips to the Northwest Highlands to paint. Winning a prize in the Jolomo Bank of Scotland Awards for Scottish landscape painting in 2011 was a much deserved boost.
“I was working in a fishing tackle shop, and getting some money from the Jolomo Award gave me a breathing space to think, ‘Maybe I don’t need to do this job, I can focus on the painting’. I had to trust that enough people would be interested in my work and they were. I don’t underestimate luck. Hard work is one thing but I definitely feel that a lot of good opportunities came my way.”
Two years later, she and her husband made the decision to move, but it took until last year to find their ideal base in the village of Elphin, just over the border into Sutherland. “We’re just at the point where everything turns a bit rocky and primeval,” she says. “The spring flowers are out in Ullapool, but just a little bit further north we’ve still got the last gasp of winter nipping at us.
“It’s strange, having spent so long coming up here to work, grabbing every second. Now I open the curtains and there are the mountains. When I used to come up here to paint, I would have very specific things I wanted to capture – and half the time I’d go back to the studio and paint something else. Sometimes what you see by accident is the most interesting thing, but you can only see things by accident if you have time. Now I have the luxury of time to waste.”
Robertson Fiddes is fascinated by the different time-frames contained in the landscape. “Two contrasting viewpoints spin around my head when I’m working. Some things move fast, like waves and weather, and I’m trying to slow the whole thing down and capture it. But the rocks have ongoing movement and life as well, the only reason we can’t see it is we don’t live long enough. Their dramas take millennia.”
With the great rocky mountains of Assynt as daily companions, she is always aware of geological time. Looking out at Cul Mor, with the head of Cul Beag rising beyond it, Robertson Fiddes says: “One of the things I always think about when I’m painting is that this great lump of Cul Mor sits out there and doesn’t care, it just continues. I think about all the things it has witnessed as the world goes on around it, and now this [the COVID-19 epidemic].
“These mountains are doing their own thing, in their own unimaginable time-frames, and we are just a blink, we don’t matter – it’s scary and comforting at the same time. We get anxious about how important we are, that we’re the thing that must endure, but as far as the world is concerned I’m not sure that we are.”
By the time we’ve finished talking, the snow has gone and the sun has come out again.
Beth Robertson Fiddes: Light and Tide, is online until 19 April, www.strathearn-gallery.com