Savage beauty: Valley photographer immerses herself in Scotland

  • Donna Carpenter, pictured at Forbes Library in Northampton, has spent months in Scotland over the past few years, taking photographs and tracing part of her ancestry. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Donna Carpenter, who has lived in South Hadley Falls and Montague, has spent part of the past three years living in Scotland. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Donna Carpenter, seen here at Hosmer Gallery in Northampton’s Forbes Libray, has compiled hundreds of images of Scotland in the past few years. “It’s a very romantic place,” she says. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • “Light on Loch Broom.” Photo by Donna Carpenter

  • “Portrait of Minister Roy, Perthshire.” Photo by Donna Carpenter

  • “Lone Rowan Tree at Grey Mare’s Trail, Southern Uplands.” Photo by Donna Carpenter

  • “Sheep and Standing Stone, Stenness.” Photo by Donna Carpenter

  • “White Croft House at Midsummer, Glen Coe.” Photo by Donna Carpenter

  • “Hogweed Stem in Planticrue, Papa Westray.” Planticrues are stone-walled enclosures made to protect crops from salt sea winds.

  • “Bass Rock and North Berwick Shoreline, Lothian.” Photo by Donna Carpenter

Staff Writer
Published: 1/11/2018 9:31:45 AM

She says the weather there can be “savage,” with frequent high winds, and rain that can travel almost horizontally. It can be cloudy for days on end, and in fall and winter, there’s not a whole lot of daylight.

But Donna Carpenter is fine with the often harsh climate in Scotland because, she says, it’s a beautiful, rugged land with a rich history and a romanticism that lends itself to wonderful photographs.

Carpenter, a former public-school art and special-education teacher, has taken to photography in a big way in the last several years, and Scotland has been her main muse. That’s in part because her first visits to the country — an overnight stay in 2012 and a three-week trip in 2013 —  prompted her to try and learn more about the land of her ancestors, some of whom came to the U.S. from Scotland in the mid-19th century.

“In my family, there was a certain amount of romanticism about the part that came from Ireland,” Carpenter said during an interview at Forbes Library in Northampton, where some of her photos were recently on display. “The part that came from Scotland — not so much.”

Over the past three years, in particular, Carpenter has lived in Scotland for several months at a time, using Edinburgh as a base from which she has crisscrossed the country by train, bus and foot to explore its varied terrain: miles of rocky coastlines; the highlands and what’s known as the Southern Uplands; and the distant Orkney and Shetland islands, which are closer to Norway than to England. 

Carpenter, who previously lived in South Hadley Falls and Montague and is currently staying in Chicopee, shoots exclusively in black and white — the better, she says, to capture the harsh beauty of Scotland, with its ancient stone dwellings, shadowed views, and largely treeless hills and mountains (though tree cover has increased significantly in the past century).

“It is a romantic kind of place, with its own sense of time and mystery,” said Carpenter. “I also was a printmaker, so I’m used to working in black and white. I prefer it, and I think it’s perfect for Scotland.”

A look at her photos makes it hard to argue with that idea. One, taken in southern Scotland, is framed around a fast-flowing stream that cuts through steep hills alternately covered in grass and rock; a single, slender rowan tree clings to the side of the stream, and dark and lighter clouds billow across the sky.

Another, from the Orkney Islands, depicts a scene that speaks to the seeming timelessness of the land: Sheep graze in a meadow near an ocean inlet, just beyond a strange, standing stone that dates from Neolithic times.

And her take on some of Scotland’s famous “lochs” — lakes — offers a welcome alternative to the usual tourist-industry images. Her photo of Loch Broom, in Scotlands’s far Northwest, is a brooding but darkly beautiful tableau in which sky, rocky shore and water all seem to converge.

The country certainly has its days of bright sunshine that lend themselves to color photography, but that’s a bit of a con, Carpenter said with a laugh.

“Scotland seduces you with beautiful weather, and you fall in love — and then it gives you all the weather,” she said. “It changes four times a day.”

Making art with a camera

Carpenter took up photography about 10 years ago, when she still lived in South Hadley, along the Connecticut River. She spent a lot of time walking the hills in the region, she says, and wanted to find a way to document that.

“I’ve always been involved in the visual arts, but I was also really drawn to the outside world, and I still wanted to make art with that,” she said.

After she’d gotten a digital camera, she took a job at the University of Massachusetts Amherst as the academic programming manager for the Fine Arts Center, a position that required her to develop her computer skills — something she wasn’t all that crazy about, she says, but which had the benefit of making her much more adept with processing her photos.

“Photography was a way for me to learn about computers,” she said. “It was like a carrot on a stick.”

In 2012, while visiting her daughter in southern England, she made an overnight trip to Glasgow, Scotland’s largest city, out of curiosity. It was something of a revelation, Carpenter says, and so was the fact she could see mountains from the city.

“I had no idea that was possible,” she said. “I really didn’t know anything about Scotland. I liked the vitality of the water in the region, too … I felt instantly at home.”

She went back to Scotland the following summer for three weeks: “Took my backpack and kind of roamed around the highlands.”

Carpenter ended up taking early retirement from UMass and has since spent as many as three months at a time in Scotland, staying in a small apartment in Edinburgh, where her landlady has become a friend, driving her to certain places to take photographs and encouraging her to read up on Scottish history.

“She sort of insisted I learn it,” she said with a laugh. “And the history is ancient.” As one example, in the Orkney Islands she visited a stone house — the roof long since gone but the walls still standing — that dates from 3,500 B.C.

She also has been tracing information on her ancestors. She discovered one set of her great-grandparents and great-great-grandparents came from Glasgow, and she has been able to get scans of their marriage certificates from a records hall in Edinburgh. She tried to find the street her ancestors lived on in Glasgow but was unsuccessful, the city having changed too much over time.

Carpenter hasn’t restricted her photography to Scotland. She lived for a month in Ireland in 2016 on an artist’s residency program, using her time both to take pictures and explore that side of her family’s ancestry. She also spent two months last year in Acadia National Park in Maine, as part of an environmental-education internship, and took many images there.

But for now, she wants to concentrate on Scotland. She’s hoping to put the best of her images into a book, and she plans to head back to Scotland this year — and not just for the scenery.

The Scots are “some of the friendliest people I’ve met,” she says. “They’ll  pull  over and say  ‘Do you need a lift?’ They’ll invite me home for tea, just very generous and helpful overall.”

And, she added, “There are still so many places I want to see.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at

Donna Carpenter’s photographs of Scotland can be seen at





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