Published: March 2006
Jim Richardson

What was your best experience in the field covering this story?

I took a lot of ferry rides during this assignment, going from island to island all over the Celtic realm. But the best was the ride I took with a load of sheep on Scotland's Isle of Lewis.

I was in Valtos on the west coast when Johnnie Buchanan got word to me that he would be taking a load of sheep out to Pabay Mór (Big Pabay) Island for summer grazing. Sure enough, down at the harbor Johnnie's lads were loading sheep into his 150-year-old wooden boat, handing them down to Johnnie one by one. Soon the boat was full to the gunwales with its wooly cargo. Once in a while, a lamb would attempt an escape and plunge overboard. Finally I was just able to squeeze in the front of the boat for the trip across, riding way low in the water. I shared the front seat with a ram whose horns looked like they could do serious damage to my Nikon or me if he had a mind to. I've driven a lot of cattle in my days and nearly got run over by wild horses in Spain this summer, but that trip to Pabay Mór will always live in my memory.

What was your worst experience in the field covering this story?

I want to send National Geographic a bill for all the hats I lost shooting this story. Older, hair-challenged photographers—that is to say, bald ones like me—think about hats a lot. And I found a really great shop in Santiago de Compostela in Spain that had just the right fedora style. The hat would bend just enough when I was shooting vertical pictures, wouldn't droop in a Scottish downpour, and would still look good when the adventurous look was called for. I bought three of them over the last two years and lost them all.

One was sacrificed to the thundering wind and surf, sailing down into the froth and foam at the Bedruthan Steps on Cornwall's wild north coast. Another went missing when I hid it behind a door in a Spanish church. It wouldn't do to wear a fedora during the services, and I was sure it would be safe until I came back to collect it. Not so. The third went for a taxi ride without me while I stood fuming at the airport curb. Finally I bought one more, to which I have pledged everlasting loyalty if it will just stick to my head. That one made it home.

What was your quirkiest experience in the field covering this story?

I was traveling the northwest coast of Ireland's Connemara region, looking for one of the beaches where the locals race horses. But before crossing the strand at low tide, I noticed a funeral service up the road. When I got to the little island on the other side, I discovered the cemetery, a small party of gravediggers, and the requisite grave. So I lingered to photograph the funeral procession coming across the strand (scheduled for low tide, naturally).

As I stood chatting with the gravediggers, a man came up with a hurried message. From what I gathered, the deceased was somewhat taller than the hole they had prepared. Suddenly they were down in the grave in shifts, shoveling out sandy soil at a ferocious clip. One digger looked over his shoulder to see the hearse etching its way between the tide pools—the whole affair gaining on him—and redoubled his efforts, sand spewing and his face a mask of worry. In the end the casket fit, the earth was all tamped down by the time the priest finished his prayers, and the procession retreated across the beach ahead of the tide.