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Coul Links – Beyond the Noise

By Caroline McMorran

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Ashley Rose has taken thousands of pictures of Coul Links.
Ashley Rose has taken thousands of pictures of Coul Links.

A DORNOCH-based photography student is set to stage an exhibition at the start of next month of photos she has taken of Coul Links.

American born Ashley Rose (66) has shot thousands of still images as well as drone footage of the site over the past two years.

Her Coul Links project is part of an online, part-time Master’s in photography she is undertaking with Falmouth University’s Institute of Photography.

Ashley is determinedly steering clear of controversy surrounding the site which is earmarked for an 18-hole championship course.

Highland Council has given the green light to the development, but it was called in by Scottish Government and a planning enquiry held. The final decision has still to be announced.

“I do have an opinion but I have tried to approach the photographic project from a reasonably objective perspective and look past the particular controversy,” said Ashley.

“I think nature has a remarkable ability to adjust and I do not think anything is ever as bad or as good as it seems, and you can infer from that what you want.

“I do not think that people knowing my opinion is an essential element of understanding my work on this project.”

She caught the photography bug after being given a camera aged around 10 and has not been without one since, undertaking film and dark room work as a sideline.

She has had a diverse career and after earning an undergraduate degree in biology, went on to spend 24 years in the United States Navy and for 12 years flew tactical jet aircraft.

After leaving active duty and joining the Reserves where she ultimately reached the rank of captain and retired in 2002, she went on to join an aerospace company as a design engineer and programme manager. The last 15 years of her working career were spent consulting for a wide range of businesses in the areas of strategic planning, business capture and programme management.

A keen golfer and a successful international competitor, it was golf that first brought her to Dornoch.

“A friend of mine, who was a member of Royal Dornoch Golf Club, brought me over here in 2014 and I absolutely fell in love with the club, the town and the Highlands,” she said.

She returned in the autumn of that year to play in the Ladies’ British Open Amateur Championship and brought her husband Jerry Horak with her. The couple then spent longer spells in the town, taking a long lease on a flat before buying a house.

“As we began to spend more and more time in the Highlands, I came to realise how extraordinary the light and the scenery are here,” she said. “I decided to bring my proper camera gear over and spend some time taking pictures.”

She finishes the two-year Masters programme in December and admits it has been “challenging”.

“I wanted to do something more than just take photographs and have them sit in my computer and I thought it would be interesting to embark on this MA course,” she said.

“There were moments when I wondered why I was doing it at my age but it has been rewarding and I have learned a lot more than I thought I would. The quality of my work has improved.

“The basic stuff – such as learning how to take a photograph – is at the BA level. The MA level is more about creating a professional process and understanding where your work fits in the context of contemporary photography.

“It looks at different ways to present and publish your work and challenges one to think about one’s work in a different way rather than just putting it up on Instagram.”

Degree students are required to undertake a final major project that has to be public – it could be in a book or magazine, exhibition or installation.

“I chose what I wanted to work on two years ago at the outset of the course,” said Ashley. “I was interested in Coul Links as a place and it encompassed the confluence of a number of my interests as a biologist, golfer, photographer and resident of Sutherland.

“I was fascinated by the place itself and how it changes as a result of natural forces and adapts to the seasons, as well as how it might change if the development was approved.”

She has visited Coul Links multiple times each month for the past two years and estimates she has some 5000 images, including those shown here. She used a drone as well as fixed terrestrial locations to take pictures of the exact same spots at different times of the year.

“What I have discovered is that surprisingly few people were ever really aware of Coul Links as a place until the proposal to develop it came about.

“I have found that even a lot of local people have never been there and those who have, tend to use it primarily on its perimeters,” she said.

“They walk along the beach and the dune line as well as the northern boundary of Loch Fleet. People use it from Embo but only the extreme south end. A large percentage of Coul Links is not terribly accessible.”

She describes the multi-media exhibition as “a mixture of grand landscapes and intimate landscapes aerial video as well as a whole series of miniatures of wildlife”.

The delay in reaching a decision about the Coul Links course means Ashley did not get the chance to take a photographic record of any ongoing development and her project could yet continue depending on the decision reached by ministers.

The exhibition opens to the public at Dornoch Social Club on Saturday, November 2, from 10am-4pm for one day only.

To see more of Ashley’s work, go online and visit: www.chasingthewildlife.com

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