Friday, 14 August 2020


It's more than a year since I last penned a blog, during which the world has been turned upside down and inside out.

Travel plans have been disrupted, and activities normally taken for granted, have instead been taken away, and my own forays into the mountains of Scotland with my best friend Pauline seem like a distant memory.

Celebrations of all kinds have been cancelled or postponed, but that does not mean forgotten.

On 13 August 1995, Pauline and I took our first booted steps up a mountain together, on the northern shore of Loch Tay, along the Ptarmigan Ridge.

And the rest, as they say, is history.

And what a history it has been.

Scotland has been our stomping ground in the main, but we gradually ventured far and wide on ever increasing adventurous trips, all with an outdoor theme of course.

We have been lucky enough to share, either by bicycle, ski or foot, the landscapes and terrain of the Dolomites in northern Italy; the snows of the arctic circle in Levi, Finland and the Alps in France; Torres del Paine on the southern tip of the Andes in Chile; the mighty Himalaya in Nepal; the long distance route of the Camino across northern Spain, and the mountains and prairies of the United States, right across, from sea to shining sea.

Then there's the every day life, of pizza and movie nights, evening cuppas with episodes of Frasier, local walks and pottering in our gardens at the back of our apartments. We're lucky to live one above the other, in a fabulous part of Scotland, right by the sea, which has been our base camp for our adventures for the majority of the past 25 years.

We had planned a number of celebratory activities throughout this year, but all so far have been cancelled. On Thursday 13 August this year we marked it with a wander around Aberlady Nature Reserve, coffee and cake, naturally (though takeway), followed by a fish and chips whilst watching a favourite movie, which, in keeping with the fact that just now every day seems the same, was Groundhog Day!

We're keeping our fingers crossed for an adventure in the Scottish Highlands come September, and all being well a visit to the Caerlavarock National Nature Reserve near Dumfries in October.

All our other plans are not cancelled, merely postponed, and today marks the start of our year of celebrations, when we will return to the Scottish mountains and start creating more memories over the next 25 years.

"Life was meant for good friends and great adventures"

Thursday, 2 January 2020


Just over three years ago I started to form a plan to make a film about the old turntable ferries that operated at Ballachulish in the early 70s, near Glencoe, , when I was still in single figures, spending most of my free time playing on them.

At the onset I thought it would make a nice, wee, two week summer holiday film project.

More than three years later, finally, I am able to say, it's a wrap!

When I started I was working for a different organisation teaching young people filmmaking skills, and the plans for a Film Academy for young people had not even begun to form in my head.  As it is in life, other things were added to the pot, and by the time I finished just a few weeks ago, it was fair to say I was a tad busy and under pressure.

Now the film is taking it's chances in several film festivals around the world, namely the Celtic FF, Tribeca in New York, Edinburgh, Hot Docs in Toronto, Amsterdam and Sheffield. This will be proof of whether the film is any good or not, because up to now it has only had a friendly audience at it's various stages of post production.

Every filmmaker would no doubt like to attract an award for their work, but for me just getting in to any of the film festivals and it having it seen by a wider audience will be reward enough.

There were three ferries to be found, in what very quickly became a complicated detective story. Just 10 days before the deadline to finish (for it's first film festival entry), a chance encounter would come along to solve one of the biggest puzzles. Three years in the making and one of the crucial elements came together in the last 10 days! Thanks to having a small crew helping me, and luxury that I had not had over the entire three years of production, I just made it!

Now that it is over, and I do miss the adventure I have to admit, I've turned my attention back to the three things that I neglected to a certain degree over the past six months, namely The Film Academy; my fitness; and outdoor adventures with my best friend, and biggest supporter, Pauline.

2019 ended with me catching the mother of all colds, likely brought on by the sudden stop just before Christmas. But determined to end the year with some sort of outdoor experience, I made the effort to venture out on two day trips to local areas, organised as always, by the ever reliable and resourceful Pauline.

On a breezy but dry day, we made our way out to Roslin. There stands Roslin Chapel, made ever the more famous by the film The Da Vinci Code, but the less said about that the better.

From the chapel car park it was a pleasant wooded walk, skirting the southern edge of Roslin village, to Roslin Glen. A wide dirt track took us further into the glen, with a deep gorge on one side.

Following the bend in the river, it seemed an overly large track for a woodland walk.

Until we came upon the ruins of what was until as recently as the 1950s, a gunpowder factory, and clearly the track had once been the main access for vehicles.

Now all that remains are a few small collections of brickwork from the old buildings, and the structure that would once have formed the old waterwheel.

What was surprising was to discover on the information board, that this small gunpowder factory, that had operated since the very early 1800s, through a succession of different owners, would eventually become the global chemical company we know today as ICI.

Circling back to the car park we briefly visited the ruins of the old 14th century Roslin Castle, with part of the grounds occupied by a large residential building called the East Range, built into the cliffs. This location was also used in Ron Howard's film, but again, the less said about that the better.

Once back at the car park at the chapel, we completed our day with a loop through Bilston Glen, somewhat more muddy underfoot. After crossing the viaduct, dating from the late 1800s, we looped back to the start, passing the 19th century folly Dryden Tower.

The second excursion, on the last day of 2019, and still feeling decidedly under the weather, we headed out by folding bikes and train, to Traprain Law, a small 200m hill just outside Haddington.

It is the site of the largest hoard of Roman silver artifacts ever found outside the Roman Empire, presumably from the 40 acre fort that once stood on its summit, and now housed in the National Museum of antiquities in Edinburgh.

Though a very pleasant and short ride on the bikes to get there, when you're not feeling 100% it takes the edge off the enjoyment. Thankfully it was a short walk to the top, where we were met with a group of ponies and rewards of views across the Forth to the hills of Fife and Stirling.

With a very agreeable stop at the Waterside bistro on the edge of Haddington, we trundled back for our train home out of Longniddry and bade farewell to 2019.

Happy New Year.

Sunday, 8 December 2019


Has it really been four months since I penned anything here?!  Bit of a catch up to do I guess, before 2019 is gone, so let's start with the great outdoors.

Though not strictly the usual outdoor pursuits of hillwalking, camping and biking, most of this year has been spent in various locations around Scotland filming footage for The Last Ferries of Ballachulish. Scotland is such a beautiful country it is almost impossible to go wrong wherever you point the camera, and the rugged landscapes and resident communities of the west Highlands went someway to slake my thirst for true outdoor adventures. The film is now complete and I will tell you more about that in the next blog.

The downside is all this new footage needs to be edited, and that means days and days and days sat in front of the computer, which slowly robs you of your fitness.

Thanks to Pauline I have managed the occasional jaunt into the hills or on the bike, though latterly it reminded me of just how far my fitness had plummeted, and this can take the edge of the enjoyment.

Toward the end of the summer I was persuaded to take up sea swimming, though it took me such an age to aclimatise to the cold water, even in my trendy new wetsuit, that I would call my efforts more sea standing!  The science behind this form of exercise reports that short times in the water are all it takes to be beneficial, and that was exactly the type of thing I needed to hear!  And living just yards from the sea it is always just a short brisk walk to a steaming hot shower.

Back in the summer we had a short trip back to the Borders, establishing a base camp at a campground we've used before on the outskirts of Jedburgh, before pottering about the back roads of the village. 

During the night I set up a camera trap and the following morning we were able to observe a fox that had come down during the night, scavenging for campers left overs no doubt.

It would be September before I was back on the bike again, and the absence from the saddle was to take it's toll. This time we decided to cycle from our front door in Portobello, south through the Moorfoot hills and down to the Borders.

There was a bit of a head wind as we headed through Dalkeith and Carrington, sticking to the quiet back roads to reach the B7007 that would take us to our southern most point of Innerleithen, on the other side of the Moorfoots. A brief stop in Carrington beside a converted red phone box, now housing a defibrillator, should have been a warning sign of troubles ahead!

As the morning went on the headwind built, and after a long climb to the first pass out of the Forth valley, it became very strong, so much so, that despite a reasonably steep descent on the other side, we both had to pedal all the way downhill.

As I had been rising up the climb I was aware that, to put it politely, my behind was beginning to let me know that constantly rubbing against a hard saddle after a gap in cycling for many months, was not conducive to comfort.

In short, my arse hurt like hell!

By the time I reached Innerleithen I felt that I had endured a thrashing akin only to punishments dealt out in some middle eastern countries!

My spirits were lifted by a great wild campspot, though not as wild as we had anticipated, as the local landowner dropped by, and we indulged in conversation putting the worlds to rights.

One of the things both Pauline and I like to do is to make use of sustainable transport options as much as possible, be that buses, our bikes, on foot or by train. The latter of which in Scotland is notorious for poor service generally, but occasionally there is the odd wee boost. Because Pauline and I have passed our half century mark, we are entitled to exclusive rail offers that come along twice a year, in the nature of £17 return anywhere in Scotland!

Making use of this we headed off to a special area in the Highlands we both like, Corrour, during a crisp cold weekend, to enjoy a night out in the tents beside a favourite ruin, and to ascend a Munro I have never done, Beinn na Lap.

We hopped off the train at Rannoch, the station before Corrour, and took the Road to the Isles path north toward Corrour. Over the past few years several micro hydro electric installations have been created by the landowner in this area, and part of that has had the added benefit of the path being upgraded.

Not that I'm a particularly huge fan of paths being made easy etc, but previously this one was almost impassable in places, it was so boggy.

Our night was spent at the old ruin just an hours walk before Corrour station, a favourite place to camp.

The next day we dumped the heaviest of our gear and set off up Beinn na Lap, on the northern shore of Loch Ossian. Despite reducing my pack weight to about a quarter, I struggled. What the Borders run had done to my backside, Beinn na Lap was now doing to my legs.

But determined I reached the summit, rewarded on the way by a close up view with a well camouflaged Tarmigan, only to be met by a cold wind on the summit so biting, that had I been a brass monkey I would now be neutered.

The views all weekend had been spectacular, with the air crystal clear for miles, with the Scottish mountains capped in snow, which always make them look their best.

Having cooked supper down at the station, we sped home on the train, with a determined thought in my head to get my fitness back. For sure my calves and buttocks will be eternally grateful.

Next blog - The Last ferries of Ballachulish.


Friday, 23 August 2019


If it wasn't for my good friend Pauline, I don't think I would ever set foot in the mountains of Scotland, and what a tragedy that would be. And my available time is more limited than it used to be, but that translates into appreciating our mountain adventures even more.

Of course, only venturing out on the odd occasion also brings with it one big challenge; fitness! Or rather, lack of it.

Accessing a number of our Scottish walks is made all the more difficult by the lack of integrated public transport, or journeys that take almost a day in themselves to get to the start point. We both like to use the train as much as possible, not just from an environmental point of view, but also because we can sit back and relax, and watch the view rush past the window, but on this occasion we were starting out from Braemar, and to make the most of the three days we opted to drive.

Leaving the car in the village we caught a local bus a few miles east to our starting point at Bridge of Dee, where the track into the Invercauld Estate crosses the River Dee. We were heading for the most easterly Munro of the Cairngorms, Ben Avon, and as I heaved on my pack I knew there was a long walk in ahead. But this was the weekend nearest to the longest day, so there was plenty of time.

The sun was shining, the birds were singing, and all around was forest, as we enthusiastically set off. The forest soon gave way to open land, and as the track stretched out before us it entered a narrow glen. As we reached the top of this glen we were met with the remains of a house! The material used looked fairly modern. It certainly wasn't ancient. It puzzled me as to how on earth they had managed to not just build it, but get all the materials up there.

From the vantage point above the glen I could see the path heading up to a distant bealach, which Pauline informed me was where we would pitch the tents for the night.

Piece of cake.

By the time I was halfway up, with the path increasing in steepness, I was finished. My energy plummeted, and I was struggling to put one foot in front of the other. So ridiculous was my lack of fitness at this point, compared to the years gone past, that I suddenly burst out laughing.

By late afternoon our tents were pitched in an idyllic spot under the scalloped face of Beinn a'Bhuird. Pauline may drag me screaming and shouting up some tough landscapes, but she has a knack for choosing great camping spots.

Dumping all out kit we then headed off to the summit of Ben Avon. Without a pack this was a breeze, albeit the first pull up from the bealach was steep. When we reached the plateau-like top of the mountain, that we would cross to reach the actual summit, we could see the granite tors jutting up in the distance, with a shape like a giant elephant poo. It was difficult to judge the distance due to the lack of any other features, but the going was easy, so it didn't matter.

We stayed a short while at the tor, clambering over the weather-rounded rocks, but as the breeze stiffened, and the temperature started to drop, we headed back to the comfort of our tents and a hot meal.

Day two started with a pull up the adjacent Munro, Beinn a'Bhuird, from our camp spot. From the summit we had clear views back east toward the tors of Ben Avon, and west to the familiar skyline of Cairngorm and Ben Macdui.

As we crossed the short grass plateau beyond the summit, we came across a tiny stream, flowing down from a small spring. It was so peaceful here that we stopped a while and contemplated the age of this little ribbon of water, constantly flowing across this plateau, probably for hundreds, if not thousands, of years.

From here we skirted the dramatic cliffs of the mountain, with snow still in some of the gullies.

We now dropped down into the forested areas of Glen Quoich, heading back out of the mountains on the western side of Braemar.

This route took me by surprise in regards to its length, and as we followed the eroded banks of the river, we were on the lookout for a camping spot for the night.  But there was nothing to be had, until we were fairly far down, within a couple of miles of the National Trust's Mar Lodge.

But here was another idyllic spot, beside the river, with a gentle breeze keeping any midges at bay. In the middle of the cascading river was a rock feature with a large, perfectly smooth, hole, created by centuries of pounding water, and known as the Punch Bowl.

After a restful night our final day was misty and damp as we entered Braemar and, you guessed it, coffee and cake.

Thursday, 4 July 2019


Apologies to regular readers for my tardy absence over the past couple of months. To say life got in the way is an understatement.

I last wrote of the filming trip for the Ballachulish ferry film I've been making since 2017, and that has continued somewhat since then.

In addition, my enthusiastic Film Academy students were busy finishing their short films as we raced toward the end of term.

I decided to set a premier date for the Ballachulish ferry film of Saturday 19 October. It is my hope to screen it in Ballachulish itself, and then the following day up in Glenelg, where the last remaining ferry, the Glenachulish, still operates, and she has just turned 50. The operators there would like to use the screening as a fundraiser, which would be a fitting tribute.

One ferry has remained elusive elusive though, the Glen Loy. The most recent information about her, was that around 1977, having had her engine removed and her turntable deck and wheelhouse stripped, so that all that remained was the low barge-like structure, she was sold to a "man from the Clyde".

The trail ran cold.

Until last Saturday.

There have been many red herrings in the quest to find her, and Pauline and I were in Helensburgh searching through old copies of the Helensburgh Advertiser following up a new lead. And then, on page 6, of the 1st June 1979, of a different paper, the Helensburgh Times, Pauline stumbles across an article which reads "Ferry goes for a Sale".

We had found the "man from the Clyde", a one William Sutherland, who was selling the ex Ballachulish ferry, the Glen Loy having used her in a  marine contract on the west coast. We both almost fell of our seats. This had been the first time I had seen her name in print since starting this quest. Where the article reads "...must have considerable sentimental value to someone" was a very emotional moment.

I needed more information, so over the course of two days, searching through electoral registers and the archives of births, deaths and marriages at the National Register in Edinburgh, with help from my friends Dougie and Stuart, we pieced together William's family tree.

Yesterday I met two of his descendants back in Helensburgh, but unfortunately they had no recollection of the old ferry.

Now my attention has turned to the Crown Estate Scotland. If William Sutherland had the Glen Loy moored somewhere, then there's a possibility then, like now, he would have needed a licence to moor her from the Crown Estate Scotland.
Time will tell if that bears fruit.

I have now finished year one of The Film academy Edinburgh. It has been a larger amount of work and more stressful than I predicted, but we got there, with 50 very happy kids and some marvelous films under their belt.

Summer camps beckon in July and August, and with 92% of the students returning for year 2 in September, I'm hoping for a full academy of 60 students.

Meanwhile my summer break will be chasing the Glen Loy.
The truth is out there.

Thursday, 25 April 2019


Yep, it's been a month since I last blogged!!  But it's been a busy time with filming projects.

At the start of Easter, ten of my young students attended a masterclass week on acting-for-camera. It was an intensive week, building up their toolbox of skills; shooting a 90 second drama scene for their showreel; getting their professional headshots done and meeting a casting director.

Even I learned a lot from the acting coach!

The Academy was then off for the remainder of the Easter holidays, which allowed me to continue my documentary film, The Last Ferries of Ballachulish.

I had recently received a tip on the whereabouts of the third ferry, the Glen Loy, which has remained elusive since I started this project back in 2017. I am yet to get definitive proof of its whereabouts, but if it is where someone believes it to be, then in order to get there she would have come through the Crinan Canal on the west coast, an hour south of Oban.

So this was my first location, but on arrival the wind was blowing above 40mph, and so there was no choice but to wait it out until morning. 

Accommodation for the night was my tent in a small campsite at Tayvallich, a little further south. Ahh, the glamour of filmmaking! Not in the mood for cooking I ate out at the Tayvallich Inn. And very nice it was too.

By early morning the wind had died down, and despite the overcast skies and subsequent low light, I managed to get the shot I was after at the start of the Crinan Canal.

Along twisting narrow roads I headed north, 65 miles to Ballachulish, to meet up with my friend Kate, one of the people interviewed in the film, and someone who has been a great source of information.

But this was a very wet day. A day for traveling. So I continued on in the afternoon, via Fort William, 75 miles to Ratagan, and a Scottish Youth Hostel for the night, on the shores of Loch Duich at Shiel Bridge, with views across to the Five Sisters of Kintail. Nearby was the road that could take me over to Glenelg where the Glenachulish operates, and though tempting, this was not on my shot list this time round.

I was now within striking distance of my next location, the pretty little village of Plockton.

After shooting the compulsory shortbread-tin-shot of Eilean Donan Castle, a further 20 miles on, with a winding single track road to finish, I arrived at the sun-drenched picturesque village of Plockton. Though bright and sunny on the village itself, the far views were very hazy, and would remain so all week unfortunately.

I now followed the road around Loch Carron, to Strome Castle, where the first of the wrecks of an old turntable ferry were beached, the Pride of Strome.

Though she has no connection to the Ballachulish ferries, it is still a sad sight to see such an icon from 20th century Scottish history, left to rot. No longer the Pride of Strome. Compared to the Glen Duror wreck on Mull, there was a substantial amount of her left, easily recognisable from afar.

Bed for the night was another SYHA, this time in the dramatic setting of Torridon, with the mighty Liathach mountain within spitting distance.

To me it looks inaccessible, but the hostel was full of many hopeful souls for an ascent the following day. During the evening the conversation inevitably veered toward the Munro baggers, of which I am not one, and will never be. I was reminded of a line from Bothy Tales, by John Burns, that when admitting publicly that I did not "bag" Munros, "it hung in the air like a malevolent fart".

I awoke to hot sunshine, though still with that annoying haze in the distance. This was now Thursday, and I was headed 55 miles to Inverness to interview an historian, James Hunter, and his knowledge of the impact of the opening of the Ballachulish bridge on the economy of the West Highlands.

We wrapped within a couple of hours, giving me plenty of time to reach Achiltibuie, 75 miles north, out on a peninsula north of Ullapool.

I had heard about this place for decades from an old friend Jim Downie, who, until recently, spent time there every year. As I pulled in to the car parking space for Acheninver hostel, I could see why. Astonishing views across the Summer Isles, with a spectacular setting sun welcomed me. The haze for once proved to be a good thing, as it dispersed the sunlight and created a red glow over all I could see. I had never seen a sunset like this.

As the sun dipped a full moon rose on the opposite horizon, and I sat a while with an evening cuppa watching the sunlight glitter across the water.

I reached my furthest most point the next day, 40 miles further on to Kylesku. The road north is this perfect ribbon of tarmac, gently winding its way through the landscape, mostly empty of any traffic. I reached a T-junction at one point; left for Kylesku and Durness, right for Thurso. I sat a moment at the junction, marveling at the remoteness.

At Kylesku was the second wreck, the Maid of Kylesku, again, abandoned to rot on the shoreline, though her turntable was largely intact.

After a well earned coffee and banana cake at the Kylesku hotel, I set off on the 250 mile journey home, happy with the weeks filming, and what a privilege to capture all that among the grand setting of the Western Highlands of Scotland.