Friday, 6 July 2018

BACK ON THE HUNT FOR THE FERRIES

This is getting to be a habit, only posting every two weeks. Maybe it's a thing I'll continue, just so you don't get bored with my chat!

With a low tide forecast and the glorious summer weather continuing, I set off once again to capture footage for my documentary film, The Last Ferries Of Ballachulish.

Despite it being the week before the Scottish schools went on their summer break, the Highlands were surprisingly busy. I dread to think what it must be like now!

On a misty, chilly morning I left Edinburgh just after sunrise, with Glenelg, near Skye, as my destination. The low cloud and mist didn't lift until I was well past Stirling, but until that point it was all motorway anyway, so I didn't miss much.

My route north took me through spectacular Glencoe, on to Fort William, Spean Bridge and Kintail. Just a short distance after Spean Bridge I detoured down to the Caledonian Canal at Gairlochy, to reshoot pieces-to-camera at the old wreck on the shores there. Once rumoured to be the remains of the Glen Duror, it is now a mystery itself.

I was only half way to Glenelg by this point, and the clouds were starting to gather. By the time I took the steep and winding Mam Ratagan pass from Kintail over to Glenelg, I had lost the best of the weather. However, as it turned out, filming the Glenachulish turntable ferry from the air would have proved almost impossible, with any bright sunshine reflecting of the surface of the Kyle Rhea waters, so as it turned out it was perfect for filming.


I love visiting this ferry, and without fail it always brings a tear to my eye when I hear her engine and glimpse her Ballachulish colours for the first time.

A familiar sight is the skipper Donnie, and it was a joy to sit a while over a coffee and let the world go by, despite a few cars already aboard the Glenachulish waiting to cross, the drivers and passengers scratching their heads, wondering what time departure was.


Across the other side of the water a Sea Eagle swooped down on fish near the surface, then flew off to it's nest, where this year they have two successful young.

Watching the world go by does not stop the clock, and to my surprise it was already 5pm by the time I decided to make tracks back down the road. I bade farewell to the Glenachulish, who will turn 50 next year, and headed south for the Isle of Mull.

Just a few miles south of Fort William is a roll on, roll off ferry, taking cars and passengers across the tiny 300m span of Loch Eil where it meets Loch Leven, onto the Ardnamurchan Peninsula. I was heading to Lochaline, and a small B&B for the night, 40km along a single track road, which has to be one of the prettiest little roads I've ever been on.

As night fell a full moon rose over Duart Castle far away on a promontory of land on Mull.


At 7am I was aboard the CalMac ferry that would take me the three kilometers across to Fishnish on the Isle of Mull. From there, under glorious blue skies, I headed for Ulva on the west coast. Single track road all the way, surrounded by stunning scenery, looking out to the Treshnish Isles, Coll and Tiree beyond on the horizon. My goal was to capture aerial shots of Ulva and the 50m crossing from the island where the Glen Duror saw her last service.


Just around a corner of land, in a small bay, lies the wreck of the actual Glen Duror. Carrying heavy camera gear on my back, a steel flight case in one hand and a tripod slung over my shoulder, I battled my way through shoulder-high bracken to reach her. It was evident the winter had taken another toll on her. Though I had the footage I needed from my last visit nine months ago, I decided to shoot more. 

But my main reason for coming back was to wade out into the water, to what I had seen was the line of her bow from an aerial shot taken on my previous visit. By the time I reached the front I was already waist deep in water, and underfoot was precarious with slippery seaweed growing around all manner of rusted metal parts. The tide just wasn't low enough.


I would have to return another day.

Job done, I bade farewell to the old girl again, and headed for the large CalMac ferry that would take me onto the mainland and the town of Oban. Ahead was an hours drive north to Ballachulish, my childhood home from almost 50 years ago.

As I drove across the ugly Ballachulish Bridge the light was beautiful, so I detoured off the main road to capture new aerial shots of the bridge and surrounding area. As I did so I realised that had I not arrived here when I did, the sun tomorrow would be in the wrong position for the shots I wanted to capture.


The evening was unbearably hot in the youth hostel, and despite paying for a room, I decided to sleep in my car, which, though not as a comfy as a mattress, was preferable to sleeping in a pizza oven!

On the last morning I met up with Kate once again, daughter of Peter McKenzie, the last ferryman of Ballachulish, and the one I identify with from my childhood. Her and I, in her words, are probably the last two remaining people who feel so passionately about the old turntable ferries, so it is always a pleasure to meet up.

With a few more shots ticked off, I headed 20 miles south toward Appin, to shoot the ruins of Castle Stalker, which sits atop a small island, before turning the car toward Edinburgh, and the three hours back through ever increasing tourist traffic.


It had been a whirlwind tour over three days, but as before, it was an absolute joy across arguably the most beautiful country in the world . . . in my opinion.


Thursday, 21 June 2018

T MINUS 4 WEEKS AND COUNTING

Well, that was a first; no blog last week! In my defence it has been a crazy week as I race to clear the decks before month end.

My film academy is just four weeks away, and to say I'm mildly terrified is probably a vast understatement. It seems my to do list grows bigger, not shorter. But things are easing off ever so slightly, as we now have enough youngsters signed up to run it successfully.


This past two weeks has seen a slight shift in the original idea, which has created the need for a larger team. Double in size to be precise, and I am little daunted at the way my role has become much more responsible.

That said, credit where credit is due, and in true collaborative filmmaking style I couldn't have got this far, or deliver what is ahead, without the immensely talented group of people onboard, who share the same vision as myself. What is very humbling is everyone's keenness to be involved.

I wont bore you with the details, but the two summer schools have taken an inordinate amount of work, which in no way seems to match what will be delivered. For nine weeks I have been just a few days short of seven days a week, which is largely because of all the bureaucracy that it takes in forming a new company, at the same time as delivering on my other work commitments.

And it is the other work commitments that have filled every space, but that is coming to an end very shortly, thankfully.

The word is getting out there as well. During the past couple of weeks the Edinburgh Evening News ran a very encouraging article on the Film Academy, which was closely followed, at great surprise, by MSP Gordon Macdonald reading out a motion in the Scottish Parliament all about my vision, seconded by nine other MSPs.

That was a fall-off-the-chair moment!

In Edinburgh the 2018 International Film festival has begun, and for the first time I feel a strong connection to the industry, on the cusp of possibly creating the next Scottish filmmaker. What a thing it would be to book tickets to see a film made by a former student.

One of our team is Shauna Macdonald, a Scottish actress with an impressive career to date and without doubt a draw to our academy. In turn I have been privileged to work with her very own youth theatre in my local area of Portobello, and together with very talented youngsters we have created two films that premier tomorrow night locally.

After years of championing filmmaking for kids for many other organisations, I am keeping my fingers and toes crossed that this plan works out for the long term.


Sunday, 10 June 2018

ROYAL DEESIDE WAY

As you get older you have to work harder to maintain your fitness. Actually, regardless of age, you need to put the work in. But for the past two months I've hardly moved from in front of the computer, putting together my new film academy for kids, seven days a week, and as a result my fitness has plummeted. To add to that my trousers no longer need a belt.

But above all I needed a break, and despite the expanding waistline, and maybe partly because of it, I turned to my ever reliable friend Pauline to organise a three day cycle trip.

Public transport is not always conducive to accessing some of the harder to reach places, so a while back I invested in roof-top cycle racks for the car and put them to good use last weekend on a two night foray to Aboyne on Royal Deeside.

We decided to have a wee bit of a luxury break and set ourselves up with our tent in a campsite just outside Aboyne village. And we even packed a fold up table and chairs! Well, you never know when you might come across a layby that beckons for a tea stop!

It was a joy to be able to cycle without any heavy gear, and late Saturday afternoon we set off west out of Aboyne on the back roads to Glen Tanar National Nature Reserve, just inside the Cairngorms National park. Just a short ride there and back, but my legs were already complaining.

Glen Tanar has been owned and run by the Coats family since 1905, and it is a spectacular glen, with its entrance marked by the Tower of Ess, a 3 storey, square-plan folly tower.



Just a short distance in was a small church, peaceful and silent, before our track up the glen toward the old pinewoods. On this occasion we didn't venture far, but it was enough of a taste to want to return in the future.

On Sunday we set our sights on reaching Peterculter, a small village 40km east of Aboyne toward Aberdeen. For the most part we were on good track, either old railway routes, walking paths or forest trail, following the route of the Deeside Way. One section was pretty steep, and as Pauline powered up it as if it weren't there, I stepped off my bike and pushed, such was the appalling level of my strength and fitness.

As we passed through deep woods the track weaved its way through vivid yellow blossoms festooning every gorse bush in sight, with the smell of coconut hanging in the air. It was at this point that we came across what seemed to be one or two walkers on the Kilt Walk, a sponsored event that takes place several times in different areas over the year in aid of various charities.

Having passed through Banchory, our halfway stage, I noticed we had the company of an old railway line. There hasn't be a service here since the 1960s thanks to Dr Beeching, but these rails had a polished top surface. Something was running on them regularly.



Within a short distance we came upon the tell tale plume of smoke from a steam trains boiler fire, and stopped a while to admire the small steam engine, lovingly restored by local volunteers and enthusiasts.

A few kilometers beyond Banchory, on a narrow path section, we hit a wall of walkers. It started with just the odd one or two, which grew literally into several hundred! We had no idea this event was taking place, and it became obvious our plan was scuppered, so we took the first opportunity to get off the path and turn back. It was a shame, but more to explore on a future trip I guess.

That evening we had a real treat; on the pond that the campsite borders on were a family of swans.



Six very young signets and their parents thought nothing of wandering up out of the water and taking a stroll around the camp ground. The Sunday night was a lot quieter, and I think the swans knew this. Several times in the evening they would wander by, surveying their kingdom, picking up the odd scrap of food left by campers.



On Monday, sure in the knowledge there were no more walking events, we turned our bikes west and set out for Ballater, following the Deeside Way to its starting point.

For me this was the best day. Maybe because of the lack of people I guess, but there was something great about the long straight stretches of old railway track disappearing off into the distance, through tall standing forests of pine and birch, that made it a lot of fun, tracks that my American friends would call "Rails to Trails", which I think we should adopt.

Occasionally we would come across an old platform, mostly overgrown and crumbling, but at one such old station the building was still there, lovingly preserved, presumably as a bolt hole for some lucky person.


After what seemed a very short time, we pulled into Ballater, which surprisingly was a first for me. The train came to an end at a construction site, which turned out to be the ongoing renovation of the old railway station building, soon to open as a museum, complete with a restored Queens Carriage. Again, another reason to return.

To add variety to our return journey, about halfway back to Aboyne we detoured to Muir of Dinnet Nature Reserve. It was to be a brief visit, but we were there to see a particular natural phenomenon called Burn O'Vat. About 16,000 years ago this entire area was covered in ice kilometers deep.

As it started to melt a relentless torrent of water cascaded down the gorges, and in one particular place it slowly, over 2,000 years, the debris carried downstream began to carve out this enormous cauldron.

Gradually the base filled with silt, so only half of it is now visible, but it was an incredible site, like some vast open cave, with perfectly smooth curved openings on either side, each some 15m wide.


With this whole area offering so much in diversity I know we will return. I just have to work on that fitness. Maybe I should get an exercise bike?

Oh, wait, I have one!


Friday, 1 June 2018

MARKETING MARKETING MARKETING

My life seems consumed by all things marketing at the moment. I am a man obsessed, as I continually look at new and inventive ways of publicising my new film academy. Google has been my friend by way of researching the best avenues, most of which I have now engaged with.

Google itself is a necessary monster, and I've had to engage with them directly in the US over the past few weeks. I may use modern technology in my film making, but the world of the internet and search engines in particular continues to be a mystery to me, so having access to those who know it inside out has been invaluable.

The Film Academy wasn't appearing at all on Google searches, primarily because it is so new, so there was no choice but to pay for an advert, which as you can imagine, is enormously expensive. Every time someone clicks on my advert listing, I pay Google money. And it's not a set amount. It's basically an auction, so if anyone else is advertising the same thing, and they have a bigger budget, the cost of each click for me goes up. It's all a bit mad, and with Google having very little competition, I end up paying what they deem the right price, and I have virtually no choice if I want to be seen. They also have something called Google My Business, which is free to create. Have you ever noticed when you search for a company and when they come up, a box appears on the right sometimes, with details about that business? That's Google My Business.

Google has generated zero sales for me, but I have to keep doing it or I won't appear on people's searches.

Though I hate so called "social" media, I have had to embrace it, from Facebook to Instagram and Twitter. Luckily I have help from someone who is very much into it.

Then there's print. This is the sort of advertising I'm familiar with, and though it has little value these days, it still has to be done. With A4 posters, A5 fliers and A6 postcards in hand, I have been busy delivering a set of each to all the private schools in Edinburgh, and every public library. Shops in the vicinity of schools are next, which is a much bigger job.

I placed ads in magazines that are aimed specifically at school parents, and which go home with every school kid in the Lothians. This was expensive, and so far there is no evidence that it has returned anything.

It used to be, a long time ago, that newspaper advertising was the first call. Now that is all but dead for promoting this type of thing. However, after careful research, I managed to get an interview with a reporter of a local newspaper, and within the next couple of weeks they will run an editorial, which is far better than any paid-for ad.

I'm lucky to be based in Edinburgh, and this month sees the International Film Festival, which run a youth hub for young people aged 15+. I have taken their publicity material in exchange for the organisers taking mine.

My final piece of the jigsaw has been to slowly create a relationship with a local school. That will culminate in running a couple of media classes for them for free, and in return I'll have the opportunity to promote the academy.

That seems a lot, and in many ways it is. But there can be no let up. Some of it costs next to nothing, apart from time, whereas others are very expensive, and spending money on marketing is no guarantee of success.

There is still one avenue I haven't used yet, that of local radio. I made the necessary inquiries, but at several thousand pounds for a handful of slots over two weeks, it's not something I'll be signing up for anytime soon!

To date the most successful campaign has been, without a doubt, Facebook. But, it has all been focused on particular demographics. Interestingly, when I ran a second campaign, it yielded virtually nothing, telling me that avenue is likely exhausted.

So for now the spend is on hold until mid June, when it all starts again during the last two weeks before the summer holidays.

So I'm having a much needed break, and heading out on my bike for a few days adventure, which I'll tell you all about next week.


Friday, 25 May 2018

FLOWN THE NEST

Almost three weeks ago a Robin family's youngsters fledged the nest early, and for the past few weeks I've been giving them a helping hand with live meal worms in a wall feeder. Then about this middle of this week he disappeared and I haven't seen him since or heard his song. Fingers crossed he's OK.

That song was replaced however, by an ever louder screeching of young chicks from a Starling nest, not far from the Robin's, in the eaves of my house. These guys normally take around three weeks to fledge, and unlike the Robins, they seemed late. That was until this morning, when the nest fell silent, and it is safe to say they too have now fledged.


A new visitor now comes to the feeder for what's left of the meal worms, in the shape of a Sparrow, no doubt feeding young of its own.

The familiar sound that summer has arrived has returned to the sky above the house once again; the shrill screech of the acrobatic, and aptly named, Swifts.

Nearby, one of my favourite walks is through a local park called the Figgate, where a large pond dominates the centre, and birds of a wide variety breed there at this time of year. Keen to see what other families were new beyond my small garden, I took a wander at the end of the week.

And I wasn't disappointed.

A family of swans with their six fluffy signets were happily swimming around, pecking at the surface of the water, following closely to their majestic-looking parents. At one point they left the pond to walk across the path to the nearby burn, and I could see that the male was limping badly from an injured left leg. In the water he seemed fine, so hopefully all will be well.


Two families of Mallard ducks were noisily making their way around, with one set slightly older than the other judging by size. Sitting upon the remains of last years swans nest, was a family of Moor Hens, their scrawny, ugly little heads poking out of mum's wing when dad returned with a tasty morsel.


Some trees were still sporting their blossom, but most were now in full leaf, and the last of the bluebells adorned wild corners.

It has all been a bit later than usual this year, but in the past week everything has suddenly exploded in growth.

One of my favourite scenes was of a field covered in dandelion seed heads, the sun just catching a small area as they waited on the breeze to dislodged them.


I miss the Robin, sitting on his usual branch in the Birch, staring through the kitchen window, waiting for me to put more food out, and the racket of the Starlings in their nest, greedily calling out for more and more bugs from mum and dad.

Everything has now fledged from my garden, all away to start their new lives, and it seems just that little bit dull and silent without them. I'll never forget this Spring, when a Robin chose to make its nest right at my back door.



Thursday, 17 May 2018

LIFE IN THE MAKING

Ahhh, the joys of Spring.

For a welcome change the sun is shining in Edinburgh, albeit with a chill breeze from the East, which has become the norm in recent years. In fact, in general it is cooler, and this has had an effect on nature in a big way.

The Birch tree in my garden for example, all fantastic 30 feet of it, has only just come into leaf, as has the Hawthorn. Although this is very late, whilst in the Highlands on Tuesday I noticed that many of the trees just 100 miles north are still completely bare.

This hasn't put off the birds from nesting however, but of course, it could be creating problems for them in terms of food. There are definitely less bugs flying about, and the cold ground will no doubt have delayed the reproduction of all the tasty creepy crawlies that they rely on for food.

As you will have read in a previous blog, I have been entertained by the sheer joy of observing a pair of Robins use the walls of my house to raise a family this year. However, though the Birch came into leaf late, the Robin fledglings left the next a few days early last weekend. One flew down to Pauline's garden and hid among the myriad of pots she has, whilst the other two dropped down into my garden.

Eager to keep an eye on them, I positioned cameras to watch over the garden. Within a couple of hours the dreaded murderous cat from next door appeared, clearly after the fledglings. Thank goodness I was watching the monitor, as I was able to intercept it and save the fledglings, now in a bit of a panic.

It was clear this was going to be a tough time for the Robin, the male now on his own, and so, pardon the pun, I hatched a plan to help it by installing a Starling-proof feeder for live meal worms. Yum!


The Starlings are also raising young in my garden, and the noise they have been making in the last day or two, makes me think they are also about to fledge. But they seem to have both parents working hard, and there is a near constant flow of worms and bugs coming back to the nest, so they're doing fine. So the Starling-proof feeder is not because I don't want to help them, but more because the Robin has a much harder time, and the Starlings can devour everything in a few seconds.


Now the Robin seems to know when I'm going to be around. Each day, as I'm making my breakfast, I look out of the window, and there he is, staring in from his perch on the Birch. He clearly associates me with food now, as he rarely flies away when I go out to put the meal worms in the feeder.


Life has been hectic for me too, and not necessarily in a good way, but the visits by the Robin, and the seemingly friendly nature toward me, albeit for food, definitely makes for a less stressful day.


Sunday, 13 May 2018

I STILL CAN'T HEAR YOU!

This week I took the plunge and shelled out four figures to have hearing devices bespoke made and programmed for me. As I said in my blog four weeks ago, my ability to hear some of the younger kids in my film classes has begun to be nearly impossible.

The devices were delivered, programmed and fitted last Tuesday, and so far, well, I'm less than impressed. On the plus side they are tiny, and push almost all the way in. It's an odd feeling at first, like your ears are full of something that you just want to claw out. I accept it takes a while to get used to them, but I'm convinced the right hand device is not working properly, and is actually too big, despite molds being taken and then 3D scanned.


If you have normal hearing, try closing off one ear and listening to someone talk facing you, then from the side you've closed off. In the same way that closing one eye removes your ability to calculate depth, listening in mono reduces your ability to process sounds effectively.

From the word go the right device is difficult to insert, in fact, painful to do so, and triggers a back of throat reflex every time. The left slips in effortlessly. They are both programmed to pick up the high frequency range of sounds, which I have not been hearing for some time. With these devices that should be rectified. A simple test of this is a crinkly sweetie wrapper. I held it near to my left ear and very gently moved it. I could hear every crack and crinkle of the cellophane. However, I held it in the same position at my right ear and heard nothing.

I tried gently rubbing the tips of two fingers together in the same position. Again, the left was perfect, the right, nothing.

On the Friday morning I met a friend for coffee and we walked along the promenade. About 50m away the low tide was gently lapping onto the beach, and I could hear it perfectly. My friend was on my right side though and I had difficulty hearing him, asking him to repeat at various points. After a distance we turned back. Now he was on my left and I heard him with no trouble at all.

I think the right hand device is switched on. However, when I pull out the left device it gives out a whistling feedback noise, but the right does not. I changed the battery, just in case that was the issue, but nothing changed.

I persevered, and the ultimate test came yesterday with my students. I found if the room was noisy, with all the kids chatting at once, it was difficult to pick up one person speaking right in front of me. I managed, just, but the effort to focus was hard. With the youngest kids there was definitely an improvement, but not as much as I'd hoped for.

In the large hall at assembly I was stood roughly 30m from the Principal giving her opening address. She's loudly spoken and normally I have no trouble hearing her. Yesterday however, close by to me, two students were talking at the same time. The Principal's voice then started to cut in and out, as if she was using a faulty microphone. This was very strange.

Around 4pm two beeps went off in my left ear to tell me the battery was about to run out. The second beeps went off about 5 minutes later and the device shut off. Everything I then heard was muffled, until I pulled both devices out. This added weight to my theory that the right hand device is not working.

Hopefully things will be fixed soon. I'm fairly confident these are just teething troubles, and the benefits will surpass any misgivings I have at present.

If all else fails there are alternatives: