Friday, 18 August 2017


Following on from the first filming trip for The Lost Ferries of Ballachulish, I once again set off north, this time with a specific goal in mind.

Along the way I filled in some of the blanks that have arisen whilst editing the original footage, including recording a piece-to-camera to introduce the film, on the South Ballachulish slipway of the old ferry. Fourteen takes later and I think I got it, but knowing this game as well as I do, I'll probably end up shooting a different beginning at some point.

The Folk Museum in Glencoe Village had been in touch to say they had a couple of items that might be of interest to capture, one being old ferry tickets and the other a waiting sign, now badly in need of preservation. These were placed at various intervals along the roadside and gave drivers an estimate of how long it would be to get across from that point. If you were at this one, saying 50 minutes, you would be just as quick driving round the loch via Kinlochleven. But where's the fun in that?

I continued north, stopping in again at the supposed remains of the Glen Duror, this time armed with original dimensions and a measuring tape. With some difficulty I was able to compare the dimensions I had, with those of the wreck, and unfortunately the wreck is four feet longer than the Duror. This casts further doubt on her identity.

The following day I was once again in Glenelg, at the Glenachulish, last survivor of Scotland's turntable ferries. I decided to approach the ferry this time from Skye, first taking the elegant bridge across at Kyle of Lochalsh.

As I crossed over to Glenelg using the Glenachulish, I could see a crowd was gathering for a celebration. This was the main purpose of my journey, for this was the day that the bell from 1969 was to be reunited with the ferry.

A few weeks ago I had interviewed Kate, daughter of the last ferryman at Ballachulish, Peter Mackenzie, and she had made the journey to witness the celebration. In her hand she was holding a photograph of the wheelhouse, as it was back in her fathers day, but the bell was not visible.

It was then that a puzzle I've had in my mind for decades was finally solved.

In the early 70s, when my father was head gardener at Commander Clark's house, the person overall in charge of The Ballachulish Ferry Company, I recall whilst playing on his lawns that there was a ships bell. My memory had told me that this was a bell most probably from some naval ship, given he was called Commander. But through further chat up at Glenelg as to where the bell had been all this time, it transpired that the bell on the lawn from my childhood was from the Glenachulish, and here it was now, in my hands.

There was a nice size crowd gathered for the hanging of the bell, enjoying good chat and a barbecue to raise funds. As I went to pay for my burger, a kindly lady took my £5 and then asked, how much change would I like? Clever. Naturally, I said none. Then, around two o'clock, a piper played as we all made our way down onto the ferry. Finally, after more than 40 years, the Glenachulish had her bell.

Back down the road I met up with Fergus Mclean, last person to have seen the Glen Loy almost 40 years ago, for a quick interview. He gave me a further lead to Strontian on Loch Struan, but this has also turned up a dead end.

The final part of this journey may be some time in coming, as I continue my hunt for the fate of the Glen Loy, and probably the Glen Duror as well. Shortly I will journey to Liverpool to the archives of GL Watson, and document the plan drawings of the last seven Ballachulish Ferries.

Sunday, 13 August 2017


On a glorious Tuesday morning, Pauline and I set off along the Union Canal from Edinburgh, to join the Forth and Clyde Canal at Falkirk, bound for the worlds largest horse head sculptures, The Kelpies.

From my front door it's around 38 miles, and though it is largely flat all the way that does mean a lot of pedaling. But it is hugely enjoyable.

The Union Canal opened in 1822, but by the 1930's it had fallen into disuse, and thirty years later it was an overgrown unsightly affair, with large sections filled in and lost. A Millenium project was launched at a cost of £82million, and in 2001 it reopened. It had been 70 years since the Union Canal linked up with the Forth & Clyde Canal, but the difference in height over a very short distance where they now met, created a challenge. A further £17million saw what has to be one of the most striking boat lifts in the world built, The Falkirk Wheel, and finally the link was opened in 2002.

The Union Canal is 30 miles long and navigates just a single series of locks along its entire length in order to connect to the Forth & Clyde. As is our desire on a cycle trip, there are plenty of places along the way to stop and have a coffee, and of course, the requisite cake. We were in no hurry, and stopped numerous times to look at various interesting things, one of which is a redevelopment at Ratho. Here houses, small in size but starting at £250K, have been built around their own marina, and in the warm sunshine it looked an idyllic place to live.

Just before the Falkirk Wheel you have to navigate through the Falkirk Tunnel. At just under a kilometre in length it can be a slightly unnerving experience, as the previous times we have been through it has been in complete darkness. Thankfully this time it was brightly lit, which gave us a new experience, as we were able to see the jagged rock ceiling in sections, that had been carved out almost 200 years ago, and limestone formations now oozed down the walls.

It was early afternoon as we swung by the Falkirk Wheel and its hordes of tourists, past miniature models of the Kelpies, and headed north east on the six miles of the Forth & Clyde Canal toward the Kelpies.

There are 14 locks on this section, which are mostly very close together, to take you down 115feet to the River Carron. I imagine it must be quite a chore and slow going making your way by boat along this section of the canal, which, built in 1790, connects the River Forth to the Clyde.

But we were whizzing along on our bikes now, covering the last few miles in very little time. All of a sudden the Kelpies came into view.

Even from a distance they are an astonishing site. The closer you get the more emotion they evoke, and lit in bright sunshine, but framed by distance dark clouds, they looked incredible.

Immediately I thought, that for me, they are the most beautiful man-made structure I have ever seen.

Designed by Glaswegian artist Andy Scott, and opened in 2014 at a cost of £5million, they stand at 30 metres tall. The two horses heads are called Duke and Baron, named after the Clydesdale horses that the artist chose as the life models for the sculptures. Sadly Baron passed away in January this year (pictured here on the right with the artist, and below in sculpture).

The word Kelpie is an old word meaning Scottish mythological water horse, which is entirely appropriate, given they mark the end of the Forth & Clyde Canal.

I stood for a while directly underneath Duke, the Kelpie that has its head bowed down, and it was a very moving experience. It was impossible to take a bad photograph.

I entered the gift shop in the hope of finding a model of the Kelpies, and as a special order they could indeed sell me such, but at £5,000 I declined, feigning having forgot my wallet.

Anyway, nothing compares to the real thing.

Friday, 4 August 2017


It's hard to follow the blog from last week, which has attracted almost 2,000 readers to date, other than to thank everyone for reading, and to say there will be a proper follow up in the near future, but for now here is how things have progressed in the past seven days.

It's been a week of further investigation, with a number of dead ends, but on the plus side there have been some new discoveries.

The focus at the moment is to find the final fate of the Glen Loy, which was last seen on the beach at Camusnagaul on Loch Eil, 40 years ago. The original lead had been that she had been taken to the River Clyde. I plotted her possible route, and I was skeptical, mainly because, as a low lying barge-type vessel at that point, it is quite a journey from Fort William, mostly on sea lochs, to the River Clyde. She would have been towed, and her most likely route would have taken the Crinnan Canal. But barge and towing vessel combined give me doubt she would have fitted through the series of locks.

Then another lead came in during the week, that she might have been the barge seen around 25 years ago at Port Appin, just down the coast from Ballachulish. This seemed far more feasible, but sadly, turned out to be a dead end.

On the upside, the designers of the past seven turntable ferries to serve at Ballachuish, GL Watson in Liverpool, were back in contact to say they had found the original design drawings in their dusty archive, and though they were too brittle to scan, could be photographed. These drawings will help confirm the identity of the wreck at Gairlochy, supposedly the Glen Duror, and at present I am trying to arrange to visit the company.

I am to return north to Glenelg near Skye next week, as the final part of the Glenachulish Ferry restoration to her original spec is to take place, when her bell is to be hung once again in the wheelhouse.
For now the quest continues for the Glen Loy.

Friday, 28 July 2017


In 1972, when I was just a wee boy, I lived at Ballachulish, just north of Glencoe. We didn't live there for long, but it has a special place in my heart for one simple reason; the Ballachulish ferries.

For some small boys it's tractors. For me it was these fascinating boats. The man overall in charge of the Ballachulish Ferry Company was Commander Clark, and my stepfather, and brother Geoff, worked as his gardener, a fact that would have quite an impact a few days ago. We lived in a tied house, Riverside Cottage, which I made a point of visiting on my trip this week.

Between the ages of 1 and 15 my step father moved prolifically. Why I'll never know. Because of this there has been an idea in my mind for some time to retrace some of these places and document that early life, but for one reason or another I never got round to it. Then last year I read about a turntable ferry at Glenelg, up near Skye, being completely overhauled, and this started a ball rolling. Not the story on my early life of the first 15 years, but on what happened to the Ballachulish turntable ferries of yesteryear.

At the head of Loch Leven the gap between the south and north landfall is a mere 200m, and until 1975 this was served by two turntable ferries, ploughing back and forth conveying up to six cars at a time. There has been a ferry at this point for hundreds of years, but the turntable ferry is unique to Scotland, and its design was thought up by a Scotsman to solve a particular issue; how to have a ferry operate constantly with falling and rising tides. There were three boats at Ballachulish altogether, with one of them held in reserve, though at peak times all three would run. It was quite a sight. I would spend my summer holidays from primary school down at the ferries, and got to know the ferrymen really well. There was one in particular who I remember as the most friendly, and his name was Peter MacKenzie, recognisable at a distance in his peaked black cap.

I filmed various interviews this week, one with the last surviving ferryman, Ewen Maclean, and one with Kate Ward, daughter of Peter. The latter was a very emotional one. She recalls her father Peter talking fondly of "the gardener's boy" spending his days at the ferry.

That boy was me.

As you can imagine, this was quite a moment for me when Kate told me this.

On a few occasions in the early 70s, I would be allowed to wander up the line of waiting cars and collect the fares, and in return would then ride back and forth across the narrows on the ferry, though I suspect I could have done that without working for it. Then in an evening I would go with the last ferry to anchor it safely in a nearby bay, coming back in the rowing boat, then run home having had the best day.

They were special times.

I left there around 1974, just as the foundations to a new bridge that would displace the ferries started. After a few teething troubles the bridge opened two days before Christmas in 1975 and the ferries left Ballachulish forever. One, the Glen Duror, ended up working on the Caledonian Canal for a local businessman, from what I can gather transporting materials for canal repairs. In 1978 she was taken off the maritime register and ceased to be used. A second ferry, The Glen Loy, was bought by Fort William Dive School, and used as a platform for their school. She too was taken off the register in 1980.

But the third boat, the Glenachulish, survived as a turntable ferry, the main reason being she was made of steel, whereas the Glen Loy and the Glen Duror were both made entirely of wood. She now serves as The Glenelg ferry in the short crossing to Kylerhea on Skye. I came across her about ten years ago whilst on a tour of Scotland on my motorbike. I knew there was a ferry there, but I didn't know it was the Glenachulish. That was quite a powerful emotional moment when I first saw her again.

But what had happened to the other two? This would become the focus of my film, which I have spent the last five days making inroads on.

Having spent an entire day in glorious sunshine filming the Glenachulish, my brother and I went in search of the wrecks of the other two, with only a single old photograph and tips on where to find them to go on, and some help from Robert Beale, co-author of the book, Scotland's Turntable Ferries.

The Duror turned out to be remarkably easy to find, and she lies on the shore at Gairlochy, just off the path of the Great Glen Way. She is a shadow of her former self, and it was sad to see an old friend in such a state. To be honest a small doubt is still in my head that it is her. To confirm one way or the other I want to get a hold of the original plans, and GL Watson in Liverpool, the designers, are trying to locate these very plans. She was built by James Noble of Fraserburgh in the early 60s, so I'm also pursuing that avenue. On the shoreline, just meters away from her hulk, a piece of her had broken off and washed ashore. That piece is now with me back in Edinburgh.

The Glen Loy however, is proving to be an altogether more complicated hunt.

Around the late 70s a severe storm broke her free of her moorings at Fort William, and she floated away, eventually crashing into the shoreline some distance away. A local man, Fergus Maclean, living at Camusnagaul, directly opposite Fort William, salvaged her and towed her back to the beach there. The engine was removed and sold. Her hull then lay on the beach for some time, when I assume the photograph I have of her was taken. When I arrived at that same location last Tuesday she was gone. After some fortuitous connections, mostly thanks to Google searches, I talked on the phone with Fergus, and he told me she had been taken away to the River Clyde.

The search continues.

Thursday, 20 July 2017


On the 13th July it was the anniversary of my mum passing 25 years ago. That's almost half my life since, which astonishes me. In all that time my mums ashes have stayed with me, and all at the same address. But this was, in a sense, unfair on my brother and my aunt. My brother especially felt he had nowhere to go to pay his respects on occasion.

So the time had come to scatter her ashes, and on Sunday we did just that, in the waters of Loch Lomond.

Why there? Well, my childhood was a tumultuous one it could be said, but the time we lived on the shores of Loch Lomond, in the mid 60s, was the first time that all the family lived together, and they were happy and fun times. Because of this, it was a special place to my mum, including the nearby village of Luss, and so we decided these were the places we would take her back to. Almost full circle in a way. Our plan was that half her ashes would go into the water at the caravan park where we had lived, near Inveruglas, and the other half in the waters at Luss, though within a short space of time she would be everywhere.

My step father managed the caravan site for Halleys of Milngavie, but now it has changed almost beyond recognition since we left 50 years ago. But down on the shore were the concrete remains of the original jetty, where I used to play with my Action Man in his diving suit. My brother and I stepped over the gap of water and onto the jetty, where he read a favourite poem of my mums, by Leo Marks, as I scattered her ashes into the water.

The life that I have
Is all that I have
And the life that I have
Is yours

The love that I have
Of the life that I have
Is yours and yours and yours

A sleep I shall have
A rest I shall have
Yet death will be but a pause

For the peace of my years
In the long green grass
Will be yours and yours and yours

I found this moment, as the ashes fell into the still waters, very difficult. I thought I would be fine, but it was so hard. All I could muster to say was that she had been my best friend.

We then repeated this moment in the village of Luss, which didn't have the same effect on me, most probably because I have no memories from there. The caravan site was where I have my earliest memories, and where my mum bought me my first bicycle.

I've changed in looks a lot since those early days, but what's remarkable is that my mum did not really change in all her years. In every photograph and image I have of her, it was her smile that was a constant and how I always remember her.

Back when I lived on Loch Lomond, a grand old paddle steamer called the Maid of the Loch used to plough up and down the deep waters.

Now there is one more lady on those waters.

I miss you.

Thursday, 13 July 2017


I went to the cinema this week to see the new Spiderman film. I was pleasantly surprised how entertaining it was, and the acrobatics, though CGi, were convincing.

But, I've recently seen even more impressive acrobatics, right here in my own garden, and way more entertaining!

I was peaking out through the window of my garden shed yesterday when I spotted the resident field mouse precariously hanging upside down on the bird peanut feeder. He was determined, despite nearly falling off on occasion. But it's best you watch him and judge for yourself the entertainment value.


Then to my surprise, another mouse, a third the size and grey, clearly a baby mouse, appeared. They say best to try new things when you're young. Well, watch as this little guy does just that. He decides to have a go at climbing a long thin slippery metal pole to try and gain access to the birds sunflower feeder. Despite several attempts he was unsuccessful. To give you an idea of his size, the pole is about the width of a sunflower seed!


Eat your heart out Spiderman!


Friday, 7 July 2017


On a sunny but windy day, Pauline and I went in search of driftwood on the beach and dunes of Aberlady Bay. Many's a time that Pauline has returned from our own nearby beaches, with tiny treasures of polished glass and pebbles, or shells, and re-purposed them into bits of art for her garden.

I've visited and blogged about Aberlady Bay many times, so as a wee change this week, to accompany my photos, is a poem by Angela Wybrow.

As the tide retreats, it leaves behind
Once hidden treasures, for folk to find.
Left revealed, is a long strip of shiny, wet sand,
Where treasures, now at their journey's end, will land

By the sea, small pieces of glass have been ground,
Leaving their once sharp edges, smooth and round.
There are a few fallen feathers from visiting gulls.
Smooth egg-shaped pebbles, both shiny and dull.

Shells of all shapes, such as cones, conches and scallops,
Are washed ashore by the powerful sea, as it gallops.
There are lions paws, kings crowns, tulips, angel wings
Slipper shells, jewel boxes, moon snails and other things

Sugar kelp, Bladderwrack and Dead Man's Fingers,
Are some of the seaweeds which, on the shore, linger
The sight of numerous pieces of discarded litter
Leaves behind a taste, in my mouth, that is bitter.

Pieces of driftwood, many with interesting shapes,
From the endlessly shifting sea, make their escape.
If, along a sandy beach, you take a relaxing wander,
There are many treasures on which you can ponder.

Folk can while away many an hour of pleasure,
Sifting amongst all the newly arrived treasure.
An hour or two spent exploring a sandy cove,
Can potentially reveal a whole treasure trove.