Friday, 20 October 2017


Around a month ago I was asked to provide a filmmaking course for a teenage group up near Stirling, for 16 weeks up until Christmas. The goal is to show any films they make to the local community just before Christmas.

This is a different challenge to what I'm used to. At the weekly academy I teach at, there are 160 students, from ages 6 to 18, who are all there to learn and participate in performing arts, period. In this new group, there are only at most, 12 teenagers, who gather every Tuesday night at a local youth group, in a building they affectionately call, The Youthie.

The difference between the two groups, apart from size, was clear straight away; in Edinburgh they attend for the subject, whereas up in Stirling we could just as easily be meeting to play pool, or video games. In essence this was just another project like any other that they have done recently. So it was quite a challenge convincing them about making a film. Afterall, it's a lot of work, and requires a lot of dedication.

It's a mixed group of abilities, and some young people have their own personal challenges that they are dealing with. But I know from experience the value that filmmaking can bring to young people. I just had to win them over.

After about three weeks I was starting to worry that this project's ambition was too much. Attendance was sporadic at best, but there was a core that were starting to arrive on time and show keen interest. Here they are filming themselves during an improvisation exercise.

As if the combined challenges were not enough, I hatched a plan to put them under pressure to deliver. Though their ultimate goal is to make a short film and show this to the community just before Christmas, I decided to enter them now into the Scottish Youth Film Festival. The entry date was the 19 October, which basically gave them a combined 6 hours to come up with an idea, write and film it. Bearing in mind these are teenagers who have never made a film before.

But they pulled it off. Yesterday their film was submitted to the festival just four hours before the deadline. The festival is held on the 22 November, so fingers crossed they garner some success.

I have also made another observation of these country teenagers that differs from the Saturday city group. They have an air of confidence about them, and are comfortable with each other in ways that the Edinburgh group are not. I've also seen remarkable support toward each other, especially to those handling their own difficult issues. Yes, they have mobile phones, but they are on them less.

Normally we meet on a Tuesday evening, but it has been cancelled on the 31st. Everyone is taking part in Halloween, and they go for it big time. When I was a youngster I too immersed myself in Halloween, but again, this is something I don't see the city kids getting involved in.

I'm hoping when we meet next week that the rest of the group will enjoy watching the first film as much as their fellow students did making it.


Friday, 13 October 2017


For a number of weeks now I have been looking forward to a three-day cycle tour away with Pauline to the Oban area, picking up a fairly new cycle path linking through to Ballachulish. But the west coast of Scotland has been a washout this year, as I know only too well, trying to complete my latest film project.

Determined to get away regardless, we found an alternative, this time in an old favourite of Speyside, and thus on Saturday morning took the train to Aviemore.

The Autumn colours are just kicking in, and so the surrounding countryside was already a mixture of hues. The birch is probably my favourite native tree, with its delicate leaves, and the way they turn golden in Autumn. But at the moment they are mostly in their lime green stage, but I love this too, as it creates a canvass of variegated green across the landscape.

The first part of our route would take us through Boat of Garten, known as Osprey Village, due to its seasonal population of ospreys.

The run from Aviemore winds through native woods and cuts across a once open area, but now the trees have started to really take hold, and in just a few more years this too will be forest. Just a little further on, after scooting along a winding path through autumnal woods, we popped out into the village of Boat of Garten. A great new coffee shop had recently opened, so it felt wrong not to support it.

Not far from here is the village of Carrbridge, which boasts the oldest stone bridge in Scotland, built in 1717, though I doubt you would want to use it now to cross the River Dulnain below, such is its level of decay.

On this particular day the World Porridge Championships were being held, and somewhat disappointingly it was a girl from Sweden who had won!

We would end up camping wild beside the River Dulnain just a few kilometres on, due to the fact we had not arrived in Aviemore until early afternoon, and so our day was short in available light. Both of us were surprised as we pitched out tent, to discover that we were in the company of midges. It was unseasonably warm though, so perhaps their season had extended, as normally by now they are all gone. We had also hoped for a clear night so we would be able to see the spectacular Draconid meteor shower, but sadly that was not to be. As I lay in my tent, slowly drifting off, in the distance I could just hear the bellows of the rutting stags.

Day two began with a frustrating search for my buff. Every bag was searched three times at least, inside and outside the tent, over and over, but still I could not find it. Until . . .

I remembered I had stuffed it down the rear of my shorts to keep my behind warm during the night!

Our first section of the days route took us over Sluggan Bridge, built by General Wade as part of his military road network.

That two-arch bridge was washed away in the early 1800s and the one we crossed this day was built shortly after. The surrounding area was spectacular in colour and setting.

It was Carrbridges turn to get our coffee and cake spend, but I was to regret this a little later. From there we retraced our route back through Boat of Garten and on to Loch Garten. The Ospreys were all gone for the year now, but this made the backroads pleasantly quiet for cycling. We then headed through the Abernethy Woods toward a familiar route to cross the Ryvoan Pass to take us over the hills into Rothiemurcus. But no sooner had we reached the start of the climb, than I had a "sugar crash". This can happen with an abnormal rapid rise in blood glucose levels, triggering an insulin release and rapid uptake of the glucose, thus causing the crash. I was literally wiped out. It had to have been the large overly sweet cake in Carrbridge. The cure? Exercise. And so after a brief break we cycled over Ryvoan and into Glenmore and the expanse of Rothiemurcus forest.

I was disappointed to discover that the Glenmore Cafe has changed hands, and is now called the Red Squirrel Cafe, possibly due to its famous frequent visitors. On reflection though it had been in need of being dragged into the 21st century for along time. The new owners are clearly not used to the weather yet up here north of the border, as they had their wood burning stove on full tilt.

Camp that night was in a familiar spot within the Rothiemurcus Forest, but once again in the company of midges, and still no clear sky for meteor shower viewing. Light rain fell during the night, and the sound of it on the tent, together with the gurgling of the nearby passing river, gently floated me off to sleep.

Our final day started damp, but it rapidly cleared up, and our route took us through the forest to Loch an Eilein and then 7km south west to Kincraig.
I love the circuit path around the loch, and at this early hour we had it all to ourselves. The sun repeatedly broke through, casting beautiful light through the trees onto the orange, pine needle-covered track.
Leaving the loch behind we were back on tarmac backroads, heading for Kincraig. Here we picked up a brand new extension to the Speyside Way, but not before bacon rolls at Loch Insh.

The 9km run, which mostly follows the railway, is a complete delight. It twists and turns, up and down some very steep, but short, inclines for the first couple of kilometers. We were well ahead of time, and it had cleared up into a glorious sunny day, so we stopped a while, to soak it up, and nibble our chocolate peanuts.

But it was soon time to go, and we followed the perfect track all the way into Aviemore, at one point getting a friendly toot from a passing train. Soon we were on the platform for the train home.
The adventure was over . . . until next time.

Friday, 6 October 2017


I have a feeling I am going to lose this race, but right now I am striving to complete shooting for the Last Ferries of Ballachulish film. It's a race because autumn is upon us, and though I am a huge fan of this time of year, I need to have at least some greenery in the landscape so that my shots over the past few months match.

But in real terms, time is not the limiting factor, the weather is. The west coast has had one of its wettest and windiest summers on record, ruining some harvests, and trying to capture the impressive landscapes of Scotland with a drone in the rain is pointless. There are some shots that will be easy to pick up on any bright day, given that they are "pieces-to-camera" inside a car, but I need those landscape shots. It is my hope that I'll be able to capture everything on the weekend of the 14th. Here's hoping for dry weather.

I'd also like a bit of dry weather this weekend, as we are off on a three-day cycle trip to Speyside. Originally we had planned this to be on the west coast too, but with the aforementioned rain forecast a change was called for.

Changes are happening in my garden as well. This year Pauline planted a Boston Ivy in a corner of the garden, and it has now started to change into its autumn scarlet red. The potted apple tree has already lost all of its leaves and the Rowan, though covered in bright red berries, now has yellowy leaves. Last to go, and in dramatic gold, will be the Birch tree. My second favourite for colour change has to be the hawthorn, mainly because this goes through almost every colour palette of autumn. A professional gardener once told me that plant and tree leaves have all the colours we see at this time of year, throughout the whole year, it's just that green is the most abundant. The hawthorn puts on a show  in what seems a slow peeling back of the colours. But it is in no hurry, as its colourful performance is spread out over a number of weeks to enjoy. It's only me in the race against time.

Friday, 29 September 2017


The Ballachulish turntable ferry film is taking me to many varied places, mostly across Scotland in search of what has happened to them, but yesterday it led me to across the border to Liverpool.

It was also an opportunity to explore the city a little, as I needed to capture establishing shots for the sequence. As seems to have happened on every shoot day for the film, I stepped out of Liverpool Line Street railway station into glorious sunshine, Immediately I am faced with beautiful architecture directly opposite of St George's Hall, reminiscent in structure as some buildings in my home city of Edinburgh.

I was also struck by the friendly and helpful nature of everyone I met. On numerous occasions I stopped various people to ask for directions and everyone was very patient and helpful. At one point down on the waterfront of the River Mersey, a man with half bottle of wine in a brown bag staggered over to me and asked, ever so politely, if I minded if he sat nearby and had a drink.

I wandered around shooting various iconic things of Liverpool, such as a row of Liverpool Footbal Club scarves, and buildings, such as the Royal Liver Building. There are three buildings side by side; the Port of Liverpool Building, the Cunard Building and the Royal Liver Building, known collectively as the Three Graces. These are not that old, built at the start of the 20th century between 1903 and 1916.

As I was pondering what to film next to represent Liverpool in the film, I spotted a crowd of people gathered around a collection of four bronze statues. Curiosity took over, in case it was something worthy of being in the film. Remember, I want to find things that will say Liverpool, in the film. As I got nearer to the bronze figures I had a bit of a Doh! moment.

They were of John, Ringo, Paul and George, otherwise known as the Beatles!

The main reason I had made the three and a half hour journey was to visit the offices of GL Watson and Co, the original designers of the last seven Ballachulish ferries. Hidden away in their archive were the original drawings and paperwork relating to each ferry. One in particular was of interest, the Glen Duror, as I have been trying for some time to establish if the beached wreck at Gairlochy, north of Fort William, is in fact her. Early afternoon yesterday, as I stood in that hot office in Liverpool, staring down at her original drawing, I had my answer: the wreck at Gairlochy is NOT the Glen Duror of Ballachulish.

GL Watson was founded in 1873 by George Lennox Watson, the first yacht design company in the world, in George Square in Glasgow. Up until this moment I had often wondered why the Ballachulish ferries had been designed by a company way down in Liverpool, but now I understood, that at the time they were still based in Glasgow.

They designed what is regarded to this day as the most successful racing yacht of all time in the America's Cup, that of Brittania. Now they have one of the worlds finest archives of drawings with ongoing conservation and reproduction work, and they are heavily involved in the restoration of old vessels.

Satisfied that I had the material I came for I bid farewell and headed for home, but not before popping my head into the Cavern  a reproduction of where the Beatles first made their mark.

Sunday, 24 September 2017


A later than usual blog, following a very exciting and productive week, with a couple of close encounters of the third kind; contact.

It was 40 years ago when I attended the UK premier here in Edinburgh of Close Encounters of The Third Kind. As a 14 year old boy I was mesmerised by what unfolded on screen. The premier opened at the old Odeon cinema, then an enormous space, complete with a balcony and a gigantic curtain that pulled back to reveal the screen. I miss that grand opening of films. They would show all the adverts and trailers, then the curtains would close for a few minutes, the lights would go down, people on one side of the cinema would light up their cigarettes, and the curtains would swish back to the opening overture.

Bizarrely on the opening night the Strathclyde Police Band came on to play!

On Monday last week my brother bought me a ticket to attend the remastered 4K release of Close Encounters. As a little surprise I took along my original ticket from 40 years ago. Though I knew the film off by heart it was fantastic to see it on the largest screen in Cineworld. Nice to know that it is preserved now for future generations.

Another close encounter was to occur later in the week, on Thursday 21 September.

I have been continuing my search for the two lost ferries of Ballachulish, and in recent weeks have taken on some help to try and locate one of them, the Glen Loy. This is one that, like the Close Encounters movie, has not been seen for 40 years. Hopefully something will turn up.

The other missing ferry, the Glen Duror, was supposedly on the shores of Gairlochy, north of Fort William. I went to the wreck a few months ago but I was not convinced. As time went on and I gathered further evidence, despite everyone telling me to the contrary, I knew it was not the Glen Duror from Ballachulish.

I had to find her.

By a stroke of luck I made contact with someone who had posted a random comment about her online. One thing led to another, and several people later I found myself on the Calmac ferry out of Oban on Thursday, bound for the Isle of Mull.

Over on the west shore of the island, near to Ulva, I found her. It was quite a moment when I first made physical contact with her.

She was a sorry sight, having been abandoned on the rocky shore some 35 years ago, and ravaged by the sea and storms. But it was her. I gathered several old photographs from enormously helpful locals, of the Glen Duror operating in the late 70s at Ulva, matching them up with the landscape now, and categorically proved it was the Glen Duror.

Once a movie star alongside Kirk Douglas in Catch Me A Spy, and an important part of Scotland's cultural history, it was such a shame to see her like that.

When I interviewed Kate Ward, daughter of the late Peter Mackenzie, the last ferryman of Ballachulish, he recalled "the gardeners boy" coming down to play on the ferries every spare moment. That boy was me, and on Thursday it felt right that finally, the Glen Duror, my childhood friend, lost and forgotten for all these years, was found by the gardeners boy.

Unlike the movie Close Encounters, she will not be preserved for future generations, but hopefully my film will preserve the memory of her.

Friday, 15 September 2017


Baseball has been Americas pastime for well over 100 years, since 1845. You've probably heard of all the variants, from Little League and College, to the professional Minor and Major Leagues. I've only ever been to one baseball game, and that was the Dodgers, over in Los Angeles. I sat for what seemed hours, then decided to leave about 20 minutes before the end, mostly bored to be honest. The friend I was with stayed on and she said it all kicked off just after I left, and it was very exciting! Typical!

There are many different "plays" within a game, and to be honest I was a bit lost. One is an action where a player can steal a base. Here's the explanation of that, as written on the Boston Redsocks website:

In baseball, a runner is charged, and the fielders involved are credited, with a time caught stealing when the runner attempts to advance or lead off from one base to another without the ball being batted and then is tagged out by a fielder while making the attempt. A time caught stealing cannot be charged to a batter-runner, a runner who is still advancing as the direct result of reaching base. 

Do you understand?

No, me neither.

Despite that severe lack of knowledge of the game, this week, here in Scotland, I have been assisting on a short film with a baseball theme called Stealing Second, by two friends, Dave Barras and Scott Mackay.
I asked the two writer directors what the film was about:

Well, it’s about lots of things, but the main character is
a small time crook and thug called Eli Marshall,
who doesn’t really want to be a small time crook at all.
By a quirk of fate he becomes trapped in a baseball trial
with the Wildcats, as the police are searching for him.
I know, I know, weird. It works though.

So over 3 days, with the ever reliable, vastly changeable Scottish weather, a hardy bunch of filmmakers gathered at several locations in Edinburgh and Livingston, and brought this short to life.

My main responsibility was to achieve several shots using a drone, but as is the way in all independent filmmaking, I "pitched" in (see what I did there?) to help in all manner of roles. At times that was as a runner or production assistant, or a driver, and at one point, second unit camera.

Thankfully for the drone it was dry and bright, if not a little windy, but we captured the shots needed. Despite Hurricane Irma delivering the dregs of her storm on occasion, the team pulled it off, amidst having a lot of fun. The buzz on set was exciting and many new friendships were kindled.

Now the film is in post production, destined for film festivals, and serves as a proof of concept for a feature-film version. If you see this playing in a  festival near you make sure you go and support the team.

Go Wildcats!

Oh, and you don't need to know a thing about baseball.

Friday, 8 September 2017


The thing that keeps me sane is making sure I get away into the hills, on foot or on bicycle, as often as possible.

But summer in the Highlands of Scotland is not always conducive to this. Part and parcel of being away, and my favourite part of the whole experience, is camping out in my wee tent, but at this time of year the midges are still around, and are guaranteed to swarm around you, just as you settle down with an evening cuppa, forcing you into your home-from-home, looking out through the fine mesh of the tent inner.

So an alternative destination is needed. Something more east of the country.

This year has seen many a trip with Pauline to the midge-free Borders region, and a rare three-day opportunity came up last weekend to get away again to this beautiful part of Scotland.

Just ten minutes from the front door is a local railway station, where we can board the newly completed Borders Railway service to Tweedbank, just outside Melrose. The last time we were here was with our friend Andrew, to trek the nearby Eildon Hills, through thick, sticky, terracotta mud. It was great fun, rounding off with a visit to the Roman site of Trimontium.

Now on our loaded bikes, our plan was to circle back to Edinburgh via Berwick-upon-Tweed on the east coast, and visit a friend on the way in Coldingham.

We were lucky with a glorious sunny day, and hardly any wind, as we passed out of Melrose and headed east, toward Kelso. The narrow back roads, at times lined by high hedges, were an absolute joy to whiz along, and were also devoid of traffic as an added bonus.

Though sunny, there was a definite early morning coolness in the air, indicating the approach of Autumn. The harvest has been in full swing for a number of weeks, and many fields now sported short, blond stalks, after their recent close-cropped haircuts. House Martins, and a few Swallows, still darted about, readying themselves for their imminent departure to Africa.

By mid afternoon we were in warm sunshine, pulling in to the Border town of Kelso. We had both visited here on bikes before, but the route beyond the town, toward Berwick, was one neither of us had pedaled. 

But before this, tradition called, and we settled down at the outside tables of a little coffee shop called Off The Square, for coffee and cake.

Continuing east, we crossed the River Tweed 22km further on, and in doing so crossed over into England.

A little further on, through the village of Norham, brought us to the end of day one, at a campsite next to a local pub called The Salutation Arms. This was no 5-star campsite by any means, but the adjoining bar more than made up for it. Foregoing the usual routine of cooking our dinner at the tents, we opted for a great meal in the bar restaurant.

The following morning, with a light wind at our backs, we set off in a north westerly direction, crossing back into Scotland over an old chain link bridge after just 5km.

We had arranged to meet up with our friends Bill and Agnes in Coldingham around lunch time, and so we bypassed Berwick-upon-Tweed in favour of heading to the coastal fishing town of Eyemouth, taking a short cut through the castle grounds at Ayton halfway there.

On occasion while cycle touring I have the need for a second breakfast, and this was just such a day, and so, in a small cafe called Mackays on the seafront, I tucked into not one, but two bacon rolls, and a mug of tea.

In 1881, on the 14th October, a severe storm hit the east coast of Scotland, and a fishing disaster of biblical proportions decimated the fishing fleet of Eyemouth, and neighbouring villages, in an event that has become known locally as Black Friday. 129 men were lost, some not far from the safety of the harbour, in sight of their loved ones, and a bronze six-inch figure sculpture, depicting the distraught wives and children, has been erected on the seafront to commemorate those lost.

The wind now shifted in our favour, to push us along toward Coldingham, to meet up with our friends, who had moved from our home street in Edinburgh to Coldingham some seven years ago. We were both very impressed, and a little envious, of their efforts in their large garden.

We were unsure where we would camp this evening, but we knew we wanted a wild camp spot. After a long climb out of Coldingham we scooted downhill, with views in the distance to Torness, the east coast nuclear power station. Just past the turn off for Cove, the long distance footpath, the Southern Upland Way, headed off to our left. We decided to explore. Pauline can always be relied upon to find a good camp spot, and this time was no exception. Nestled in the woods, someone had cleared a large circular area, complete with little wooden benches around the edge, and there was space enough for both our tents, with room to spare. I imagined that in times past this was a regular meeting spot for youngsters to share stories and just hang out, probably now all grown up and left the area.

In the morning we retraced our route back about a mile to the quaint little harbour of Cove. The old dirt track descends steeply toward the harbour, but just before you turn the last corner we came upon a dark tunnel, cut out of the hillside, created around 1752. We navigated through the inky blackness to emerge out of the other side, above the harbour itself. Even though the sun wasn't shining, it was very picturesque, and such a wonderful find. It was bought by Benjamin Tindall to save it from development, and is now managed for conservation.

At one time this tiny little harbour, with its tricky access, was one of the most important herring ports on the east coast of Scotland, and now serves as a backdrop for many a fashion shoot and films. Recently scenes were shot here for the Hollywood big budget film, The Avengers. I could see why it is so attractive to filmmakers.

We were keeping a close eye on the weather now, as we headed north toward Dunbar and North Berwick, where we would turn west for home. The forecast was for heavy rain in the afternoon, and neither of us relished the idea of finishing such a great trip soaking wet. There was only one solution: coffee and cake while we deliberated.

If you are ever in this area and in need of coffee and cake in a lovely setting, in a pretty village, then the old Smithy at Tyninghame is the place.

Satisfied, and with dark clouds gathering, we cycled the six miles to North Berwick and took the dry option of the train back to Edinburgh.

Fab trip, and not a single midge in sight.