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.