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.

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