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.

Friday, 1 September 2017


During the course of making the Ballachulish ferry documentary, I have been able to create a bit of a wow factor to the images by using a drone, or to give it the correct title, Unmanned Aerial Vehicle.

This is truly astonishing technology. I remember as a youngster getting control of such a machine, or rather, non-control. They were truly impossible to master. But now. Well, they have evolved to literally fly themselves. You still need a good sense of coordination, and be able to watch the actual aircraft in the sky as well as keep an eye on the images streaming back to your device.

I first got my hands on one of these new fangled devices  three years ago, in the shape of a Phantom, manufactured by DJI.

It belonged to a local production company I used to work freelance for. They had never really used it, and so I had what you might call, a permanent loan of it. This was the machine that I have been using for the past couple of months to create aerial images for the film.

That was, until two weeks ago.

It had always been a twitchy aircraft, and regularly did very strange things. Then one day it malfunctioned in the air, and instead of calmly returning to its take off point, decided to fly directly toward me, at full throttle, smashing into an oak tree behind me.

End of drone!

But the images were irresistible from a filmmakers point of view. And technology had taken enormous leaps forward since the release of the Phantom.

So two days ago, I took delivery of the new Mavic Pro, and already I am blown away with its capabilities.

One of the most annoying things about the Phantom was every time I filmed toward the horizon, or even the side of a bridge, the image was curved across the screen left to right. But now they have solved that.

But the most astonishing development is the portability. The Phantom had to be carried in a large, rectangular backpack, whereas the Mavic, which when folded up fits in your open hand, packs into a case a fifth of the size. And longer flight times also mean more flexibility.

But it is still terrifying to fly. I'm sure the more you use them the more that feeling goes away. But for now, especially over water, it creates high anxiety.

I've only just started the learning curve, but already I am impressed at the ease of using this amazing aerial camera. It brings so many of todays common place technologies together, creating astonishing creative possibilities.

Unfortunately there are always idiots out there that get their hands on these things, break the law, and spoil it for everyone. I'm in favour of tighter regulations, and once I have mastered the basics, I will be enrolling in a ground school to gain my UAV pilots licence from the CAA. I think this should become compulsory. Well, you can't get a licence to drive a car without going to driving school and passing a safety test, can you?

Meanwhile I am looking forward, albeit nervously, to the new and higher quality images I will capture for the film. And more safely than ever before. Thanks to its forward obstacle avoidance system it will stop dead in its tracks three feet from any obstacle in its path, or, and this is super impressive, automatically fly a route around it!

So no more arguments with oak trees!