Photographer and history researcher Estelle Slegers Helsen explores the Lochaber area for four weeks to retrace the places where the Scottish photographer W.S. Thomson took his landscape pictures, both in black and white and in colour. The project, called Travel in Time (www.travelintime.uk) is supported by the West Highland Museum and the Year of Stories 2022 Community Fund. She keeps a travelog and here are her writings about the second week on the road.
Travel in Time. Lochaber Series - Day 8. Saturday 28 May 2022
Early morning and there comes the sun! So tidying up the tent, having breakfast, camera ready and roll! The first stop is one of the interviewees, Alistair. No time set for a talk, so just dropping by. He is more than welcome for a chat, but he has to catch the 10 am ferry to Tobermory for a haircut. Joyfully he says: “In the past, a lady came to the village for haircuts for about 12 people. Now we have to take the boat.” Although the sun is in the wrong position, I look for the exact place where Thomson took a picture of Mingary Pier, where the Tobermory-Kilchoan ferry touches Ardnamurchan ground.
Driving back on Pier Road, I stop at Puffin Cafe, not only a tourist hotspot for a coffee and a snack but also a meeting place for the locals for some emails and writing. After midday, the sun is in the proper direction for a remake from the west side of Kilchoan. Already knowing where to go, it still takes an hour to have the most comparable position, with rocks on the forefront as excellent guidance. It is a wrap! Then back to Puffin Cafe for a meeting with Helen, who also attended the talk on Friday. One has to be patient in Scotland, especially on the single road tracks. An extensive highway maintenance vehicle is preparing the bumps and potholes in the road, so “long delays are expected”. Just wait is the message, but I get in time to speak to Helen, a talk that takes about two hours. She describes herself as an indigenous, meaning she was born in Kilchoan and is still living here and is planning not to leave. She has some interesting views on the future of the community. Helen refers me to a few more people to talk to, a woman in Kilmory, my destination after the interview, for another remake.
I was told that picture was taken not far from an iconic K6 telephone box, which is easy to find. The search for where Thomson stood is almost evident, and a small higher section looks upon a hairpin to Kilmory and a dead-end road. The light and view are nearly perfect. There are no nostalgic morning and evening colours but bright blue sky, the slightly hazy grey-blue isles of Rum, Eigg and Muck, the fresh spring green of the trees, and pastures and croft land. Remake ready, I drove to the end of Kilmory - a dead-end village, so 100% end of the world, to meet the woman who lives there, but nobody answered the door. Monday may be more luck. Back to Kilchoan to Mingary Pier again for the third remake of the day. The sun is already so low the upper part of my tripod and the camera are a shadow in the right bottom corner. Hardly anything changed except a small crane that was taken away in time.
Rather tired of the day, I arrive at the campsite, now nearly fully booked for the weekend, to make dinner and prepare my orange dungeon for another night of sleep. I have a funny feeling the full bottles of wine of my new neighbours are a bad omen…
Travel in Time. Lochaber Series - Day 9. Sunday 29 May 2022
The camping neighbours were very loud until 1:30 am. Asking to please keep voices down somewhere around midnight helped for about 5 minutes, but the laughing and loud voices returned. It must have been the alcohol and the attitude. So, I had a bad night of sleep, waking up at 5 for another day of work; wondering if this trip is really work. Dragging my tired body through the morning, I left the campsite around 9 am. Before jumping in the car, one of the noisy neighbours asked if I was all right. I said not really. She even couldn’t remember I was at their camper van to ask to be quiet.
After some writing from up the campsite hill, where I enjoyed the sunny morning, I went for the interview with Alistair, which was interesting. He named all the houses in the old picture, talked about Mingary Pier and chatted about his life. When we sat inside for the talk, clouds did come from the north. Nevertheless, I headed for the beach near Ardnamurchan Lighthouse to remake the Thomson picture with a lovely pinky coloured sea titled: “Rum, Muck and Eigg from Santa in Ardnamurchan.” I found the place, which is easy to recognise by the rocks in the middle of the photograph. But a high fence made it impossible to go to the exact spot. It wasn’t worth getting access because rainy clouds covered both islands in a grey and misty mess. There was no way to get a decent picture. So, hoping to have another try chance tomorrow morning, I went to Kilchoan’s Puffin Cafe for soup, a toasty, and some writing and reading. Outside, drizzle and rain came and went. Late afternoon and the evening, I enjoyed a nap in the tent, interviewed a man for the Travel in Time Series on the Melton Borough Villages and wrote the first draft of that article. Although the neighbours chatted rather loud during the evening, everything went quiet on the Western Frontier after 11 pm.
Travel in Time. Lochaber Series - Day 10. Monday 30 May 2022
After a good night of sleep (neighbours can also behave rather well), I have breakfast with a primarily grey cloudy view and a seconds-long sunny spells. Then it is time to go, pack my gear and put the tent back in the car. Before leaving, I write a bit and check my emails up the hill at the top of the campsite. In the morning, I meet Penny, the secretary of the Ardnamurchan History and Heritage Association, to talk about the project and her recommendation on how to give back the stories to the Kilchoan Community in September. Penny is a ‘local’, but not, as Helen would say, an ‘indigenous’.
With a pitstop at the Kilchoan Ferry Store, I find out an interview with one of the older - probably the most senior - residents of Kilmory wasn’t possible yet, but returning to the eastern part of Ardnamurchan later on during this trip, gives me a second chance. Also, the remake of the Sanna picture hopefully will work out then because the weather is too cloudy.
So I leave Ardnamurchan. The drive to Salen is magical. From Kilchoan, heading east, the landscape is mostly barren. Curbing Ben Hiant, a large patch of planted fir trees lie on the left and the grey-black water of Loch Loch Mudle on the right. Before reaching Ardslignish, a spectacular view to the west on Loch Sunart unfolds. I wonder why Thomson didn’t take a picture of this scene. Maybe he did, but the picture wasn't published as far as I know. From Ardslingnish, a wonderful mix of primarily deciduous trees accompanies you to Salen, passing by Glenbeg, Glenborrodale and Laga. There is an old telephone kiosk, a post box and a small exchange library. I stop again at Camas Torsa for another look at a Thomson picture from nearby the pick-nick area and a view of Ben Resipol. I also have a short break at the Salen Jetty for a short stroll and an additional stroll scout for Thomson’s photograph of Salen near Salen Hall. I will give a talk in this tiny old building on June 10th.
The following shortstop is Strontian, for a late lunch, where I accidentally meet Rosie, my initial key contact in Kilchoan. She was away for the weekend and asked how it went. We chatted a bit. From Strontian to the Corran Ferry is a double-track road, giving me a mixed feeling about heading back to an area with many more people than in Ardnamurchan and Ardour. The final destination for today is Kinlochleven, where I pitch my tent. Many hikers here are walking along the West Highland Way, a track running from Glasgow to Fort William. When everything is nearly ready for a stay at Kinlochleven for a few days, it starts raining. The tent keeps me dry and gives me a comfy environment for some writing, some online work, and a bit of reflection.
Travel in Time. Lochaber Series - Day 11. Tuesday 31 May 2022
When I poke my head outside the tent, the place where I am staying is dotted with small tents, like a small overnight built refugee camp, all with bright colours: yellow, orange, bleu, and red, and all kinds of shades of green. The tents are of hikers and backpackers walking the West Highland Way, and Kinlochleven is the last stop before reaching the final destination, Fort William. The morning light is already bright, and the sun is on the top of the hills, although it is before 6am. I'm still half asleep and decide to stay a bit longer in my sleeping bag.
After some writing, email and website work, and breakfast in the tent - it is still chilly in the morning, and I try to avoid the midges, who start to come - I leave for The Leven Centre to have a look at the space where I will give a talk tonight. The Seminar Room of the centre has all I need: chairs, a small table, a screen and blinds for the windows. I stay at the place a few hours for some extra preparations for the presentation, and then I take Lochaber Road, the road north of the long stretched Loch Leven heading west to North Ballachulish. I stop a few times along the road to enjoy the sunny view, the light and the places where Thomson took his pictures. There is a small picture in one of his Let’s See booklets of a view on Loch Leven with a small island with one tree not far away, locally called the Lido, because as children, Kinlochleven residents did come to swim here. There are a few more trees on the island and a man on a paddleboard with a little child sitting in a seat. They are just coming ashore.
In the afternoon, another talk is planned for a group of (older) ladies living in Onich and North Ballachulish, who gather once a month in Alltshellach Country House, now a hotel and cottages, formerly a bishop’s house. The old building is still there, mostly kept as it was, with a retro and old feeling. It may be like it was in the 1950s, although it looks like it got stuck in the 1970s. I love this kind of atmosphere. The talk was delightful, with tea halfway through the meeting, some chatter after that and closing with a raffle. One of the ladies told a story of her late husband meeting Thomson near Callart House - from where he took several pictures of Loch Leven and the Pap of Glencoe - standing there with his tripod and camera, waiting for the clouds to be in the proper position to take a good picture.
In the afternoon, the weather changed, and I drive back to Kinlochleven on the road from Glencoe, south of Loch Leven, for a stop and look at a Thomson picture of The Narrows of Loch Leven, more or less knowing where he stood 70th years ago. After a takeaway dinner, it is time to go back to The Leven Centre for the talk, a most enjoyable evening with some residents, a time for them to catch up on memories and for me a way to know more about Kinlochleven life in the past, which is a bit of a strange story. I will write about that when editing the remakes and the stories I am gathering now. When arriving back at the campsite again, small tents are pitched again, but all different. It are the arrivals of the day who will leave tomorrow morning again. Just as time, people pass by.
Travel in Time. Lochaber Series - Day 12. Wednesday 1 June 2022
I feel I am not staying in the right place, so I decide to move on later in the morning. I have to leave this campsite anyway in two days and did find another site with a view of Loch Leven where I can pitch my tent for a week. It will be crowded everywhere because of the early spring bank holiday on Thursday and the Queen’s Jubilee bank holiday on Friday. I have breakfast and pack my tent while the other overnight sleepers pack their belongings in their rucksacks. I have more stuff to carry that all fit into the small car, which is working fine.
Like yesterday the weather is lovely in the morning, and it will be a day for remakes, having no people scheduled to talk to. My first stop is near the Grey Mares Tail waterfall, not far from the bottom of the trail that leads to Loch Eilde Mòr, where a bench is a favourite spot for the locals to sit and enjoy the view. When asking a lady about the place, she said that most people take a picture from Loch Leven further up, pointing at a little knoll. It is indeed where Thomson planted his tripod with his heavy full-frame camera. Birch trees of about 40 years old cover the houses down the hill, but the view west to Loch Leven is still visible. Then mission two for Thomson’s next picture more up the hill about 500 feet higher. I follow the much-eroded track to Loch Eilde Mòr, which winds up through deciduous trees and several burns coming down the hill. When I view Loch Leven again, this must have been more or less the height Thomson took the other picture of Kinlochleven and Loch Leven, but it looks like I am on the wrong side of one of the burns, which is not simply possible to cross. I make a remake anyway and decide to go back to the car, maybe having a second attempt within the next few days.
After pitching my tent at another campsite, I make my way for a photograph Thomson took of The Narrows of Loch Leven, uphill from the south side of the loch. On the Ordnance Survey map, I found a small trail that he probably used to get a bit higher up. The hardest part is to find a place to park my car, only possible on a layby much further on. I take another trail which starts from there and brings me higher on the hill than necessary. Eventually, I reach the spot where Thomson probably took the picture, but most of the view on The Narrows is covered by pine trees.
Time for a break and then driving west to Glencoe to look at the Massacre Monument, a hidden gem in the village not far from the War Memorial. When reading about Scottish history, there has been a lot of fierce and bloody fighting between Scottish clans and English troops and between Scottish clans themselves. The Massacre Monument is maintained by the Glencoe Heritage Trust. Again a tree, this time a hawthorn, spoils the view of the monument and the Stop Coire an Lochan, the most spectacular scenery in one of the Glen Coe mountains from the village of Glencoe. It is not that busy in the Village with tourists to my surprise.
Before driving to my final destination for the evening, the Ballachulish Village Hall, I stop at Tigh-Phuirt for a remake because the late afternoon light is at the right place for a remake of that street, now just across the busy A82 from Glencoe village. When Thomson took the picture, this was still the main road from Ballachulish to Glencoe. Still, now it is only used by the residents, holidaymakers staying in one of the cottages turned into self-catering accommodation and cyclists. I struggled with the branches of a beech tree covering a bit of the remake view for the remake. Then it is time for the planned talk in the Ballachulish Village Hall, which went quite well, having some technical issues with the beamer. But I keep my cool. It is a pleasant drive back to the campsite with a pinkish sky. Time for bed…
Travel in Time. Lochaber Series - Day 13. Thursday 2 June 2022
Another nearly cloudless early morning, with the sun bright on top of the northern hills surrounding Loch Leven. Every minute the sun climbs, more parts of the hills get their share of late spring sunshine. The morning is chilly, but I have breakfast with my back warmed by the sun and a view of Loch Leven, the water coming in from the west because of the upcoming tide. On the opposite side of the loch, near The Narrows, you can clearly see the black stripe on the rocks between low and high tide. After breakfast, there are a few hours of writing, getting in touch with people, and website maintenance before leaving for Glencoe. Most of Thomson’s pictures on my list for a remake are taken west to east, so I am hoping for a good afternoon.
I have a chat with Catriona, the curator of the Glencoe Folk Museum, a local museum in some old 1700s croft houses in the main street of the village. We talk about the project and discuss how results from this project can be displayed from September on. Because they will be closed for a long time after this year's season for a major site upgrade that won’t be before 2024. Having some reflections about the aspect of time, actually, that isn’t that far away anymore.
Because the sky gets clouded, I plan to go for a scout of a few places. But first, I call Iain - a man I met at yesterday’s talk in Ballachulish Village Hall and who can help me with finding the places where Thomson took a few pictures of Ballachulish village - a call to ask and meet later in the afternoon. But he convinces me to come right away, although a bit of rain is forecasted. We meet at a yard in the old western quarry, where is now some industrial activity. Arriving there, he waves at me, standing on top of a container. In Thomson's publications, I found two general views, one taken from the western quarry, already in disuse in the late 1940s. This view shows the old railway line from Ballachulish to Oban, where the A82 is running, and the old road through the village, where the road to the yard is situated. Iain, a postcard collector, shows me a pin-sharp postcard. That postcard is the same as the copy printed in an early edition of Let’s See the West Highlands, which has more minor detail.
Iain thinks the postcard is taken from where the container is now, so I climb on a ladder with my camera equipment and tripod. Relatively quick, it becomes clear it was much higher up from one of the ridges of the quarry. It is bushy and overgrown, but we give it a try. “Welcome to tick country,” Iain says. Ticks are being there this year in large quantities, which I have already experienced in the past 13 days. We have three attempts to find a gap in between what is mainly birch trees. Every time we climb a bit further up, the view gets more interesting. At a big ‘YES’ sign, put there when the first independence referendum was held in Scotland, I think there is a close match, but much of the view on the old road and railway track is covered by trees. The view on Loch Leven is good, with a view of the more extensive eastern quarry and Glencoe House. The rain didn’t come, but the sky is very cloudy.
For the second picture, we discuss how to access the hill because there are a series of houses making access more difficult. But for everything is a solution, because Iain’s brother happens to live in one of the houses and I can go through their back garden to climb the hill. Iain doesn’t join me. The hill is nearly treeless, so the view is fine. I have several markers in Thomson’s picture to find the place, and after a few hours of climbing, getting the camera in place, and trying for a remake, I find the spot where Thomson stood. I am wondering why he did choose this place. There is no track, and I do not see a flatter area where a tripod can stand properly. Possibly there was a small walking path, not used for many years, or Thomson just pondered uphill until he thought he could make a good picture. I am fortunate with the weather because clouds did break to have proper light on the scenery, and the clouds above the hills south of Loch Leven are dramatic.
I walk down the hill and say thank you to Iain’s sister-in-law, enjoying the sun in her garden. I drive back to the campsite, which is packed for the bank holiday weekend. I need a shower, relax and make dinner. Stormy clouds roll over the hills from the south, and for half an hour, rain pours out of the sky, accompanied by some thunder. The chatters and music on the campsite immediately come to an end. I can barely understand the conversation while getting in touch with the home front back in England. After the short storm, the campsite quickly comes alive again, and the noise returns. I finish the evening with some laptop work and go to bed late, hoping for another cloudless morning. Not bad for a 13th day on the go!
Travel in Time. Lochaber Series - Day 14. Friday 3 June 2022
My look gets a bit wilder every day, but I really don’t mind. Again, an early rise for some writing and email work and a good breakfast. So far, this week's weather was gentle and sunny, with clouds coming in the afternoon and some refreshing showers at the start of the evening. In the morning, I went to see Margareth, who was one of the ladies at the afternoon talk I had on Tuesday, for a chat about her memories. 94 and a bit deaf, with a positive spirit and a relatively healthy (if I would be like that when I am 94, I go for it), is watching the preparations for the Queen’s Service in Saint Paul’s Cathedral in London on the television. Still, it will be another hour before the service start, and as a royalist, she doesn’t want to miss the royals coming in, so we have about an hour to talk. She switches the television off. When finishing the interview, Margareth offers a cup of coffee, and I stay a bit longer while we watch the royals coming in. Margareth knows them all, and she is waiting for the Queen to arrive. But then comes the rather disappointing message she isn’t attending the service, Margareth saying: she is also watching the television now. Poor soul…
Leaving Margareth’s house where Loch Leven meets Loch Linnhe, I think about which reshoots I will do, starting with the one from North Ballachulish to the west with the Ardour mountains as a backdrop. I have already done this one before. The light is better now. Then, I drive to the north shore of Loch Leven near Callart House, knowing where to be for two remakes. The sky gets cloudy. As such, no problem, waiting for a few hours to get the light where it has to be. One of the pictures facing the Pap of Glencoe and Glencoe village is taken during early winter with some lovely snow on top of the mountains. I am worried about the result of this series - although I already have some remakes made in October last year and in April of this year, the result will be a bit monotonous because it is now late spring. It is a bit of a dilemma for my plan to publish a printed booklet with the then and now pictures…
After the Callart pictures, I drive to Loch Leven Hotel and the north side of where the Ballachulish Ferry did run for a shout for the remakes. A stunning photograph is taken from the hotel’s garden in a book written by Jack House, titled ‘The Glory of Scotland. Number One. The West. A Pictorial Guide’, with colour photographs of Thomson, published in 1962 by Oliver & Boyd, the publisher that also produced Thomson’s two main pictorial books ‘The Highlands in Colour’ (1954) and Colourful Scotland (1956), with about 60 colour photographs each. But bad luck there because most of the view is taken by a high fir tree and three larger bushes. It would have been nice to have a remake from both sides, a sight from the opposite side in the direction of Hotel Loch Leven already made.
I hoped to make a last remake for the day of Tigh Phuirt, but dark clouds are coming in, so I drive back to the campsite while it starts pouring rain. It only lasts half an hour. Time to wash up, cook, have some computer work done and run other projects as a digital nomad. Browsing through Facebook, I see some snapshots taken by Helen living in Kilchoan, Ardnamurchan, last night, which she posted on her Ardnamurchan - The Real Wild West page. The area seems on fire, with orange light hitting the landscape.