Travels in Time: W.S. Thomson - Lochaber Series, Part III

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 ( 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 third week on the road.


Travel in Time. Lochaber Series - Day 15. Saturday 4 June 2022

The start of week 3 of the adventures in the Lochaber area for the Thomson remakes project. The campsite is crowded, and I leave for a series of planned interviews in the morning. Firstly, I have an appointment with Mary and Don in Onich. I met them in October last year - just by accident - while making a remake of a picture Thomson took of drying nets at the shore of Loch Leven, not far from Onich Hotel. It is the way it goes, just meeting people by accident, start talking, and also about what I am doing. A camera on a tripod attracts people and makes them curious about what is happening, especially when standing there to wait for the light to come.

Mary’s roots are in Mallaig, and I leafed with her through Thomson’s booklet ‘Let’s See Mallaig and the Road to the Isles’. A delightful conversation. The booklet contains a picture taken at the end of the 1940s of Mallaig Pier, showing about 20 primarily fishermen and their catch of the night. Also, Mary’s father is pictured, and scanning the photograph, she nearly can identify everybody. It is one of the few pictures of Thomson with people. When her husband Don joins, the conversation gets even more lively, and we end our chat with a cup of tea and some homemade cake. Mary invites me to join Sunday’s afternoon Jubilee service in Onich Church, but I am afraid I can’t attend.

Then it is a 20-minute drive to Fort William for the next appointment at the Highland Cinema, where I talk to Mairi Weir, living in Fort William but was born in Moidart. To my surprise, she has a picture of Thomson with her, borrowed from a friend, where Thomson is sitting in the centre front row of a group with a competition cup. There is no date, but Mairi tells me it was taken at the end of the 1940s. Another interesting piece of the jigsaw puzzle about Thomson’s life. Mairi also brought a small booklet of postcards titled ‘Pocket pictorials. The Highlands of Scotland’. I haven’t seen two of the pictures before, and I am thrilled one of these is taken in Moidart of Castle Tioram and Loch Moidart, near Acharacle. She also has two editions of the ‘Guide to Fort William and District’. I have to look more closely at when it was published, but probably also in the late 1940s, beginning 1950s when Thomson lived in Fort William. I bid goodbye to Mairi and drove to Glencoe for the third planned meeting of the day with Viki and Alistair Sutherland, who live at Torren along the Old Glencoe Road.

Meeting them was one of the most enjoyable talks I ever had with people in the sunbathing garden - it was almost too hot - in a secluded part of Scotland, surrounded by five mountains. We talked for about two hours, and then the couple, way in their 70s, showed me where Thomson took one of his most iconic pictures of Torren Lochan and Stob Coire an Lochan. Although a remake from the exact spot isn’t possible anymore - trees, you know - I hope it will be a good remake. It is a very often photographed scene, not from where Thomson stood but from the dam that created Torren Lochan. After spending a few hours at that place, I went to say thank you again to Viki and Alistair at their home, drove back to the crowded campsite, had some dinner, did some email and website work and called it a day, dosing off quickly in the campsite noise.

Travel in Time. Lochaber Series - Day 16. Sunday 5 June 2022

The last day of the Spring Bank Holiday Weekend marks the exodus of most campers at the site. In a few hours, nearly everybody is gone, and what was a crowded campsite becomes a haven of peace again, with less than a dozen tents and camper vans left. I bid my German neighbour farewell and wish him a safe journey back on his BMW bike to the continent. Last night we talked about the negligence of car drivers toward bikers and the recklessness of some bikers, both car drivers and bikers getting more aggressive while on the road. I always have been fascinated by the fact human beings behave differently, some even monster-like when they are in their car. Not everybody, of course.

I have a slow but busy morning preparing for this afternoon's interviews and possible plans for remakes. The sun and the blue sky are still there and will join me for the day. Early afternoon I leave the campsite, and on my way to Glencoe, a few miles from the campsite, I am getting warned by a man standing on the road, waving his hand and talking on his mobile phone, to slow down. Around the corner, a biker is lying in the ditch, and his bike is more than ten yards further on. Some other bikers and car drivers are taking care of him. The man on the telephone is probably calling the police to report the accident. I carefully pass the scene and immediately have to think about my neighbour. But it was not him because he had already left hours before. No idea what happened, but no use to stop, which would also be dangerous to do without a lay-by nearby.

My 2 pm appointment gets cancelled, so I drive to Loch Achtriochtan, at the western end of Glen Coe, to remake a Thomson picture of Achnambeithach, a cottage with a magnificent view to the east. The remake is possible, but when Thomson took the picture 70 years ago, the strip of fir trees immediately to the west of the cottage wasn’t there. In the photo are a flock of sheep. The space for the sheep is still there, but the sheep are roaming around the area, enjoying the grass. The remake is a close fit. There is a second picture taken from the River Coe in the direction of the loch, but there is not enough time left for a remake of that one. I am also troubled by the weather because, as written before, blue skies aren’t that good for a good picture.

I go to Tigh Phuirt to meet David, the owner of Crafts & Things, to chat about his memories of the place and browse through some pictures of the area, especially two on Tigh Phuirt. He talks a bit about his life, how his parents came to Glencoe to start the business and about him selling the business now after more than 40 years. Although he is relatively optimistic about the future, he thinks the government has to make legislation to protect the village's future. Not all properties in the village - and Glencoe is just one example of what is happening in all the villages around Scotland and other more remote countries - should get bought by non-locals to turn them into holiday lettings. On the other hand, the village needs the tourists to come down and stay in the area to get a decent income for the people who still live in the village. A double-edged sword.

After chatting with David, I drive back to Glen Coe for the river and glen remake. The exact spot where Thomson stood isn't there anymore because the road changed. Part of the old road became a large lay-by, and there was e new bridge built over the River Coe where the Old Glencoe Road leads to the village of Glencoe. But I am pleased with the result. A remake of Tigh Phuirt, the west end of the road is next, and then I head to the other side of the main road where Thomson took a picture of Loch Leven in the direction of Glencoe from near the pier of the Glencoe Boat Club. The pier wasn’t built yet when Thomson took the picture, but it is very close to where he stood.

Before 8 pm, I buy some food at the Ballachulish supermarket, head to the campsite, have a good meal, do some email and website work and go to bed. The campsite was still peaceful.

Travel in Time. Lochaber Series - Day 17. Monday 6 June 2022

Early morning and faint stripes of clouds in the sky. The weather is changing. The funny thing is most photographers, certainly, in a weather-unpredictable area such as the West of Scotland, check the weather on several websites to see what is coming. Am I too stubborn, or do I just go with the flow because I only just look up in the sky and make my thought about the day, what will come or not. When I was in Aultbea, near Gairloch in Wester Ross, in October last year, I did ask my host how the weather was going to be during the day. He said: “Just look out the window, see where the wind is coming from, and look up there. It gives you a pretty good indication of what is coming within the next hour, but it is so unpredictable it is no use to consult the weather forecast.” Clothing wise I am always prepared for the worst because there is a saying; “There is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing.”

On my way to Fort William to meet Noel, who said on the phone I have to be ready for a surprise, I stop at Corran to have a scout for one of the Thomson pictures. He made several pictures of the Corran Narrow, where the ferry runs between Corran and Ardgour, and I hope to find the place where he took the picture I recently found in one of his Let’s See booklets. I am a bit concerned about roaming around the area because since Thomson was here, half a dozen private houses were built. I make my way along the shore as close as possible to the shoreline. Carefully stepping on the rocks, I do see a man in his garden, and I ask if it is okay to have a look. “This is Scotland,” he says, “you can go where you want!” I find the place, and it takes about another half hour to get my tripod and camera in the correct position. The lighthouse and the hotel on the other side of Loch Linnhe as good markers. The sky is becoming hazier and hazier, but I make a picture anyway. Maybe I have a second chance on Wednesday morning when staying a night in Corran Bunkhouse. I will see.

Without any rush - I have to check my emails and make a pitstop at a Fort William car park - I arrive at Noel’s place on time. He has a beautiful view of Ben Nevis from his living room. I have been to Noel’s home before, and it is always exciting and pleasant meeting him. Noel is involved in the Scottish Mountaineering Club, and his hallway is covered with climbing gear, still there after a trip of a week on Skye. So what is the surprise? He recently got a box with a notebook and other documents of Jim Ness, a very known name in the Scottish mountaineering world. It was given by Ness’ son, and in the box are several menu cards of the annual dinners held at the end of November during the 1950s and 1960s of the Lochaber Section of the Junior Mountaineering Club, attended by W.S. Thomson and his wife Elizabeth (all the members signed the cards of all the attendees at the end of the evening), with on the cover each year another Thomson picture. Most I do recognise, except one. This is most interesting for the biography I would like to write about Thomson’s life, work and legacy. I also browse through some pictures taken in the 1930s of Thomson, his future wife and other mountaineering friends to find out where they were taken. The images are part of Thomson’s family archive. And we also look at a series of Thomson’s landscape pictures taken on the Ben Nevis, in Glen Nevis, and Glen Coe to be advised where the photos were taken from. Noel has been, as always, good help, and I hope to see him again in September when coming back to Lochaber with the results. Although a remake of a picture taken from the top of the Ben Nevis will not be part of this.

I decide to drive back to the campsite because I have some preparation planned for tomorrow’s talk for the Fort William Photographic Society and other email work and writing. During the day, the weather becomes more and more cloudy, but I think it will be another night without rain. Before going to bed, I make a snapshot of a dramatic western night view at Loch Leven. These nights it doesn’t really get dark.


Travel in Time. Lochaber Series - Day 18. Tuesday 7 June 2022

Time to move on and leave the Caolnaslacon Campsite after 6 nights. I loved staying there, feeling very safe, even though it was crowded during the Jubilee weekend. In the morning, I meet Rosaline of the Glencoe Heritage Trust. At last, I should say, because earlier scheduled visits were cancelled. Rosaline is still a very busy ‘older’ woman, deeply rooted in the community. At the start, she had a bit of a hesitation to talk. Still, we spent nearly two hours together talking about Thomson's pictures of the Glencoe village, nearby Tigh Phuirt, the Burial Island, and Ballachulish. Surprisingly, she lived the first 16 years of her life in prefab accommodation, which can be seen in the old picture, which was, for that time - just after the Second World War - very modern. For years she lived in a cottage in Glen Coe not far from King’s House, now a fancy hotel, where she was the housekeeper and her husband was the estate keeper for the estate owners, the Belgian Spoelberchs, a family of brewers. The family owns most of Glen Coe east of King’s House.

Moving on means also heading for the Fort William area where I meet Ronald for a scout, and hopefully, a remake of one or more of the three pictures Thomson took near Banavie, all three with a view on the Ben Nevis. Early afternoon is terrible timing because the sun won’t be enough to the east to take decent pictures. One of the pictures is taken from the River Loch between Gairlochy and Banavie, not far from Torcastle. Ronald is driving, and he got permission to go by car near the first location. After heading on the road to Gairlochy, we have to cross the Caledonian Canal by driving through an old tunnel under the canal, which would have been ideal for a spooky movie when getting stuck in the arch-formed tunnel. It is just a bit wider than the car. We find the place where Thomson took the picture, but I am not very happy given the sun's position, but I make a series of remakes anyway. It would be better to return late afternoon, advised Ronald. Also, for the other two pictures, he added. The second picture is taken not far from the road back in the direction of Banavie, but after struggling for about 30 minutes in high scrub and bushy croft land, we have to conclude a remake isn’t possible at all. So we go and try our luck for the third picture. The third scene is a panoramic portrait-like view of the valley from Banavie to the Ben Nevis and the Nevis Range. Although the hill where I plant my tripod and most of the whole valley is covered by trees, I decide to take my time for the remake. The Thomson picture has many details to tell a good story. And this is also the area where Ronald had been living since his childhood. Telling Ronald it would probably take about an hour to find the place where Thomson stood, we decided he would go home, so he could prepare for his planned kayak adventure that evening. Although my car is at his house, Ronald isn’t living that far. From the hill where I stand, I can see his home.

It takes a while to get my camera in place; not being very happy about the light, but some blue sky is slowly coming in from the south. I reschedule a meeting with a photographer living in Corpach because I have decided to wait. The waiting took three hours. By that time, the view was bathing in the later afternoon light. It would have been better to wait another two hours, but that isn’t possible because at 7 pm I am giving a talk for the members of the Fort William Photographic Society, which I can’t reschedule. Every hour I send a picture of the panorama to my husband, and he messages: Patience is a photographer’s meditation. Happy about the result, I return to Ronald’s house, say goodbye and write to Fort William. After an enjoyable evening with the Fort William Photographic Society members, a bed - yes! - is waiting for me at the Corran Bunkhouse, a place I love to stay. It is nearly midnight before I go to sleep; feeling rather strange sleeping in a bed.

Travel in Time. Lochaber Series - Day 19. Wednesday 8 June 2022

That did feel strange: sleeping in a bed. I even missed my tent a bit. So yes, the weather changed, and it rained all night. After having breakfast at a table, I looked for a comfy place in the sitting room of the Corran Bunkhouse. There was no use in getting out because of the rain and my first and only appointment of the day was in the afternoon. I kept busy with writing, updating websites and handling lots of emails. And I chatted with Halina and Allan, who do run the bunkhouse. They are most enjoyable. In the earlier hours of the morning, people are packing their belongings in their car or getting ready for the next trip on their bike, nearly everybody looking up at the sky with a grim face. Brighter spells are forecasted for the afternoon, but that can change rapidly. It is early afternoon when I take the Corran Ferry to Ardgour, and being on this ferry, my heart always starts beating faster. Taking the Corran Narrow means going west to Sunart, the Morvern, Moidart and Ardnamurchan. For many people, taking the Corran Ferry is also a route up to Mull, traversing the Sound of Mull with another ferry from Lochaline (Morvern) to Fishnish (Isle of Mull).

I meet Michael at his home in Achaphubuil (Ardgour), where Loch Eil meets Loch Line. Despite the rain - more persistent drizzle - we head for places where Thomson took a few black and white pictures, with a view to the north of Corpach and the east with a view of Fort William. In between is Caol and Inverlochy. While hiking, Michael talks about his life and the place where we are, Crofters Woods, the native land of his mother and her family. We find the site, but it is no use thinking about taking the camera from my backpack. For the remake, I hope for better weather later in the afternoon or one of the coming days. We hike down again. For another scout, a bit more north above the crofts of Trislaig, trying to figure out where Thomson went to make some other pictures, but we don’t hike up the hill. Michael is a busy man, so we say goodbye with the promise and the hope to return within a few days.

After another scout of a picture taken from Garvan at the north side of Loch Eil, I drive back to the ferry and continue my trip from Corran to the Glen Nevis Campsite, where I booked a pod for another relaxing night. After dinner, I decide to go and have a look at the Upper Glen Nevis and scout a few Thomson pictures. Because the weather is getting better, but still is much cloudy, I make a remake at the Upper Glen Nevis car park, described by Thomson as a picture taken from the end of the Glen Nevis road - it still is - and of a famous glacial rock along the Glen Nevis road. Although not happy with the light, I also have a try for a remake. Because the WiFi connection on the campsite is poor and there is almost no 4G, I go to bed early with the view on the top of the Ben Nevis bathing in bright sunlight.


Travel in Time. Lochaber Series - Day 20. Thursday 9 June 2022

The basic pod - no toilet, shower or cooking facilities - was a nice-to-stay-place-for-the-night, but that’s it, being not terribly excited about the space, though I am not complaining. After a morning shower in the nearby facilities, I went to buy some porridge and a coffee at the container café on the campsite, with the most friendly host - with Spanish roots - I have ever met. Yesterday, when buying fish and chips (yummy!), she even recognised me from my earlier visit at the start of this adventure. No idea why… Unfortunately, no eggs before 8 am, so I bought a chocolate croissant! What a delight. Having breakfast in the pod, I realised that the more space you have, the more stuff you scatter. My two-person tent is limited in space but ideal for this solo travel, one half to sleep, the other half to eat, work and keep my gear safe. Before going to my fort meeting of the day, I look for a place further up Glen Nevis, also a spot where Thomson took a picture of the glen with on the left a man in a kilt looking into the valley. I hope the grey clouds covering the view towards the upper parts of the Glen Nevis will clear while doing some pho calls and writing about yesterday’s adventures. But even after more than an hour, the view gets worse, and I have to drive to Spean Bridge to meet David and Liz, a couple I have already met a few times. Liz helped me in October of last year with the whereabouts of Thomson, and David has a fine collection of postcards of Brae Lochaber. He is also well documented on the archaeological sites in that area. We have planned to go out on a scout and hopefully some remakes of Thomson’s photographs of Loch Arkaig, Loch Lochy and a view of the Great Glen and the Ben Nevis from Gairlochy. Liz even made sandwiches, so we won’t starve during our trip.

We first head to the bottom of Loch Arkaig, part of the Cameron Estate at Achnacarry, where Thomson took a few photos during the second part of the 1940s, printed in several Let’s See booklets published when he was living in Fort William (1945-1951). The first is the easy one because it is taken from the right corner of Loch Arkaig. The road from the entrance to Achnacarry from the Loch Lochy side to the bottom of the loch is called the dark mile, and along the road are magnificent old deciduous and fir trees and an impressive stone wall, more than 5 feet high, primarily moss-covered. Although it isn’t raining - David is just wearing a T-shirt, the weather isn’t that cooperative. The front view on the loch is lovely and vaguely bright, but I am worried about the hills in the back to the west, mostly covered in grey clouds. I have no other choice than to tell David making the remake will take a while. He isn’t bothered at all, and while looking for the right angles, I explain what I do and how I try to find the place where Thomson probably stood with his tripod and camera. After pinpointing the shot, I also explain the filters I use. I always try to take a picture I have to edit as less as possible, this being a photographer’s honour. Most advanced editing software can do magic with pictures, but I just tweak as little as possible with Lightroom and Photoshop, not removing objects, just fine-tuning the lighter and darker bits. The remakes are actual and factual photos, as it is 70 years after. From the bottom of the loch, we look towards the opposite side of the shore, where a hill, now covered in trees, gently touches the shore of Loch Arkaig. Somewhere up that hill, Thomson also took a picture of Loch Arkaig and a view on Eileen Loch Airceig, where are remains of a chapel and the tiny island nearby An t-Eilean Beag. but keeping the weather conditions in mind, this won’t work today, not knowing yet, if coming back during this trip is an option.

We leave Loch Arkaig for the day's second location and drive back to Loch Lochy, near Bunarkaig, where the River Arkaig runs into Loch Lochy. David was so kind to scout the places, so he immediate pinpointed the spot, which was relatively close to the place where I definitely plated my tripod. David talked about the area used before and during the Second World War for the British Commando soldiers, who took part in the Normandy invasion in 1944, about this time 78 years ago, trained even using live ammunition. On the way from Spean Bridge to Inverness, just before the turn to Gairlochy, the Commando Memorial was erected in 1952, of which Thomson took pictures when the Queen’s Mother came to inaugurate the statue. Thomson’s photographs were sent to me a few months ago after people discovered I am in contact with Thomson’s next-of-kin. The Commando Memorial is getting a good clean and is fenced off before the festivities that will occur later this year, in September. When my tripod and camera were in place for the remake, we had our outdoor lunch, and regularly I took a series of photos while the clouds covering the Ben Nevis slowly disappeared. There was even a tiny bit of blue in the far distance, probably also in the final picture. It always gives some hope.

Then we went to Gailochy, on the road to Banavie for the third remake taken from just below the road, but in all of the three locations where Thomson took pictures for postcards, two in the late 1940s and one during the second part of the 1950s, trees - mostly birch - blocked the view. David told us about the houses, farms and hills featured in the postcards, but we declined our search after half an hour, driving back to Spean Bridge. I was happy with the result, but David was slightly disappointed about the third location. We talked a bit at David’s and Liz’s home, and then I went to see Alex Gillespie, a photographer living in Corpach. Alex and his wife Mary were most kindly to take a few hours for a chat. Alex is housebound because he broke his hip during a dance with Mary, who just has a big bruise on the upper thigh. Alex got a new hip and is walking along with crutches, with no time to sit still and wonder about life. He is recovering very well. Alex and Mary talked about their life. For example, they were touring Scotland on a motor with a sidecar, Alex driving, Mary at the back, and their three young boys in the sidecar. It was a most lovely meeting. After saying goodbye, I went to the shop for some food for the evening and the next day’s breakfast and pitched my tent at the Loch Linnhe Campsite for the night.


Travel in Time. Lochaber Series - Day 21. Friday 10 June 2022

The last day of my third week in the Lochaber area. Moving on again, after breakfast in the tent, because of the rain, and packing the tent when a dry and sunny spell suddenly appears with a rainbow at the other end of Loch Eil. I take the road to Glenfinnan, taking a left at the start of Loch Eil to drive to Achaphubuil (Ardgour), where I was with Michael with a view of Fort William, Inverlochy and Corpach from the hills up the Crofers’ Woodland Walk. The weather is better than two days ago, so I give it another try. Although the sky is cloudy, patches of sun hit the landscape with two remakes. Happy about the one taken north with one of the isles in Loch Eil, and probably not such a good result with the view on Fort William and the Ben Nevis because, at noon, the sun isn’t far enough to the east for good light. I can’t stay much longer because I have to move on west. And luckily, I didn’t stay put, because when walking down again through a magnificent old woodland it started raining heavily, reaching the car again almost soaking wet. Not funny, but it is part of the game.

I have some sandwiches where the small ferry from Fort William to Trislaig lands, taking commuters, hikers and cyclists from one side of Loch Linnhe to the other. The Crofters’ Woodlands are much visited by people taking the boat from Fort William to the opposite side, and I must say it is worthwhile. On my way up to Ardgour, I park near a place where I presume Thomson took a picture from the east shore of Loch Linnhe towards Fort William and the Ben Nevis. Being here already a few times, I couldn’t pinpoint a Thomson picture, but this time I see the small rock featured because the tide is low. What a surprise the rock is still there after 70 years imbedded in a small bay-like area with sea-washed stones and pebbles. The small rock is now covered in seaweed. I must act quickly because of the weather and the upcoming tide, the rock being hidden again by the water in less than 30 minutes.

Going along, I have a short break in Strontian and then drive to Salen, where I have a talk in the evening in Salen Hall. This old one-room community building has been redecorated recently by the local community. Such a lovely place, perfectly fitting into the spirit of Travel in Time. I have a curtain-like projector screen and a small projector for my presentations. With some rope, I attach the screen to the wall, all set up within half an hour, plenty of time left to think about the following days, although planning is possible but very weather-dependent. When driving from Strontian to Salen, I was hit by torrential rain for about 10 minutes sweeping from west to east, followed by a clear sky. The talk went well, and I was happy to speak about the project and show 20 villagers - young and old - Thomson pictures of their area. I have an interview with one of the ladies on Sunday because she remembers Thomson and recognised all the features in the Salen and Acharacle pictures. With a younger guy, tomorrow I scout a photo taken from Camas Torsa with a tall and distinctive pine in the foreground, a tree that is still there but surrounded by lots of others after 70 years. After the talk and putting my gear back in the car, I head back to Strontian - the campsite at Resipol is closed - to pitch my tent for the night.