A new ferry in the West Loch

Lawrence Macduff hotfooted to West Loch Tarbert in July 2011 to photograph the brand-new Finlaggan: ‘The rapidly approaching ferry is pushing a massive wall of water ahead of her as she draws near. Ecstatic, I bag the head-on view just as she starts to ease her course to port’

In the latest of his ‘Confessions of a Cameraman’, Lawrence Macduff recalls his exploits on the shores of West Loch Tarbert in 2011 when a brand new MV Finlaggan made her debut on the Islay run.

The commissioning of a new Islay ferry had been anticipated for a long time. When Finlaggan finally arrived in 2011, almost four decades after I had seen MacBrayne’s last new ferry take up the Islay station, I realised that an early visit to West Loch Tarbert was a must.

Lawrence Macduff

My impatience to take photographs of Finlaggan was now matched by another consideration. As owner of a preserved bus originally bought by MacBraynes for service between Glasgow and Campbeltown, I was particularly mindful of its local Argyll connections: it had been based at Ardrishaig for a time. Furthermore, back in 1967, the Glasgow service was shared with the long established Campbeltown firm, West Coast Motors. It was, in part, the ongoing development of this road service that resulted in the final closure in 1969 of MacBraynes’ longstanding Gourock-Ardrishaig mail run: the bus was competing head on with its owners’ mail ship Lochfyne.

As a photographer of buses as well as ships, I had always recorded West Coast’s iconic coaches anywhere I saw them, especially in Kintyre and particularly at Kennacraig. When I realised it would take me several days to film the new Finlaggan to my satisfaction, I also saw the chance to take pictures of West Coast’s latest vehicles in their striking traditional colour scheme.

What followed was without doubt a ‘madasafish’ operation. The weather for the fourth week of July that year was forecast to be fine and settled, but for personal reasons I simply couldn’t stay in Kintyre for the duration — I’d have to travel daily from my home in Kilmarnock. Worse still, to be on site at the required time, I would have to leave Ayrshire at 0400………aaargh! I decided to use one of my ultra reliable Renault classic cars for this mission, but needed a game plan to enable me to slot everything in.

‘The sun is perfect for a picture with West Coast Motors’ coach in the foreground, climbing away from the shore on the A83’

Now, my near-dawn arrival in Kintyre was dictated by the passing of the first Glasgow-bound coach, which was due at the foot of the West Loch at the back of 0700. I knew this partly because I’d previously ‘cased the joint’ in anticipation of Finlaggan’s debut — and readers may remember my “skiting sunwards” mission to the West Loch the previous winter. And of course, wasn’t there now an 0700 sailing from Port Ellen that would be due off Corran Point at the back of 0830? The late Jim Aikman Smith always found that the early bird caught the worm, so to speak – and so it proved.

There’s a super bit of road on the A83 between Tayinloan and near to Clachan – it comes along the shore past the small car park near Ronachan Point, and then climbs 200 yards from where, in a nearby field, you can admire panoramic vistas across to Islay and Jura. Early on a midsummer morning, the sun is perfect for a picture with that West Coast Motors coach in the foreground, climbing away from the shore.

Time then to scoot a ¼-mile north and walk down to Corran Point, because very soon the 0700 ferry from Kennacraig will be at the foot of the loch — though the sun is on its back and it doesn’t make for a specially good photograph.

By 0735 all is quiet again and I have time for a makeshift breakfast. By 0820 my still-distant quarry is passing the north end of Gigha. It’s now time to lay out the cameras and yes, in true Jim Aikman Smith form, there’s more than one of the brutes. In this digital era, I had already bought a digital bridge camera — roughly the size of a full size one, but without interchangeable lenses. What it did possess was a 26 magnification facility, and that was really good for a head-on portrait of a ferry at speed, which can make for quite an impressive image. I was also trialling my new digital s.l.r. (single lens reflex): you view your subject through the lens, and can also fit telephoto or wide angle lenses to suit your need. But this camera also features a ‘sports’ setting, ideal for photographing fast moving buses (as I had just done) so that you still get a sharp image in the process.

Finlaggan off Dunskeig on 24 July 2011

Now to get the gear laid out in order of use. The sun is shining, mallards are dabbling on the foreshore, there’s a blackbird in nearby bushes, a few heifers are grazing, the sea and sky are blue, and all is well with the world….and the rapidly approaching new ferry is pushing a massive wall of water ahead of her as she draws nearer. Ecstatic, I bag the head-on views of Finlaggan just as she starts to ease her course to port on her approach to the foot of the West Loch. Then, it’s time for the s.l.r. to do its bit and capture the ferry as she presents an impressive ¾-starboard side profile with the Paps of Jura in the background. She sweeps past to disappear behind Dunskeig. Waves crash ashore and soon all is peaceful once more.

As I gather my thoughts, I’m reminded of doing something similar at this location some 37 years previously. Late in September 1974, a West Coast Motors bus dropped me off close to Corran where I was thrilled by the approach of the new Pioneer, feverishly spinning my manual lenses on and off the camera to try and capture the ship to best effect.

However, it is 2011 and I have no time to dream: the next Glasgow-bound coach is due to pass at the back of 0900. I drive a ½-mile further to another viewpoint on the main road where Gigha can be included in the picture; then on towards Whitehouse, where the southbound Campbeltown coach (which left Glasgow at 0600) will pass at 0940. For this image I cross the road as I’ve found a place where the picture will also include a distant Kennacraig terminal, and Finlaggan making ready to leave.

With the coach past, I can continue to the big lay-by a few hundred yards further on, from which, on such a fine morning, I can watch the outbound Finlaggan creating beautiful wave patterns on a calm loch. Now, remember folks, I’ve done much similar camerawork here, with both Isle of Arran and Hebridean Isles, so I’m hoping to match these pics with some of the new ferry. She makes a lovely sight as she glides gently down the loch.

Finlaggan and Isle of Arran stormbound at Kennacraig 22 February 2020 with a newly acquired West Coast Motors coach

With that mission accomplished, I can head up to Tarbert for rolls and cakes — or maybe the wee filling station at Clachan has some. Then, and only then, can I have a rest.

On this particular day, as Finlaggan is over in Islay at lunchtime, I can chase other coach pictures, and then later in the day, take the single-track Kilberry road, drive as far as Ardpatrick, humph the gear a ¼-mile to the shore, and be in position to see the new ferry pass the foot of the loch’s north shore as she heads up past my beloved Dunskeig.

Maybe pictures from this side (north shore) are not quite as good and only just worth the effort, but Finlaggan is away again from Kennacraig at 1800.

About 20 minutes later, she makes a fine sunlit sight against the otherwise rather anonymous wooded background on the south shore of the loch.

I’m very late back to Ayrshire. A round trip is the best part of 300 miles, but I head back to Kintyre at the same time next morning. Finlaggan and her route partner Hebridean Isles are today on opposite rosters: this time, the former leaves Port Ellen at 0945 and will be off Corran Point that little bit earlier because of her greater speed on passage. I’ve completed my preliminary coach filming. Now, in the heat of the day, I have the ascent of Dunskeig hill to contend with.

About 25 minutes later, breathing heavily, I’m at the summit where that incomparable vista now contains what looks like a high speed cruiser halfway between Gigha and the foot of the loch. Thank goodness there’s a breeze to help me cool off and let my pulse return to something more normal, while I contemplate the wonderful sight of this impressive ferry approaching in full flight.

Finlaggan on 27 July 2011, seen near Corran on the southern shore of West Loch Tarbert after passing Ardpatrick on the north side

In 2011, the first season she was on the service, it seemed as though Finlaggan maintained her full service speed until she was passing Dunskeig, maximising the photographic impact of her ‘wall of water’ bow wave. From the top of the hill, it was the most dramatic of sights to view the new ferry in brilliant conditions starting to swing to port in a graceful arc, while leaving astern a wake that a destroyer would be proud of! Nowadays there are numerous fish farms in the West Loch and I believe that speed has to be reduced to around 11 knots before ferries enter its confined waters.

Then – impending doom; out of nowhere appeared a speedboat intent on showing off and ruining my pictures. However, as its kamikaze pilot completed breathtaking semi-circles not far from the ferry at what he must have mistakenly believed was a safe distance, the resultant picture of both craft was quite effective – both of them going like stink at their respective speeds!

It was a curious coincidence that, in April 1988, I should have seen my late lamented Iona ‘buzzed’ in the very same way, on another peerless day of photography weather. I watched the situation repeat itself as Finlaggan headed back out the loch 1½ hours later. Then, with the pressure off, I could spend the rest of the day enjoying the beauties of this part of Argyll.

For two more days I returned to fine-tune the photography by varying my filming locations. Then, with the job done and the weather due to go downhill, I was happy to return to the lowlands – till the next opportunity!

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Finlaggan off Corran Point, at the entrance to West Loch Tarbert, on 26 July 2011

New and old: the latest West Coast Motors coach sits beside Lawrence’s vintage MacBrayne bus at Kennacraig in 2017

Finlaggan off Whitehouse, West Loch Tarbert, on 13 July 2012

Lawrence’s vintage MacBrayne bus at Ronachan on the A83

Finlaggan on 30 June 2014 ‘creating beautiful wave patterns on a calm loch’

Finlaggan approaching West Loch Tarbert on 24 July 2011: Lawrence’s spectacular photography captures the spectacular effect of the Islay ferry’s wake

Boating with a Box Brownie
Remembering Jim Aikman Smith
Three Lochs Tour: Loch Shiel, Loch Boisdale and Loch Snizort
Lawrence’s Mission Improbable
Return from Mission Improbable
Kerrera, bank keys and the ‘King George’
A fitting introduction to the Kingdom of MacBrayne
Golden memories of the Inner Islands mail
‘Hielan Mary gets all the best steamer views!’
A brand new ferry to pursue (MV Pioneer)
What one does for the love of a steamer photo
The delights of Dunskeig
Hiking up to Hutcheson
That Kennacraig foreshore is bogging!
Crashing down on the party at Iona
Skiting sunwards on snowy roads: ferry photography in a wintry West Loch Tarbert
Lawrence Macduff on MacBraynes’ Lochiel (CRSC members only)
Lawrence Macduff on MV Iona
Lawrence Macduff: ‘On the Spot’
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Published on 14 June 2021