Boating with a Box Brownie

Duchess of Hamilton at Campbeltown on 31 August 1963: Lawrence Macduff’s photo was taken from a boat owned by his uncle, who took his teenage nephew out into the loch to observe the steamer’s arrival and then passed close to her stern on their return to harbour, affording Lawrence a unique waterline view. Copyright Lawrence Macduff

Few ship enthusiasts in the west of Scotland can match Lawrence Macduff for length and depth of photographic experience — or for quality. In the first of his Confessions of a Cameraman, Lawrence recalls some of his early exploits, starting with the 1961-4 period.

Amongst the many strange website names in existence today, one stands out as being an appropriate description of my photographic pursuits – I have undertaken many daft filming missions for a very long time now. In fact, I have just completed another such mission, and if anyone chances to read these notes after I’ve gone completely gaga, they may help to explain the rationale behind it all!

For me, ferry and ship photography began in earnest in 1961 when the family moved to Innellan. As a teenager, I soon developed a fascination for the Clyde’s fleet of passenger and vehicle carrying ships, and the present from my late Aunt Daisy of a Brownie 127 camera (which I still have as a long retired faithful friend) inspired me to start taking photographs of ships, a process I still greatly enjoy.

My family lived on North Campbell Road in Innellan village at this time. The house had an elevated view, so I was very quickly drawn to watching ferries and steamers calling at our local pier, of which our house had a super view. Ship recognition soon followed and in the school summer holidays, especially 1962 and 1963, I spent copious amounts of time sailing to all corners of the Firth. When I was not sailing, I went everywhere on my trusty Hercules Pullman bike. I always had my Brownie camera with me and if, in an afternoon, I was anywhere between Toward and Innellan, and I either saw a steamer or knew when to expect it, if the weather conditions were right I would literally race it along the shore road between Innellan and Dunoon. Provided I had at least a little following wind, I would usually manage to keep ahead of MacBrayne’s Lochfyne on the homeward leg of the Ardrishaig mail run, or ‘race’ one of the paddle steamers returning from a cruise up the Kyles of Bute.

14-year old Lawrence Macduff near the Rock Café, Dunoon, on 12 August 1961

This was a breath-extracting, energy-sapping process, resulting in my arriving at the Rock Cafe promontory — invariably in a stewing hot condition, usually triumphant — in time to get that desired picture of the steamer coming in to Dunoon pier, bathed in afternoon or evening sunshine. If there was no wind, or worse, if a headwind was present, I had no hope of beating the steamer. Nor could I outrun the turbine steamers, which never ordinarily called in at Innellan pier but, in any case, were significantly faster. Only if there was a really strong tail wind, or if I had managed to pursue the local service double decker and stay in its slipstream did I have any chance of catching the turbine at Dunoon. I was never off my bike in those days  and was pretty fit.

There was another ‘madasafish’ element to my early steamer photography, one more aptly related to the ‘fish’ concept. To augment my meagre pocket money, I got a holiday job in the summer of 1963 as a petrol pump attendant at the County Garage in Dunoon’s Alexandra Parade. The job entailed serving petrol to customers (2/5d per gallon) and taking messages for the taxi business. The site was owned by the Fitzpatrick family and, 55 years on, I am still in touch with the widow of the youngest of the three Fitzpatrick sons, whose father ran the business in my school days. I cycled in from my home in Innellan and, when lunchtime came, if the weather was fine, I would buy some home baking and lemonade with my takings in tips, and then high-tail it to the West Bay, where several well known boat hirers such as the Fletchers and the Turners did a steady trade hiring rowing and inboard motor skiffs to holiday makers.

The passage from West Bay to Dunoon Pier was not that far, and armed with my Brownie 127, I needed little persuasion when I saw my first ABC class ferry at the pier to take some ‘fish eye’ views from my rowing boat, of whichever ship was berthed at the main No.1 berth. I soon learned — probably after a near-disaster — to ship the oars before they became dislodged and floated off, and secondly, to clear out of the way on hearing the bridge repeaters sounding, meaning engineers had been signalled ‘standby’. But on the odd occasion I might have been so enthralled by the sight of that mass of tonnage in the camera viewfinder, that it took a peremptory blast on the ship’s air horn and an angrily waving white hat on the bridge, to galvanise me into action.

Lawrence in a rowing boat off the Gantocks on 10 June 1967. No longer a schoolboy, he is dressed in the shirt and tie of a junior bank employee who has evidently ‘hot-footed’ to Dunoon after a day’s work in Glasgow

Well, during July and August that summer, I picked off the car ferries, the ‘Maids’, Duchess of Hamilton and Jeanie Deans. If you were in a hurry and wanted a quick way to get to the Kirn side of the pier, at the right state of tide, with some care, you could position the skiff to sail underneath the pier at the south end, and come out either at the front face of the pier or the north end, so you could then swing round the shapely stern of the ‘Jeanie’ or the ‘Hamilton’. You needed calm sea, one oar shipped in and the other handy to use canoe-like to alter course if the boat veered off the straight. The last thing you wanted was to incur wrath of the boat hirer, so you had to remove all signs of barnacles encrusted on the bulwarks from an incautious bit of navigation

There was one other peril. The Gantocks was also a good vantage point for taking pictures of ships coming in and out of the pier, but at anything other than high tide, sailing anywhere near the reefs could be dodgy. I managed to go aground there 13 years before Waverley did. I eventually rocked the boat enough to get her clear, but the inboard Stewart Turner motor decided to chuck it shortly after and I had to be rescued. These were great times all the same, and after my efforts at the filling station, and having paid for the boat hire and some food, I was not infrequently still better off than when I left home in the morning. Now and again, I would indulge myself by taking my bike on board the Rothesay-bound Countess of Breadalbane and sailing homeward to disembark at Innellan pier, before pedalling laboriously up the Royal Hotel brae to get home for my tea.

On one memorable occasion, which must surely have prompted my skiff-based photography craze, a school chum who possessed a skiff of his own took me out to meet Jeanie Deans. The date was 8th April 1963, it was Easter, the schools were off, the sun was shining and we could literally smell the gleaming ‘Jeanie’ redolent of fresh paint, new tar and hot oil, as she glided gently into Innellan Pier. We hove to at what we as teenagers (without lifejackets of course) thought was a safe distance, transfixed by this stunning sight before us, until rudely awakened from our reverie by a shrill steam whistle and a gesticulating white hat on the immaculately varnished wheelhouse wing, meaning “get the hell out of here”.

Jeanie Deans at Dunoon on 25 July 1963: view from Lawrence’s rowing boat. Copyright Lawrence Macduff

Well, my pal’s temperamental bête noir, his 1½ horsepower Seagull outboard, decided it was happy to remain silent, so we grabbed the oars we luckily had, and frantically rowed ourselves out of harm’s way. But the Master had the last laugh. Both funnels, responding to the injection of bunker oil, discharged copious quantities of acrid smoke, which came downwind on us just before the tail wake from the paddle wheels caused us to yaw drunkenly. We were left coughing in the fug until things died down. The sea gradually settled, sunshine and warmth resumed and we rowed ourselves home. More than 50 years later, I can still lay hands on that photograph. Memories are made of this stuff.

At other times, of a fine evening we would row out to the Perch beacon just off Innellan’s Sandy Beach, and heave-to until one of the ‘Duchesses’ — usually the ‘Hamilton’ — appeared at full pelt from behind Toward Point. The idea was to row a bit further out and try and get a broadside picture of this graceful looking ship. However, she was well out and it was just that bit too much to expect the simple cameras we had then to give us a decent shot. Being young and reckless, we did enjoy the approaching excitement of turning our boat into a bucking bronco as her stem hit the well formed wake of the steamer. We might then return to the Perch to try and fish, but there was always the risk of grounding in shallow water. Oft times, an inquisitive seal might pop up  — you know how seals can almost look as though they are smiling. It must have realised it was dealing with a pair of spotty youths and nicked any unwary fish before they had a chance to get anywhere near the bait — and so it had the last laugh.

So, as you can see, I served my apprenticeship early on. Without a doubt, these escapades set the scene for my later photographic missions as an adult — though all too few of these were made using a bike or rowing boat, for in May 1964 the family moved to Glasgow and photographic missions thereafter involved a different set of challenges involving far more distant subjects.

NEXT: Remembering Jim Aikman Smith

On the Spot: Lawrence Macduff

Arran at Dunoon on 25 July 1963. Copyright Lawrence Macduff

‘Fish-eye’ view of Waverley at Dunoon on 30 July 1963. Copyright Lawrence Macduff

Bute pulling away from Dunoon on 30 July 1963. Copyright Lawrence Macduff

Maid of Cumbrae at Innellan on 24 May 1963. Copyright Lawrence Macduff

Jeanie Deans at Dunoon on 25 July 1963. Copyright Lawrence Macduff

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