Dream-fulfilment at Duncansby

Mission accomplished: St Sunniva off Duncansby Head, Caithness, on 16 May 1992

Lawrence Macduff has a well-earned reputation for ‘going the extra mile’ to capture an exceptional photograph of a ship. In this latest instalment of his ‘Confessions of a cameraman’, he recalls visiting the north-eastern tip of the Scottish mainland in search of the photo of his dreams.

In 1987 I made my first passage on P& O Scottish Ferries’ St Sunniva, in the form of a mini cruise to Stromness and Lerwick. She was a ship I came to like a great deal and I took plenty of pictures of her in all her ports of call.

On the northbound passage from Aberdeen, I noticed that she went quite close to Duncansby Head in Caithness, the county’s most north easterly point. She passed there, always at full speed, at around 5.30pm when, if the sun was out, it was blazing on her. I knew this was a place I just had to visit, for that always desirable action shot.

Lawrence Macduff

Well, I made a special effort twice during 1991, one of them involving a 5am departure from Glasgow with a planned arrival time in John O’Groats at 4.30pm latest. What a long journey, something like 335 miles — in no less than one of my ageing though ultra dependable Renault 12s.

After all that effort, while the sun shone, tide and wind resulted in the ship taking a far wider passage than was best suitable for photography. In situations like this, ‘sod’s law’ always applies: I’d been up five years in succession on our annual mini cruise to Orkney and Shetland, and each time noticed that the ship passed within a quarter of a mile – easily within reach of a telephoto lens – but not tonight.

What can you do except curse and fume to defuse the tension! Then a year later, in 1992, I was up on a visit to Sutherland and Caithness during a May holiday. The weather was nice and I thought, och well, I’ll just ‘hae a daunder’ along the coast from Dunnet Head, where I’d been watching bird life. A glance at my watch and I realised that in a couple of hours, the ‘Sunniva’ would be due to pass Duncansby on her way into Scapa Flow and thence to Stromness.

No big hurry to reach my destination (unlike my usual state of affairs). Once there, I had a nice lie in the grass near the lighthouse, enjoyed the sun, the breeze and 40 winks, and then stretched my legs. Here was the ‘Sunniva’, approaching from about a mile off, powering along at her usual 17 knots with a bow wave that looked as if it was also heading up the hawse pipes.

I got all my gear laid out in readiness on the grass – this was a sitting duck, the sun strong, not a cloud in the sky, a nice smooth sea and the ship lit from stem to stern. You simply couldn’t miss.

I have a thing about bow waves. Their form differs greatly from ship to ship, but one that is visible always lends that impression of speed, power and action. Some are a fine feather of spray at the stem, though this is much less common on modern ships. Others look as if a wall of water is being brutally shoved aside in an ‘out of my way!’ method.

Whatever the style, that action at the bow can make a picture come alive.

When I left Duncansby Head on that occasion, I felt that — despite previous disappointments — all the effort to get the right shot had finally paid off.

‘Here she was, approaching from about a mile off, powering along at her usual 17 knots’: St Sunniva near Duncansby Head on 16 May 1992

Big bow wave: St Sunniva nearing Duncansby Head Lighthouse on 16 May 1992

St Sunniva off Duncansby Head on 16 May 1992 with the Pentland Skerries behind

Memorable occasion: St Sunniva disappears past Duncansby Head Lighthouse on 16 May 1992

‘CONFESSIONS OF A CAMERAMAN’ — the series so far:
Boating with a Box Brownie
Remembering Jim Aikman Smith
Three Lochs Tour: Loch Shiel, Loch Boisdale and Loch Snizort
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!
MacBraynes’ Lochiel (CRSC ‘Members Only’ post)
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Published on 3 August 2019