Returning to Kerrera in search of the perfect ferry photograph, Lawrence Macduff advises that, ‘if you are going off piste, the best times for a visit are spring and early summer.’ In this latest instalment of his ‘Confessions of a cameraman’, Lawrence recalls his first visit to the famous obelisk that every vessel passes on the approach to and departure from Oban’s ferry terminal — the monument to David Hutcheson (1799-1880), founder of the shipping company that became MacBraynes. Trunching over the island that shields the bay, he scrambles, slips and sinks into waterlogged ground — but when he reaches his destination, the effort is rewarded with some spectacular photography.
When I finally made it up to the site of this most striking landmark, I was blown away (so-to-speak), for the views are unrivalled. Not only that, if you climb up to higher ground to the south of the memorial, an even better view can be obtained towards literally all points of the compass.
Back in March 1986, having bought myself a car, I started a habit of leaving home at 5am for whatever vantage point I was heading for. On arrival at my favoured destination, all the personal discomforts of an early departure were invariably justified by the sight of the low sun in a clear blue sky, and by the realisation that yes, this was gonnae be a good day. And so it proved on this occasion, because I was pursuing yet another new ferry — Hebridean Isles, destined to run across the Minch but temporarily deployed on the Mull service till her Uig linkspan was ready.
My mission out to the north end of Kerrera continued the series of previous visits I had made to the island and heralded many more over the next 30 years. There were often traumas encountered on the way. In those days, as you landed at Kerrera ferry, there was an obvious track heading south, but not the other way. To begin with I had no idea of the best way to go – no obvious route was visible, so I simply scrambled and slipped across beaches and tried to avoid sinking into waterlogged ground.
Eventually a broad but overgrown track became visible which headed towards the boatyard and slipway. You could then make for the Hutcheson monument with its appropriate inscription, before walking further west to get a clear view of approaching ships. Then, you have views not only of nearby Maiden Island, Dunollie Castle and Oban itself, but superb vistas of more distant Mull, Lismore, Morvern and Loch Linnhe.
If you are going off piste, the best times for a visit are definitely spring and early summer. Leave it much later, and the presence of the dreaded bracken makes for tricky navigation in places.
In August one year, I had gone across to try to photograph Clansman coming in from Barra, and while wading through the bracken to reach a suitable point nearer the shore, I stepped into what turned out to be a void, and disappeared over an unseen ledge to crash to the ground and land on my back, on top of my rucksack.
I was lucky not to break anything and even the cameras survived but, after reflecting on my tumble, I learnt that a walking pole can be a useful aid for this sort of nonsense – even though it is more weight to carry.
On yet another occasion, I had reached the boatyard, and decided a second time to try the views from what looks like a ridge but is in fact a quite flat-topped and grassy perch. Having toiled up the gradient and reached the top, I was so busy admiring the scenery that I stumbled and dropped into some sort of hollow, landing once again on my back.
I was breathing heavily still, so I just lay where I fell in the March sun and a mild breeze, and gathered my thoughts. I couldn’t see anything but sky, and the only sound was the rustle of the breeze in the grass. It was an almost primeval moment, without any sound of man-made activity. It made me wonder if, aeons of time back, this is what it might have been like to live under simpler conditions.
Another splendid place for photos was at sea level on the shore — near what had been, in the 1970s, a simple bungalow, but is now hugely extended and modernised. On the water’s edge you could get almost fish-eye views of the ships coming in and yet still with the signature background of Dunollie Castle.
What you had not to do was to dally overlong while admiring the stern-on proportions of what you’d just photographed — otherwise the tailwake coming ashore might wash your muddy shoes, but not at a time when you were wanting it.
Back to 1986: it’s the first day of March, the forecast is good, and my trusty 10-year old Renault 12 — still, 33 years later, well fit for similar missions — is ready at 5am to take me from Glasgow straight to Oban (well, ready eventually, after a touch of indigestion thanks to the frost). But what a cracking day to go and take your first pics of a brand new ferry. Even if Hebridean Isles wasn’t really the bonniest of craft, there was always that novelty value.
I crossed to Kerrera as soon as I could, and as it had been cold for several days previously, the ground was far firmer than usual. I made good progress and, with hardly a bead of sweat on my brow, took a diversion up to much higher ground above the boat yard.
There, to my delight, I found that away on the eastern horizon I could see the top few hundred feet of the instantly recognisable Ben Cruachan. That was a great discovery.
I had finally bought a half-decent camera — a Canon AV1 with suitable Tamron telephoto lenses — but do you know this, I could have done so much better, so much sooner. Bank staff like me were able to borrow at very attractive concessionary rates. I should have invested in a Leica, but debt was anathema to me – must have been the Aberdeen part of my DNA.
Somebody’s bound to read this and think – what sort of banker hates debt — aye, ah wis maybe in the wrang job, and now I’m driving the school bus…. Just shows you!
Anyway, this mission with ‘Heb Isles’ set the scene for many future photographic captures — three of them, the elderly Caledonia, the even more elderly Columba and the truly ancient Glen Sannox, in the nick of time before they vanished from the CalMac scene forever.
But to add to that, I found Kerrera irresistible on four counts. One was the variety of places on the island from which you could film; two, virtually every bit of background was easy to identify; three, the sun was at your back for most of the day, lighting your ship superbly; four, whatever ship you were filming passed at full service speed.
There’s nothing quite like an image of a ship travelling at full speed, because the shape of bow wave and patterns of sea displacement add immensely to the ‘liveness’ of the photograph. Some ships have more striking bow waves than others, though it is often necessary to have an all but flat calm to see its real shape.
The only drawback with Kerrera is that there is nowhere one can get a fine ‘on the bow’ shot which shows that feature with its greatest impact. In the current CalMac fleet, one ferry has a bow wave profile that is head and shoulders above all others, and that is Lord of the Isles, whose graceful, evenly shaped split ‘moustache’ is exceptionally attractive when captured at speed.
However, this is pure semantics. Final word on the subject: go to Kerrera, enjoy a four-minute crossing on Carvoria and explore the island. You’ll not regret it!
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Published on 3 February 2019