Kerrera, bank keys and the ‘King George’

‘What you saw before you was 260 feet of gleaming sleek King George V, wearing that iconic MacBrayne livery, gliding gracefully past without a sound other than that of the sea’: KGV passes up the Sound of Kerrera on her return from Iona on 24 June 1974. Copyright Lawrence Macduff

In the fourth instalment of his ‘Confessions of a Cameraman’, Lawrence Macduff has a joke at his own expense while venturing across to Kerrera in the 1970s.

1973 — my first landing, grounding and potential sinking on Kerrera

Having sailed past the north end of Kerrera on countless occasions, it had long ago occurred to me that here was a splendid place from which to take pictures of ferries coming into and leaving Oban. It was clearly a heck of a traipse to go down to Gallanach to get the small ferry: I had no car, so there was a half-hour walk at least, laden with gear, and then goodness knows what it would take to walk up to the north end from Kerrera ferry.

Ah, but there were still a couple of boat hirers working off the Corran Esplanade, and on the August 1973 bank holiday, I could possibly hire a boat, go across, land and catch some pictures of whatever chanced to come in and out. And, glory be, the weekend I was there, in came the cargo ship Loch Carron, an irregular visitor.

I had always wanted to sail on her and on this occasion there was space, but after making enquiries I discovered that she was having to go to Lismore for livestock, and it was clear I would never get back to Glasgow in time for work next day. I might have got away with that but I had all the banks keys with me, and failure as a keyholder to arrive on time for work would have meant instant execution.

Loch Carron leaving Oban Bay in dreich conditions on 6 August 1973, photographed from the Kerrera shore. Copyright Lawrence Macduff

So, I simply couldn’t sail — but I could hire a boat. Even though it was overcast, dreich and intermittently rainy — I could hardly have picked a worse day for it — I wasn’t going to miss the chance, and I had my umbrella to help keep dry. That was a laugh – out in an open boat in the rain, and trying to keep dry. Worse still, as I’d come straight from work that weekend, I had my travelling bag with me as well as the camera bag, and what did the former contain — the bank keys of course!

Now, I don’t recall ever giving a second thought to the risks involved in the process of rowing a four-seater across Oban Bay complete with bank keys. But over I went, pulled the boat ashore, footered about between showers and took pictures of Loch Carron coming out, with umbrella tucked under one arm. When it was all over, I returned to the boat only to find it almost impossible to get to, as the tide had come in.

Well, I slithered and slipped into shallow pools. Finally I made the boat and laboriously rowed this heavy craft back to Oban – 20 minutes of hard labour. My travel bag also received the benefit of bilge water, but I was only heading back to Glasgow, now somewhat damp and travel stained.

Even I didn’t bargain for the sequel a couple of days later when I was called into my boss’s room and asked to explain why the set of bank keys that I had had in my possession were rusty – some member of staff had suggested I had been trying to duplicate them! I can’t recall exactly how I responded, but I did keep the information about the rowing boat to myself.

My work colleagues no doubt thought me weird, though probably harmless, particularly as I didn’t smoke and drink socially with them in the local pubs in the West End after work. But I’m pretty sure none of them considered anyone would be daft enough to do what I’d just done, all for the sake of a photograph – other than maybe colleagues of the late Jim Aikman Smith!

I would return to Kerrera time and again right up to the present time to take pictures, having eventually realised that I could save so much hassle by taking my gear in a rucksack, and wearing suitable footwear. As soon as I had my own car, I could head for Gallanach and cross with the wee ferry.

It took me a while to find the best course to reach the north end of the island — a part-beach scramble was necessary and, Kerrera being in Argyll, it has no shortage of sodden ground easily capable of flooding out your walking boots if you aren’t careful where you put your feet. You also had to give yourself plenty of time – this walk could not be rushed without risking disaster — but the rewards were something else, which I’ll describe later on in these tales.

‘I watched in disbelief as the ferry began to overhaul the Inverness-registered INS32, blocking my clear view of the ferry as she did so’: Columba makes her way up the Sound of Kerrera on 14 August 1975. Copyright Lawrence Macduff

1974 – a gander down to Gallanach

Nonplussed by my near sinking the previous August, I realised that hiring boats at the Corran Esplanade, while very tempting, was maybe not the safest way of taking pictures from the north end of Kerrera. Car ownership was still a long way off so there was nothing else for it, but to walk the mile and quarter from the North Pier down to Kerrera ferry, go across and then hoof it up to the Hutcheson monument.

Now, logically, that would be roughly the same distance again as it was from North Pier to the ferry, only this looked like a hike across beaches and rough ground — and I had to get back again and the last boat back was quite early. Then the thought struck me — no need to go to all that bother. I could get some nice evening pictures of King George V returning up the Sound of Kerrera from her Iona sailing, and also Claymore’s Colonsay sailings were routed down the Sound as well. All I had to do was walk down the path towards Gylen Castle, find a clear spot, sit — and wait.

Success on a plate, the only drawback being a long hike back to Oban once all the excitement was over.

Well, during both 1973 and 1974, I was able to shoot some fine series of images of both ships passing Kerrera Ferry, the former inbound and the latter outbound. The sun shone to best advantage each time I was there, and you really couldn’t fail to get a nice picture, even if the purist might argue that the tree-clad background of mainland Argyll interfered with the deck detail on your subject.

But what you saw before you was 260 feet of gleaming sleek King George V wearing that iconic MacBrayne livery, gliding gracefully past without a sound other than that of the sea, wisps of smoke lazily rising from her beautifully proportioned scarlet funnels, some steam drifting out of her deck steam stacks, and all the while, passengers gathered on deck taking in the sun and the scenery. It was a truly captivating sight.

Dating from 1955, Claymore was from a different generation, yet in many ways was still remarkably traditional in appearance. Concessions to modernity could be seen in her raked stem and large domed funnel, which added presence to her appearance. As she purred past Kerrera Ferry, she was just as appealing a photographic subject. Once she was past, I had that long walk back to Oban, and the train or bus back to Glasgow, but in those balmy days of youth, I never seemed to feel unduly tired.

‘As she purred past Kerrera Ferry, Claymore made an appealing photographic subject’: the MacBrayne mail boat on her way back to Oban from Colonsay on 24 June 1974. Copyright Lawrence Macduff

Of course, not every mission went off without frustration and I just have to mention a repeat exercise a year later at this same location. Gone was our beloved King George V, now retired after nearly 40 years duty on the Sacred Isle cruise, and in her place was the car ferry Columba. She had now become a maid of all work, her mixed duties including three days a week working the Iona cruise, though it was always undertaken south-about – via the Sound of Kerrera each way.

Knowing the ship would make a lovely picture passing Kerrera Ferry homeward bound, I went across on a fine, still, bank holiday afternoon (minus bank keys!), walked the required distance on the path to reach my favoured viewpoint, and sat and awaited Columba’s arrival. Just my luck that the stillness and Kerrera’s innate dampness generated posses of midges, so I scratched myself raw till the ship came into view – right up to time.

I’d taken my first couple of pictures when out of nowhere a fishing boat appeared inshore of Columba. I watched in disbelief as the ferry began to overhaul the Inverness-registered INS32, blocking my clear view of the ferry as she did so. Well, had Jim Aikman Smith been there, he would have been sorely disappointed at my furious reaction: expletives flew everywhere. I’d come 100-plus miles to get this picture and what happens? A fishing boat sails smack into the middle of it……….aaargh! What I got, of course, was a unique study in good composition – two boats for the price of one! It took me all of 20 years to appreciate what a bonus this actually was. Just try repeating such a totally random coincidence — you can’t!

It would be a further two years before I attempted the round trip to the Hutcheson monument on foot, when the incentive for so doing was the deployment that season of Caledonia, transferred from Arran. But after a couple of similarly laborious missions to this site, I realised that the only proper way to do it was to have the flexibility of a car. In 1986 and now a 40-year old, I started to tackle Kerrera in earnest — of which more later.

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