As an engineer on CalMac’s Sound of Barra service, John Macdougall spends much of his working day below decks on Loch Alainn. In his spare time he flies his drone high above the dramatic landscapes of the Hebrides, and his photographs of ferries at Castlebay have won a huge internet following, writes Andrew Clark.
It was a valuable lesson in how to use a drone, says John Macdougall, referring to his recent photographic exploits above Barra Head, the southernmost point of the Outer Hebrides. “Because of the sheer drop [of the cliff face], there was a downdraft which wanted to take the drone down with it, and the drone tried to compensate. But there was too much movement [for photography], and so I took it further out to ‘cleaner air’.”
Sun, wind and swell can all play a role in determining the success or otherwise of a drone photoshoot in the exposed conditions around Barra. The bottom line is that “you’ve got to make sure you can always recover the drone. So I’m sitting in my boat [a six-metre RIB with twin outboards] with an iPad wi-fied to the drone, which beams a signal back to my screen, showing me exactly what I’m videoing. I try to make the picture selection while it’s up in the air. Once you’re comfortable with the technology, it’s second nature.”
John’s ‘bird’s eye’ views of the scenery around Barra, captured by his DJI Phantom 3 Pro drone and regularly posted on his Facebook and YouTube pages, are undeniably impressive, but it’s his pictures of Hebridean Isles and Isle of Lewis passing each other off Castlebay pier over the past week that have caught the imagination of ship enthusiasts.
The first batch comprised aerial shots taken on 8 March, when the ‘Heb Isles’ began a Lochboisdale-Castlebay ferry service to make up for the fact that Loch Alainn, John’s regular boat, had unexpectedly come off the Sound of Barra service and gone for repairs at Ardmaleish on the Clyde.
The temporary timetable brought ‘Heb Isles’ and Isle of Lewis into close proximity at Castlebay, and John — off-duty at the time — had the presence of mind to send up his drone to capture this unprecedented coming-together of the two vessels in the bay below his home. “I looked at the weather conditions and the timetable, and realised it could be a fantastic opportunity,” he explains.
Over the next few days he took an equally stunning series of land-based shots at dusk and in sunlight, as Barra experienced a unique volume of ‘big ferry’ activity. It culminated on Tuesday 13 March with the two ships leaving Castlebay for Oban within 30 minutes of each other — an event documented by John’s poised portraits of the ferries passing each other in the morning sun, with Kishmul Castle as a centrepiece.
John, 48, purchased his drone two years ago. Previously he would climb the hills around Castlebay and use his camera to zoom down, but the drone has taken over that role. He owns three cameras, and says his Nikon Coolpix P900 is best for zooming from the drone. “I do it for the fun of it,” he says. “I enjoy taking photos and videos of anything local, and it gives me great pleasure when someone responds to my pictures from the other side of the world.”
There are few restrictions on the use of drones in the Outer Hebrides, he says, the only no-go area in his experience being St Kilda, which he visited twice last summer on his cousin’s tourist boat. “You’re not allowed to use a drone there, not for military reasons but because the drone scares the sheep — in a way that the twice-weekly helicopter does not.”
Born in Vatersay and long resident in Barra, John has practical handiwork in his blood. His father, a Barra man, worked as a carpenter in the Glasgow shipyards before moving back home: one of the ships he worked on was the QE2. John did his engineering training at Stornoway and served on North Sea supply boats before becoming a CalMac engineer in 2003 — initially on the Sound of Harris route, then moving south with Loch Bhrusda in June of that year to inaugurate CalMac’s Sound of Barra service. At his job interview in Gourock he was told that the ‘Bhrusda’ was “the most complex little ship you’ll ever see in your life” — a description with which he still concurs, thanks to the vessel’s water-jet propulsion system.
Loch Bhrusda continues to occupy a special place in his affections — partly because she was the first CalMac ferry he worked on, but also because “she was built for a specific task and was very good at that task, serving the Sound of Harris. She was built like a tank. The engines and gearboxes are the same as others in the ‘Loch’ class — Cummins KT38s. It’s the propulsion units that are different.” It was Loch Bhrusda’s limited capacity — 18 cars against Loch Alainn’s 24, plus an overhang that prevents the stowing of vehicles with ‘top boxes’ — that eventually brought about her relegation to spare vessel, though she continues to relieve Loch Alainn and Loch Portain in winter.
The 40-minute Sound of Barra crossing is regarded by many as the most exposed small ferry route in the CalMac network. Winds from the south-east pose the most problems, John says, but north-easterlies and westerlies can also cause a severe swell. Despite the route’s apparent isolation, mechanical back-up is not a problem: John can order spares from Gourock in the morning and be confident of getting them on the afternoon Oban-Castlebay service. “We’ve also had spares by plane and a technician from Germany. It depends how urgent it is.”
John is keeping an open mind about recent reports that the Scottish Government may be planning a new network of causeways spanning the entire Outer Hebridean chain, rendering redundant the ferries across the Sounds of Harris and Barra. As far as the latter is concerned, John says the most economical fixed link would be from Fuday (an island just east of Scurrival Point on Barra and west of Eriskay) to South Uist, where the water is much shallower than off the close-knit islands of Hellisay and Gighay on the south-east side of the Sound.
The plan carries a strong resonance for ship professionals and enthusiasts in view of a recent decision by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency to re-designate the two ‘Sound’ crossings, meaning that the requirements for new vessels on these routes would be the same as for crossing the Minch. “Any new boat would have a much higher classification spec,” says John, “and so, in the long run, the powers-that-be might decide a fixed link would be the better investment.”
But that’s crystal ball gazing. For the present, what John most likes about the job is “the sense of community. You’re providing a service day-in day-out, and you’re taking care of your own.” Here is a man at one with his surroundings, in work time or leisure hours, and we are all beneficiaries.
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