Return from Mission Improbable

‘Then I had a vision’: heading home after a holiday in the Outer Hebrides in September 2005, Lawrence Macduff lined up his vintage MacBrayne bus with MV Hebrides at Tarbert Pier for a joint portrait

After traversing the Outer Hebrides in his vintage MacBrayne bus, and climbing onto a cherrypicker to snap Isle of Lewis at Stornoway, Lawrence Macduff and his partner Sarah headed back to the mainland via Callanish, Tarbert, Mull and Iona. Read on for the second and final part of Lawrence’s 2005 ‘Mission Improbable’. The first part can be read here.

As well as indulging my pet project of photographing modern CalMac ferries with my vintage MacBrayne bus, my partner Sarah and I were keen to use our 2005 trip to the Outer Hebrides for some sightseeing. This led to a chance meeting that, for me, was extremely fortunate.

During a stop at the Callanish Stones in Lewis, we went for a walk and met a young local lad and his sister. Unknown to us, they had been trying to find the bus, having seen it fly by their family home the day before. Today, 15 years later, the family are firm friends, and that young lad is a graduate engineer, a preservationist, my relief driver and the future owner of my bus, securing this piece of MacBrayne heritage for the future. What a fantastic outcome from such a chance meeting!

Before leaving Stornoway, Lawrence commandeered a council cherrypicker with a view to getting an elevated camera shot of Isle of Lewis at the pier. It was one of his ‘madasafish’ moments and, sadly, one that did not really work out as he had hoped

While it was wonderful to be back in Lewis, what goes north has to come south again. After a quiet night parked at Balallan we were now making for Tarbert, where my friend Kenny MacAskill, then port manager for CalMac, had agreed during his lunch break to pilot me down the Golden Road where he knew of the best photographic vantage points.

It’s hard to say just which of our days on tour was the best, but this day probably took the prize. The Golden Road (which refers to the cost of building it in the most challenging terrain) is like nothing else I know. Running down the east side between Tarbert and Rodel, it follows the most convoluted course through a landscape which is almost primeval. To see it in glorious weather was a huge bonus, and to drive a MacBrayne bus down it was truly the icing on the cake.

After an hour Kenny had to return to his office. We parted company at Grosebay, where I turned the bus with ample space at the village road end and returned to Tarbert. We were booked to sail with Hebrides at tea time — and then I had a vision. Ever mindful of photographic possibilities, I arranged with Kenny to delay my arrival in the loading lanes for one very good reason.

Hebrides, bathed in brilliant afternoon sun, was now passing Eilean Glas light: the one place I just had to get to was where I’d first photographed the 1964 ‘Heb’ in 1968 – from the minor road that overlooks Tarbert pier.

You either walk to get here (as I had done in 1968) or you need a set of wheels, and a bus is about the least convenient mode of transport you could have. But it had to be in the picture too, so off I went. Now, you can’t do a bus U-turn in a passing place, but not far on, lo and behold, here was the Diracleit road end – absolutely ideal now, whereas for a big bus in 1968 it would have been a nonstarter.

‘We were heart sorry to be leaving Harris’: Lawrence and his bus in the loading lane at Tarbert. He is pictured bidding farewell to port manager Kenny MacAskill (near left, camera in hand), before boarding MV Hebrides for the voyage back across the Minch. Lawrence and his partner Sarah stayed that night at Uig and spent the next day exploring the west coast of Skye, allowing Lawrence to indulge his love of scenic photography

I managed a three point turn and, having seen the ideal place to stop, pulled in just ahead of a cattle grid in good enough time to scramble up the hillside for an elevated view. Hebrides appeared a few minutes later and, absolutely elated, I had success on a plate.

We were heart sorry to be leaving Harris on such a stunning night, but the passage to Skye was as ever a pure treat. Nor was the excitement over, as Jan Nicolson, founder member of the MacBrayne Circle and a kenspeckle Skye businessman, knew we were coming and had made the effort to be at Uig pier as I brought the bus ashore.

I was displaying Inverness on my screen and the photograph, with Hebrides behind me (see below), was the most appropriate reminder that my bus had once worked the Uig-Inverness service for its last owners, Highland Omnibuses. We parked up at the pier and next morning hightailed it up to that wonderfully placed lay-by overlooking Uig, which so many ship lovers have used to photograph whichever ferry has been on the North Uist/Harris station over the last 50 years.

In the shelter of Uig bay, the sea was like glass as a sun-drenched Hebrides forged in with that trademark wall of water ahead of her: she was a sitting duck for the camera, so I ran off frame after frame and did the same as she left. We then had our breakfast before heading towards Portree.

This was followed by a lovely day touring Skye’s west coast. Scenic photography has always been appealing and if nothing else, the island’s often dramatic skyline makes for irresistible compositions.

Disembarkation at Uig — a familiar location for Lawrence’s coach which, in a previous life, had worked the Skye-Inverness service for Highland Omnibuses

After a quiet night in Broadford, we were due to head back to the mainland on Coruisk and then drive the challenging single-track road from Mallaig to Lochailort, through Acharacle and on to Lochaline. That section is quite demanding, with a long hard climb into the Morvern hills, but other than dodging traffic it was no problem.

One of the conveniences of having your living quarters with you is that you can be at remote ports of call at an unearthly hour, and are thus able to take photographs of whatever ferry you are near at a time when you’d never usually be anywhere near that location.

So it was with Loch Fyne. She lay at her berth aglow in the sun flooding in from the east. Boarding a short time later was simple, and by breakfast time we had landed at our last island destination. The weather was now displaying its more normal September character, and much of Mull was cloaked in cloud.

But, there’s one place on the island which invariably seems to be blessed with better fortune and that’s Fionnphort. Away from mountains, it is often beautiful there, yet in Pennyghael village, merely 12 miles distant, it can be dreich.

The Sound of Iona is one of the truly lovely spots on the west coast, and I was able to take my final ship-and-bus pictures here as Loch Buie crossed from Iona slip to her berth at Fionnphort.

Coach-free crossing: Loch Buie in the Sound of Iona, ‘one of the truly lovely spots on the west coast’

It’s a lovely location but not often tranquil, as coach loads of tourists are ferried from Craignure. These coaches, of a specially narrow design to suit Mull’s roads, would park in a suitable area close to the jetty, and I set about re-creating this scene some 35 years after MacBraynes’ last coaches were going about their daily seasonal duties here.

The coaches were narrow for very good reasons, not just the road widths, but also the slender Wade bridge at Pennyghael: taking a big vehicle across it is quite a challenge. I was very careful as I negotiated this one – the last thing I wanted to do was to leave souvenir red paint on the stonework on both parapets. Only the beautiful Atlantic bridge to Seil rivals it in profile. Pennyghael bridge is certainly a trap for the unwary – the road on to it is kinked at each end. I shouldn’t have worried, at least not by modern standards, when I see the three-axle double deckers used nowadays by West Coast Motors inching their way over this edifice.

Well, it just remained to catch Isle of Mull, our last ferry of this tour, to take us back us to Oban. From there we took the scenic drive down the west coast road to Ardrishaig and then returned to Dunoon – mission most certainly accomplished.

It was a journey full of surprises, new meetings and new photographic opportunities, blessed with fine weather at a time of year when it can be notoriously changeable. We could have gone on an ocean cruise with that money, but would we have had a better time? I think not!

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Uig Bay: ‘the sea was like glass as a sun-drenched Hebrides forged in with that trademark wall of water ahead of her’

Lawrence’s Mission Improbable
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!
Lawrence Macduff on MacBraynes’ Lochiel (CRSC members only)
Lawrence Macduff on MV Iona
Lawrence Macduff: ‘On the Spot’
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Published on 29 July 2020