The long slog to Stornoway Castle Gardens

Lawrence Macduff at the October 2016 Mod, against a backdrop of Hebridean Isles and Isle of Lewis in Stornoway Harbour

There is no knowing what Lawrence Macduff will get up to in his quest for the ultimate west coast shipping photograph. In the latest of his ‘Confessions of a Cameraman’, Lawrence ‘stumbles’ off the old Loch Seaforth at Kyle in 1968 and gets a grandstand view of the new Loch Seaforth during the 2016 Mod at Stornoway — with a ‘loud bang’ from the 1964 Clansman and the ‘perfect silhouette’ of Isle of Lewis sandwiched somewhere in between.

In my early days, long before I decided I could afford to run a car and take it out to the islands, I knew that, if I wanted to take pictures of MacBrayne ships from the delightful Stornoway Castle gardens, there was no alternative but to gather my gear and start walking and walking — and walking even further.

And that’s what I did. I was young, fit and daft enough to suffer all the agonies of blistered feet and an overheated frame: picture-taking was very much the easy bit! There were of course some compensations if it was a nice night. The mere sight of a red funnel with gleaming hull and upperworks, appearing into view and drawing closer, was always a splendid experience, no matter what ship it was.

The 1947 Loch Seaforth manoeuvring at Kyle of Lochalsh on 7 July 1970 — watched by the eagle-eyed young Lawrence Macduff

I first made the long drag out to Stornoway in 1968, when I watched the sleek hull of the 1947 Loch Seaforth glide past me into her berth. How I sighed for the telephoto lens I did not then possess! On this occasion I had plenty of time to return to the harbour, as I had booked a cabin and was returning to Kyle of Lochalsh overnight – just to take more pictures of the ship leaving Kyle at 5am. Hoping to get some sleep was utterly pointless in her cabins, which were placed not that far from the engine room.

No wonder that early postwar travellers, accustomed to the lovely silence of the route’s predecessor, the steam-powered Lochness, complained bitterly.

One very weary traveller stumbled off the ‘Seaforth’ at Kyle at 0415 hrs, to be brutally brought back to consciousness by a fresh nor’wester.

But an hour later I claimed the photographic prize as the ship, bathed in morning sunlight, drew away from the pier on her way to Mallaig. I have absolutely no recollection of what I did with myself until Loch Arkaig collected me inbound from Raasay to Mallaig some time later that morning.

But back to Stornoway: I returned year on year as the fleet changed and different ships were assigned to the service. One memorable occurrence concerned the newly extended Clansman which operated in 1973 and 1974 until Suilven took over. Suitably placed in the castle gardens, I had finished panning with my telephoto and was dismantling the gear prior to returning to the town, when I was suddenly startled by a loud bang. It sounded like a gun being fired somewhere in the castle grounds. I saw nothing else, and had begun to lift my bag, when another report echoed though the area. Still, no sign of a source.

‘Then, as a third bang sounded, I caught sight of a cloud of black smoke above Clansman’s funnel’: Lawrence had the presence of mind on 27 June 1974 to capture the moment on camera

Then, as a third bang sounded, I caught sight of a cloud of black smoke above Clansman’s funnel and from this, a perfect smoke ring emerging. I couldn’t get my telephoto back in place quickly, and just missed the best of the snap, getting only the column of exhaust below where the ring had now dispersed. The bangs had one other beneficial effect – there wasn’t a pigeon, crow or seagull to be seen anywhere! I later found out that this particular malfunction on her engines occurred periodically, and her engineers had to work overnight to carry out repairs to allow her to sail on time the next morning.

In more recent times, life has been made infinitely easier by having the car in which to humph all the gear, and access whatever site I was heading for, including the castle gardens. Conditions were so good on a couple of occasions that I did a Jim Aikman Smith, overnighting out there (though without primus stove and frying pan) so that I could watch and film the 0715 departure of Isle of Lewis.

I had gone up in February 2008 to address the local vehicle preservation group and one morning was blessed with the most stunning sunrise: it created an orange sky and made for a perfect silhouette image of the ship as she eased off her berth. Downside: the well known rhyme about the shepherd’s delight and the shepherd’s warning proved utterly true, and within two hours the wind was up and the rain was pouring down.

Bringing the story more up-to-date, while I still enjoyed visiting the castle gardens and Arnish Point for photographs, a more recent location has been the easily accessible car park provided for visitors to the site of the Iolaire monument, which marks the disastrous sinking of this ship on New Year’s Day 1919 with huge loss of returning service personnel. The beauty of the location hides the tragedy, so I try to pay my respects while there — but I soon found that this elevated site with its grandstand view across to Arnish Point, and to Stornoway itself, was made for ship photography.

The ‘new’ Loch Seaforth off Arnish Point on her approach to Stornoway Harbour on 17 October 2016

These days, my visits to Lewis are much too infrequent for my liking, but in October 2016 my partner and I attended the Mod and were in Stornoway for the week. I found one reminder of the past on display in the arts and leisure centre An Lanntair — the builder’s plate of the 1947 Loch Seaforth — so it was quite appropriate that I was trying to get my first half-decent pictures of her successor going about her business.

Weather in October is always going to be unpredictable, and for some of our stay it was — but Lady Luck did not totally deprive me of some pictures. I then found that the new ‘Seaforth’ was due to be away for refit the weekend we were due to leave. Enquiries provided more information on exactly when this would be, and Isle of Lewis duly arrived to take over. However, she had ramp issues on arrival on the Saturday evening; they’d be sorted overnight but it was decided to have the Loch Seaforth on standby just in case.

In the end, all was sorted and the new ship would leave for the south at breakfast time. Early light in October is weak, and in the half light at the back of 0800, this writer, still comfortably ensconced in the camper van, saw a blast of exhaust from the funnel. With the blessing of a wonderfully patient partner, I quickly donned two jerseys, a pair of trousers and a heavy jacket on top of the pyjamas and shot off across the wet grass to my chosen site. It was cloudless but very cool even in the light breeze. Guided by the VHF, I had the gear set up and watched as the ship crawled slowly into sight.

Something didn’t appear right: the ship eased towards the Arnish shore and hove to. Luckily I heard that a fault had developed and, after I waited a frozen half hour, it was decided to take the ship back to her berth to deal with the fault. By now the sun was up, so — despite frozen hands — I managed to work the cameras, bag a few shots and return to the camper to thaw out. Yep, a guy’s gotta do what a guy’s gotta do!

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Having taken up position on the path heading out from the castle gardens, Lawrence captures Isle of Lewis making her departure from Stornoway

Loch Seaforth passing Arnish Point on 19 October 2016, viewed from the car park for visitors to the Iolaire monument

Ever inquisitive about the mechanical side of ferry operation, Lawrence is pictured in the engine room control room of the 2014 Loch Seaforth

Loch Seaforth leaving Stornoway for Ullapool on 20 October 2016

‘By now the sun was up and I managed to bag a few shots’: Loch Seaforth and Isle of Lewis at Stornoway in the early morning of 23 October 2016

Boating with a Box Brownie
Remembering Jim Aikman Smith
Three Lochs Tour: Loch Shiel, Loch Boisdale and Loch Snizort
Lawrence’s Mission Improbable
Return from Mission Improbable
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)
A new ferry in the West Loch: MV Finlaggan in 2011
What one does for the love of a steamer photo
The delights of Dunskeig
Hiking up to Hutcheson
That Kennacraig foreshore is bogging!
Crashing down on the party at Iona
Skiting sunwards on snowy roads: ferry photography in a wintry West Loch Tarbert
Lawrence Macduff on MacBraynes’ Lochiel (CRSC members only)
Lawrence Macduff on MV Iona
Lawrence Macduff: ‘On the Spot’
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Published on 5 December 2021