For a year, photographer and history researcher Estelle Slegers Helsen has wandered around Lochaber in the footsteps of W.S. Thomson MBE (1906-1967). Estelle has made a series of remakes roughly 70 years after Thomson originally depicted the landscape. She has talked to local people along her journey and now Estelle will be taking you to the different places in Lochaber. This is article #15.
‘How did it go?’ asks Liz when her husband David and I return to their home in the afternoon after wandering around Achnacarry and Gairlochy. ‘Two out of three,’ I reply enthusiastically.
However, remaking a series of photographs W.S. Thomson took about 70 years ago is not simply about ticking one box and moving on to the next. No, it is about searching out the locations, journeying through a beautiful area, absorbing the landscape, listening to people’s stories, digging into history, standing in Thomson’s footsteps in the exact location and waiting for the light.
Liz and David MacFarlane are rooted in the area, the MacFarlanes having been the local village storekeepers in Spean Bridge for six generations. I met them for the first time in October 2021 when scouting some Lochaber locations. At that time, my W.S. Thomson research was in its infancy and I had many blank spaces.
‘Tell me about this Thomson of yours,’ Liz asks. With some snippets of info, she goes into her office. While David and I leaf through his Brae Lochaber postcard collection and find Thomson’s photographs, Liz returns with a sheet of paper. ‘Here is your Scottish photographer, dear Tintin,’ she smiles, addressing me as the young reporter created by the Belgian cartoonist Hergé. Liz hands me a print of Thomson’s birth certificate: William Sutherland Thomson, 1906, May 24, 6:18 am, 61 Seamore Street, Glasgow.
On a cloudy morning in June, David and I get into the car for our day’s mission, armed with some old pictures, camera gear and lunch. At the Commando Memorial site, we hit the road to Gairlochy, cross the Caledonian Canal taking the Gairlochy Swing Bridge, and drive along the southwest shore of Loch Lochy to continue on the Mìle Dorcha or Dark Mile to Loch Arkaig.
When I unpack my camera at the east end of Loch Arkaig, thick grey clouds loaded with rain cover the mountains in the west. We can only see the south shore, where the Woodland Trust and the local Arkaig Community Forest group have bought 2700 acres of ancient Caledonian pinewood and are working to restore it fully.
Move the slider to discover what changed.
Then (left) – 1945/1947 © W.S. Thomson – Achnacarry | Loch Arkaig near the Dark Mile. Published in W.S. Thomson, Let’s See the West Highlands (Fort William, William S. Thomson, July 1947 – First edition), p. 36.
Now (right) – June 2022 © Estelle Slegers Helsen – Loch Arkaig.
With hindsight, the result could have been better, and I plan to return on one of my future trips.
On our way back, David tells me about the area. ‘Achnacarry Estate, the seat of the chiefs of Clan Cameron, is steeped in the Commando’s history as a Second World War training ground,’ he says. ‘It was the perfect area for cross-country marches, rock climbing, assault courses, live firing exercises, close-quarter fighting, field craft and living rough, all skills essential to surviving the battlegrounds abroad.’
David, who spent ten years in the Royal Navy, was discharged in 1971 and returned from Portsmouth to Spean Bridge to work in the family business. His military soul and his love for history make him an excellent guide.
While driving back along the Dark Mile, I imagine a group of highly skilled soldiers in camouflage clothing jumping out from behind the old walls and aged trees, which are covered with thick patches of moss.
Our second stop is a stone building in Burankaig along the shore of Loch Lochy, which was part of the Commando Boat Station. David: ‘The Commandos also trained their basic seamanship and landing drills, using various boats: dories, canoes, rubber dinghies and small cutters.’
I plant my tripod a few feet from the water, where the River Arkaig flows into Loch Lochy. Only one pine has survived on the small peninsula on the left of the photo. The jetty, which had already been destroyed by the end of the 1940s when W.S. Thomson took his photo, is hidden below the water level, which is now somewhat higher.
‘The rowing boat symbolises the past,’ remarks David, ‘when Commando trainees paddled across Loch Lochy and returned at full speed for a carefully planned mock attack, determined to fight a heavily-defended section of the loch’s shore.’ The instructors, who acted as defenders, used live ammunition, no blank bullets and mortars. They were outstanding shooters and excelled in the art of shooting to miss!
During our picnic lunch, the grey clouds above the Nevis Range cleared sufficiently to fine-tune the camera’s position, so I just had to wait for some decent light. From the middle to the right of the photos, the mountains in the background are Aonach Mòr, Càrn Mòr Dearg and Ben Nevis.
While I take a remake, David explores the area to discover what the colourful barge in the centre of the photograph is. Named Ros Crana, it is a boat for holidaymakers interested in discovering the Great Glen by bike and barge. Back home, I find out that the 44-metre converted barge was built in 1962 in Belgium.
Move the slider to discover what changed.
Then (left) – Late 1940s © W.S. Thomson – Aonach More, 3,999 feet, Carn Dearg, 4.012 feet and Ben Nevis, 4,406 feet from Loch Lochy at Achnacarry. Published in W.S. Thomson, Let’s See Fort William and Lochaber (Fort William, Wm. S. Thomson, Late 1940s), p. 28.
Now (right) – June 2022 © Estelle Slegers Helsen – Aonach Mòr, Càrn Mòr Dearg and Ben Nevis from the old Commando Boat Station, Bunarkaig, Loch Lochy. Published in Travel in Time. Lochaber, Scotland (New Traces, 2022), p. 13.
On our way back, a series of postcard views guide us to Gairlochy, the third stop for the day. Towards the end of the 1940s and the beginning of the 1950s, Thomson had a breathtaking full view of the Nevis Range with the Caledonian Canal and the River Lochy running through the Great Glen. Now the scene is obscured by trees.
Estelle has published a 64-page book with 30 side-by-side then-and-now pictures, which you can find in local shops or buy online. More information available here.