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 #17
Back of Keppoch, early 1960s. Traditional haystacks are dotted on croft land where pastures mingle with the arable ground. Houses are scattered around the flat lands where the old main road from Arisaig to Mallaig crosses the meandering Allt Cam Carach. One of the first campsites is situated next to the sandy white beach, where the river flows into the sea. A man and a boy enjoy the view from Moss of Keppoch towards the Isle of Skye. Across the deep blue water, they see the peninsula of Sleat and the Cuillin Hills in the far distance.
In June 2022, I have been talking to two local people who remember this scene. Anne Cameron (née Devlin) was born in 1930, married in 1954 and still lives in Moss of Keppoch. ‘I came from Ayrshire and the Camerons arrived from Acharacle a few generations ago. My late husband Angus and I lived in Glenfinnan for 19 years, where I was a primary school teacher from 1964 until it quietly closed down.’ With a big smile and twinkling eyes, she adds: ‘But we came back, and I love this place. It was my aunt’s croft before we moved in.’
Since 1964, Gep MacMillan has been living in Back of Keppoch in a croft, not pictured in these photographs, but further to the left. He knows the area well because his mother’s family were tenants of Arisaig Hotel. ‘They arrived in 1918 and a little farm came with it. My parents lived on the Isle Mull, but I was born in Arisaig Hotel in 1944. Some years later, they settled on the Argyll mainland, then returned to Arisaig in 1952 and finally moved with me to this croft in 1964. When they retired, I took over and worked as a contractor to make ends meet.’
‘Making a living on a croft was hard work,’ Gep says. ‘In the past, the local men went to Glasgow to work in the shipyards to earn some good money. It was up to the women and the older folk to keep the crofts running. The men only came home when it was harvest time.’
The old colour photograph W.S. Thomson took at the beginning of the 1960s offers a lovely balance of shades of green and blue, highlighted with red accents. It appeared in one of his later publications, Beauty Spots of Inverness-shire, published by Wm. S. Thomson (Colour Photographs), 8B St. Vincent Street, Edinburgh.
The remake I took in June 2022, about 60 years later, is a bit grimmer because of the grey cloud. The Cuilin Hills have disappeared in the mist, which often covers the Isle of Skye. I notice more camping and caravan sites and more trees on the higher parts of Back of Keppoch. The road, now part of the scenic drive from Arisaig to Mallaig, and the Allt Cam Carach haven’t changed course. Slightly more mosses, grasses and heather cover the rocks on the rough land.
Move the slider to discover what changed.
Then (left) – Early 1960s © W.S. Thomson – The Island of Skye from Back of Keppoch, near Arisaig. Published in Beauty Spots of Inverness-shire, published by Wm. S. Thomson (Colour Photographs), 8B St. Vincent Street, Edinburgh, plate 11.
Now (right). June 2022 © Estelle Slegers Helsen – Back of Keppoch, Sound of Sleat and Isle of Skye, from Moss of Keppoch, near Arisaig. Published in Travel in Time. Lochaber, Scotland (New Traces, 2022), p. 21.
‘The house on the left is Skye View. Camerons lived there, the family of my husband’s father,’ says Anne. ‘It has been extended over the years. They used to take in visitors. At the end of the 1940s and the 1950s, the local people rented out their croft houses to rich people from Glasgow and Edinburgh for the summer months. The locals moved temporarily into their small outhouses, which they called their wee houses. But once more tourists arrived and camping sites popped up, the city people fled to other places to find peace.’
The house on the right is Mossbank. Between the two properties, you still see the corroded roofs of the farm sheds accessible by the road. Halfway up the road, where the electricity pole is on the left, a track goes up into the rough land.
Anne takes her magnifying glass to look closely at Thomson’s photograph. ‘I see two campsites along the coastline. One along the river called Invercaimb, near the croft where the MacDonalds live, and another on the left of the small hill called Portnadoran.’ 60 years later, there are four in the background. On the pastures along this side of the river, you will find caravans during the high season. Off-season cows and sheep keep the grass down.
‘Most crofting life disappeared 20 to 30 years ago. It was 20-odd years ago I last ploughed to grow potatoes. Most crops, like corn, were grown to get the cattle through the winter. It is all gone. I still keep some cows out of habit of a lifetime. It is an expensive hobby,’ Gep says, laughing.
He concludes: ‘Sometimes I wonder where it has been going wrong. It was hard work but a much simpler way of life. Everybody helped each other, and that is gone.’
Where I stood for the remake.
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.