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 each week Estelle will be taking you to a different place in Lochaber. This is the first article.
Station Square and Gordon Square
A man in a suit wearing a hat has his eye on W.S. Thomson, the photographer who lived in Fort William and Corpach from 1945 to 1963 and took the old black and white picture at the end of the 1940s. The man is leaning against a high railing, separating Station Square from the seaward railway track, which continued another few hundred yards to a smaller pier.
Fort William resident Henry Brown, who worked at Macrae and Dick, recognises the two cars at the front: “The white Morris Eight Series Z van belonged to a local butcher who was possibly in the station picking up supplies from the train. The van in the foreground belonged to Willie Watt, a local fishmonger, and that was his daily stance.”
During W.S. Thomson’s time, Station Square and Gordon Square were the beating heart of Fort William. People travelled mainly by train, bus and steamer; private car ownership was still rare. The scene doesn’t appear busy, and it is hard to tell whether it is a weekday or weekend. From the shadows on the square, we can see that it is roughly mid-afternoon.
In the mid-1970s, this familiar face of Fort William underwent a dramatic makeover to catapult the booming town into the modern tourist era. The West Highland Railway terminus was cut back to accommodate road builders constructing the A82 bypass along the seafront. Landmark buildings were demolished. As time passed, there was a general feeling that the town had lost its soul because of the 1970s transformation and, subsequently, pedestrianisation of the High Street in the 1990s.
John Carmichael, born in the early 1950s in Fort William, who has spent most of his life in the town, says: “Unfortunately, most of the changes to the town have been horrendous.” But did the town planners have any option other than building the A82 bypass to direct the increasing volumes of local and tourism traffic through Fort William?
Move the slider to discover what changed.
Then (left) – End 1940s © W.S. Thomson – The Railway Station, Station Hotel, Grand Hotel, Highland Hotel, Macrea and Dick’s, and MacBrayne’s Bus Station from the pier. Published in Let’s See Fort William and Lochaber (Cameron Square edition), p. 10
Now (right) – June 2022 © Estelle Slegers Helsen – A82 road, Station Square and Gordon Square from the old Town Pier, now Crannog Restaurant & Cruises. Published in Travel in Time. Lochaber, Scotland (2022), p. 7
Maps of the area of 1876, 1904, 1949 and 1959. Click on the thumbnails to enlarge them.
To the left, the Fort William Station building, with only the distinctive crenellated tower on the seaward side, and the adjacent main station entrance hall visible, were swept away in 1975.
Uphill lies Station Hotel at the bottom corner of High Street. “My grandparents, Peter and Chris MacLellan took over the lease of the Station Hotel in 1946,” recalls Chris Grace. “They moved there from Kilchoan and also ran the station bar. When it was demolished, they built the new Station Bar, which was a well-known local. I cut my barmaid teeth there in the mid-1970s.” Chris Grace continues: “My mother, Mairi Grace subsequently ran the hotel and sold it to the MacLeods in 1976.” On the opposite side of High Street, at the top corner, was Grand Hotel.
About Fort William Station
In Fort William, a three-platform terminus was constructed when the Craigendoran to Fort William section of the West Highland Railway was opened on 11 August 1894. The seaward track continued to the south past the station along the quay to a headshunt, Fort William Headshunt, which is roughly where town’s waterside car park is now located.
Immediately after its closure in 1975, the tracks were lifted and work started to demolish the station. Within a few weeks, the building, which had an attractive entrance hall featuring a ‘lunette’ window over the entrance, was gone and there are no signs of it today. One pleasing feature of the building was a crenellated tower on the seaward side. The styling was different to the other stations on the line and was subtly contemporary. The platforms were canopied. Its loss is a great pity. The station was relocated in 1975 to an altogether more mundane site half a mile to the northeast.
About Station Hotel
Station Hotel is one of the oldest buildings on the High Street. Previously it has been named The Chevalier Hotel, operated by Daish & Co., The Chevalier Station Hotel, The Gondolier Hotel and The North British Hotel. Adventually it became Top Shop and after that The House of Clan Jamfrie, which will close down at the end of November 2022.
About Grand Hotel
Built in 1937, Grand Hotel served as a tourist hotel and local venue with 40 bedrooms. During World War II it was the shore base for senior officers of HMS St Christopher, who trained naval personnel in the use of motor torpedo boats in Loch Linnhe. At the beginning of the 1950s it was advertised as offering rooms with hot and cold water, central heating, log fires and a cocktail bar within 20 yards of the pier, rail and coach station. Grand Hotel was demolished after a fire engulfed McTavish’s next door, in 2007.
The colour picture below was taken by W.S. Thomson and published in the Guide to Fort William, published in the beginning of the 1950s.
The buildings in the centre of the picture, sited at the top of Gordon Square, were originally the old St Mary’s Roman Catholic Church, on the left the chapel house and the primary school behind the two.
Duncan Macpherson, born and bred in Fort William and now Highland Councillor for Inverness South, recalls: “My grandfather took over the old St. Mary’s Church building as part of his garage and bus company once the church moved to Belford Road. They later sold the premises to Macrae & Dick of Inverness”.
Henry Brown adds: “In Fort William, Macrae & Dick, were the agent for Austin, Rover and Wolseley, had a business for private hire cars and taxis, a repair service for all makes of cars, and a petrol station with four pumps.” Charlie Hepburn adds: “Hughie Carr and Hughie MacNeil drove the taxis and hearse.” “My cousin, Matt Nixon worked in the workshop and garage,” says Linda Gillanders. Duncan Macpherson adds the final details: “My late father was branch manager for Macrae & Dick for 34 years until his retirement in 1984.” Now the building is a pub and a pizza restaurant.
About old St Mary’s Church and Macrae & Dick
St Mary’s Roman Catholic Church was erected in 1868. It remained a place of worship until 1923, after which it became a garage belonging to Inverness-based automotive dealer and bus operator Macrae & Dick. They were preceded by an early bus operator, A. & J. MacPherson, and before them by Mac Gregor & Cameron, who hired horses.
Macrae & Dick was involved in a dramatic incident in 1928 when one of their charabancs started to move without a driver. Two women on board managed to jump off as the bus gathered speed. It rolled across High Street into Station Square and was heading for Loch Linhhe when, by good fortune, it collided with the pier office and rebounded onto one of MacBrayne’s vehicles, which brought it to a halt.
High up the hill, The Highland Hotel, erected in 1895 to cater for wealthy rail passengers, still towers above the scene. At the start, it was called Station Hotel.
“To the right, now covered by modern buildings, is the Macpherson family home since 1918-19,” says Duncan Macpherson. “My Macpherson grandparents ran the horse-drawn Stagecoach business between Fort William and Fort Augustus and between Fort William and Arisaig. They sold it after World War II to David MacBrayne of Caledonian MacBrayne buses and ferries.”
Also, that magnificent 1930s Art Deco-inspired David MacBrayne’s building, at the bottom right of the photo, was demolished in the 1970s.
Nearby on the right, the building with the bellcote is easily identified as the Free Church of Scotland, built in 1846. Like John Carmichael, Charlie Hepburn was brought up and worked in Fort William from 1950. “The town certainly has not benefitted from the changes. My grandfather worked at Macrae and Dick. My stepfather was employed in the MacBrayne’s Garage.”
In my search for the exact spot where Thomson stood more than 70 years ago, I found the right angle but couldn’t stand at the same height. At the end of the 1940s, the pier building, a ticket office with a waiting hall for the steamers, was smaller than the present-day restaurant. Back then, the roof was partly flat and used as a vista point (see picture below), and this is where Thomson planted his tripod to take the black and white photograph published in his booklet Let’s See Fort William and Lochaber, a picture also widely sold as a postcard.
Some other views of Station Square and Gordon Square from the Pier Building.
Where I stood for the remake.
We move from Station Square and Gordon Square on the West Side of High Street to the East End of Fort William’s shopping and business street.
For this photograph, W.S. Thomson stood near the Royal Bank of Scotland, which has been on the same site since 1835. Formally the National Bank this existing building is from 1911.
In the old photograph, taken at the end of the 1940s, the Pipes and Drums of the 1st Battalion Cameron Highlanders stride east along High Street. What was the occasion? Was it a yearly festival? Or a remembrance march? It is hard to say which time of the year Thomson took this shot.
There are a lot more questions. Who is the boy on the right, looking at the band? And does someone recognises the girl on the left marching along? In general, some people are in the street, especially at the back towards Cameron Square, at the back to the left. On the right, the four men in front of Argyll Hotel are attentive.
On the left, a Fordson E83W Van delivers to the Fruit Bazaar (High Street 10 and 12 – former Ewen Kennedy’s Newsagent and Stationers), out of the picture on the left. Thomson also published this photograph as a postcard, showing the vehicle registration plate attached to the left front side of the van. It is reading DST228. The ST learns that the plate was issued in Inverness-shire. So the next question is: who is the deliverer?
Let’s dive into the buildings on the left (all comments are welcome).
High Street 14 and 16. The one-floor building was J.L. Sydie & Sons, Confectioner, Tobacconist, Newsagent and Souvenir Shop, latterly turned into Woolworths. Currently, Mountain Warehouse occupies the premises.
High Street 18 to 22. The three-storey stone building is dated 1909. It started as the Commercial Hotel and became Commercial House with a central entrance and a street-level shop on both sides. To the left (number 18) for many years was The Rod & Gun Shop. To the right (number 22) was A.T. Mays, latterly, the offices of the Lochaber Times. Also, Ben Nevis Warehouse was at the premises.
High Street 24 and 26. Cinema Lane led up to the town’s old picture house and ducks under the three-storey building, which was home to Marshall & Pearson for many years.
High Street 28 to 32. P. Maclellan & Co, Drapers and Clothiers, Ladies and Gents Outfitters, and Groceries and Provisions.
High Street 34 to 38. The stately three-storey corner building with a two-bay elevation to High Street and a five-bay facade fronting Cameron Square was built circa 1860 as the British Linen Bank. The building became part of the Caledonian Hotel sometime during the later 19th century. The original hotel building was number 36, but as more and more tourists came to Fort William, it was necessary to enlarge it.
And now the buildings on the right (all comments are welcome).
High Street 7 to 11. The four older gentlemen are standing in front of Argyll Hotel, on the right with two storeys and on the left three storeys with the hotel’s name and some attractive ornate frontage, which is now lost. Currently, both buildings are part of The Crofter Bar and Restaurant.
High Street 13. A three-storey building, which dates from 1896, was occupied by D. & J. MacEwen & Co Ltd, a Callander-based family business whose history goes back to 1799. They were general grocers, wine & spirit merchants, and had stores all over Scotland. Now the e-cigarette specialists VPZ runs a shop (currently number 13).
High Street 15. Not sure about the past, now VisitScotland Fort William iCentre.
High Street 19. In the past, Marshall & Pearson’s ‘China’ shop.
High Street 21 to 25. The Masonic Hall, built in 1903, with a central entrance and shops on both sides. The store to the right (number 21) was initially occupied by E. F. Angler’s Watchmaker, Jeweller and Optician, becoming MacDougall’s and, latterly MacGillivray’s Groceries & Provisions. The present occupants, Wildcat, have retained the original fascia sign.
Move the slider to discover what changed.
Then (left) – End 1940s © W.S. Thomson – High Street, Fort William. Published in Let’s See Fort William and Lochaber (Cameron Square edition), p. 3
Now (right) – April 2022 © Estelle Slegers Helsen – High Street, Fort William.
St Andrew’s Episcopal Church
It rained all day on the first days of my planned five-week stay in Lochaber in May and June 2022. So, I had to limit my work for the Travel in Time project to scouting places. Sometimes the visibility was so bad the landscapes vanished in dense curtains of grey.
As a landscape photographer W.S. Thomson occasionally took pictures of buildings, mainly hotels, producing postcards he offered for sale at the hotel receptions. He probably also took photos of the hotels and shops advertised in the official local tourist guides. As a local businessman, he provided the photographic illustrations and co-edited and co-produced the guidebooks.
In two editions of his booklet Let’s See Fort William and Lochaber, Thomson printed two interior shots. The first is a reproduction of an old Highland croft kitchen croft Thomson described as “an attempt to recapture the life of our forebears in the lonely glens of the Highlands”. The second is the interior of St Andrew’s Episcopal Church.
In the booklet, published end 1940s, or early 1950s, Thomson gives an account of the church’s history.
“The plot of land, on which both St. Andrew’s Church and the Rectory stand, is held by the Episcopal Community of Fort William by direct grant from the War Office, and no feu duty is or ever has been paid for it.”
“With the settling down of the Highlands at the end of the eighteenth century, and the continued steady growth of the town of Maryburgh round Fort William, the Episcopalian community gathered money to build a place of worship, the first in the town. Through the generous help of a Lady Rosse [Countess of Rosse] and the activity of a Mr. J. Bowdler of Eltham, Kent, a little chapel was erected in 1817. Two years later, a house for the incumbent was built from the stones taken from the disused Garrison Brewhouse. This house is very much as it was 120 years ago, one of the first houses permitted to be built of stone.”
“The Rosse Chapel, a plain little white-washed building consisting of nave, chancel and tower, served its purpose faithfully till the seventies of the last [19th] century, when extensive decay in roof and floor decided the congregation to set about rebuilding the church. Led by the late Mr. G. B. [George Baynton] Davey of Spean Bridge, funds were collected and, under his inspired leadership and practical generosity, the present Church of St. Andrews was erected and consecrated on 9th September, 1880 [by the Episcopalian Bishop of Argyll and the Isles, Dr. Mackarness].”
“Designed by the late Dr. Alexander Ross of Inverness and built of Abriachan granite, the Church is one of the landmarks of Fort William, and is a very beautiful example of the best architecture of its day. The carvings of the doors and the mosaic flooring of both Baptistry and Chancel should be particularly noticed, as should the Reredos and Altar of Caen stone.”
“The Church is open daily for private worship. Visitors are welcomed, either to inspect or at the Sunday services.”
I have a look on a rainy Sunday morning. The church is surrounded by a wall and is separated from High Street by its churchyard. I enter a small churchyard via a lychgate where an information panel indicates Sunday Services – 10.45 am Sung Eucharist. Approaching the massive stone church portal, where St Andrew overlooks who is coming in and going out, I hear voices singing and decide to wait for the end of the service before entering.
A bit later, when all the churchgoers, local folk and some tourists from France, have left, I greet Rev Guinness and tell him I am on a mission. After explaining, he says: “It is all yours.”
At first glance, I am struck by the simple layout. Pinpointing the place where Thomson stood for his picture is relatively easy; just in front of the votive candle rack that is blocking the central steps leading to the baptistery.
Move the slider to discover what changed.
Then (left) – End 1940s © W.S. Thomson – St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church. Published in Let’s See Fort William and Lochaber (Kilmallie House edition), p. 13
Now (right) – June 2022 © Estelle Slegers Helsen – St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, High Street. Published in Travel in Time. Lochaber, Scotland (2022), p. 5
The nave forms the main body of the church. Almost everything is still in place after more than 70 years, which is astonishing. The central wooden pews, the granite pulpit on the left and the hymn board on the right weren’t moved. My first thought is that even the two altar banners are still there where they were displayed at the end of the 1940s. Although looking very closely when studying the result at home on a large screen computer, I notice the banners have swapped places. At the back, the sanctuary with the high altar and a lovely altarpiece are frozen in time.
St Andrew’s is a church that can only be fully appreciated if you take the time to explore the interior.
Travel in Time – Lochaber Series is supported by the West Highland Museum and the Year of Stories 2022 Community Stories Fund.
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.