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 #16.
‘Welcome to the place where people picture one of the best-known Scottish landscape scenes, with the rugged Aonach Dubh reflecting in Torren Lochan,’ says Viki Sutherland. She invites me into the private garden of their home, Torren, where her husband Alistair is enjoying the sun and wearing a straw hat to protect his face. It is early June 2022 and today is the warmest day I have ever experienced wandering ‘Up North’.
The view from their terrace is astounding. ‘It is like a giant amphitheatre, made up of five mountains: Sgòrr nam Fiannaidh, Aonach Dubh, Stob Coire nan Lochan, An t-Sròr and Meall Mór,’ says Viki, pointing from the far left and sweeping all the way to her right. I am overwhelmed by the grandeur of nature.
With some refreshments on the table, Viki tells me about her family: ‘My father was a farmer on an island in Denmark and my mother was a Scot. At the end of the Second World War, the Russians liberated small parts of the south of Denmark and my family was very frightened the Russians would move north. My Scottish grandfather died just after the war, and with the money they inherited, my parents bought a farm in the Scottish Borders. They farmed both an arable farm in Denmark and a sheep farm in Scotland.’
In 1935 Alistair’s father, Dr Alister Sutherland, bought Torren and the surrounding grounds, including An Torr, for £1000 at the sale of the Glencoe Estate, once owned by Lord Strathcona (1820-1914). Alistair: ‘There were two lochs, a mile stretch of river and 100 acres of newly planted forest. He immediately gifted the Signal Rock to the National Trust of Scotland, thereby acquiring their first holding in Glencoe, and allowed a right of way through his woods for access.’
I show them two photographs Thomson took of Torren Lochan, a black and white one and a colour one; the latter is one of his most iconic images, taken at the end of the 1940s.
‘Look how tiny the trees are,’ says Viki to Alistair. ‘When we married in 1963, you could still see the steep northwest side of Aonach Dubh from the terrace where we are sitting now.’
When I visit the Sutherlands, the sky is a summery blue, with no clouds. Believe it or not, taking decent photographs in such weather is challenging because the light is too harsh. ‘Should I wait a few hours?’ I ask. Alistair replies: ‘In the afternoon, clouds usually come, but not today, so we better go.’
Moments later, we tread carefully along a path at the back of the house with Torren Lochan on our right. Reaching the dirt road to Signal Rock, we head for the dam which created Torren Lochan. We gaze at the mountains, which are mirrored in the water. ‘About 20 years ago, we met a few men here asking who owned the land, and I said it is ours’, says Viki. ‘One of the men started talking about Harry Potter and this area being a perfect film location because of the big trees, the mountains and the water. The place premiered as Hagrid’s Hut in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, released in 2004. And, they turned our house into their production office.’
W.S. Thomson didn’t take his photographs from the dam but searched, as he often did, for a less obvious location nearby. He walked 50 yards back onto a knoll, now covered with full-grown conifers, looking for a suitable foreground and to position the lochan’s island more in the centre of his frame.
Alistair: ‘The bigger trees were planted in the early 1900s by Lord Strathcona, a Canadian businessman born in Scotland as John Smith from Elgin, Morayshire. He married a Canadian indigenous woman and shipped Canadian-grown trees to Glencoe, recreating her native environment so she could feel at home in Scotland.’ I see a range of conifer trees and a variety of deciduous trees, softening the scene, which will create a spectacular colour pallet in autumn.
‘The water level is very high now,’ Viki adds. ‘So the island is actually an island, in summer it becomes a peninsula. I conclude that a remake from the same position would result in a wall of shrubbery growing on the white rocks at the front.
After Viki and Alistair return home, I scramble through the bushes with my camera gear, looking for somewhere with a clear view through my lens. The result is a remake from a lower viewpoint, but I am happy anyway.
Move the slider to discover what changed.
Then (left) – End 1940s © W.S. Thomson – Torren Lochan and Stob Coire an Lochan, Glencoe. Published in W.S. Thomson, The Highlands in Colour (Edinburgh/London: Oliver & Boyd Ltd, 1954 – First edition), p. 26.
Now (right) – June 2022 © Estelle Slegers Helsen – Stob Coire nan Lochan from Torren Lochan. Published in Travel in Time. Lochaber, Scotland (New Traces, 2022), p. 59.
Thomson visited Torren Lochan on several occasions. Before stepping into colour photography, he took a black-and-white image about 30 feet from where he stood some years later for the colour image.
Move the slider to discover what changed.
Then (left) – 1945/1946 © W.S. Thomson – Torren Lochan, near Clachaig, with Stob Coire nan Lochan towering above. Published in W.S. Thomson, Let’s See the West Highlands (Fort William, William S. Thomson, July 1947 – First edition), p. 13.
Now (right) – June 2022 © Estelle Slegers Helsen – Stob Coire nan Lochan from Torren Lochan.
As I walk back to the car, I wonder if Thomson ever climbed the Aonach Dubh and Stob Coire nan Lochan, framed in the photographs, because, in the 1930s, he frequently visited the area as a mountaineer. So far, I have found no proof. This is yet another search for me.
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.