Travelogue – 18 September 2023

Ullapool Museum

Today is the end of the second week of my stay in the Scottish Highlands and I am still enjoying camping life despite last week’s storm. I have lost a bit of my confidence – and my wanderings in the footsteps of the Scottish photographer W.S. Thomson. My new tent has a patio, providing the comfort and shelter to prepare food without worrying too much about the weather. It is ideal for rainy days. Thinking about the correlation between humans and their space to live is that the more space people have, the more complex their life gets. Less space requires a simple and organised life. By nature, humans are hoarders – I am an expert by experience – so the more room you have, the more stuff you gather. Travelling with just a backpack, a tiny car, or a large camper van requires another mindset and another way of life. With my “city” car, I am somewhere in the middle, providing just the space I need for the stuff and equipment I need to do my job, move around, and survive.

Today starts with rain, perfect for feeding nature but not ideal for a day out discovering places. My planning to visit the curator and archivist of the Ullapool Museum is excellent. At 9 am, I am at the museum’s doorstep in West Argyll Street, housed in a refurbished Grade A1 listed Telford Church. This architectural gem retains many of its original features. You discover Lochbroom’s story in the museum, from clearances and crofting to fishing and family history.

I am welcomed by curator Siobhàn Beatson and archivist August MacLean. I introduce the project and explain the purposes of this trip: rediscovering places, getting in touch with local people and looking for material concerning the work and life of W.S. Thomson. Because I have already made a series last year in Lochaber, the project is easier to explain. We discuss the project and try to find out where to search in the museum’s archive, which is located at another place in the village.

August, who joins me, says it weird sitting in my imported left-hand drive car, which still doing a great job after nearly five years and 75,000 miles on the British roads. Arriving at the museum stores, we are at the same spot where I parked the car yesterday for my hike up the hill overlooking Ullapool from the east. August still has a lot of work, for sure, for the next five to ten years. When I was a museum manager in Belgium, one of my tasks was getting rid of a backlog of material, documents, photos, postcards, etc., without any doubt, a job without an ending.

I unearth some postcards, not sure if I have seen them before and a few, such as the Guide to the Northern Highlands, published by the Scottish Youth Hostels Association (Reprinted in 1975, but no original date) with at least one Thomson photograph of a Croft at Gruinard Bay (Second Coast) and the Official Guide Ullapool & Lochbroom, Jewels of Wester Ross with four Thomson colour photographs in the centre of the booklet (not mentioned by name but in the acknowledgements the Scottish Tourist Board is mentioned as the organisation for the loan of the colour transparencies) and a series of black and white photographs without credits.

At the end of the search, two Ordnance Survey maps grab my attention, one a one-inch map of Ullapool and Loch Ewe published in 1947 when Thomson was around in the area.

August promises to keep an eye on the objects when cataloguing the collection.

Taking a break for about an hour just watching people and boats passing around the harbour, I meet Siobhàn to ask for contact details of some people I can speak to within the next three days. She is happy to help. Armed with a short list, I say goodbye, pleased with the help she gives. I go to Tea by the Sea for a coffee, and while eating some cake, I contact folks by email, asking if they can make time to meet on such short notice. Then, I am off to see the harbour master, who is in a meeting, unfortunately.

The sun is out again. Reason enough to return to the campsite, park my car and go for a search of two photographs overlooking Ardmair Beach and Point with a cottage in the foreground, which is partly still standing but wholly ruined.

Ben More Coigach from Ardmair, Loch Kanaird
Published in W.S. Thomson, Let’s See the Northern Highlands (Fort William: William S. Thomson, Late 1940s), p. 33.
Ardmair Bay, Loch Kanaird and mist capped Ben More, Coigach, North of Ullapool
Published as a colour postcard (digital) Pictorial Pictures – Ullapool (1) – Back of the postcard: Ardmair Bay, Loch Kanaird and mist capped Ben More, Coigach, North of Ullapool / #592 / Logo: COLOUR W.S. THOMSON PHOTOGRAPH / Published by W.S. Thomson (Colour Photographs) Ltd, Edinburgh / Printed in Scotland by Robert MacLehose & Co Ltd, Glasgow – Collection National Library Scotland B000349143

Also, these remakes are much more difficult than expected. I have to stand on a higher rock, but a fence hinders me from going up.

Not having the courage to go around, I make a mental note for the revisit in April next year. Not yet tired of scouting places – is it ever enough? – I jumped in the car and made my way 3 miles north, hoping to find where Thomson stood for a sunset overviewing Loch Canaird.

Sunset over Ardmair Bay, Loch Kanaird, north of Ullapool
Published in W.S. Thomson, The Highlands in Colour (Edinburgh/London: Oliver & Boyd Ltd, 1954 – First edition), p. 54a.

No luck…

I return to the campsite to cook a late dinner, the clouds becoming thicker, with rain to come for the entire night.

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