William S. Thomson was a Scottish photographer who roamed his beloved country during the 1950s. Based in Corpach, Fort William, he produced about 20 smaller booklets, focused on different regions, in the Let's See Scotland series. His books The Highland in Colour, published by Oliver & Boyd in 1954, and Colourful Scotland, from the same publisher in 1956, can be seen as overviews. For Travel in Time I rediscover the Highlands and wonder in Thomson's footsteps.

The areas of Ardgour, Ardnamurchan, Moidart, Morvern and Sunart form the West Highland Peninsulas. It is a fairly remote and unspoilt region in the Scottish Highlands, tucked away between Fort William, gateway to the Caledonian Canal, Loch Linnhe, with a magnificent view on Ben Nevis, the Sound of Mull, separating the Isle of Mull from the most westerly point of the British Mainland, and the sea surrounding The Small Isles: Rum, Eigg, Muck and Canna.

The most southern area, the Morvern, feels like the most deserted, mainly mountainous with one main single track road (A 884) leading to the Lochaline village, where a ferry crosses the Sound of Mull to Fishnish, nothing more than a small terminal on the Isle of Mull.

William S. Thomson selected for his booklet Let’s See – Ardgour and Ardnamurchan three pictures in the Morvern, printed in black and white on the last pages of the booklet. The first a few miles up a long dead end road to the Drimnin Estate with a marvellous view to the east on the Sound of Mull , the second focused on Loch Aline with Ardtornish House, the main manor of Ardtornish Estate, in the distance, and the third one a few hundred footsteps from the Lochaline ferry terminal along the east side of Loch Aline.

The view form the south shore of the Morvern on the Sound of Mull is breathtaking. There is a 11 mile long narrow dead end road (B 849) from Lochaline to the hamlet of Bunavullin, slightly swirling 20 metres above the coast line, along pastures, through small woodland areas and driving past a house now and then. For the first picture Thomson did drive 3 miles on this road, and parked his car just before Achnaha. From there he did ascend about 10 or 20 metres on foot, taking this picture…

The Sound of Mull near Loch Aline – William S. Thomson – 1950s

Finding the spot where he probably parked his car, I had the impression the small house was demolished. But back home, editing the picture, it became clear I had to make the extra effort to head a bit higher on the slope. The view matches perfectly but the mouth to Loch Aline on the left is clearly wider.

The Sound of Mull near Loch Aline – Estelle Slegers Helsen – October 2020
October 2020 - Estelle Slegers Helsen
October 2020 - Estelle Slegers Helsen
October 2020 - Estelle Slegers Helsen
1950s - William S. Thomson
1950s - William S. Thomson

For the second picture Thomson found a spot along the main road from Strontian to Lochaline (A 884), a few miles before entering the village, with a view on Loch Aline and Ardtornish House. His booklet’s caption wrongly identify the building as Kinlochaline Castle, which lies a bit to the west, just left from his photograph. The building is Ardtornish House.

Ardtornish House and Loch Aline – William S. Thomson – 1950s

The place where Thomson stood for this photograph is now located off track, because in the 1970s the road was partly relaid and altered. The location is also much more north, about a few hundred yards, hidden in full grown conifer trees, along the still existing old road now used for transport of felt trees. I found a spot with a gap at the side of the new road, where the trees were cleared a week earlier.

Ardtornish House and Loch Aline – Estelle Slegers Helsen – October 2020

You can see the hills in the back lie more to the right side of the picture when fixing the picture on Ardtornish House. Also the distance between the house and the old boat house, the tiny building to the left along the shore of Loch Aline, is smaller.

October 2020 - Estelle Slegers Helsen
October 2020 - Estelle Slegers Helsen
October 2020 - Estelle Slegers Helsen
1950s - William S. Thomson
1950s - William S. Thomson

The third Morvern picture is an atypical Thomson photograph. No landscape, but just a small man-sized entrance blasted in the granite shell which covers a vast volume of quartz sand, mined to get the finest quartz quality, suitable for optical purposes and camera lenses.

Entrance to the sand mine at Loch Aline – William S. Thomson – 1950s

At the end of the 19th century Lochaline was mentioned as a potential source of silica sand, with vast deposit of white cretaceous sandstone running inland from the Lochaline shore. More than 25 year later, in 1923 the Edinburgh Geological Survey analysed a sandstone sample. Although it proved to be one of the purest deposits in the world, at that time the extraction of the Lochaline sand was considered to be uneconomic. Imported silica sand was quite cheap, until World War 2 when other sources of silica sand were cut off, and pure silica was needed for the production of high quality glass for periscope lenses and gun sights, that Lochaline mine was opened. In 2008 the owners of the mine decided to close the mine, but in 2011 a joint venture between an Italian mining company and a global glass manufacturer was created, reopening the Lochaline sand mine in 2012.

Walking the road from the Lochaline ferry terminal up to the mine office building and further to the sailing boat harbour, some of the old mine entrances can still be spotted. Although altered after the 1950s, when Thomson visited the site.

Former entrance to the sand mine at Loch Aline – Estelle Slegers Helsen – October 2020
October 2020 - Estelle Slegers Helsen
October 2020 - Estelle Slegers Helsen
October 2020 - Estelle Slegers Helsen
1950s - William S. Thomson
1950s - William S. Thomson

The pictures then and now in the Let's See series can be found on the map Travel in Time. Click on the link, select at the filter for Landscapes and resize the map looking for Scotland. There you will find the green binocular icons. Please keep in mind the series is a work in progress.