Welcome Local Hero fans.
In 1983 I was 17. I didn't have a clue about dating and had limited success up to that point, so when a girl I asked out to the cinema actually said yes, not only was I clueless about how to arrange said date, but I then had to see what films were in the cinema which I thought a girl might like to see.
A friend of mine was really into Dire Straits who were on the cusp of world domination and told me the lead singer/ guitarist had composed the music for 'a small film about Scotland' blah blah.
34 years later I can say that I did not fall in love with the girl. I fell in love with the film instead.
The music, the characters, the whimsical story, the humour and the scenery all combined to create this wonderful journey to a somewhat mystical land where mermaids are real, the Aurora Borealis paints the evening sky and canny Scots run rings around American oil giants looking to purchase an entire coast line. All very strange and made more so by the fact that it was set in 1983 with Jet Rangers, Porsches and Ford Granada's.
I won't bore you with the full story, I'll assume you're here because you're already a fan of the film or you're simply interested in pictures of Scottish coastlands.
Either way, welcome to my very small homage to the wonderful 'Local Hero', Bill Forsyth's beautiful little film which is not just a gentle comedy and a great film all round, it's a love story to the beauty of Scotland and the Scottish people who, even as we speak, are fending off Global giants determined to buy up huge chunks of unspoilt beaches and slapping oil terminals there or tourist traps full of tablet, kilts and bagpipes - god forbid.
'and are there two 'g's in bugger off???'
So let's go back to March 2007 when I was working in Inverness across a weekend and needed to be in Aberdeen on the Monday. A perfect occasion to visit Pennan up on the North East Coast half way between Banff and Fraserburgh on the A98.
I was staying in Banff at a large hotel I can't recall the name of and there was a full-on Scottish wedding happening and it was LOUD. So off I went in search of Local Hero locations and hopefully get around to sitting on the beach at Pennan and watch the DVD on my laptop. This was 2007, no smart phones and HD playback on your ipad in those days my friends!
The hotel showed me the rooms some of the cast stayed in and told me a couple of anecdotes about the crew whom shared the same hotel. Bill Forsyth stayed in different hotel but they couldnt recall which one. They pointed me in the direction of The Ship Inn around the harbour but when I got there it was closed and I couldnt get hold of anyone to show me the bar where they filmed the bar scenes with Reigart and Lawson.
Oh well, off to Pennan - surely a village can't be closed haha.
The scene where Mack first enters 'Ferness' begins with the Ford Granada poking out of a couple of houses before swinging right into the village proper. The magic of movies.
The actual descent from the A98 to the village of Pennan, which doubled for Ferness, is bloody mad. It's worse than a 1/10 gradient. It's incredibly steep and has a switch-back half way down to test all but the most determined drivers and stalwart vehicles. First gear the whole way down and cover the brakes like your life depended on it.
Your life actualy does depend on it. Come down too fast and your brakes will fade and you'll fly off the road over the sea wall and into the sea. Game Over. Short film Oscar for stunt driving.
But my little Golf was like a mountain goat (I was prepared!) and it got me down to the village with little complaint. I on the other hand needed fresh boxers and a place to charge my electric briefcase.
How the hell a 1982 Granada got down that hill in one piece I will never know. Amazing.
Note: the following pics were taken on a not very smart phone - a Sony K505 as I recall so they are very low-res compared to modern phone cameras- Glen.. also, the sliding photos work better on laptops as they have additional info that does not work on mobiles for some reason.
You come down into the village at the same point that Mac's Granada comes in, just to the left of the Pennan Inn pub and hotel, and you have to be just as wary!
But once you get your breath back and park up on the little sea front on your right, you realise that incredibly, 24 years have passed and the little village tucked away out of sight down the slope from hell, hasn't changed a single bit.
Brigadoon comes to mind. You drive through the mist and time stands still etc, etc.
But unlike Brigadoon , this movie was filmed on location, and you literally are in the movie. It was so easy to imagine the characters really living just along the seafront and 'Ricky' on his motorbike waiting to run you down as soon as you get out of your car.
It was magical and quite unnerving to be somewhere that was exactly like the movie you loved and know so well.
It's absolutely tiny and even my Golf was taking up valuable real estate on the limited seafront by the shared washing lines strung up along the sea wall catching the ocean air as it sweeps in from the sea. No Febreze here folks - the ocean spray is the real deal.
The other thing, as you will see from my pics is that the village was empty. Not a soul around. I was a little apprehensive to go walkabout as it genuinely feels like you're intruding. The tiny sea front houses are very close together and you can sense the intimacy of a geniune working sea village. Maybe they are all lawyer's cottages and summer homes now but they all appeared just as they do in the movie.
Anyone coming to Pennan will probably wonder where the gorgeous sandy rocky beaches are that feature so much in Local Hero. Fans will know that the beach scenes were filmed some 200 miles away on the north-west coast of Scotland just south of Mallaig near Morar and Arisaig. Ah the magic of Hollywood editing indeed. But we'll get there soon enough. Let's just spend a while in lovely, authentic Pennan, the real location for Ferness in the movie.
Above is the lovely harbour and wall featured a lot in the movie. The photo is not very hi-def I'm afraid but you get the general idea.
More shots of the harbour from the opposite direction as if you were standing outside Gordons office/ pub. It was very quiet which was great for photo taking. The real pub was shut so I killed a bit of time taking these pictures and phoning various friends and family from the phone box behind that shack with the lifebelt on it. Of course in the movie the phone box was fake and stood in the middle of the sea wall on the corner just above the middle of the yellow boat. Long since removed sadly.
The real one sits just behind the same shack with the green door.
I sat and watched the movie on DVD on my laptop on the pebbly beach which is nothing like the sandy shoreline in the movie. That was done through the magic of movie editing! But is was still amazing to sit there and look up to see the real locations right in front of you. A lady was hanging her clothes out on a communal line and asked what I was watching. I showed her and she just smiled, shook her head and walked back to her house. I don't know to this day if she thought I was totally mad or impressed with my driving skills down the Cresta Run.
The evening sun was fading so I packed up the laptop and headed to the Pennan Inn. The In in the movie was a house to the left of the real pub fitted out with a canopy from its front door across to a wall to look like it was a hotel. The house is there and quite recognisable but it looks a little different than in the movie, but not much.
The pub had a little plaque on the wall with a line or two telling folks that Local Hero was filmed there in 1981 but that’s all there was referring to the movie. Inside the little bar there were some pictures of the cast and crew and I think a letter from Bill Forsyth to the pub owners – it was a long time ago so I can’t recall exactly. But the food was really good, and they played the music from the film whilst I ate and told me lots about what it’s really like to live there. Turns out it’s very hard to live there as they get totally battered by the sea and winds and rarely have a day like they did in the movie. Apparently I was very lucky. They were great in fact and quite happy to tell me about the fishing history and the fact that it was being bought up slowly by city folks converting the houses into summer cottages.
So I finished my dinner and went outside when it got dark and looked up to the sky and played the album in my headphones and waited for the Northern Lights. They never came but I can say it was a magical experience sitting on the harbour wall with the (bloody cold night and) moon reflecting off the pebbles and the tide and hearing the waves over the music for real. Awesome!
I headed back to Banff and back to the wedding chaos at my hotel and even at 2 in the morning they were in full ceilidh mode. What a fitting end to a Local Hero inspired day. Now let's jump in the Delorean and head for ......
Fast forward ten years and I was in Fort William on a week's solo holiday. Me, my BMW and my Acoustic Guitar.
I’d decided to make my 50th year a film focused year with trips all over the place to visit famous film locations: - Mid West America, Greece, Scotland and finally New York.
I figured Summer would be the perfect opportunity to pack the car full of gear and finally visit the very beach where they filmed most of the beach scenes in Local Hero: Camusdarach Beach, North West Highlands, Scotland.. (Camusdarach translates roughly as ‘Bay of Oaks’)
So off I drove, 500 miles from my house to Fort William, and my first film encounter.
As luck would have it, I had chanced upon the Jacobite Steam Train when looking at other things to do on my week off in North West Scotland. I wanted to see as much of the place as possible in 6 days as well as visit Camusdarach Beach near Arisaig and Morar on the Road to the Isles. My car journey took me up the M6 to Glasgow, north on the west bank of Loch Lomond, up through Glencoe and into Fort William.
Loch Lomond was when I really felt like I was in Scotland. The scenery changes dramatically once you hit the Loch and the roads are quite unforgiving regards paying attention, but the ride is worth it as you see, even in the rain, some beautiful scenery and fantastic glimpses of the Loch and surrounding villages.
I hit Glencoe just after a rain storm and as with most places in Scotland the main stop-off points were crammed, even in this weather, with tourists, most of them Japanese…Hell of a way to come to see a mountain when you have Mt Fuji down the road!
So, I stopped, negotiated puddles, wet banks and wetter tourists (taking pouting selfies with a mountain in the background) snapped the obligatory photos, jumped in the car and headed north to Fort William. My hotel was further north in Glenfinnan, but I was stopping in Fort William for two movie related reasons.
1. To track down a 42-yr. old whisky, and
2. To take a steam train ride along the coast used in the film.
Lesson one, 42yr old whisky is not only bloody hard to find, it’s also bloody expensive. I did find one, and they offered me a deal at £5800 a bottle…. yes……. five grand!
I bought an Irn Bru instead.
Now Harry Potter fans will know that the Hogwarts Express is the Jacobite Stream Train with a bit of make-up. What I didn’t know when I booked the train ride from Fort William to Mallaig was that I was booking a ticket on that very train and travelling past those actual locations. I appreciate the films – they are beautiful and magical to watch – but I am not a huge fan, so the HP part of the trip was somewhat wasted on me I’m afraid (sorry fellow passengers!)
But the train, the viaduct and the locations for Hogwarts School of Wizardry and Dumbledore’s island grave are all very real indeed.
You pass by the island used for Dumbledore’s final resting place -Eilean na Mòine as you skirt Loch Eilt near the village of Lochailort in Morar, Loch Eilt was used at the end of Local Hero for the scene where Mac is taken back to Houston a helicopter which is seen flying over a loch.
Digital magic was used to relocate it to Loch Arkaig some 15 miles North East.
I bought a first-class ticket and as luck would have it I was on the same table as three Australians who were in the UK on a seriously awesome trip for four or five weeks. Husband and wife and brother in law. I sat next to the brother who was hilarious in that no nonsense western Australian style.
You know you’re in good company when someone asks if you are 'a Harry Potter fan', tell them 'not really', they ask 'what you’re on the train for', you tell them ‘Local Hero’, and in his words: ‘I think I saw that years ago, the one with the Oil bloke who buys a coast? – yeah, it was shit as I recall, really boring’…. man did I laugh…. What are the chances of getting on a train in the middle of Scotland and end up sitting next to a cynical, funny, straight talking, similar aged curmudgeon just like me! Fantastic. Don’t you just love road trips?!
Anyway, turns out he knew the soundtrack and loved it. I explained I was in Scotland to carry out a boy-hood dream which was to play ‘Wild Theme’ from the soundtrack on my guitar on the very beach the movie was filmed on. He thought it was a great idea but was bemused that I could play the song as it was Mark Knopfler… I said I would do my very best and post him the link if I ever got around to actually sitting on the beach and playing it live…so to my Aussie pal somewhere up the Murray River, and his sister and husband from Melbourne: - this one’s for you folks, and thanks for 4 hours of fun, photos, precision engineered gags, interesting stories of Melbourne and Sydney, and of course for sharing the Hogwarts Express…I hope you had a hell of a time in the UK.
Train Videos can be found here.
On a trip that was full of surprises ( yet to come) it was pure luck that I was hanging (illegally no doubt) out the window of the carriage, snapping Loch Ailohrt when literally out of nowhere slipped past the Polnish Church on the left hand side of the train, I was already snapping away when I realised it was the very church from ‘Local Hero’ ….not the one on the beach, that was a painted canvas mock-up placed around an old bothy….no…this was the real church they based it on and the real church they used for the interior shots.
It was instantly recognisable, and I was very fortunate to capture it in one of the breaks in the sunlight.
Eventually we started veering north away from Loch Nam Uham along the coast and within twenty minutes or so we arrived at Arisaig Station, the most westerly train station in the British Isles. We had about ten mins there to allow another retain to pass us by and then we began the final leg to Mallaig.
As we headed north parallel to the shore, the sun came out in force and there, over to the left was the beautiful view of the island of Rum, Eigg and Isle of Skye. All overshadowed by a distant rain storm and foreboding clouds adding a depth if field that was almost otherworldly... appropriate for a wizarding train full of Harry Potter fans and suchlike.
The beaches looked truly remote, austere and stunningly empty. I hoped for a better day to take my guitar to Camusdarach as the rain that came in as we arrived at Mallaig was not the kind of weather to try to film myself playing guitar on a remote beach with a posh camera!
I had a great Cullen Skink in Mallaig, which was also the location of my third hotel later in the week, and then headed back to Fort William on the train and retrieved my car.
My hotel for the next two nights was The Princes House in tiny Glenfinnan, so I had to double back by road almost half the distance I just came back on the train – but it was worth it.
Glenfinnan is mentioned briefly in the novelisation of the film by David Benedictus, but is far more famous as the place where Charles Edward Stuart AKA ‘Bonnie Prince Charlie’ raised his standard on the shores of Loch Shiel in 1745, and this is where the infamous Jacobite Rising began.
My hotel was literally about 100 metres from the Glenfinnan Station where the train had stopped earlier in the day for folks to take pictures. It is also at the Western End of the famous and stunning Glenfinnan Viaduct – used in the HP films – especially number 2 where Ron Weasley catches up with the Hogwarts Express in the flying blue Ford Anglia.
Glenfinnan is the place where Burt Lancaster, in between filming, flew in his Jet Ranger helicopter (the same one used in the movie) to, so he could take in Loch Shiel and the surrounding scenery. Alright for some eh!
Jump forward to Wednesday
I love the movie and I love the soundtrack, some say the music is more famous than the film, and I dare say it’s true. I was 17 when the movie came out and had already been playing guitar for a few years but the music to this film was something else. I was a huge Mike Oldfield fan as a kid and he uses lots of Gaelic/ Celtic style music in his long tracks so this soundtrack was immediately likeable. I loved the track Wild \theme, and promised my self that one day, not only would I learn how to play it, but I would play it on the beach at Camusdarach and film it for myself and friends.
So, Wednesday of my week in the highlands was set aside just for that purpose. Lucky for me after what was a total wash out of a Tuesday, the sun came out in force on the morning of the Weds and I departed the hotel and headed west for Camusdarach. As you drive west on the A830 you hit Lochailort – this is a tiny village which has one pub on the side of the main A830. I stopped here to ask the way to the Polnish Church seen in reverse form the train two days before. It turns out it was about a mile farther along the A830 and there is a prefect layby to ditch the car and walk up the hill to take snaps of the church which is pretty. It had been privately bought and is in the middle of a conversion to a house as I understand it, so I couldn’t go past the gate, but I still managed to snap some nice pics of it and I could see why it was used a template for the movie version.
Onwards to Camusdarach!
I eventually found the parking place for the beach (thanks to the hotel owner explaining how to find it as I would have never found it on my own so quickly!) ditched the car, slung my guitar and rucksack over my shoulder and headed out into the thick undergrowth to find the beach. It’s about a 15-minute walk and in the rain it must be torturous! lucky for me the weather was superb with a blue sky and a few high clouds.
I have to say, when I rounded the last corner of the sand dunes, the view that met me was simply staggering. Turquoise transparent water, silver sand stretching right around me and across the water the islands of Rum, Eigg and Skye. It was just like the movie. Simply beautiful.
To my right over the mouth of the river that empties out to the sea was the location of the church and apart from a couple of very nice houses built there, it was exactly like the movie was some 35 years ago. As I was snapping pictures, a drone flew overhead, and I wondered what it must look like from up there. – more on this later.
So off I trekked, just me on the desolate beach in search of a quiet location to set my camera up and play the wonderful ‘Wild Theme’ with the real sea sounds in the background and hopefully no bum notes or noisy passers-by to ruin the shot ha-ha.
Well – I did manage it and it was not easy. Tide was coming in, seagulls, wave noise, kayakers, wind, sand, busted tripod. All conspired to put me in my place but after a few takes, I managed to get one in the can – noise and waves included and all the better for it. My dream from a kid had finally been committed to SD card and I could not have been happier. I didn’t know it at the time but a lady from the campsite was up above me on the rocks and could hear me playing and she commented how lovely it was to hear a real guitar being played in that location than a radio or iPod, and such a lovely piece of music. That made it all worthwhile and if it can make one person happy then my job was done.
Here is the link to the video.
The drone? Well, as it turns out, the owner, Andy Hickie, not only caught me twice by accident that day, he put it on you tube ….so here is the link to the wonderful drone footage of Camusdarach Beach taken the very morning I was there and yours truly is in it for posterity. The music he used to dub onto his movie is the same song I chose to play that same day on the beach.
The odds of me playing my guitar on that beach and being filmed from a drone and then the drone pilot using the same piece of music were calculated by my financially astute colleague at 142 (trillon), 508 (billion), 252 (million), 354 (thousand), 121 to one. Holy shit.
Heres the link to Andy's stunning drone video
It truly shows off why this beach and area are regarded as one of the top 5 in Scotland. No wonder Bill Forsyth used it so much in Local Hero.
So, with a heavy heart and with an impending thunder storm on the horizon, I packed up my gear and headed back to the car and on to the West Highland Hotel in Mallaig. What a great day.
Heading home some three days later I found my self filling up with fuel in Fort William on the A82/ A830 roundabout. The petrol station is virtually opposite The Ben Nevis Distillery.
This distillery was used for internal location sets for Happer’s office and apartments. Burt Lancaster insisted that as part of his contract that filming should not stop just because the weather might kill any beach scenes – he was on a tight schedule for his time on location. So, the production team built the sets in one of the warehouses next to the main distillery. They built the sets then surrounded them with amazing lighting rigs and painted panels through which they could control the light and recreate the look and ambience of Houston in daylight and nightlight.
I can’t say how I arranged the following, but I owe a massive thank you to Managing Director: Mr. Colin Ross and Visitor Centre Manager: Mr. Brian Hume. They both, along with another member of staff, very kindly allowed me to see the actual warehouse where Local Hero interior shots were staged and filmed. This is also the same warehouse where some interior scenes from Rob Roy and Braveheart were filmed.
Brian and Colin humoured me with my questions and photos and regaled me with filming anecdotes and some funny stories of behind the scenes stuff that made this little half hour window a wonderful experience. My abiding memory of this private tour was of the utterly insane thick smell of whisky that blew out of the door as we entered the warehouse. Row upon row of Whisky barrels filled the whole space and the smell hung in the air like a fog. It was gorgeous, and I can honestly say I’ve never smelled anything like that before. What a place to work!
So my indebted thanks to the management of the Ben Nevis Distillery for taking the time to show this film fan a very rare location for one of my favourite films.
Thus ended my brief journey to 1983 and some of the film locations to one of my top 5 fave films.
I hope you have enjoyed the pictures and the accompanying dialogue. I hope it inspires you to get in your car and take a drive through some of the most breath-taking scenery Scotland has to offer and to perhaps go sit on Camusdarach Beach. It’s a hell of a drive but it’s worth every mile and the people are lovely. No one thought me a fool and no one laughed at my dream to play a Mark Knopfler song on the beach featured in the movie. They all thought it was a terrific idea and a first of it’s kind.
So I dedicate this page to all the real Local Heroes who helped me do this:-
The fans of Local Hero who joined me via Instagram and Facebook and encouraged me to get my guitar out and play ‘Wild Theme’,
Sue @ home for letting me loose on yet another solo movie trip - love you -
The managers and proprietors of all the places I visited for allowing me to step into ‘Local Hero lore’ and relive this marvellous film and for appreciating my love for Scotland, guitars and shorelines – all of which stemmed from that long ago movie night in 1983.
To the good folk at Local hero: locations, people, music, images. And emotions.
To the following musicians: Mark Knopfler for providing such an inspiring soundtrack to learn on guitar and for a wonderful soundtrack to my week in Scotland.
James Newton-Howard for his beautiful score to Waterhorse: Legend of the Deep. This is a stunning, sweeping and powerful album which completely underpinned my journey to the other locations I visited as part of this trip - Isle Of Skye - Oban, Easedale, Lomond, Glenfinnan, Mallaig, and seal / whale watching off the coast. Highly recommended for anyone who loves Gallic inflected orchestral themes and a heartbreaking song featuring Sinead O'Connor.
Bill Forsyth for the correspondance and Dennis Lawson (for making me a cuppa tea on a very cold Christmas Eve in '91)
Text and Photos Copyright Glen Ferris 2018 @ All Rights Reserved