As “The Friend” celebrates its 8,000th issue, we catch up with travel author and photographer Willie Shand who has been writing for the magazine for over 30 years.
Inside our 8,000th issue, out October 18, 2023, travel writer Willie Shand revisits Edinburgh, taking us back to the location of the first illustrated cover of “The People’s Friend”.
As a much-loved writer for “The Friend”, Willie has brought to life so many wonderful locations over the years, and we are delighted he’s joined us now to talk about his heritage and the places in Scotland he would recommend you visit…
Can you tell us a little bit about your background Willie?
Kinross-shire has always been my home. Indeed, I live in the house my dad was born in and which my grandad built for himself back in 1912, so I suppose you could say I’m in with the bricks, or stones, as the case may be.
My career was as a Chartered Quantity Surveyor, although that might not be my choice again if there’s a second life! I was never cut out for an office desk job.
I can remember the advice the late Tom Weir gave me once when he was visiting the house after he’d been out for a walk in the hills with Dad. He knew I’d rather be out and about with the camera every day. “Listen,” he said, “it’s not easy making a living as a photographer,” adding, “Remember, even Sir Walter Scott kept his day job!” I don’t know why but that always stuck in my mind and I suppose after spending 35 years as a surveyor, I kind of ended up taking his advice.
That’s not to say that every day the sun shone my eyes weren’t wandering out the window drifting to places I’d rather be. If it was a sunny day, my colleagues knew better than to comment on how nice it was!
Friday at 5.15pm brought freedom. I’d have the car packed, maps looked out and was heading off to one bed and breakfast establishment or another for the weekend. My wee mini did a fair mileage at the weekends. Skye, Wester Ross, The Moray Coast, the Borders… even the north coast was within reach.
Photographing the Scottish landscape had long been my main interest as well as an inquisitiveness to find out a bit behind the picture caught by the lens.
It’s funny how the direction of life can turn on a sixpence. When I left college, I was all set to apply for a surveying job In Australia. For a while I regretted not following it up. Looking back at it now though, and at all the places I’ve since been to with “The Friend”, I’ve certainly no regrets staying put.
Have you always written about your travels, and how did you get into writing for “The Friend”?
As I mentioned, my main interest was landscape photography – trying to capture something of the ever-changing moods and character of the land. I was a keen member of a couple of camera clubs and enjoyed entering the competitions and meeting other like-minded folk.
I had a camera from about as young as being able to hold one and, before digital came along, loved the quality of the old Kodachrome slide film.
It was only after graduating as a surveyor that I had the time to take photography more seriously. My collection of slides was rapidly growing. But, what’s the point in taking thousands upon thousands of pictures if you never do anything with them or show them to anyone?
So, I sent a random selection off to DC Thomson’s “The Scots Magazine” and “The People’s Friend”. More than a few “sorry” letters followed but perseverance paid off. One day, I received a surprise invitation to meet the Editor of “The People’s Friend” in Dundee. Suddenly, I thought, what the heck have I done!
That thought didn’t improve either when, at our meeting, she suggested I write a feature article around some of the photographs and submit it as a photo-feature. Despite my pleas that I was no writer, I was told to give it a try anyway and to just pick an easy subject like my local area. I was pleasantly surprised when in December 1991 “Around Loch Leven” was accepted. I won’t tell you how long it took to write though!
The 8,000th issue of “The Friend” is out this week, with Edinburgh Castle on the cover and your piece on Edinburgh inside. If you could visit any other iconic building or castle in Scotland, which one would you choose and why?
Now that’s an easy question to answer. I think that would have to be Stirling Castle. Wearing my other hat as a Surveyor, the Refurbishment of the Great Hall, the Chapel Royal, Palace, etc was my main project for around 20 years. There can’t be many corners of that castle I haven’t been in.
In many respects, Stirling and Edinburgh Castles have much in common. Both stand high at the cliff’s edge on a great prow of volcanic rock.
Stirling may be on a smaller scale to Edinburgh but in the past, Stirling was an even more important place than Edinburgh. Who controlled Stirling held the Key to Scotland.
From the castle we look out over the Auld Brig o’ Stirling and to the site of the earlier bridge that brought Wallace victory in 1297. Turn your head a little and we look out towards that other famous battlefield that resulted in a resounding victory for Bruce at Bannockburn. Capturing the grandeur of the 1540s, the Royal Apartments with their lavish furnishings and decorations are magnificent and the “Stirling Heads” ceiling of the King’s Inner Chamber, quite breathtaking. The originals are often referred to as “Scotland’s Other Crown Jewels”.
No less fascinating was following the progress of the teams of weavers producing the “Hunt of the Unicorn” tapestry – a 12-year project in its own right.
Stirling Castle certainly holds a lot of special memories for me, not least, at the completion being presented to the late Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip.
Over the years you’ve captured on camera some of the most stunning scenery Scotland has to offer. Can you pick out your top three locations and tell us why these areas are so special to you?
If you asked me to list my favourite hundred locations it might have been easier but to pick three, that’s really difficult.
One of them would probably be Crinan. I always enjoy visiting the locks and canal at Crinan especially on a quiet, still day. I can happily lose myself for hours among the reflections or just walking along the tow path through to Ardrishaig.
The panorama from Castle Dounie high above the Sound of Jura is well worth the effort needed to get there. It’s a place I often escape to in mind if not body.
My second choice I think would be Plockton. With its palm tree lined main street it’s just a wee gem of a place – surely one of the most picturesque villages in the Highlands. Nowhere is that best appreciated than by climbing to the top of the Plockton Crags. From there the views extend from the Cuillin of Skye and Island of Raasay, round to the mountains of Applecross and Torridon. The Crag’s summit is only around 1000 feet high but I doubt if you could find a better view from a mountain three or four times higher.
What is it they say – “East, West, Hame’s Best”. So, I suppose I would give my third choice to my own doorstep and Kinross-shire’s Loch Leven. The loch is almost surrounded by hills – the Lomonds, Bishop Hill, Benarty, Cleish Hills and the Ochils, all offering great photo opportunities in any season. The view across St Serf’s Island from the Vane Hill above the Loch Leven RSPB Reserve is hard to beat.
For me, these hills overlooking Loch Leven have an added bonus – they’re all within just ten minutes of home.
Did your upbringing in Scotland, your family and heritage, shape your love of the land?
My love for the Scottish landscape I undoubtedly owe to my parents. Dad had a great attraction to the hills. He was always ticking his way through one list or another – the Munros, the Corbetts, as well as several lists of his own.
Any family holidays would invariably be spent in places there were hills to be climbed. This introduced me to many of the more remote corners of the country. Places like Skye, Assynt, Torridon and the Cairngorms – all the places it was most likely to rain or have midges!
No matter where we went, Dad could tell us the names and heights of all the hills we passed along the way. To him, they weren’t just hills, they were all friends and old acquaintances. He’d a great knowledge of Scottish history too and could bring all the places alive with fascinating stories from the past. It soon became clear that almost every hill, lochan, and boulder had played its part in one event or another.
Although, as a youngster, I was probably wondering why all our holidays and weekends away were spent in the back o’ beyond, funnily enough, these are all the places I’d still choose above foreign fields today.