Scanning 35mm Slides of Scotland – empty roads, terrible trousers

Just for archiving, I had to get down to scanning 35mm slides that had been stored then survived many a house move through the years. There was no escape. 

I’m scared to count how many plastic boxes: the orange and blue early Agfacolour CT18; Fujichrome mostly green (and cardboard), the blue and white of Ektachrome (I think), plus an assortment of other shades and sizes.

To make matters more complicated, some of the better pics of Scotland had been in a commercial photo library that had naturally gone over to digital and consequently returned the emulsion-based material to me mostly in transparent hanging files. 

OK, so I was an early adopter of digital photography; but before that I was also a precocious adopter of colour film – some years even before university days.

Crossroads in East Lothian
Here is a Hillman Minx (I think) at a crossroads in East Lothian. Pity the signpost has gone now though.

OK, I admit, this random car – a Hillman Minx, I’m pretty sure – was probably several years old when photographed c. 1975 in East Lothian – but at least it adds an antique touch to the picture. 

Scanning 35mm colour slides – what was going on?

Note, in the picture above, the characteristic East Lothian road signs of old. I recall they measured distances between the wee villages down to eighths of miles. 

Checking on Google maps, I see the old sign as gone though. And, for once, thanks to the comprehensive signpost I found the spot readily.

Why was I photographing this particular crossroads back then? I have absolutely no idea. This thought was going to re-occur repeatedly, as I searched through the boxes…

Wait, I think I was testing the shutter-speed of the then new camera. (Uhmm, a Pentax Spotmatic F.) After all, the car is slightly blurry.

‘Upside Down and Back to Front’

The 35mm magazine-loader’s mantra

I couldn’t tell you the last time I laboriously put up the white screen and hauled out the ‘Rank Moth’ projector, then dropped the individual mounts into the magazine, meanwhile muttering ‘upside-down and back-to-front’ 36 times in the hope the slides would project the right way round.

Most of you reading this won’t have a clue what I’m describing. And I’m glad about that. Put it this way: there are eight ways of inserting a square-mounted colour transparency into a magazine or carousel, and only one of them is right.

Loch Ard in winter
Loch Ard in winter. The Trossachs are still worth a look when the days are short. This dates to around, uhmm, maybe early 1980s. To be honest, I don’t know.

Colour slide dyes and the test of time

Agfacolor CT18 was my choice of film back then. The earliest material dates from 1966 and its colour rendering certainly hasn’t improved over the decades.

As I say elsewhere – actually on the Scottish steam page – it’s easy to look at the past with rose-tinted spectacles, but I didn’t realise that these are built in when viewing old Agfacolor.

Still, you could pay a lot of money for a photo-editing program that would give the same effect. 

Fujicolor hasn’t been too bad. Ektachrome still has a cool blue tinge. The later Agfachrome is as pinkly warm and washed out as the earlier stuff. 

The Cuillins from above Glenbrittle
The Cuillins from above Glenbrittle. In those days the Fairy Pools hadn’t been invented.
Deep breath and into the 35mm slide boxes…

Unquestionably, scanning 35mm slides is fiddly. Its doubly fiddly when a number of the mounts are of the old thick kind that jam in any feeder mechanism.

And then there is the dust. Newer scanners and commercial operators have the means of detecting and ignoring dots and scratches. 

My scanner has a wee set of hand-tools to remove dust and sometimes you read that an alcohol-based cleaner may be used.

To be honest, after a session of scanning it’s me that needs something alcohol-based. 

Scanning 35mm slides – it’s not just the dust!

Oh no…over time, a slide collection, especially under slightly damp conditions develops a mould that feeds on the gelatine or emulsion or at least something organic (I suppose).

So it’s a race against time. But, hey, you’ve forgotten the names of half the folk at university anyway…

Be patient while scanning…

Know what’s really annoying? You have the slide on-screen in your favourite photo-editing program and see those little spots in the sky. (All right, I know – the slide wasn’t cleaned properly.) 

They just about could be a distant flock of birds but – pow! – you hit that blemish remover button. Most of them disappear, one click at a time.

But there is one that will not shift. You click that button repeatedly until the sky has a small white hole in it.

The pesky black dot remains until you wipe your own laptop screen. Grrrr. That’s what’s really annoying.

The path into the Quiraing
The path into the Quiraing, Skye. Probably mid 1980s. Not a single visitor in sight! Yeah, had it to myself back then…

It’s all about framing

The other feature of old slides I have become very aware of is, given the price of buying and processing film, we used to really try to make every shot count. 

Of course, there was the advantage of an eye-level viewfinder, instead of squinting at a smartphone pointed in the vague direction of the subject. (Yes, I am aware these remarks do not apply to serious photographers today.)

But whereas working digitally with pics today usually means cropping and levelling etc, I am pleasantly surprised how little cropping has had to be done to these ancient compositions.

What you see is what you want to save. Even the horizons were mostly straight! 

Subject matter…

Scanning 35mm slides has been hard going.  Not knowing what I was going to find in many boxes, exclamations have varied, as in: whatever happened to what-was-her-name-again? Or…what the heck…did I really wear trousers like that?

Then there is: OMG look at the cars…and so on. And as for the sheer wonder of seeing those babes-in-arms that are your own children, now parents themselves…

Best to ignore the tank-tops, push through emotional ambushes and concentrate on the history and the changes in landscape, town and country. 

In short…this is where it gets interesting.

A VW Beetle on Desolation Road
A VW Beetle on Desolation Road with An Teallach on the skyline.
Changes in the Scottish landscape through the years

(Above) Here’s a typical example. That has to be the ridge of the mountain An Teallach on the horizon. So the road must be the A832 –  known as Destitution Road. It’s obviously some kind of navigation check. The less said about the trousers the better. 

And there is Zebedee of Magic Roundabout fame on the side of the VW Beetle. He was a kind of hippie logo back then. The date is, ooh, 1975 maybe. The road looks a bit gravelly but at least it is double-track. (Maybe just in places…)

Destitution Road

This section is still sometimes called ‘Destitution Road.’ It took its name from the 1848 potato famine in Scotland that followed on from earlier outbreaks of blight and devastated the Highland population – though not as badly as in Ireland. 

Those native folk in need were offered a six-day a week job building roads. Their wages were paid in oatmeal, with different allowances for men, women and children.

The B869 'The Drumbeg Loop'. Old road
The B869 ‘The Drumbeg Loop’ runs north-west of Lochinver.
Beyond Lochinver

Possibly taken the same day, and certainly with the same too-tight terrible tanktop, this view is taken a few miles north-west of Lochinver. 

This is on what we used to call the ‘Drumbeg loop’ – a twisty, narrow road not designed for caravans. I shudder to think of the campervans that now must tackle it, thanks to the overpromotion of The Toilet Tissue Trail, formerly North Coast 500. 

The Google map reference point suggests that a newer more direct and possibly two-way section replaces the old road, though on Google the course of the old road (as seen in the pic above) can still be made out.

If you superimposed the ‘new road’ on the picture here, it would be climbing and cutting right through immediately below where I am sitting.

A viewpoint and carpark now exists where the old road swung back towards today’s route. Check it all out on Google to see for yourself. 

The mountains on the skyline, Suilven (right) and remain the same though – except the access paths inevitably will be more worn.

Loch Maree viewpoint in the 1970s
Loch Maree viewpoint in the 1970s, looking down Glen Docherty. Scanning 35mm slides can create some weird tints though!

Road improvements in the Highlands

Here is quite a famous view, looking down towards Loch Maree from the descent of Glen Docherty. Once upon a time it was a bit of a journey west from Inverness over twisting single-track roads, as you can see here – probably taken in the early 1970s. 

Today, it’s no problem at all, with sweeping stretches on either side of Achnasheen, putting the loch within an hour or so of the Highland capital. You can compare with a picture of the modern road as this has made it on to the ten great Scottish views page. 

Loch a'Chroisg, en route for Kinlochewe, c 1972
Loch a’Chroisg, west of Achnasheen, en route for Kinlochewe, c 1972. Look at that narrow road. This is how it used to be….but roads are much improved these days. (And the skies aren’t a weird pink either).

And here’s Loch a’Chroisg, west of Achnasheen, taken perhaps as early as 1972. (I can do earlier – see below!) This is just before you climb up into Glen Docherty and get the view above. The wee narrow road by the loch has been swept aside now.

Either Agfacolor has displayed its usual magenta tendency or it really was towards sunset when the pic was taken.

Corn stooks, near New Aberdour
Corn stooks, near New Aberdour, Aberdeenshire. Probably 1966.

Farming and fishing in Scotland

In the ‘old days’.  Good grief, I feel ancient…

(Pictured above) This could be as early as ‘66 or ‘67. It’s near New Aberdour in Aberdeenshire. It looks like oats, drying in stooks – mechanically cut and tied probably but then lifted into stooks by hand to dry the grain a bit. 

I wonder how many more harvests were treated in this way in north-east Scotland before further mechanisation – combine harvesters and rotary balers – changed the farming landscapes for ever?

Perhaps that year was the last…

Hay making at Morar, c. 1974
Hay making at Morar, c. 1974

(Above) Well, damn you again, Agfa CT18, you could never handle shots against the light. Too little latitude. 

Add storage of, oh, 40 years and more (eeek) and it’s not surprising Loch Morar appears totally white. And not even a hornswoggling photo editing program can repair it. Scanning 35mm slides can be a frustrating exercise.

I no no longer know the exact location. Along Bracorina way, perhaps. The mount says ‘Morar’. But at least the heaps (or are they stooks?) of cut hay and the old cutter with a very uncomfortable looking seat can still be made out.

Fraserburgh harbour, early morning July 1967
Fraserburgh harbour, early morning July 1967
Fraserburgh harbour summer 67
Fraserburgh harbour summer 67

At Fraserburgh Harbour

It’s very early in the morning and I’ve taken the camera in to the ice factory at the harbour. I have a summer job there before returning to school.

Incidentally, this involved dragging and sliding huge lumps of ice out of a freezer – a bit like an ice-cube maker in a fridge, only much, much larger. Then you shoved them into the crusher. 

This was a rotary device, like an oil drum studded with iron teeth. It revolved just below ground level. Sometimes it jammed. Holding on to the flimsiest of hand rails you leaned over and kicked at the ice to free it.

Health and Safety at work? Even now I still shudder at the thought of that fearful roaring thing, inches from my boot.

Anyway, I digress. The boats were much smaller than today’s monsters. On the open deck, the wheelhouse was usually ‘scumbled’ ie given a top coat of darker paint then wiped to resemble the grain in wood…presumably a skill that has now vanished.

Scanning 35mm slides and hoping that not all the labels have fallen off. Somewhere in Scotland's mountains - location eventually solved.
Somewhere in Scotland’s mountains. When scanning 35mm slides, just hope they still have labels. But I solved the location mystery – see below

Indexing and Labelling 35mm slides. Badly.

(See Above) This is an OK if slightly over-exposed pic. Problem is, I had no idea where it was or when I took it. Indexing and labelling – so tedious back then but necessary. This one has no label, hence no idea. When scanning 35mm slides, it’s always a good thing if they were labelled before storage!

I originally wrote “It’s very green. So somewhere in Argyll? Get in touch if you recognise the mountain landscape.”

Ms Elaine (Eadie) via nephew Callum solved it. Simples. It’s the Stob na Broige top (south end) of the grand Buchaille Etive Mor. That’s the big peak with the north end overlooking Glen Coe. So this is looking down Glen Etive to the head of Loch Etive with the rock-climbing ‘mecca’ of the Trilleachan Slabs faintly seen top left. C. 1980.

The Clachan Duich Burial Ground
The Clachan Duich Burial Ground

Scanning 35mm Slides
– you can tell by the colour cast

Evening light on the Clachan Duich burial ground. The lack of latitude in 1970s colour film – where shadows were deeper than nature intended or the eye interprets – can certainly give rise to dramatic effects. 

North-bound late one evening – can’t remember why – and the setting sun suddenly lit up this place by the head of Loch Duich. I like the impenetrable gloom of the hills.

Try to take the shadows out with the photo-editing program and all that happens is the place goes misty. So – leave ‘em black.

Summit ridge of Beinn Eighe
Summit ridge of Beinn Eighe in the Torridons
Goodby, emulsion film

(Above) I like to think pics like this one of the summit ridge of Beinn Eighe in the Torridons were a kind of swan-song for emulsion film.

This pic dates from the mid 1990s – positively youthful compared to some other dust riddled and faded efforts shown here! 

Soon, clunky but reliable 35mm cameras – goodbye old Pentax Spotmatic F – would be consigned to the cupboard or sold on eBay.

Hello profligate digital, where we no longer carefully stalk and snipe our target but spray in every direction as one of the pics is sure to be good enough.  

And know what? I don’t really miss hauling out the screen, loading the magazine then fiddling with the projector lens.

You had to re-focus constantly – because the bulb of the ‘Rank Moth’ projector ran so hot in spite of the fan that the slides invariably ‘popped’ with the heat and went out of focus.

Anyone want to buy an old projector? I think it’s still in the shed somewhere…wait, I’ll go and dig it out.

Rank Moth 35mm slide projector - 1960s
Rank Moth 35mm slide projector from the 1960s. The magazine was fiddly to load and the hot bulb failed repeatedly or with the slightest knock. I don’t miss it a bit.

So, really, if you have (or have inherited) a 35mm collection of slides that you have not yet digitised – you should make a start on the best of them.

Commercial digitising studios will be happy to help and charge accordingly. But consider getting your own scanner. 

There are many types of 35mm scanner to choose from. The one I used was a ‘cheapy’ and I’m not convinced gave the best results – but still better than having memories of days on the hill and other excursions forgotten and dust gathering in a cupboard.