Unearthed from the BJP archives, this article from 1883 - one of 13 that he penned for BJP - reveals the writer’s love of photography and travel.
Published 17th August 1883, the third in our series of archive articles by renowned author and regular BJP writer Arthur Conan Doyle begins in a similar way to the previous two, After cormorants with a camera and Dry plates on a wet moor.
A friend – Cunningham, “most enthusiastic of dry-plate workers” – drops in on Conan Doyle in his Edinburgh apartment to invite him away on a trip, along with two others Smith, a fellow large-format photography enthusiast, and Ramsey, a painter. But this time the destination is further afield – Ireland.
Booking their tickets, the travel agent warns that these are “dangerous times in Ireland,” but being adventurous types – much like the large-format photography lovers behind the Intrepid Camera Company – the bunch aren’t put off: “our trip could hardly fail to have interesting results”. They’re not wrong. On the long boat journey, together with the boozing and partying we’ve come to expect from Conan Doyle and his crew, there are stunning descriptions of the scenery: half-finished ships “with their gaunt ribs sticking up to heaven”, calm water that reflects the “scarlet tinge of the clouds.”
Of course, the trip doesn’t go entirely to plan and his large-format photography of varied subjects – landscapes, woodlands, wild birds, villagers, churches, and the place where the first potato was said to have been planted in Ireland by Sir Walter Raleigh – has varied results. But the excursion does make Conan Doyle revise his idea of Ireland. Although he spots some “seditious” posters, he’s “surprised at the civility we met with and at the order of the streets” in Dublin, while an encounter with a traditional Irish peasant leads him to conclude: “Truly travel enlarges men’s minds!”
If you’re interested in large-format photography yourself, Intrepid Camera Co are crowdfunding to produce an affordable 8×10 large-format camera.
Don’t miss it – there’s only a few days left on their Kickstarter!
‘To the Waterford coast and along it.’ by Arthur Conan Doyle – from British Journal of Photography, August 1883
It is only two years ago since I was sitting in my lodgings in the old metropolitan city of Scotland, consuming much tobacco and keeping a contemplative eye upon my last batch of plates which were “cooking” in the setting sun. From my lofty “flat” I commanded a view of a great wilderness of grey roofs topped with red chimneys, every one of them reeking up its contribution of carbon to vitiate my atmosphere.
Away across this dreary waste rose the square massive tower of St. Giles, with its gothic top — an admirable object of practice for an embryonic photographer. Had I had a pupil St. Giles might have been to me what Salisbury Cathedral was to Mr. Pecksniff, who caused the budding architects, who had paid him their premiums, to draw it from the Nor’-Nor’-East and the Sou’-Sou’-West, and every other point in the compass from one year’s end to another.
I was smiling languidly at the idea when a quick step on the stair and a knock at the door announced my irrespressible friend Cunningham — most enthusiastic of dry-plate workers. There was a look of consequence in his eye as he rolled it round in search of alcoholic refreshment, which denoted some weighty resolve taken or proposition of importance to be evolved.
“Guess where I am going?” he began.
“Gib it up!” I rejoined, with a mild attempt at facetiousness.
“Smith is going and so is Ramsay, and they want you to come too. We are all going to take our cameras and three or four dozen plates and make a regular trip of it.”
“Where to?” I asked.
“We reckon we can do the whole thing within a week.”
“Where?” I demanded.
“And the best of it is that the whole trip won’t run us in for more than about twenty-five shillings travelling expenses right through and back.”
“Where to?” I yelled.
“To Ireland, of course,” said Cunningham in an aggrieved voice; “I told you that when I came in. Waterford is the place we were thinking of going to.”
At first the idea seemed rather an out-of-the-way one; but as I came to talk it over with my friend he advanced a good many arguments in favour of it. A mutual chum of ours named Smith possessed a cousin at Youghal, which cousin possessed a yacht (a “yawl,” Cunningham said, but he was always an incorrigible punster).
We might reckon on the use of this vessel in coasting along the Waterford shore and from its deck we might do justice to the splendid cliff scenery which characterises both this country and Wexford.
A single ticket from Edinburgh right through to Glasgow, and thence by boat to Waterford, touching at Dublin, came to something well under a pound. I may add that starting from the other end of the chain the boats run from London, via Portsmouth, Southampton, and Plymouth, to Waterford, and so on to Glasgow, and I have no doubt that the fare from London to Waterford would be even less than that quoted.
For some time I had been intending to give myself a holiday, and when would I get better opportunity? I silently drained Cunningham’s glass to the bottom, and held out my hand as a pledge that I would not desert him.
There was little trouble about our “kits.” With my old camera and five dozen trustworthy plates, with enough pyro., &c., to do a little test developing, should I wish, I was fully equipped for the campaign. I had a light tripod stand with ball-and-socket joint for outdoor work on land, and an ordinary tripod for all other exigencies. Some of my companions were more ambitious in their preparations, but still the total amount of luggage was not a very formidable one.
We took our through tickets at Cook’s tourist office, by which a further saving was effected. The mild-eyed clerk who dispenses them looked at us curiously and remarked that he had not sold many that year, for they were dangerous times in Ireland, and there was little inducement for the Saxon tourist unless he hankered for the absorbing but brief excitement of having his head battered in or otherwise tampered with by the “down-trodden Clan-na-Gael.”
Every day brought a grim list across the sea of midnight visits, maimed cattle, half-murdered bailiffs, and ruined landlords. These things, however, rather served to inflame our fanatical photographic propensities than to allay them. We saw a glorious vista of character portraits and other novelties stretching out before us.
The “foinest pisant in the worrld,” or rather an assorted set of samples of that individual — a rack-rent landlord in a state of bloated impecuniosity (“lack-rent” would be a better name for. the class) — an agent. or as much of one as the aborigines had left together by the time of our arrival — these and all the other curiosities of Irish life should adorn our collections. Then in still life there would he the ruined homestead, the caretaker’s hut, and other signs of the times. It seemed to us, as we stepped gaily into the train at the Caledonian Station and deposited our traps under the seats, that apart from the scenery our trip could hardly fail to have interesting results.
Of the four of us three were photographically inclined. My friend, Ramsay, was the only one who did not dabble in the black art — as an old friend of mine used to call it in the pre-gelatine, hand-staining days. Ramsay. however, was artistically inclined, and carried with him his cardboard and his paints, so that he was safe against ennui.
Besides, he hunted and fished, and knew enough of photography to appreciate our objects and take an intelligent interest. Though he had no scientific necessities to provide for he indulged in more luggage than all the rest of the party. “He is a fellow of infinite chest,” remarked Cunningham ruefully as he surveyed the pile upon the Edinburgh platform.
The run to Glasgow occupied a little more than an hour, and when we arrived there we found that owing to the tide we should not leave by boat for several hours. We had dinner comfortably at a hotel, therefore; and having fallen in with one or two old friends we all proceeded to Greenock together by rail, to await the steamer there.
We filled in the interval very pleasantly by wandering over the old town and inspecting one of the shipbuilding yards, which we had hardly left before our steamer came churning down the river, and we found ourselves with our chattels on board of the good ship “Rathlin.” There was a shouting, a throwing off of warps, and a cheer from our friends on the shore, and we were fairly started for the land of Ire.
I know no such place where a photographer may have such an embarras des richesses as on the Clyde in a steamer when the sea is calm. There were hardly any passengers besides ourselves and a few commercial travellers with a couple of young ladies, so that we could plant our cameras where we liked upon the poop.
As we steamed along a great moving panorama seemed to be unrolled before us. The huge half-finished ships which lined the hank, with their gaunt ribs sticking up to heaven like skeletons of some antedeluvian saurian, gradually gave place to green meadows and country scenery, which alternated with the pretty little watering places which dot the coast from Greenock to Ardrossan.
Steamers from Ireland and America ploughed past us, and a host of little yachts played all round. We wasted several plates in endeavouring to secure some of these as they passed. Even when the camera is on the shore it is surprising how easy it is to miss a large object which is crossing the field. Many a time have I borne home what I imagined to be a splendid plate of yacht or steamer, only to find, as I watched the detail coming up, nothing but a single monotonous line of horizon.
When, however, the stand of your camera is also moving at eight or ten miles an hour the difficulty is proportionately increased, and the chances are, as we found, very much against a successful result. Our landscapes, however, and views of the banks were all that could be desired.
As the sun sank down towards the horizon we had got well out to the mouth of the Clyde. The water was as calm as a mill pond and reflected the scarlet tinge of the clouds. Away to the north were the rugged mountains of Argyleshire and of the great islands, wrapped in that purple evening mist which Waller Paton loves.
Ahead of us was Arran, whose beauties my friend Dr. Thompson has already recounted in this Journal, with its great peak of Goat Fell enveloped in fleecy clouds. To the south the strange precipitous upheaval called Ailsa Crag reared itself out of the ocean — a grim looking place, which has been the last spot upon earth that the eyes of many a drowning man have rested on. The whole scene was as beautiful a one as an artist could love to dwell upon. Ramsay produced his paint-box, and certainly put our whites and greys to shame for the nonce with his purples and vermillions.
We passed Ailsa Crag before it was quite dark, but it was too late by that time for us to do it justice in a plate. However, we had succeeded in several distant views, so we had no cause to be discontented. As we passed the captain ordered the steam-whistle to be blown, which had the effect of sending up an innumerable cloud of sea-birds from their nests on the rock. For some minutes the air was simply alive with kittie wakes, gulls, solan geese, gannets, blackbacks, and other birds, whose screams and cries drowned every other sound. Then we steamed on, and the great Crag was left far astern until it was simply a dark loom in the darkness.
It was unanimously voted that it was simply preposterous to go to bed early on a night like this, when the water was rippling pleasantly and the moon silvering our decks. A proposition for a game of’ “Nap.” was met with disdain as being too prosaic for the occasion, and an impromptu concert al fresco was declared to be the very thing. The captain joined in and brought the mate. The bagmen mustered in full force.
Even the young ladies were induced to come on deck, and eventually one of them went so far as to sing a song — “Won’t you tell me why, Robin?” — which was the hit of the evening. The captain also obliged the company, and, indeed, we all did our best to please, though, if the noises emitted by some of our party, including myself, pleased anyone, that person must have had a wonderful faculty for pleasure.
They struck me at the time, I remember, as being very painful; however, the audience were lenient and a roaring chorus covers a multitude of sins. So we enjoyed ourselves to our hearts’ content until nine bells, or some other heathenish hour unintelligible to landsmen, came to put an end to the festivity.
Next morning — a Tuesday, if I remember right — found us steaming into the Bay of Dublin with the long line of the Irish coast on each side of us, and a single hill in front which marked the position of the city. As we approached it we expended a couple of plates upon the scene; but Dublin from the seaside is neither picturesque nor impressive.
Steaming up the Liffey we threw out our warps at the North Wall, and found that six hours would elapse before the unloading of the cargo and the state of the tide would allow us to pursue our journey. We spent this time in rambling over the Irish metropolis, and were surprised at the civility we met with and at the order of the streets.
The newspapers had prepared us to find it in a state of semi-rebellion; but, as a matter of fact, everything was quiet enough. The only bad symptom we could see was the great number of big, hulking fellows lounging about without employment — “corner boys” they are named there — apparently ripe for any mischief.
The monotony of our voyage was relieved by our running high and dry upon a mud-bank in our attempt to leave the Liffey. This incident delayed us for two or three hours, so that it was late before we found ourselves at sea once more. We spent the night running down the Irish coast, and at six in the morning steamed past Dungannon and entered the mouth of the Waterford river, which winds along for many miles, and is so narrow that the sight of a large steamer upon it has a most incongruous effect.
In our ascent of it we took several views of the wooded banks with country houses peeping here and there from among the trees. A sudden bend of the river brought us right up to the town — a long, thin straggling line of grey houses with a few steeples here and there, and a sprinkling of shipping in the river in front of it, the whole giving rather an impression of decay.
Bidding good-bye to our jovial captain we left the “Rathlin” with sincere regret, having met with nothing but kindness and attention aboard of her. Our luggage was removed to the nearest hotel, and we ourselves rambled with our cameras over the old town. We were shown the spot where some English conqueror had landed; though whether it was Cromwell or Richard Strongbow seemed a mystery to our guide, and when questioned on the subject he seemed to have a general idea that they were one and the same person.
We were also shown a hypothetical site where the first potato planted upon Irish soil was supposed to have been placed by Sir Walter Raleigh when he came over to hunt the Ormond to death. As ardent potatophagi we all photographed the place religiously, though I believe there are at least half-a-dozen places in Ireland which claim the same distinction, among which our ultimate destination, Youghal, claims a prominent place.
We slept that night at Waterford, and set off the next day for the above mentioned port. By the way, it was at Waterford that we first began to see those seditious notices of which we had so often read. Just opposite our steamer, I remember, as we came off there was a tremendous placard imploring the citizens of the county to assemble in their millions (the census returns only account for about a hundred and fifty thousand), and to hold their crops, whatever that might mean.
We also saw the traditional Irish peasant, whom I had always imagined to be a myth invented for music-hall purposes. There he was, however, as large as life, with corduroy knee-breeches, blue stockings, and a high, soft hat with a pipe stuck in the side of it. The delusion was so strong with us all, however, that we always had an inclination to assemble round each one we met and wait for a song. Truly travel enlarges men’s minds.
Youghal is only a short distance from Waterford as the crow flies, but it is a formidable journey by rail. However, even an Irish train reaches its destination at last, and we found ourselves next day in the old Irish seaport. Here the Blackwater river opens out into a considerable estuary, which in turn opens out into the Irish Sea. The town itself is a quaint, old-fashioned place, with an amphibious population who live principally by fishing for the salmon as they try to ascend the Blackwater, and capturing them in long drift-nets.
The cousin of our friend Smith had been as good as his word, and his yacht was waiting for us in the harbour, a fine, roomy, old-fashioned craft, broad in the beam, with a cabin which would hold the whole of us. She was well provided with nets and trawling gear, the latter being a favourite amusement of her proprietor. We only made an experimental cruise that day, standing off and on the land, outside the harbour.
We got several excellent views of the town from the sea face, but others were complete failures; for we soon found the difference in working on the broad deck of a steamer and on a tossing little cockle-shell. On landing, however, we were amply recompensed by a series of views of the antiquities of the little place taken in the evening, after which we adjourned to a popular concert, where the chief hit seemed to be a topical song with frequent allusions to “Buckshot Forster,” which never failed to bring down the house. We put up at the “Crown”- Hotel, where we met with the greatest kindness and comfort, and can conscientiously recommend it to any other of the fraternity who may find themselves in that quarter.
Next morning with “a wet sheet and a flowing sea” — Cunningham suggested “a wet blanket” — we scudded out of Youghal harbour, threading our way amongst fishing boats and drift nets. There was a slight chopping sea on, which made photography almost an impossibility for the time; so all hands devoted themselves, heart and soul, to drinking bottled beer and trawling. The great net with its big iron sinkers, or “otters” as they are called, was lowered overboard and we dragged it behind us for half-an-hour or so.
Our worthy host, who was an accomplished yachts-man, seemed considerably amused by our complete ignorance of boats and everything pertaining thereto. As Mark Twain said — the information which we did not possess would make a good-sized volume. Ramsay was the most erudite among us, but even he seemed to have a general impression that the flying jib was connected in some way with the tiller. “It’s been out long enough now!” cried our skipper; “haul away at the line.” We all began to haul away at various lines with desperate eagerness until by objurgation and example, he concentrated us upon the right one.
There is an excited cry of “it’s heavy — awfully heavy!” Up it comes through the blue water. We can see the bag of it flickering upwards, much distended apparently. “It’s nothing but seaweed!” roars one. “I see a fish!” yells another. “Lots of them!” gasps a third. “Pull, boys, pull!” and then with a heavy splash down comes the net upon the deck, and next moment the whole place seems alive with flapping tails and waving fins and silver bellies and great red gills opening and shutting.
It is a case of minding your ankles while a dogfish snaps at one side of the little deck and a conger eel both barks and bites at the other. However, all are successfully knocked on the head and we are able to classify our victims. There is a variety with a vengeance — hake, ling, rockcod, gurnard, red and grey mullet, eels, skate, crabs, octopi, the dogfish, and molluscs galore. Now was the time for photography to assert itself and come to the front. The net is piled tastefully in the sheets for a background; then with a little judicious selection a graceful and natural pile of fish are arranged in front, and we have a triumphal plate to remind us of our great haul.
We had several more “scrapes,” as they are technically called, but none so successful as the first. Then we stood in well under the basaltic cliffs which line the coast, and which are hollowed out by the action of the waves. The water is calmer near the shore, and we succeeded in getting several very fair plates of these precipices, and of the fantastic gullies and fissures made in them by the action of the water.
By the afternoon we had worked round the rocky point which lies to the north of Youghal, and after passing several headlands had made our way into the beautiful bay of Ardmore, where we cast anchor and went ashore in the dinghy, taking, of course, our cameras with us.
It was fortunate we did so, for we never had a better opportunity of getting some of those typical representations of Irish life which we had contemplated originally. Ardmore is a primitive village which has stood where it stands now for at least two thousand years without apparently altering very much one way or the other.
It consists of a single line of whitewashed thatched cottages hung round with nets, and most of them possessing some sort of potato garden in the rear. These people really seem to have a grievance; for their bay is so exposed and the sea runs in with such violence that they are unable to have any boats except such as are light enough to be drawn ashore when the weather is threatening.
Could they get the roughest and rudest breakwater it would be of enormous use to them; but they have no money of their own, and parliament has refused to advance them any, so fishing there is still exactly what it was when the ancient Britons went out in canoes with their rough nets. The people were a kindly, simple race, and looked on with much interest and delight while we took views of their houses and of their wives and families. They seemed to be in the last depths of poverty, but cheerful and cleanly, and very busy making ready for a descent of sprats which was expected every day.
Behind the village there is the most perfect specimen in Ireland of that mysterious edifice known as the round tower. This one was about seventy feet high, built very much like a modern lighthouse. Though its erection is entirely pre-historic, the mortar between the stones is as firm now as ever, and the stones themselves do not show the least symptoms of decay. We took several views of this interesting building.
What the original object of the round thought towers was is a puzzle to antiquaries. Some have thought that they were temples erected in honour of the sun god; and this seems to have been the idea among the early Christians, for a church has been erected beside the tower, apparently to act as an antidote to it. The church, however, is now reduced to a crumbling ruin, while the old heathen tower is as erect and defiant as ever.
Others have thought that they were watch towers, but that is negatived by the fact that this one is built at the foot of a hill, which would be rather an unnatural situation for a watch tower. Altogether the building and its uses were “the sort of thing no fellah would understand,” so we contented ourselves with photographing it without indulging in further speculation.
We dined at the house of a hospitable medical man, and after dinner went over some of the other curiosities of this quaint, old place. Among these is the black stone of Ardmore, which is celebrated over the whole south of Ireland for its miraculous virtues. It is a meteoric stone with a large hole through the centre of it, and it is only on one day in the year that it possesses its strange powers.
On that day the sick and lame of all the country down to the beach at Ardmore, and, forming a long line, they crawl in turn through the hole in the stone. Whether from the power of faith or the sea air or some other cause, many cures are said to result from this mode of treatment. Of course we all religiously took plates of this petrified physician.
We spent that night on board our yacht in Ardmore bay, and Toughal in the morning. It had been our intention to run down the coast to Queenstown, but on coming back to our head-quarters we found a telegram waiting which summoned Ramsay back to Scotland on an urgent matter of business. Smith elected to accompany him, and the two left us for Waterford. As our little party was thus broken up we gave up our original plan, and on our hospitable captain inviting Cunningham and myself to come up the Blackwater with him and stay at his place for a week we very gladly availed ourselves of the invitation.
What we saw and did in the Blackwater Valley I may reserve for another paper. Suffice it that the short excursion along the Waterford coast was a thoroughly enjoyable one, and that our only grief was that it should have been so curtailed.
And, as we draw this series to a close, here’s a final treat: an advert for Kinnear’s 8×10 large-format camera, which appeared in BJP just a few years before Conan Doyle penned his first feature. Could this be what inspired Conan Doyle to buy his first camera, unleashing the many large-format photographic adventures that followed? It’s quite possible. We’d certainly like to think so.
NB: Unfortunately, while Conan Doyle’s essays and writings remain, his photographs from this excursion seem to have been lost over time and are not included in this article.
If you want to give large-format a go yourself, Intrepid is crowdfunding to produce an affordable 8×10 camera.