Dry As Dust

A Fortean in the Archives


Photograph everywhere

This wonderful view shows the rarely-visited eastern end of monster-haunted Loch Morar, one of the most starkly beautiful, yet utterly inaccessible, places in our overcrowded island.

A century and a half ago, two tiny communities named Oban and Kinlochmorar existed at this end of the 11-mile-long loch, and were home to perhaps score of crofters and ghillies, but there was never any road or even a footpath to connect them to the communities at the western end of Morar and the last inhabitants abandoned their properties shortly after the end of World War I. No one has lived at the head of the loch since then, and it's scarcely surprising that when Elizabeth Montgomery-Campbell and David Solomon wrote The Search For Morag (1972), their ground-breaking study of Morar's lake monster tradition, they recorded only a single sighting from the far end of the loch, nor that I (and I suspect even those with a keen interest in Morar) never had the least idea of what this isolated district actually looked like.

We owe this rare chance to view eastern Morar, and many other photographs of rarely-visited parts of the United Kingdom, to a phenomenally useful internet community project known as Geograph, a scheme to photograph every square of the Ordnance Survey grid of Britain. As of this writing, the site comprises an impressive half-million images and offers coverage of about 60 per cent of the country: 199,000 of the total of 330,000 OS grid squares have been photographed to date. The achivement is actually even more impressive than that sounds; almost all of the missing grid squares are located in the more distant parts of Welsh Wales and the Highlands and Islands, and Geograph already offers almost total coverage of the whole of England.

The real genius of the project rests in the way it ropes in thousands of volunteer contributors, much like a wiki, and encourages them to expand coverage with a points system that rewards those who add pictures of hitherto unrecorded grid squares. There's no limit to the number of photographs that can be uploaded of any given grid square, either, so while the project is still a long way short of offering images of every street in the country, it does cover pretty much every major landmark: churches, castles, manor houses, hills, megaliths, major roads, rivers and lakes.

The value of this project strikes me as immense. Geograph offers an intelligently-designed, fully-searchable database that gives Forteans who have no opportunity to visit a site of interest an excellent idea of what the place or feature that interests them looks like, on the ground, today, making it a vastly more useful resource than even the much-touted Google Earth. And while it's scarcely realistic to expect the photographers who contribute to the site to be acquainted with the significance various obscure sites hold for the likes of us, they are generally local people with a fair idea of a district's folklore and traditions. The section of the site devoted to the village of Bungay, for instance, location of a celebrated Black Dog apparition dating to 1577, makes no mention of the legend, but does include photographs of the church where the phantom made its terrifying appearance. As a sort of bonus, the main page for the village also displays an atmospheric snap of nearby St Mary's Priory, where (and this was news to me), "the sound of phantom plainchant has been heard coming from the ruins ... accompanied by the ringing of bells now long gone".

It's hard to fault Geograph for ambition, accessibility or comprehensiveness; the site currently features nearly 50 photos of every part of Loch Ness and its surroundings, for instance, and even several of inacessible Eilean Mor, in the remote Flannan Isles, the spot from which three lighthousemen famously disappeared around Christmas 1900. The site is also tremendous fun to poke around in, and, if you're anything like me, you'll find yourself inspired to visit places you never realised you wanted to. Very highly recommended.

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