Sunday, August 30, 2009

Peter's Port - Part 3

Part 1 here.

The justification given for omitting Benbecula from the schedules of the new mail steamers to the Outer Hebrides in the 1880s was that the island was connected to both North Uist and South Uist by tidal strands - known as "the Fords" - which could be crossed at low tide and it could thus be served by the steamers calling at the piers at Lochboisdale and Lochmaddy. The picture below is of Mr MacKenzie, proprietor of the Carnish Inn on North Uist arriving at Benbecula across the North Ford:

But peaceful though that scene looks, crossing the fords could be hazardous and the islanders were not to be fobbed off so easily. So on 20 February 1894, Dr Donald MacGregor, the MP for Inverness-shire, rose in the House of Commons to ask the Secretary of State for Scotland if he had:-

received a petition signed by some hundreds of the inhabitants of Benbecula, Inverness-shire (population 2,000), praying that the steamer which now passes within sight of them should be made to call in connection with the postal and general traffic of the island; and while there is no harbour, whether it can be arranged to have a boat lowered from the steamer to meet the requirements of so considerable a population isolated by wide and dangerous tidal fords from other parts of the Long Island?

Dr MacGregor MP discloses an astonishing degree of ignorance of steamer operations in his constituency. It was in the nature of a ferry call that the ferry was based on the shore. Otherwise, the steamer would be delayed unconscionably if it had to wait while one of its boats went ashore and unloaded.

Looking north to North Uist from Benbecula - Image Copyright Richard Webb and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence
Anyway, the answer Dr MacGregor received was that the Secretary of State had previously referred this issue to the Postmaster General who had been advised by MacBrayne's that "the approaches to Benbecula are extremely dangerous, and could only be made in very clear weather." He undertook, however, to consult MacBrayne's on the proposal of lowering a boat at Benbecula - the annals of Parliament don't record their response to that suggestion but it's not too hard to imagine what Mr MacBrayne would have made of it!

Whether or not as a result of parliamentary pressure, in 1894 Inverness County Council applied to the Secretary of State for a grant to assist building a pier for Benbecula. The chosen location was Peter's Port, the cost was £3,000 and the pier was completed in 1896. It was at the south eastern end of Eilean na Cille in the red box on the extract from the 1st edition of the Ordnance Survey One Inch Map (sheet 79 "Benbecula" surveyed 1876)

But the bewildering thing about Peter's Port Pier was that the project did not include a causeway to link Eilean na Cille to Benbecula! MacBrayne's continued to decline to stop their steamers at the island and questions continued to be asked in the House about it all for many years to come as we shall see in a final post.

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