Monday, February 28, 2011

The Pigeon House

I was reading the Glasgow Herald of 30 May 1806 the other day - "Why?", I hear you ask. The answer is because I can. You can read nearly every single edition of the Herald all the way back to 1806 for free via the Google News Archive function. I say "nearly every edition" because the late 1990s and early 2000s are Pay-per-View and even before then there seem to be a small random percentage of editions missing. But even so, it's an amazing archive to have access to for free. (Contrast the Scotsman which costs £159.95 for a year's access to their 1817-1950 archive.)

Anyway, in the edition of 30 May 1806, there was a report of the sort of crime you'd expect to see reported in 1806 - a mail coach being held up by highwaymen!

It happened just outside Dublin and the full story is as follows:-

Wednesday last, about a quarter past ten, the long coach which conveys passengers from the Mail coach office, Dawson Street, Dublin, to the packets at the Pidgeon-house, was stopped by ten or more persons armed with blunderbusses, pistols, and swords, at the other side of the Canal bridge, near a Limekiln, at the Low Ground, who robbed all the passengers, about seven or eight in number. 

They first called out to the coach-man to stop; who not immediately obeying their mandate, one of the villains made several cuts at him with a sword, which the driver luckily warded off with his whip. The villains obliged the passengers to come from the carriage, and rifled them as they came out, commanding them to turn their faces to a wall that was near, immediately after plundering them, that they should not have an opportunity of observing their persons. Lord Cahir, and Mr George Latouche were two of the passengers; from his Lordship they took about £400 and it is said 70 guineas from Mr. L. They robbed the other passengers of money, and also off some light packages from them; a small box which contained some of their articles, was found yesterday at the Commons of Kilmainham, to which place it is supposed they retired after the robbery, by going up the Circular-road, to divide the spoil. One of the persons in the Long Coach, we understand, they somewhat maltreated, because he did not readily submit to their depredations. The villains, we are informed, had rather a better appearance than might be expected of such offenders.

Hah! So blackguards and scoundrels they may have been but at least they were gentlemen highwaymen!

But as well as the report of a real life highway robbery, what piqued my interest was the coach's destination - "the packets, at the Pidgeon-house".

This means the coach was taking passengers from the centre of Dublin to the terminal for "the packets" - in effect the ferry service to Great Britain in the days before steamships. This was at a spot called the Pigeon House half way out along The Great South Wall which is the southern arm of the two great breakwaters enclosing the mouth of Dublin harbour on the River Liffey to protect it from the shifting sand banks of Dublin Bay.

It was called the Pigeon House because it was at this spot that, in the 1760s, John Pidgeon started selling refreshments to passengers waiting for the packets from a storehouse used in connection with the construction of the Great South Wall he was the caretaker of. In 1793, a hotel for packet travellers was built on the spot and this building still exists despite the site having been converted to a military fort and then a power station.

In the picture below, the former Pigeon House Hotel is the Georgian building on the left. The power station is now called Poolbeg but the road out to it from Dublin is still called Pigeon House Road.
But highwaymen on the way to the Pigeon House were probably less of a risk than "the packets" themselves as another story from the Glasgow Herald in 1806 graphically illustrates.

The edition of 26 September includes "interesting particulars" of the loss of the King George Packet from Parkgate (on the west coast of the Wirral on the estuary of the River Dee in Cheshire, a port long since silted up) to Dublin on a sandbank just an hour and a half into her journey.

The report suggests that running aground on the sandbank was an event which, if not exactly routine, was one about which "no apprehensions were then entertained" and it was just a case of waiting for the tide to refloat the ship. The problems seem to have stemmed from a change of wind direction which blew the ship onto its own anchor as it began to refloat and punctured its hull causing it to flood.

As the tide came in, she filled rapidly with water; the night was dark, with rain. Her passengers, mostly Irish harvest-men, about one hundred in number, who were going home with pittances of their labours to their families, were under hatches. The pumps were soon choaked, and the water came fast on the Irishmen in the hold, that they drew their large harvest pocket knives, and with a desperation that a dread of death alone inspires, slew one another to make their way upon deck.

The story goes on to report how the captain and "an Irish gentleman" abandoned ship in the ship's boat but thought better of it and went back on board. Others remained in the boat whereupon:-

One of the sailors in the boat, seeing a poor Irish sailor boy clinging to the side of the vessel, pulled him by the hair of the head into the boat, cut the rope that fastened it to the vessel, and the tide drove them away. At this time great numbers ran screaming up the mast; a woman with her child fastened to her back, was at the top mast head; the mast broke, the vessel being on her side, and they were all precipitated into the waves! Only five men and the poor Irish sailor boy have escaped; the remainder, one hundred and twenty five in number, among whom were seven cabin passngers, perished!

The "cabin passengers" were the gentry, exactly the sort of people who would have been on the coach to the Pigeon House held up by the highwaymen and it's all worth giving a thought to next time you board Stena Line's complimentary bus service from Dublin city centre to Dublin Port (on the north side of the Liffey almost directly opposite the Pigeon House) to get on a superferry to Holyhead.

Photo credit Peter Griffin


Sunday, February 20, 2011

The Great Glen Cattle Ranch

What connects trendy Edinburgh bar and restaurant Cruz with American style cattle ranching?

Well, the answer is not the steaks on the menu but the fact that, in a previous life, Cruz was the steam ship Ocean Mist which was the private yacht of Joseph W Hobbs, the Anglo-Canadian owner of the Great Glen Cattle Ranch between Fort William and Spean Bridge in Lochaber.

Below is a picture of the Ocean Mist berthed at Banavie on the Caledonian Canal near Fort William (Ben Nevis in the background) when it was Hobbs' yacht:-

Joe Hobbs was born in Hampshire in 1891 but emigrated with his parents to Canada in 1900. From ranching in Calgary, he became a naval flyer during the First World War and then went on to make a fortune in shipping and real estate. But he was ruined during the Great Depression of 1929 and that's when he came to Scotland and got involved in the whisky trade. Before long Hobbs owned seven distilleries, including the Ben Nevis Distillery at Fort William.

In 1945, Hobbs bought Inverlochy Estate at Fort William and renamed it "The Great Glen Cattle Ranch" with the idea of introducing American style cattle ranching to the Highlands of Scotland. Now I have to confess I don't understand enough about cattle farming to know the difference between "ranching" cattle and farming them in the usual Scottish fashion. Suffice it to say that the Greensburg (Pennsylvania) Daily Tribune reported in 1951 that Hobbs was employing "four Gaelic-speaking cattle hands. From dawn to dusk they range this Scottish ranch on horseback and carry 12 foot whips." And in the Glasgow Herald in 1957 Hobbs was quoted as saying that the ultimate object was to "make the hills of Lochaber like the English Downs or better."

Hobbs sold the Great Glen Cattle Ranch in 1961 but retained 300 acres centred on the estate mansion house, Inverlochy Castle. He died two years later, coy about whether he was a rich man but with his ideas about cattle ranching never really having caught on. But Joe Hobbs certainly left some legacies even if they were not the ones he imagined or hoped for.

His yacht, the Ocean Mist, you can read a detailed history of here. In short, she was built at Greenock in 1918 for the Admiralty as part of a programme to replace the many fishing trawlers called up for service as minesweepers and lost during the First World War. But with the end of the war, she was surplus and sold as a yacht to a member of the Guinness brewing family who adapted her fish holds to carry his racing cars to the Mediterranean. After passing through a number of hands, including doing duty during the Second War as a torpedo recovery vessel on the Clyde, she was bought by Joe Hobbs in 1960. After he died, the Ocean Mist was kept on by his son Joe, Junior and she remained on the Caledonian Canal until moved to Leith in the mid 1980s. I don't know exact sequence of events of her history there but this is what she looked like when first parked at Leith (pretty much how she looked at Banavie):-

Photo credit Martin Third

It was in 2005, I believe, after around 20 years at Leith, that the Ocean Mist was radically altered by having her original superstructure and funnel removed and replaced with the current superstructure as seen in the first picture in this post. The picture below shows her during the transformation:-

Photo credit Leith Podcaster
Meanwhile, back in Lochaber, Joe Hobbs, Junior and his wife opened their home as a hotel in 1969 and Inverlochy Castle Hotel has since gone on to become one of Scotland's finest hotels, with a Michelin star and patronised by the international glitterati. Joe Junior's wife, Grete, was still running the hotel personally in 1976 but I don't know if the Hobbs' still own it - I suspect not but I don't know who does. As ever, leave a comment if you know.

Photo credit Celtic Castles - Ben Nevis in the background
And the Great Glen Cattle Ranch is still on the go, 5,922 acres (according to Andy Wightman) based at Auchindaul Farm just up the road from Inverlochy Castle in the direction of Spean Bridge and belonging nowadays to Paulo Berardelli. I'm not sure if there are any gaelic speaking bull-whip wielding cowboys these days but they've kept up the white painted steading buildings with the GGCR logo in that distinctive typeface.

Photo credit Keith Long

I recall these buildings clearly from when we used to go on family holidays in the West Highlands in the early 70s (when I was about 7-10 year old). The GGCR shelters, clearly visible from the A82 between Fort William and Spean Bridge, were landmarks on our journeys by car and I always felt we were missing out on something by not stopping for a closer look. "We'll be stopping for chips at Fort William in about 10 minutes" was usually the riposte from my father.

I'm glad the GGCR buildings are still here. My father isn't.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Glenelg Inn

The Glenelg Inn has been through a few changes in its time.

The present establishment, as pictured above (from the east), is the third incarnation of the Glenelg Inn - or Glenelg Hotel as it used to be called - and is, in fact, just the stable block of the two previous incarnations. The first of these is pictured below (from the south west) in a postcard which bears a 1903 postmark:-

This is the building I've marked "Hotel" on the 1875 Ordnance Survey 6 inch scale map below. The present day Inn is the stable block behind it (to the north):-

At some point around the turn of the 19th/20th centuries, the hotel was extended to the west as seen in the following picture - the building in the postcard above is the lower wing to the right.

The Glenelg Hotel burnt down in 1947 with the only trace remaining being the floor tiles of the entrance porch which it's still possible to see in the car park of the present day inn - well, you could still see them when I was last there in the early 90s: I hope they've been preserved and if anyone can add a photograph or confirm or deny, please leave a comment.

The present day Glenelg Inn gets rave reviews on Tripadvisor but it was not always so. When Johnson and Boswell passed through Glenelg in 1773, Johnson had this to say about the inn they found there after a particularly trying day's journey crossing the Mam Ratagan on horseback:-

At last we came to our inn weary and peevish, and began to inquire for meat and beds. Of the provisions the negative catalogue was very copious. Here was no meat, no milk, no bread, no eggs, no wine. ... Whisky we might have, and I believe at last they caught a fowl and killed it.

But if the bar supper was a disappointment, the bedroom at the Glenelg was worse:-

We were now to examine our lodging. Out of one of the beds, on which we were to repose, started up at our entrance, a man black as a Cyclops from the forge. Other circumstances of no elegant recital concurred to disgust us. ... Sleep, however, was necessary. Our highlanders [servants] had at last found some hay, with which the inn could not supply them. I ... slept upon it in my riding coat. Mr Boswell being more delicate, laid himself sheets with hay over and under him, and lay in linen like a gentleman.

Boswell's account of the Glenelg Inn was scarcely less uncomplimentary:-

A maid shewed us up stairs into a room damp and dirty, with bare walls, a variety of bad smells, a coarse black greasy fir table, and forms of the same kind ... This inn was furnished with not a single article that we could either eat or drink.

The Glenelg Inn today