Monday, September 17, 2012


A few years ago, I wrote a series of articles about Peter's Port, the pier built in 1896 to serve the island of Benbecula in the Outer Hebrides.

OS Quarter Inch Map, 1922
The plan was to avoid traffic for Benbecula having to land at Lochboisdale or Lochmaddy piers and then brave the hazardous crossing of "the fords", as the tidal strands separating the island from its neighbours are known. But Peter's Port Pier ended up being a bit of a white elephant due to MacBrayne's refusing to call there on account of it not being equipped with any navigation lights or marks and consequently difficult of approach for their steamers. This most local of spats even led to regular questions being asked in the House of Commons until the issue was eventually overtaken by construction of a road bridge linking Benbecula to South Uist in 1939.

Another criticism levelled at Peter's Port Pier in its early years was that it wasn't actually on Benbecula at all. In fact, it was on an off-lying islet which, for the first decade of the pier's existence, wasn't even connected to its parent island by a bridge or causeway! And the reason for harking back to Peter's Port is that I've found another example of this apparently most bizarre of all creatures - a pier with no road to it. By coincidence, it's at Lochboisdale:-

OS 25 inch scale map, surveyed 1878
Zooming out a bit puts that in context and shows it's not the present ferry pier before surrounding present day detail, such as the Lochboisdale Hotel etc., had been filled in. The map extract below from the OS 25 inch map of 1903 (click to enlarge) shows the "roadless pier" at bottom right with the present day ferry pier and hotel at top right.

Map by National Libraries of Scotland
The old pier is still clearly visible on Bing Maps (which I note in passing has just recently added some new high resolution aerial imagery of this part of the Outer Hebrides):-

 It's even still marked on modern OS maps as a "jetty":-

The old pier at Lochboisdale is not, however, recorded on the Pastmap website of antiquities which I suspect maybe a bit of an omission. So I have no idea what its history is and it's pure guess-work when I conjecture it could date to the kelping era of the late 18th/early 19th centuries.

Kelping was the gathering of seaweed and burning it to derive a material ("kelp") from which chemicals were extracted for industrial processes such as the manufacture of soap and glass. A topic deserving a blog entry of its own (a book indeed), kelping had a profound effect on the economy of the western seaboard of Scotland before it collapsed in the 1820s when it became cheaper to import the same chemicals from countries Britain had hitherto been at war with in the Napoleonic Wars. During its heyday c.1790-1820, kelping was responsible for creating the crofts (allotments for part time kelpers, essentially) which remain such a feature of north west Scotland to the present day.

Let's not digress in to kelping too much - my guess is the old pier in Loch Boisdale was a trans-shipment point to where kelp (the crystalline product of burnt raw seaweed) was brought in small boats from around the coast of South Uist to be loaded on to bigger boats - sailing smacks most likely - for transport south to Glasgow or Liverpool.The point is that kelping, being an essentially coastal business, had no need of roads to any piers. It was only later in the 19th century, in changed economic circumstances when roads were built on South Uist, that the village of Lochboisdale we know today developed around its road/shipping trans-shipment point at the pier which remains as today's ro-ro ferry terminal.

The point is a pier with no road is not as daft an idea as it sounds if you go back to an era before travel by road - facilitated by the internal combustion engine from the beginning of the 20th century - became the norm. (The problem with Peter's Port pier was it was built just as road transport was coming in to vogue.)  

Red arrow shows the old pier in relation to the modern Lochboisdale village and pier: photo credit RCAHMS
This is all very topical as far as Lochboisdale is concerned because planning permission was granted in October 2011 for the construction of a new harbour on the island of Gasaigh (the one at top left of the photo above).

Clearly having learnt the lessons of Peter's Port, the plans include a causeway out to the island via Rubha Bhuailt (Gaelic for "cattle fold peninsula", I believe) past the site of our old roadless pier:-

Promoted by Storas Uibhist, the community landowner of South Uist, the project includes breakwaters to enclose pontoons for fishing and leisure use. It's going to cost about £10m to be paid for by a variety of public and lottery etc. sources. Last I heard was the funding package had been assembled but I'm not sure when work actually begins or when it's planned to be completed. I was going to suggest looking at Storas Uibhist's website for the latest news but I see they haven't updated since December 2011. I'm not sure if that's good news or means the thing's stalled, or what ...

I gather also that these proposals are just the first phase of a bigger plan involving the ferry terminal being moved out from its current location together with housing and industrial units and even a cruise ship terminal on Gasaigh.

I understand that CMAL (the Scottish Government owned company which owns the ships and ports operated by Calmac) have objected to the application for a statutory Harbour Order for the project - could this be an echo of MacBrayne's refusal to countenance Peter's Port? And has the County Archivist insisted on a condition to protect the historical significance of the old road-less pier on Rubha Bhuailt?

Could the Lochboisdale scheme end up going the same way as the ambitious plans for Kyle of Lochalsh in 1950 (pictured above) I wrote about a couple of years ago (link to that here), that's to say only partially completed and not fulfilling its whole potential?

Whatever, I leave you with an exceptional picture of Loch Boisdale (taken by South Uist native and very nice man Allan Macdonald) showing the Calmac ferry MV Lord of the Isles steaming down the loch bound for Castlebay and Oban. That's the island of Gasaigh behind the ferry where the new harbour etc. is planned.

I wonder what the view in Allan's photo will look like in five year's time? Maybe these guys know:-

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