Tuesday, May 31, 2016

The Outer Isles Mail

Picture credit Twentymanna
A trawl of Flickr after old pictures of interest the other day brought a rich reward with the photo above of MacBrayne's MV Lochmor (I) approaching Tarbert, Harris in September 1963.

Today, Tarbert is served by a car ferry service direct from Uig on Skye which started in 1964. But prior to that year, it was a port of call on a service called "The Outer Isles Mail", a leisurely circuit of Skye departing from the railheads of Mallaig and Kyle of Lochalsh and calling at the Small Isles and the Uists as well as Harris.

MacBrayne's began mail services to Harris in 1888 with a steamer based at Portree (where a connection could be had to the railhead at Stromeferry (Kyle from 1897 and, from 1901, Mallaig as well) via the Portree Mail steamer). The Outer Isles steamer sailed from Portree three times a week at 06.00 for Tarbert, Rodel, Lochmaddy and Dunvegan where it arrived at 16.20. On its return voyage the following day, the steamer called at Stein and Uig before sailing to Lochmaddy then retracing its steps back via Rodel and Tarbert to Portree where it arrived at 18.45.

SS Lochiel (I) at West Tarbert (Argyll) - a scan from Duckworth & Langmuir's "West Highland Steamers" credited to the Rev. Wm. C Galbraith's collection

The first vessel on this service when it began in 1888 was the tiny Handa which was very soon replaced by the only slightly larger Staffa. She in turn was superseded in 1891 by the Lochiel (I) (pictured above) which served on the route for 16 years. From 1907, the regular steamer on the islands run from Portree was the Lapwing (II) (pictured below). In 1917, the Lapwing was succeeded by the very similar looking Plover (III) which served until replaced by the brand new Lochmor in 1930.

SS Lapwing (II) at Rodel

The complement to the Portree-Dunvegan mail service was one which began in 1889 departing three days a week from Oban at 06.00 for Tobermory, Castlebay, Lochboisdale, Lochmaddy and Dunvegan where the steamer arrived at 23.00. It then immediately returned to Oban through the night via Pooltiel, Bracadale, Canna, Rum and Tobermory. A second steamer left Oban on the other three days of the week and performed this circuit in reverse.

Mail routes to the Western Isles from Oban (yellow) and Portree (red) 1888-1920

The mail routes described above were recast in 1920. The route from Oban (by 1920, operated by a single steamer - the Cygnet (II), a near sister of the Lapwing and the Plover - sailing only three times a week) now took in Coll & Tiree but terminated at Lochboisdale: this was called "The Inner Isles Mail". The route from Portree was relocated to Kyle and Mallaig and now took in Lochboisdale and the Small Isles but omitted Portree and the ports on the west coast of Skye: this was called "The Outer Isles Mail."

The Outer Isles Mail (red) from 1920 to 1964

The summer timetable (the winter was very similar) for the Outer Isles Mail in 1963, the last full year of its operation, is reproduced below:-

As can be seen, the Lochmor made three circuits of Skye from Kyle of Lochalsh a week, one "clockwise" and the other two "anti-clockwise" and each taking approximately 30 hours. On Thursday afternoons in summer, the Lochmor fitted in a cruise from Mallaig to Loch Scavaig on Skye (for Loch Coruisk) and Sunday was spent tied up at Kyle.

The following photos (all clickable to enlarge) show points along the route of the Outer Isles Mail going anti-clockwise round Skye from Kyle. We start with a picture of Lochmor at her usual berth there: in the foreground is the car ferry across to Skye.

Kyle of Lochalsh - postcard view from the late 50s/early 60s
A closer view of the Lochmor at Kyle of Lochalsh - photocredit W M Macdonald

On an "anti-clockwise" sailing, the Lochmor sailed north and her first call was at the island of Scalpay off the coast of Harris where she arrived five hours after leaving Kyle. Until 1964, the Outer Isles Mail was the people of Scalpay's main connection with the mainland. Pictures of the Lochmor at Scalpay are scarce and the following four are the only ones I've ever seen (but see also the film referred to further on):-

Lochmor approaching the pier at Scalpay - copyright Francis Frith
The Lochmor alongside at Scalpay - Harris in the background
View of Scalpay Pier from the Lochmor
The Lochmor at Scalpay Pier

(I can't remember where I got the last three pictures from so if anybody recognises them as theirs, do let me know and I will give due accreditation or remove them if preferred.)

Incidentally, the steamer pier pictured above no longer exists but there's a Marine Harvest fish farm depot on the site - see here and here.

The next call after Scalpay was Tarbert, the "capital" of Harris. Note that, although the timetable states the Outer Isles Mail conveyed motor vehicles, there was only space for two or three on the Lochmor's deck and these had to be craned on and off as seen at Tarbert in the early 1930s below:-

Picture credit Sandy Stevenson
Picture credit Simplon Postcards
Lochmor at Tarbert, Harris

From Tarbert, the Lochmor proceeded to Lochmaddy on North Uist via calls at Stockinish and Rodel. The two latter were ferry calls meaning the steamer didn't berth at a pier but stood off while a launch came out from the shore to meet it. The call at Stockinish was discontinued after 1954 - I'm guessing that was due to completion of the "Golden Road" (allegedly so-called because it was thought to have been such an expensive undertaking) along the south east coast of Harris allowing passengers more conveniently to join the steamer at Tarbert or Rodel.

The Lochmor at Lochmaddy

The next call after Lochmaddy (above) was Lochboisdale on South Uist. (As I've blogged about before - here - the steamer didn't stop at Peter's Port, the pier for Benbecula.) At Lochboisdale, the Outer Isles Mail steamer met her opposite number on the Inner Isles Mail, the Lochmor's sister ship, the Lochearn. From 1955, the Lochearn was replaced by the Claymore (II)

The Lochmor (left) and Lochearn (right) alongside at Lochboisdale in blustery weather
Look carefully and you can see both mail steamers are alongside at Lochboisdale - a photo clearly taken on the same day as the previous one.
In this picture at Lochboisdale, the Lochmor is alongside the Lochearn's successor on the Inner Isles Mail, the Claymore introduced in 1955

Next after Lochboisdale on anti-clockwise sailings of the Outer Isles Mail were the Small Isles - Canna, Rum and Eigg (no call at Muck in these days: passengers from that island had to travel on the Muck estate's boat to catch the steamer at Eigg). I've never seen a picture of the Lochmor at Canna (the only one of the Small Isles with a pier she could get alongside) or Rum (ferry call) but here are two nice ones of her at Eigg (also a ferry call) from the excellent visitsmallisles.com website

The Lochmor off Eigg - Hector MacLean collection

Ferryman's eye view of the Lochmor at Eigg in 1936 - Ann Raith Collection

Also from the Ann Raith collection is another nice picture on board the Lochmor:-

From Eigg, the next call was Mallaig and there follow a few pictures of the Lochmor there:-

The Lochmor alongside at Mallaig - picture credit Buckielugger

The Lochmor leaving Mallaig - picture credit Clydeboy63 via Ships Nostalgia
The other vessel at the pier is the paddle steamer Fusilier which operated the Portree Mail service 1931-34

In that last picture, the Lochmor wasn't centre stage but it was worth reproducing for the message on the back: no date but it's a George VI (1936-52) and the postmark, at Isle of Eigg, could be August 1945:-

Leaving Mallaig, once a week the Lochmor called at Armadale on Skye - prior to 1964, there was no regular Mallaig-Armadale service as there is today and it was just an occasional port of call by passing steamers on their way elsewhere. Here's the Lochmor off Armadale Pier:-

The Lochmor at Armadale - photo credit W. M. Macdonald

Lastly, but only once a week on her "clockwise" round Skye sailing, the Lochmor made a ferry call off Glenelg. I don't have a picture of that - if anyone does, do let me know.

The Lochmor sailed from Kyle on the Outer Isles Mail for the last time on Monday 13 April 1964. Two days later the route was discontinued upon the inauguration of the new car ferry service from Uig to Tarbert and Lochmaddy carried by the new car ferry MV Hebrides. In compensation for the loss of calls by the Outer Isles Mail, Scalpay received first a service by a local fishing boat to connect with the ferry at Tarbert and then, the following year, its own car ferry across the Kyle Scalpay to Harris. This was replaced by a bridge in 1997.

The Small Isles received their own dedicated schedule with four sailings a week from Mallaig known as "The Inshore Mail". For a few weeks this was run by the Lochmor until the Portree Mail steamer MV Loch Arkaig took over in early June 1964. The Lochmor then went south to assist her sister and former incumbent of the Inner Isles Mail, the Lochearn, carrying cars between Oban, Craignure (Mull) and Lochaline. Upon the arrival of the last of MacBrayne's three new car ferries, the MV Columba, to take up that service on 30 July 1964, the Lochmor and Lochearn were finally redundant. They were sold in August to Greek owners in Piraeus and sailed from Ardrossan for the Aegean named respectively Amimoni and Naias. I have no information about the Amimoni ex-Lochmor's subsequent career in Greece and the Clydesite website reports various dates for her scrapping 1969, 1976 and 1984.

The Lochmor at Lochaline in July 1964 after discontinuation of the Outer Isles Mail filling in pending arrival of the car ferry Columba - photo credit Ken Connell 

Finally, a superb 14 minute film from the National Libraries of Scotland Moving Image Archive following the Lochmor round the Outer Isles Mail on a clockwise trip from Kyle. I don't think I can embed the film here but here is the link to it.

The film really conveys what an arduous voyage the Outer Isles Mail must have been at times - note the sea spray lashing that Morris Traveller on the deck! The film seems to have been made in 1964 just before the Outer Isles Mail ended - perhaps it was to commemorate an institution about to pass into history. The pier at Tarbert appears already to have been rebuilt in anticipation of the new car ferry about to arrive (note that, in the picture right at the top of this post, the pier works are still under way).  The initial text about the Lochmor having served the route for 39 years beginning in 1934 is wrong, by the way: she started in 1930.

The following is a guide to the places seen in the film in minutes and seconds into it:-

00.30 - by the shore of Loch Cluanie on the road (A87) to Kyle of Lochalsh
02.45 - Kylerhea on Skye
03.11-03.30 - the lighthouse at Sandaig at north side of the mouth of Loch Hourn
04.10 - Sound of Sleat
04.20 - the north side of the mouth of Loch Nevis
04.39-05.32 - Mallaig
05.32-06.08 - arrival at Mallaig of the Stornoway mail steamer, MV Loch Seaforth (I think the Lochmor has had to temporarily vacate the berth to allow the Loch Seaforth in and is seen at 06.10 coming back in after the LS has left.)  
06.37-06.55 & 07.14-07.36 - Eigg
07.37-08.30 - Rum
08.44 - this bit at night might be coming alongside the Inner Isles Mail steamer, MV Claymore, at Lochboisdale
09.13 - sailing up the coast of Benbecula (South Uist in distance) between Lochboisdale and Lochmaddy
09.50 - East Loch Tarbert, Harris
09.55-11.03 - Tarbert (Note at 10.03 how the work to improve the pier for the car ferry to succeed the Lochmor has been completed.)
11.04-11.35 - Scalpay
11.37-12.22 - Kyle Scalpay
12.34 - Rhubha Hunish, north end of Skye
12.45-13.00 - Trotternish, Skye
13.15 - the Red Cuillins, Skye
13.41 - Eilean Ban Lighthouse, Kyle of Lochalsh (where the Skye Bridge is now).

Sleeping berth on the Lochmor

Almost forgot to mention prices. In 1963, the round trip fare from Kyle was £2:10s:7d (£2.53) and a two berth deluxe cabin was £1:7s:6d (£1.35). That total of £3.88 for the fare and cabin is about £110 in today's money. (Compare with £180 for the fare and a Premium Outer 2 Berth Cabin today on the 12 hour overnight sailing from Aberdeen to Lerwick by Northlink.) I don't think I would have bothered with a cabin on the Outer Isles Mail, though - I'd have stayed up all night on deck watching the comings and goings!

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