Sunday, October 8, 2017

The Inner Isles Mail Part 2 - Mail Steamers and U-boats

Part 1 here.

In April 1889, MacBrayne's took over the Oban to Coll, Tiree, Castlebay (Barra) and Lochboisdale (South Uist) mail contract from the Highland Fisheries Company which had operated it since it began in July 1886.

The first vessel MacBrayne's placed on the run was the screw steamer Clydesdale (I): like her HFC predecessors, she occasionally extended her voyages to St Kilda where she is seen below:-

The Clydesdale (I) - a scan from Duckworth & Langmuir's "West Highland Steamers", 4th ed. credited McIsaac & Riddle

The Oban-Islands mail route referred to in MacBrayne's 1889 "Summer Tours" handbook

In 1891, the mail runs from Oban to the islands were separated into two services: one ran to Tobermory, Castlebay and Lochboisdale and then continued to Lochmaddy and Dunvegan before returning to Oban through the night via Pooltiel and Bracadale on the west coast of Skye, Canna, Rum and Tobermory: this service operated six days a week employing two steamers, one going clockwise round these ports departing Oban Monday, Wednesday and Friday while another ran anti-clockwise on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.

Coll and Tiree, meanwhile, received their own thrice weekly service which also called at Kilchoan on Ardnamurchan and continued to Bunessan in Mull, returning to Oban via the same calls the following day. Both routes are shown on the map and timetable below:-

Mail routes from Oban 1891-1920

Oban mail steamers in 1894

The vessels employed on the Outer Isles service were at first the Flowerdale (MacBrayne's first twin screw steamer) partnered by the much smaller Staffa (III).

The Flowerdale at Tobermory

The Staffa (III) at Oban - scan from Duckworth & Langmuir's "West Highland Steamers", 4th ed. credited to McIsaac & Riddle

The Staffa was superseded in 1903 by the Lapwing (II) and, upon the Flowerdale being wrecked off Lismore in 1904, she was replaced by the Plover (III), a sister ship of the Lapwing's. The Lapwing was, in turn, replaced by another very similar ship, the Lochiel (II), in 1908 and the Plover and the Lochiel then served the Oban-Outer Isles route up till WWI.

The Plover (III) at Balmacara

The Lochiel (II) scan from Duckworth & Langmuir's "West Highland Steamers", 4th ed. credited to J B MacGeorge's Collection

The Coll, Tiree and Bunessan route, meanwhile, was served first by the Fingal (II) and then, after 1909, the Dirk. By this time, the Bunessan service had been altered such that the Dirk was stationed at Tobermory rather than Oban: on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays she sailed to Coll, Tiree and Bunessan while on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays she sailed from Bunessan back to Tobermory via Oban, thus completing a anticlockwise circuit of Mull. (I don't know but assume the call at Kilchoan must have been transferred to the Outer Isles steamer.)

The Fingal (II) at Rothesay - scan from Duckworth & Langmuir's "West Highland Steamers", 4th ed. credited to A Ernest Glen

The Dirk at Oban - scan from Duckworth & Langmuir's "West Highland Steamers", 4th ed. credited to McIsaac & Riddle

The mail runs to the islands from Oban were naturally disrupted during WWI and two of the three ships working them - the Dirk and the Lochiel - were lost after having been requisitioned by the Admiralty.  But the third, the Plover, has the distinction of being the only vessel to have been attacked by an enemy while on service with MacBrayne's! According to Duckworth & Langmuir's "West Highland Steamers":-

On 29th July, 1918 while on the Oban to Castlebay run Plover was shelled by a German submarine when one hour past the "passage of Tiree". With one small gun at stern Plover started counter-attack. The master (Captain Neil MacDougall) decided to lower the two ship's boats with passengers; and the submarine submerged. Plover arrived at Barra at 7p.m. and the first boat at Rhum during the night. The other boat followed the route taken by Plover to Castlebay, arriving at dawn.

I assume the thinking behind not picking the passengers back up from the boats was that they would be safer there than on board the Plover if the submarine returned to the attack, the Germans being more interested in destroying our ships than our civilians. But anyway, that's all I've ever been able to discover about this episode - I'm surprised it's not better known, the subject of books, films etc. a la Whisky Galore, the Scarp Rocket Post etc.         

After the war, the Islands mail services were radically restructured again but I'll continue the story in a subsequent post.

The Plover (III) leaving Castlebay - picture credit Calum I Maclean

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for this. very good. Just came across it. I am looking up the Cygnet for my cousin whose father and mother both worked on her.