Monday, August 31, 2009

A quick history of transport

Ask anyone nowadays what comes to mind when you mention transport in the context of a journey of up to about 3-400 miles and the chances are they will say "car".

(Above picture Copyright

But if the question had been asked 50-60 years ago, the chances are the answer would have been "train".

(Above picture Copyright Barrie Todd.)

Today, we tend to think of trains only for commuting where their forte is to be able to whiz past traffic jams on the roads. And as for ships, well we only use them to get to an island or over water too wide to put a bridge across. In short, we only resort to other forms of transport nowadays when roads let us down due to being too congested (commuting by train) or non-existent (islands and wide estuaries/lochs).

But less than 100 years ago travel by road was a last resort only to be undertaken when nothing better such as a railway was on offer. And water was a conduit of travel rather than an obstacle: so much so that, for a while, we tried to bring water inland in the form of canals.

With these thoughts in mind, a brief history of transport is as follows: It was a grim choice between travel by road or sailing ship until the advent of the canal in the late 18th century - these were mainly designed for the carriage of bulk goods (such as coal) but also aided passenger transport although their reach was limited.

The next big thing was the development of the steam ship in the 1810s - this altered the balance in favour of travel by ship instead of road where canals did not reach. The steamship was trumped by the development of steam railways from the 1820s. For 100+ years, the railway reigned supreme as the mode of transport par excellence for both freight and personal travel and the pecking order of modes of transport in this era as follows (1) railway; (2) steamship; (3) canal; (4) road.

The next big change was the development of the internal combustion engine which became a significant player after the First World War. Its rise to dominance was gradual but triumphed in the early 1960s when the rail network was slashed ("the Beeching Axe"), the canals were finally closed (bar a residual leisure role) and coastal shipping was reorientated to feed into a road as opposed to a rail network.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Another good map website

Again, I'm probably the last person in the world to have cottoned on to this but, if not, can I recommend to you all the Where's the path? website.

It lets you compare Google Earth imagery side by side with the Ordnance Survey map as seen for example below at Arinagour on the island of Coll, a favourite place of mine:-

And while we're on the subject of good OS mapping online, could I also advise you not to waste your time with the OS's own "Get a Map" function on it's website or but to go straight to where you can get fullscreen-fulls of high-resolution, uncut, north-up 1:50,000 and 1:25,000 as seen in the following screen-grab:-

Looking at that map of Arinagour, I've just noticed that the B8070 has been extended south from the village to the ferry pier. That's quite new because, until recently, the road from the village to the pier was a yellow unclassified road. Rather unsatisfactory and probably a hangover from before the pier was built as shown on the following scan from the OS One Inch map of 1963:-

An example of the wheels of bureaucracy grinding slowly but I'm glad that road re-classification has finally been made. I wonder who's job it is to do that - I wish it was mine!

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.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Peter's Port - Part 2

Part 1 here.

In the second half of the 19th century, the southern Outer Hebridean islands of the Uists, Benbecula and Barra were very isolated indeed, relying on sailing smacks for delivery of mail and a cargo steamer once a week from Glasgow.

It was a complaint which came up before the Napier Commission appointed in 1883 to enquire into the grievances of the crofting areas of Scotland and one thing to come out of the Commission was that the Postmaster General authorised a thrice weekly mail steamer service from Oban to Coll, Tiree, Castlebay (Barra) and Lochboisdale (South Uist) to commence in March 1886. In effect, this meant paying a shipping company to carry the mail to these islands on a steamer and, of course, the ship would carry passengers and cargo as well. The first "mail contractor" was the shortlived Highland Fisheries Company but MacBrayne's took over in 1889.

In 1893, MacBrayne's were running a service more ambitious than originally envisaged with departures from Oban every day of the week (except Sunday). On Mondays Wednesdays and Fridays, one steamer left Oban at 6.00am and sailed for Tobermory, Castlebay, Lochboisdale and Lochmaddy on North Uist where she arrived in the early evening. She then proceeded through the night to Dunvegan, Pooltiel and Bracadale on Skye, Canna and Rum and then back via Tobermory, arriving back at Oban at 2.00pm on the day after she had departed. A second steamer performed that circuit the other way round departing Oban on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. The steamers concerned were the Flowerdale and the Staffa - this is the Flowerdale at Tobermory:-

Coll and Tiree were served by a different mail steamer three days a week from Oban, calling also at Kilchoan in Ardnamurchan and terminating at Bunessan in the west of Mull. It would have been in the late 1880s that steamer piers were built at Castlebay and Lochboisdale to add to the one already existing at Lochmaddy. But poor old Benbecula - situated between North and South Uist - was left out of all these developments with not even a ferry call from the new mail steamers as they passed en route between Lochmaddy and Lochboisdale. It was an issue which would lead to questions being asked in the House of Commons as I'll explain in a future post ...

Friday, August 28, 2009

Peter's Port

Long before I ever went to Benbecula, Peter's Port was a place that had piqued my imagination because my trusty Ordnance Survey One Inch map (Sheet 23 "South Uist") showed a brown B class road (the B891 indeed) running out through a tangle of islands to apparently nowhere but a pier and a bay with a suspiciously English sounding name for a milieu as quintessentially gaelic as the Outer Hebrides (albeit in the good company of Castlebay, Leverburgh and Newmarket - not to mention Five Penny Borve).

So Peter's Port was definitely on my "must go to" list for when I eventually got to Benbecula. Below is the B891 twisting its way between Grimsay and Eilean na Cille (I think the photo is looking back west)

And this is what is at the end of the road:-

Image Copyright Dave Fergusson and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

That doesn't look all that interesting but it conceals a fascinating tale I'll return to in the next post.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Of ferries and steamers ...

Ask anyone what they understand by "a ferry" and they'd probably answer a ship carrying people and cars on a voyage of less than a day. This is a ferry:-

That pic of Caledonian MacBrayne's MV Isle of Lewis which runs between Ullapool and Stornoway (2h 45m) was taken by Chris Murray who used to work on the Stornoway Coastguard Helicopter. He used to take his camera to work and has some stunning photographs which you can see here.

Anyway, ask anyone nowadays what they understand by "a steamer" and they'll probably think of Scotland's "Waverley" or something on the Swiss lakes - something that only comes out in summer to take people on jollies and spends the rest of the year under tarpaulins with volunteers and lottery funding applications. This is a steamer:-

Waverley off Largs by Robert Orr

But the present day connotations of "ferry" and "steamer" only date back to the 1960s and the development on a meaningful scale of car ferries - i.e. ships designed to allow their passengers' cars to be driven on board. Before then, a "steamer" was the sort of vessel we would now call a "ferry" (a ship for the purposes of getting from A to B) and "ferry" meant something altogether different.

Until the 1960s "ferry" meant either the crossing of a narrow estuary or loch (such as the Corran Ferry across Loch Linnhe) as it still does today or another meaning which is now entirely forgotten - a launch which went out to meet a steamer at a port of call where there was no pier the steamer could get alongside. These were called "ferry calls" and used to be very common in Scotland. The following picture (courtesy of Rob Beale) demonstrates the old terminology well:-

The caption is "The Ferry, Craignure (M.S. "Lochinvar" Making A Call)" but the ferry referred to is not the ship pictured, the M.S. Lochinvar - she is the steamer. Rather, the ferry is the rowing boat to the right which has gone out from the old stone pier at Craignure on Mull to meet the steamer which has stopped en route from Tobermory to Oban. I believe the word "ferry" could also apply to a place like Craignure from which a ferry went out to meet a passing steamer.

What's interesting is that the "steamer" pictured in Rob's postcard is not a steamship at all - the Lochinvar was a motor vessel. MacBrayne's were quite forward thinking in terms of ordering motor vessels as opposed to steamers, the Lochinvar dating back to 1908 being their third. Other companies - such as British Rail - were still ordering steam powered ships in the 1960s. But the old terminology stuck even amongst MacBrayne's fleet with diesel powered motor vessels continuing to be referred to as steamers.

It all comes out very clearly in MacBrayne's 1955 summer timetable.

It contains a list of the "Steamer Fleet" but, of the 21 vessels named, only four are actually steam powered. It also contains a list of "Steamer Fares" but is careful to indicate that these don't include the ferry fares where in operation. There were nine ferry calls in the MacBrayne network in 1955: Colonsay, Craignure, Drimnin, Coll, Eigg, Rum, Glenelg, Applecross and Rodel.

Car ferries were introduced on some of MacBrayne's services in 1964 and timetables in the late 60s distinguished between "Car Ferry Services" and "Steamer Services", although by then only one of the latter was operated by an actual steamship and that was a summer only cruise (the SS King George V from Oban to Staffa and Iona.)

The building of piers at Colonsay, Craignure and Coll in the mid-60s combined with the cessation of calls at Drimnin, Glenelg, Applecross and Rodel meant the only remaining ferry calls in the late 60s were at Rum, Eigg and Muck (the latter island having been added to the network in the interim). From now on, timetables referred to the vessels taking you ashore at these islands as "ferryboats" to distinguish them from the ferries - i.e. car ferries - which were increasingly dominating MacBrayne's fleet. Ferryboats were sometimes also referred to as "flitboats".

Ferries - in the original sense of a launch which came out to meet a ship at a place where there was no pier it could get alongside - disappeared from the West Highland scene in 2001 with the opening of piers at Rum, Eigg and Muck. I leave you with a picture of the Eigg ferry (or ferryboat or flit boat if you prefer) coming alongside Calmac's MV Lochmor in the late 80s - arguably the last "steamer" in the fleet in the sense of a ship not designed for cars to be driven on to.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Rodel - Part 3

Part 1 here.

The first time I ever went to Rodel was in 1976 on a yacht, my father's doughty 26 foot (7.9m) Westerly Centaur. It was low tide and we were looking at having to anchor in the outer bay - Loch Rodel - for enough tide to cross the bar into the inner harbour, Poll an Tigh-mhĂ il (pron. "pollan tie vall", I believe it's Gaelic for "Pool of the rent house". I think a "rent house" must be something like a tithe barn - a place where rents paid in kind are stored.)

So we were approaching very slowly in flat calm with the trusty Clyde Cruising Club pilot book (the old blue hard back one if anyone remembers that) open on the coach roof when we spot what looks like a rock in an unexpected place. Cut the throttle back even more - it's OK, it's just a seal's head above the water. Move on a bit and the "seal" appears to be two dimensional. Inch forward and it's a shark's fin - a basking shark.

We sailed gently along side it. It was as long as the boat - 26 feet. Cruising at less than walking speed just under the surface of the clear water in Loch Rodel in Harris. A better writer would be able to describe this better than I but all I can say is bloody amazing. There's more awareness about basking sharks nowadays but that was the only time I've ever seen one, 33 years ago.

Pity to have to put up a pic of a dead one but it's the best pic I found to put in perspective how enormous basking sharks can be. I reckon the one we saw that day must have been almost this size. (The pic is copyright Jonathan Riverwalker.)

Once ashore, the Rodel Hotel was from a previous era and that's from the perspective of the 70s. The public bar was a corrugated metal extension out the back which had rusted a good few inches up from its concrete base - a real drinking den. We had dinner in the dining room - I recall very heavy starched linen table cloths and napkins and having coffee after in a conservatory with a vine.

The hotel closed not long after with only the public bar remaining operating so I was interested to hear that it had been refurbished and was open for business again under the management of the next generation of the same family which had owned it for ages. We arrived to find it looked like this:-

Ah, the renovation is not totally complete, I thought: they've yet to paint it. In the bar after dinner, we got chatting to the proprietor. What colour was he going to paint it - white or perhaps a Tobermory yellow or pink? "Oh we're not allowed to paint it!" he replies. Turns out the restoration of the building was part funded by Historic Scotland and they imposed a condition that the building be rendered with exactly the same plaster (I'm not sure that's the right word - mortar perhaps) as would have been used when the house was originally built in the 1780s by Captain Alexander MacLeod of Berneray - right down to using sand from the same beach (of which there are many on Harris). And as it wouldn't have been painted in the 1780s, it's not allowed to be painted now!

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Rodel - Part 2

That picture is from the Rodel Hotel's website.

Built in the early 1780s, I believe the hotel may be the oldest continuously inhabited house in the Outer Hebrides. It was built (not as a hotel, of course) by Captain Alexander MacLeod of Berneray. He bought Harris in 1772 for £15,000 from his cousin, MacLeod of Dunvegan whose ancestors had owned the island as clan chiefs since medieval times.

Captain MacLeod had made a fortune in the Far East and this was an early example of a nouveau riche buying out the "old guard" of clan chief landlords. Having a retinue of armed clansmen no longer cut the mustard in the late 18th century as it had in previous centuries. Many chiefs failed to adjust to the new realities, got into financial difficulties, and had to sell off their estates - often to more financially astute relatives (who didn't have to carry the baggage "chiefship") in the interests of "keeping it in the family".

This is not unlike the modern day equivalent of the Tetrapak heiress, Lisbet Rausing, buying Corrour Estate in Lochaber and lavishing a fortune of her "new money" building this new lodge there in the early 2000s:-

(Above picture Copyright Graham_jma.)

Captain MacLeod's new house at Rodel would have been just as startling and arresting in its context as Lisbet Rausing's new lodge at Corrour in the 2000s: in Harris in the 1780s there would have been nothing larger than a black house in the whole island.

MacLeod didn't just plan a fancy new house, however. He also wanted to create employment on Harris. The main industry in mind was fishing. You can see from the top picture in this post that Rodel has a sheltered harbour but the Captain also built the piers you can see outside his house. A writer in 1786 also spoke of "a manufacturing house for spinning woollen and linen thread" - that would have been a big deal in Glasgow in the 1780s never mind Harris so the effect must have been dramatic. Below is a painting of Rodel drawn in 1819 by the water-colourist William Daniell:-

The Captain's house (now the hotel) and piers are clearly visible to the left. The house on the right is still there but roofless and empty. Behind is St Clement's Church, another distinctive feature of Rodel to this day and one of the finest medieval churches in the whole of Scotland, never mind the Hebrides (I'll come back to the church in a later post).


Alas, Captain MacLeod's grand schemes and investments didn't ultimately prosper. Fishing has always been a fickle trade and the taxes on salt (essential before refrigeration for preserving fish to get them to the consumer) were against him. His grandson cleared Harris of its tenantry - the people the Captain had hoped to give employment to - to convert the island to extensive sheep farming before selling it to the Earl of Dunmore in the 1830s.

MacLeod's 18th century schemes to develop fishing and give employment were terribly reminiscent of Lord Leverhulme's schemes to the same end on Harris in the early 20th century just up the road at Leverburgh (the clue's in the name). Leverhulme started the company still on the go today as the multinational Unilever but his pet project to develop fishing on Harris died with him in the 1920s - I'll come back to that episode in Harris' history in a later post as well.

And I've just realised I haven't got round to explaining why the Rodel Hotel isn't that grey colour as seen in the previous post because they haven't got round to painting it yet. But as this post is already way too long that will have to wait for next time as well. I leave you with a picture of the hotel - Captain Alexander MacLeod of Berneray's new house built in the early 1780s - in 1991 before it was renovated:-

Monday, August 17, 2009


It's late and as I've been busy preparing for being away from home for a few days, I'm just going to keep the pot boiling here by adding this pic of the Rodel Hotel on the island of Harris in the Outer Hebrides. In a subsequent post I'm going to explain why it does NOT look like this just because they were waiting for the plaster to dry before they painted it.

Saturday, August 15, 2009


If you're not already familiar with it, can I recommend to everyone the website.

For those not familiar, it's a project to photograph every 1km square of the National Grid in Britain. You can register (free) and submit photographs (moderated). Any number of photos are allowed for each square and some are more photographed than others obviously: NT2573 in which Edinburgh Castle sits has 1,035 images while NB4453 in which stands Beinn Sheunta (134m) in the middle of Barvas Moor on Lewis has none. You get points for the number of your photographs accepted (I've never had one refused yet) with extra points if you're the first to bag a hitherto unphotographed square (I've only managed to do this once so far) so you can get competitive here as well.

It's extremely user-friendly so go off and have a look for yourself but what I like doing on Geograph is going for "virtual walks". The other day, for example, I went from Port Askaig on Islay up the west side of the Sound of Islay, past the Caol Ila (Gaelic for Sound of Islay, pronounced "Cool Ee-lah") and Bunnahabhainn (River Mouth, "Bunna-havvin") distilleries and out to Rhubha A'Mhaill (aka Rhuvaal) lighthouse at the north end of the Sound, then west down Islay's north west coast back to "civilisation" at the head of Loch Gruinart.

Image Copyright Richard Webb and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

That's a picture from Geograph showing the lighthouse - it's looking east over the north end of the Sound of Islay to the island of Jura: note the tidal overfalls off the point.

Now, if I'm being absolutely honest, the "walk" round north east Islay wasn't as interesting as I thought it was going to be. That's a subjective view, of course, but the point is that I could "virtually" do the walk and so can you, no matter how far from Islay you live. Tomorrow, I'm going to go from Ardnave Point down the west coast of Islay to Portnahaven and see what that's like.

I leave you with what Beinn Sheunta on Lewis (grid square NB4453) looks like on Google Earth seeing as Geograph is yet to oblige. You can see why photographers have not been beating a path to this grid square but the point of Geograph is not great photography but to show you what it looks like.

Thursday, August 13, 2009


I found this picture of Oban on the internet today which I'd never seen before:-

It's on the Oban page of Wikipedia. According to WP, it was painted by Norwegian painter Hans Gude in 1889. My first reaction was that date can't be right because the railway reached Oban in 1880 so would this view not be right under what became the Railway Pier and station - what's now the Calmac car ferry terminal? And these houses on the far side of the bay have a pre-railway boom look to them.

Looking at old large scale Ordnance Survey maps of Oban before the railway - which you can do via the National Libraries of Scotland website - I found it hard to place where the cove in the foreground must be in relation to modern features on the south side of Oban bay like the Lighthouse Pier and the Manor House Hotel, even allowing for subsequent development.

Judge for yourself from the 6 inch map surveyed in 1870:-

There are other problems as well. Dunollie Castle (the building that looks a bit like a church in the distance) sits high on a crag in reality and what's that mountain on the right - I could go on.

It all leads me to conclude that Hans Gude - if he ever visited Oban at all - must have got his on-location preliminary sketches muddled up when he got back to his studio in Norway. Either that or he'd lost the sketches (in a freak paddle steamer accident perhaps?) and was painting from memory.

Not that I'm bothered because it's a super painting - the detail of the rocks and the boats in the foreground is super: it's my kind of painting.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

... for they belong to MacBraynes

The title of this blog combined with the title of this first post is the second half of a ditty which goes as follows:-

Unto the Lord belongs the Earth
And all that it contains
Except the Kyles and Western Isles
For they belong to MacBraynes

It's a parody on the opening verse of Psalm 24 and is said to be widely misquoted. But this is the version which scans the best, I think. (If anyone disagrees, please leave a comment.)

It's a reference to the west coast of Scotland and anyone who has holidayed there will be familiar with the black hulls and red funnels of the car ferries of Caledonian MacBrayne - "Calmac" - which serve the islands off the coast - Arran, Oban, Skye - places like that. The MacBraynes referred to in the ditty are one of the constituent companies which merged to form Calmac in 1973 and can trace their history all the way back to 1851.

This blog will not just be about Calmac car ferries though. Heavens, no. It will be about lots of things I'm interested in concerning Scotland's western seaboard - its economic history over the past 200 years. Transport - especially by sea - plays a huge part in that and will be a recurring theme, I suspect. We'll see how this develops but I'm anticpating posting on everything from lazy-beds to single track roads, through petrol pumps, fishing boats and village post offices and even - if I'm spared - Free Presbyterian churches.

Wooden fish boxes, lighthouses, Admiralty Charts, Ordnance Survey maps, piers ...