Wednesday, October 28, 2009

West Tarbert Pier - Part 1

Nowadays, the Caledonian MacBrayne car ferries to Islay leave from Kennacraig Pier about half way down West Loch Tarbert in Kintyre.

But until 1978, they sailed from a pier three miles further up the loch, almost at its head, called West Tarbert Pier (WTP).

Originally built in 1825 when steam ship services to Islay were first established, WTP was deliberately placed right at the head of the loch to make it as close as possible by coach to East Tarbert and connection with steamers to Glasgow via Loch Fyne and the Kyles of Bute - this was in the era when travel by coastal steamer was infinitely preferable to travel overland.

The picture above shows WTP approaching from East Tarbert. It also shows how the main road from Tarbert to Campbeltown - the A83 now - used to run along the shore past the pier. Later (I'm not sure when but 1940s-50s I think), the road was re-routed inland (as shown on the map above) with the old road remaining as a dead end at WTP.

The ship at the pier in that picture is MacBrayne's paddle steamer Glencoe which served the Islay route from WTP from 1876 to 1905. She was succeeded by another paddle steamer called the Pioneer which operated until 1939:-

The earliest timetable for the Islay service I have is for 1884. It shows the steamer left Glasgow at 7.00am and reached East Tarbert at 11.45am. Coaches were on hand to convey passengers and their luggage to WTP for the Islay steamer. This left at 12.40pm and arrived at Port Ellen (Port Askaig on Fridays) on Islay at 3.40pm via a call at Gigha. 8 hours 40 minutes from Glasgow to Islay - not bad going for 1884. Today, the same journey (by Citylink coach from Glasgow to Kennacraig as the steamer service to East Tarbert was discontinued in 1970) takes about 6 hours 30 minutes. 

By the 1930s, the sailings to Islay from WTP had been re-jigged: Port Ellen and Port Askaig now received equal billing with sailings to each port on alternate days. Gigha was now only called at on Port Ellen days but Port Askaig days included a call at Jura (Craighouse) and - from 1949 - Colonsay.

In 1939, the Pioneer was succeeded by the MV Lochiel which served Islay until 1970. She is seen below at WTP in the 1960s:-

In the 1960s, WTP faced an uncertain future. By 1964, the bigger islands off the west coast of Scotland - Bute, Arran, Mull and the Outer Hebrides - were being served by car ferries. These were, however, "hoist loading" ferries. That meant that, instead of driving straight onto the car deck down a ramp as you do today, cars drove 4 or 5 at a time onto a platform on the ship which was hoisted slowly from the car deck to pier level and back down again. It was cumbersome and slow (and useless for HGVs) but, even so, Islay had been left out of this "car ferry revolution" and continued meanwhile to rely on cars being lifted aboard the Lochiel by crane.

The Government was presented with two alternative proposals for Islay. One was to upgrade the existing steamer services from West Loch Tarbert to a car ferry service. The other was the radically different so-called "Overland Route" which involved using Jura as a stepping stone to Islay via new, shorter car ferry routes from Keills in Argyll to Lagg in Jura and from Feolin on Jura to Port Askaig. (This had, in fact, been the original route to Islay until the development of steamship services in the second quarter of the 19th century replaced it with the route to WTP.)

Either option would likely have spelt the end for WTP as, even if upgrading the existing services had been adopted rather than the Overland Route, a new generation of car ferry would have required a new terminal because the head of West Loch Tarbert is shallow around WTP as can be seen below.

In February 1968, the Government rejected the Overland Route on grounds of cost. As well as new ferries, it would have involved upgrading more than 30 miles (50km) of single track roads to Keills and on Jura at an overall cost of £3.2m. Instead, the Government preferred to spend £1.1m on a new ro-ro car ferry to operate from a new pier at Escart Bay, about a mile down the loch from WTP. This would serve Port Askaig, Colonsay and Port Ellen. Jura would be served by a new ferry across the Sound of Islay to Feolin instead of the traditional call at Craighouse en route to Port Askaig and Gigha would have its own independent ferry. This option could also be delivered much more quickly than the Overland Route and within the predicted remaining life of the Lochiel.

MacBrayne's went ahead and ordered the new ship but the shallow waters of West Loch Tarbert were muddied in 1968/69 by two factors: In April 1968, a private company, Western Ferries Ltd, began to operate a ro-ro ferry to Port Askaig from their new pier at Kennacraig. And in July 1969, MacBrayne's was nationalised under the umbrella of the Scottish Transport Group which also included the Caledonian Steam Packet Company Ltd which ran the ferry services on the Clyde. All bets were off - to be continued ...

The Lochiel at WTP as pictured in MacBrayne's 1960 summer timetable.

Friday, October 23, 2009


Nowadays, it's mostly famous for that road sign:-

But what most people don't realise, as they sweep past in their motor cars pondering on the enigmatic sign, is that not only was there once a ferry but that there was also once a railway terminus at Stromeferry.

Let's clear one thing up first: "Stromeferry" (one word) is the name of a village which still exists. "Strome Ferry" (two words) was the name of a car ferry crossing over the narrows of Loch Carron from said village which ceased to exist in 1970. So to those who say that an entire generation has grown up since the ferry was discontinued and don't need to be told it no longer exists, I would agree. It was always totally illogical to put up a sign to something which no longer existed. Any new sign should point simply to the village of Stromeferry (one word).

In subsequent posts, I'll tell you about the railway terminus and the car ferry, neither of which exist any longer, at Stromeferry, down through the trees by the shore of Loch Carron, left at the enigmatic sign ...

Tuesday, October 20, 2009


As we're on the subject of Compton MacKenzie, let's do The Monarch of the Glen as well.

The 1941 novel centres on a fictional clan chieftain, Donald MacDonald of Ben Nevis, whose seat is Glenbogle Castle. A comedy of manners on Highland aristocracy before the War, the title is a spoof on Sir Edwin Landseer's famous 1851 painting of a stag called "Monarch of the Glen".

Landseer's most famous work is the lions at the foot of Nelson's Column in London.

I haven't read MOTG. I started reading it when the BBC series came out but got bored after a few pages ... unlike Whisky Galore which I've read umpteen times and enjoy more with each successive read. I must try MOTG again. In fact, I will as soon as I've finished "A Summer in Skye" by Alexander Smith in 1865 which I'm currently reading (again - more of that anon).

When the BBC picked up MOTG, about all they kept from the novel was the name Glenbogle. Donald MacDonald became Hector MacDonald (played by Richard Briers - most famous for classic early 70s sitcom "The Good Life"). They also kept neighbouring laird Hugh Cameron, referred to as Kilwhillie after the habit - so accurately observed by Compton MacKenzie - Highland lairds had of referring to themselves by the name of their ancestral estate.

The location for Glenbogle in the BBC series was a house called Ardverikie on the south side of Loch Laggan on the A86 between Newtonmore and Spean Bridge.

Pronounced "Ard-VER-icky", it's not far from where MacKenzie imagined the fictitious Glenbogle, the only clue to the location of which given in the book is that it's two hours walk from (fictitious) Loch na Craosnaich which is five miles from the road from Fort William to Fort Augustus (the A82).

Ardverikie was built in the 1870s by Sir John Ramsden Bt., a rich Yorkshireman whose fortune derived from the fact that he happened to own the land Huddersfield was built on. Ramsden rented the shooting rights over a large portion of the estates of Clan MacPherson of Cluny on the understanding that Cluny would pay compensation for improvements (lodges, gamekeepers' cottages etc.) at the termination of the lease. When the impoverished Cluny couldn't pay, Ramsden accepted the land in lieu (and you have to wonder if that wasn't the plan all along ...)

Ardverikie remains in Ramsden's family to this day although, having passed through some female heiresses along the way, the present owner rejoices under the splendidly upper-crust name of Patrick Gordon-Duff-Pennington. The surrounding estate extends to 38,000 acres (15,000 hectares)

This is how Ardverikie is described in the pompous prose of the Highlands & Islands volume of Pevsner:-

a relentlessly asymmetrical display of canted bays, broad-eaved gables, round and octagonal towers with machicolations under their witch's-cap slate roofs, and even a turret corbelled out from a squinch arch. The effect, despite the corbelling, transomed windows, Tudorish hoodmoulds and occasional crosslet arrowslits, is more cottage orne than Baronial. Or would be, were it not for the tower which rises above it all. This is Baronial with a vengeance ...

Judge for yourself:-

My judgement is that Ardverikie is the most extreme - dare I say exuberant, audacious - example of a rich Victorian Englishman's fantasy in the Scottish Highlands bar none except possibly Balmoral. It's remarkable that the present generation of the family still has the money to keep this pile in good condition - the BBC filming MOTG on location here will have helped. It deserves to be kept, I think.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Whisky Galore

Until the BBC dramatised his 1941 novel "Monarch of Glen" for TV in the early 2000s, Sir Compton MacKenzie was more famous for his 1946 novel "Whisky Galore" and the 1949 Ealing Comedy film of the same name.

Many are aware that Whisky Galore is based on the true story of a ship loaded with whisky being wrecked on a Hebridean island during the Second World War and how the islanders set about "salvaging" large quantities of their favourite tipple which, of course, was severely rationed due to the war. But the aspect of the story that's always interested me the most is how the ship, the SS Politician, came to be wrecked.

1941. To fund the war effort, Britain needs to export goods to the USA. It was horrendously dangerous for the ships and crews of the Merchant Navy as German U-Boats were waiting just off the British coast to pick off merchant ships almost as soon as they had left port. In the year between July 1940 and June 1941, 3.5 million tons of British ships were sunk - the equivalent of almost 450 ships the size of the Politician.

Two tactics were adopted to attempt to protect the shipping - convoys escorted by Royal Navy warships (safety in numbers) and individual merchant ships making a dash for it in the hope of avoiding the U-boats concentrating on richer pickings amongst the convoys.

Belonging to the firm of T & J Harrison, the 18 year old Tees-side built Politician (8,000 tons, 450 feet/140m) left Liverpool on 3 February 1941 on the latter type of mission under the command of the impressively named Captain Beaconsfield Worthington. She was not loaded solely with whisky but carried 22,000 cases of it amongst a mixed cargo of literally everything from motor cycle hubs to machetes.

Bound for Jamaica and New Orleans, she planned to outwit the U-Boats by not sailing due west round the north of Ireland but instead sailing north inside the Outer Hebrides before turning west. Departing Liverpool at 9.00am, the Politician sailed north through the Irish Sea then the North Channel between the Mull of Kintyre and Ireland.

Around midnight she was between the Rhinns of Islay and Malin Head where she altered course to starboard to aim for a position 10 miles west of the Skerryvore Lighthouse.

Sighting the Skerryvore light was not recorded in the ship's log but at 4.08am on the morning of 4th February - when she must have been around 10 miles west of it - the Politician altered course to starboard again onto a heading of 013 degrees (True) to take her between Skye and the Outer Hebrides. The weather at the time was a south-westerly gale, rough sea, overcast and raining.

Three and a half hours later, at 7.40am, the bridge was alerted by a call of "Land Ho" from the look-out. But they were appalled to hear that the land sighted was off the starboard (right) bow instead of to port (left) as might have been expected given the intended course. The officer on watch, the mate, Mr Swain, frantically ordered the helm to be put hard to port and the engines full astern (must have been not unlike when the Titanic sighted the iceberg off its starboard bow) but the Politician almost immediately ran aground. The engines were kept running astern for 20 minutes but it was no good and eventually they were shut down as the engine room flooded.

I'm not sure exactly where the Politician grounded but it was somewhere in the shallows at the east end of the Sound of Eriskay.

How could this navigational blunder have happened? My own amateur calculations with the aid of Google Earth show that a course of 013 degrees (True) would have taken the Politician inside the Outer Hebrides if she had indeed altered course 10 miles west of the Skerryvore. But if she had altered course only 3 miles out, 13 miles west of the lighthouse - easily done in the age before radar and GPS - then 013T would take her to where she foundered.

The land off the starboard bow sighted by the look-out was the south-east point of South Uist, Ru Melvick (where Sgeir a' Mhill is marked on the map above) but Captain Worthington had no idea where the Politician was. A distress call at 8.22am, 40 minutes after the grounding, reported "Ashore south of Barra Island, pounding heavily." In fact, she was ten miles away, north of Barra: a Royal Navy vessel sent to assist, HMS Abelia, went off on a wild goose chase south of Barra as did the Castlebay lifeboat which was launched at 10.00am.

Although she had grounded in shallow water and was in no danger of sinking, Captain Worthington was concerned that the Politician might break up in the heavy seas. So at 10.30am 26 non-essential crew members (cooks etc.) were lowered in a lifeboat. The boat was swept north before the storm and wrecked on the shore of South Uist but miraculously they all managed to scramble ashore. This was witnessed by islanders on Eriskay who put a sailing boat out and, with incredible navigational skill, managed to rescue the stranded crewmen to safety.

Above - the Sound of Eriskay looking north to South Uist. The point where the lifeboat was wrecked is just out of view to the right while the wreck of the Politician itself is about a mile to the right of this view.

By mid afternoon, the weather had begun to moderate so the Eriskay folk decided to take the rescued sailors back out to the Politician. Thus, at 3.00pm, more than 7 hours after the grounding, did the officers finally learn their true position. The Castlebay lifeboat was diverted and arrived alongside at 4.45pm to evacuate all the crew to Barra.

Thus concluded the immediate emergency of the grounding. The aftermath was that salvage of the cargo began a fortnight later on 18 February and was completed on 12 March. Significantly for posterity, the salvors did not consider the whisky on board worth saving - spirits with no tax paid on them (because they'd been intended for export) had insufficient value to warrant the effort.

It was in the interim before the salvaging of the ship itself began in May that the looting - or "rescuing" depending on your viewpoint - of the whisky aboard the wreck of the Politician by the local islanders took place. It's estimated that around 2,000 cases of whisky were clandestinely removed. The gangs of navvies building the RAF aerodrome on Benbecula would have provided a ready market. 30 people were convicted of theft at Lochmaddy Sheriff Court, receiving sentences ranging from fines of £2 to 2 months in prison. A significant feature in the prosecution cases was being found in possession of oil stained clothes indicating that the wearer must have been in the holds of the Politician where its fuel oil was still swilling around from ruptured tanks - nowadays there would be more concern about the environmental damage than the unpaid duty. Taking account of the fact that the local customs officer's car was also torched in its garage, it was not all the "jolly jape" portrayed by Whisky Galore.

As for the Politician herself, she was briefly refloated on 22 September to be temporarily moved to a nearby sand bank but by bad luck she settled on a rock which broke her back dashing all chances of saving the ship as a whole. Instead, in spring/summer 1942, she was cut in half and the forward section towed away in August. The aft section was cut down to low tide level and the remainder dynamited to prevent any chance of any remaining whisky on board - thought to be around 3,000 cases - falling into the wrong hands.

There are many other aspects of the "Whisky Galore" saga that could be mentioned (e.g. the Jamaican banknotes in the Politician's cargo) but I'll leave it by saying that Captain Worthington and Mr Swain, the mate, were both cleared of any responsibility for the wreck of the Politician and both survived the War. Swain went on to command another Harrison Lines ship and Worthington survived another sinking in 1942 to die in his bed in 1961 aged 84.

All the factual info in this post is drawn from the book "Polly" by Roger Hutchinson, 1990 reprinted 1998. I don't know if it's still in print or not.

And finally, if you've never read the novel "Whisky Galore", then you should. Compton MacKenzie knew islands well and captured their essence perfectly but without patronising the islanders (as for example the BBC patronised Highlanders in its version of Monarch of the Glen). The film was shot on location in Barra in 1948. I first saw it in the village hall at Achiltibuie in the early 70s but I prefer the book. The last time I was reading it, I was on a Calmac ferry in the Sound of Barra which ran aground on a sand bank, albeit very briefly before moving off unharmed! No whisky or Jamaican bank notes were aboard as far as I know!

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Castle Calvay

It's one of Scotland's less well known castles but next time you sail into Loch Boisdale on South Uist, look out for the island of Calvay off the south shore near the mouth of the loch: it's the island with the little light beacon at its western end.

Image Copyright Colin Wheatley and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

At the west end of the island, you'll see the fragmentary remains of Castle Calvay. I think this is the second biggest medieval castle in the Outer Hebrides after Kisimul Castle on Barra (which obviously stands head and shoulders above the rest of the competition). It's not much of a claim to fame as there's really not much to see of Castle Calvay - just a few low, jagged, broken walls:-

Image Copyright Peter Barr and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

Image Copyright Colin Wheatley and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

This is a picture of the castle from the landward side from the RCAHMS website, although it's hard to see it against the background.

You begin to get a slightly better picture from above as seen from Google Earth (By the way, what did armchair explorers do before Google Earth and Geograph had been invented?):-

The only history I can find about Castle Calvay is also on the RCAHMS website as follows:-

Calvay Castle, date uncertain, ruin of an islet fortification at the mouth of Loch Boisdale, from the roughly mortared stones of which it is possible to define an irregular curtain wall and the foundations of a small tower on the south-west corner. Fragments of the buildings that stood against the inner face are just discernible (there was a two-storey hall on the north side), as are gun slits, and the main entrance to the south. The history of this Outer Hebridean castle of enclosure - South Uist's answer to Kisimul - is shadowy. It is possible that it was built either by the MacRuaries of Garmoran or their successors, the MacNeils of Barra, to whom the Earl of Ross granted a charter of the lands of Boisdale in 1427. Bonnie Prince Charlie hid here in June 1746, after his sojourn in Glen Corodale.
From the above info, I attempted a plan of the castle traced from a close zoom-in on Google Earth:-

Friday, October 9, 2009

Next post?

My problem is that I've got more ideas for posts than I have time to post them:-

As you can see from that list, so far I've only managed to do High Bridge and Fort William. So what do you want me to write about? Anything on that list or something else? I don't promise to adhere to any suggestions!

I think I feel Calvay Castle coming on next, though.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

High Bridge

This is something I was unaware of until I started googling the fort at Fort William the other day - High Bridge a few miles up the road near Spean Bridge.

Built across the River Spean in 1736 by General Wade as part of his network of military roads through the Highlands, High Bridge is not marked with gothic lettering on any current Ordnance Survey map. That's probably because it collapsed in 1913 long after it had been bypassed by the current bridge at Spean Bridge a mile or so upstream (east). The latter bridge, which carries the A82 Glasgow - Fort William - Inverness road, was built by Thomas Telford around 1813 and widened when the A82 was improved in 1932.

This is how High Bridge looked in the late 19th century as photographed by the antiquarian Erskine Beveridge (picture sourced from RCAHMS):-

And this is how it looks today with only the piers remaining (and considerably more trees in the gorge):-

Image Copyright J M Briscoe and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

In the picture above there seems to be a metal bailey bridge from one bank over two of the piers but not crossing the river - I don't know, I've never been there.

Anyway, the remains of High Bridge seem to me to be a rather neglected landmark which deserve gothic lettering (and blue shading) on the OS map. Perhaps a brown tourist attraction sign on the road as well. The reason is that General Wade built about 250 miles of roads but only two major bridges. One is the very famous bridge over the River Tay at Aberfeldy (below) and the other is High Bridge.

(Above picture Copyright Jo McClure.)

I shall come back in a future posting to more detail on General Wade's military roads but in the meantime leave you with an extract from the 1875 OS one inch map showing the two bridges over the Spean before High Bridge had collapsed. (In between the two, a railway bridge was later built in the early 20th century which is gone now as well - I'll need to find out about that as well.)

Friday, October 2, 2009

Fort William

As you may have gathered from previous posts, I'm curious about places with overtly English names in the Gaelic milieu of the West Highlands of Scotland - what quirk of history gave rise to them?

One such is Fort William and I must confess I was just going to write about who gave his name to the fort which no longer exists at this town in south west Inverness-shire. But when I started researching this post (by which I mean 15 minutes googling) I discovered - news to me - that parts of the fort still exist.

There it is on the latest edition of the OS 1:25,000 map - I've never seen it marked on any previous OS map:-

I also found this picture of the remains of the fort on the Royal Commission for the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland website

It's the roughly oblong green bit between and below the two roundabouts. Next is a photo of the walls of the fort from Geograph:-

Image Copyright Nick R and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

The remains of Fort William are certainly not on the Historic Scotland trail and, as I say, I'd no idea there was anything left of it to see and apologies to anyone who's well aware of its continued existence.

This is the history. You've heard of the English Civil War in the 1640s when Parliament took up arms against King Charles I, right? In England, the gripe was the king's high handed attitude to levying taxes. But there was a also parallel civil war in Scotland in which the king's enemies - called the Covenanters - had a gripe about his religious policies. Long and short is Oliver Cromwell got fed up with all of them, closed down Parliament, executed the king (1649) and invaded and conquered Scotland (1651).

The Highland clans had been particularly active in Scotland on behalf of the king so, in 1654, one of Cromwell's key generals, General Monck, established a fort at the strategic location which is now Fort William but was called Inverlochy at the time. When King Charles II was restored in 1660, the fort at Inverlochy was abandoned but it was rebuilt in 1690 and renamed "Fort William" in honour of King William III (aka "William of Orange"). This was in the context of the overthrow of the Catholic Stuart King James VII & II in 1689 and the beginnings of the Jacobite rebellions which sought the restoration of the Stuart dynasty and in which the Highland clans were once again particularly active.

Fort William was besieged during the rebellions of 1715 and 1745 and reconstructed after the latter. However, part of the north rampart was destroyed in a flood in the late 18th century and, as peace had returned to Highlands by then, it was not repaired and abandoned as a military garrison. The picture below shows the fort around the 1880s by when it was in private ownership:-

And this is how the Ordnance Survey 25 inch scale map shows the fort in 1871:-

The end of the line for the fort came in the 1890s when it was bought by the West Highland Railway and mostly demolished to accommodate a goods yard in connection with the new railway into Fort William. Needless to say that goods yard is now occupied by a Tesco.

This last picture is also from the RCAHMS website. I'm not sure of the date but it looks early 19th century before the railway (or Tesco) and shows the fort to the left with the small village which grew up around it originally called Maryburgh in honour of Queen Mary, joint monarch with the eponymous King William.

The modern Gaelic name for Fort William - An Gearasdan - is simply a direct translation into Gaelic of "garrison".