Tuesday, May 24, 2011

MV Loch Seaforth

As Caledonian MacBrayne take delivery this week of their latest ship, the MV Finlaggan destined to serve the island of Islay, and flesh is finally put on the bones of what has for long merely been an artist's impression, it's interesting to go back 64 years and look at an artist's impression of another new ship for service to the Western Isles:-

This was the MV Loch Seaforth ordered by MacBrayne's for the important run from Mallaig and Kyle of Lochalsh to Stornoway on the island of Lewis. The picture above is scanned from their 1947 summer timetable printed on very thin, post-war utility type paper of almost toilet paper thin-ness. Post war scarcity also led to the new ship not, in fact, being ready "early this summer" as the brochure predicted and being delayed until December 1947.

The artist's impression is a good likeness of how the ship ended up looking except that her funnel was actually a bit narrower and taller and she also ended up being called "Loch Seaforth" (two words) rather than "Lochseaforth" (one word). It wasn't a printing mistake in the brochure, though. In 1928, when the company passed from the MacBrayne family to the joint ownership of Coast Lines and the London, Midland & Scottish Railway Company, MacBrayne's adopted the convention of naming all their new ships after Scottish lochs but always as one word - thus "Lochearn" rather than "Loch Earn". The Loch Seaforth broke that rule and became the first new ship in the fleet with a two word loch name (although in 1934, an existing ship, the Plover, had been renamed Loch Aline). Thereafter, new ships named after lochs followed the same pattern unless a one word loch name was being re-used (thus "Lochdunvegan" (1950) because she was the second MacBrayne ship of that name but "Loch Carron" (1951) because there had never previously been a "Lochcarron" in the fleet).

The Loch Seaforth at Kyle of Lochalsh - picture credit clydeboy63
 The Loch Seaforth served the Mallaig-Kyle-Stornoway run for over 24 years until she was replaced by a car ferry, the MV Iona, in 1972. The following year, the mainland terminus for the Stornoway service was moved to Ullapool and also in 1973, while on passge between Lochboisdale in South Uist and Tiree, the Loch Seaforth struck a rock in the Gunna Sound between Coll and Tiree. The passengers were evacuated in the lifeboats (without injury) and the ship made it to Tiree but she sank alongside the pier (I remember watching this on Reporting Scotland - I was 9 at the time) and remained there until patched up and towed away some weeks later to be scrapped. As the shipping services on the west coast would be totally converted to ro-ro car ferry operations by 1975, the Loch Seaforth's days were more or less numbered in 1973 anyway but she bowed out early with the dubious distinction of being the last Calmac (or antecedent companies) ship whose passengers have had to take to the lifeboats! Let's hope a similar fate doesn't befall the Finlaggan entering service this week

Finlaggan at Port Askaig - picture credit Richard Cameron

Monday, May 16, 2011


Here's a postcard I bought off eBay recently:-

It cost £6.50 plus p+p which is way beyond my normal price range but what made this one a "must have" was the little vignette of fishing history encapsulated in the message on the back.

Postmarked at Mallaig on 27 February 1927 and addressed from the SS Adequate (a steam powered fishing boat), the message reads:-

"Dear Bro. We had a hundred cran & the price was ten bob. We are fishing at the Rhu Rea just now. The herring was down to five bob yesterday & some boats lost their nets and ropes too. I think we will be home next week if we get a shot to run with. Hope you are all well at Home. Alex."

A cran is a measure of herring equal to about 170 litres and containing about 1,200 ungutted fish. So at 10 bob - i.e. 10 shillings or 50p - a cran, a catch of 100 earned the boat £50. "Rhu Rea" is the headland of Rubha Reidh where there's a lighthouse north of Loch Gairloch. (I wonder why, if they were fishing off RR, they went south, a further distance and further from home, to Mallaig to discharge their catch rather than to Stornoway, closer and nearer to home?)

Rubha Reidh light - Skye on the horizon - Photo credit Andy Hemingway
If anyone knows the answer to that or is related to Alex or William Slater from Gordonsburgh, Buckie or knows anything about the steam fishing vessel "Adequate", then do leave a comment.


Friday, May 13, 2011

The Parliamentary Churches

There are some awfully big parishes in the West Highlands of Scotland. In the early 19th century, one of the biggest was Kilmallie which included all the land on the west side of the Great Glen from north of Loch Arkaig to deep into Morvern as well as a big wedge of land on the east side of the Glen from Fort William to Loch Leven.

Another problem was parishes which were not only large but in which the church had ended up being in the wrong place due to shifts of population as a result of the Highland Clearances or the creation of new fishing villages (such as Tobermory and Ullapool) in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. A good example of the latter syndrome was the parish of Assynt in Sutherland.

The church was at Inchnadamph at the head of Loch Assynt which was a nice central location when the population lived in the inland glens but quite useless once it had been cleared out to the western and northern coastal strip and the new village of Lochinver. (Note, incidentally, that these two maps are not at the same scale. They make Kilmallie and Assynt look roughly the same sort of size but Kilmallie is actually much larger than Assynt.)

Ever since the Reformation (1560 in Scotland), there had existed a statutory procedure for building a new church where required, jurisdiction over such matters being vested in the sonorously titled "Commission for Plantation of Kirks". But the responsibility for actually paying for kirks, manses (Scottish equivalent of the vicarage) and the salaries of the ministers of the Church of Scotland rested with the "heritors" (landowners) of the parish. The initiative to "plant" (build) a new kirk had to come from the heritors and they were generally reluctant due to the multiplication of expense to themselves this involved.

A Highland heritor reluctant to put his hand is his sporran to pay for a new church.
The response to these tensions so far as the Highlands were concerned came with the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland appealing in 1819 for public funds for the endowment of new churches. 200 years ago, the provision of churches and ministers was regarded as a matter almost as (if not more) important than the provision of schools or dosctors would be today so Parliament eventually responded favourably with the Additional Places of Worship in the Highlands Act 1823.

This provided £50,000 of public money to build not more than 40 new churches (with relative manses), none to cost not more than £1,500. Provision was also made to renovate not more than 10 dilapidated churches and provide them with new manses. A stipend of £120 a year would be paid by the government to the ministers appointed to these "Parliamentary Churches", as they became known, and thus the heritors had nothing to fear bar the cost of maintaining the church to an amount not exceeding 1% of its building cost (i.e. max. £15 per year) so far as that wasn't covered by the pew rents of 2 shillings and sixpence per sitter a year. Imagine having to pay for the privilege of sitting in church! It was standard at the time and the 1823 Act provided that a third of the pews were to be set aside for the free use of poorer parishioners (and imagine the sort of "do you live in a coonsil hoose or a bought coonsil hoose" sort of snobbery that must have engendered!).    

The Act set up a Commission to oversee the building of the new churches and appointed as its consulting engineer (to use an anachronistic modern expression) the celebrated Scottish engineer, Thomas Telford: hence they are also sometimes referred to as "Telford Churches". They were all built in the late 1820s to a standard design (by William Thomson rather than Telford). For the manses, there was the option of the one or two storey design.

The example at Ullapool (now a museum) is typical with the Tudor "Y tracery" latticed windows and "spikily pinnacled birdcage bellcote" being characteristic of the Parliamentary Churches:-

Photo credit - The Poss
The manse at Hallin in Vaternish on Skye is a well preserved example of the two storey manse:-

Photo credit - RCAHMS
And the manse at Shieldaig, Loch Torridon is a good example of the one storey option - these are rather stylish Georgian villas:-

According to the Tenth Schedule of the Church of Scotland (Property and Endowments) Act 1925 (a more authoritative source it's hard to think of), 35 Parliamentary Churches (PCs) were built plus eight extra manses alongside churches which were renovated.

As well as those built in huge parishes like Kilmallie - which had two PCs built within its bounds, one at Corran of Ardgour and the other at North Ballachulish (Onich), these both to be served by the same minister whose single storey manse was at the latter location - and parishes in which the population had moved (Assynt where a PC was built at Stoer on the coast north of Lochinver), others were built on islands which weren't parishes in their own right (Iona, Ulva and Berneray). Others were built in the "new" fishing villages of the era (Tobermory, Ullapool, Plockton, Shieldaig, Portnahaven.)

The Parliamentary Church and Manse on Ulva - the "H-plan" is distinctive of the single storey manse design.
 Sixteen of the PCs are still in use, five have been rebuilt (Tomintoul, Tobermory, Lochgilphead, Shieldaig & North Ballachulish - all still in use), two have been demolished (Cross & Knock in Lewis), nine are intact but no longer in use as churches and four are in ruins (Berneray, Trumisgarry (N Uist), Oa (Islay) and Stoer). All of the manses are still standing but none - with the possible exception of Sandwick in Shetland which I'm not sure about - is still in use as a manse. The manse at Kinlochbervie is derelict.

The derelict Parliamentary Manse at Kinlochbervie - the little wings on either side are a classic part of the original design - Photo credit Gary Sutherland
 There's an irony about some of the Parliamentary Churches which is that, despite the great effort of having to get an Act of Parliament passed to get them built, many didn't retain the congregations they were designed for for very long. This was due to two factors. First, further clearances. This was exemplified by Ulva. In 1841, thirteen years after the PC was built, the island's population peaked at 859 but was reduced by clearance to 150 only 7 years later. By 1889, the population of Ulva had slumped to 53 and today is less than 20.

The second (and more prevalent) cause of the PCs losing their congregations so soon after they were built was "the Disruption" in 1843 whereby many Highland congregations walked out of the Church of Scotland to form the Free Church. Both syndromes (clearance and Disruption) are exemplified at what's probably the most famous of all the PCs, Croick in Easter Ross.

Croick Parliamentary Church - Photo credit Frank Stephen
The minister of Croick, the Rev. Gustavus Aird, led most of his congregation out to the Free Church leaving only two families worshipping in the Parliamentary Church. Two years later, in 1845, 90 people were evicted from nearby Glen Calvie and took temporary shelter in the church yard of Croick PC. The Glen Calvie clearance became famous for two reasons - first, it was covered "live" (as it were) by The Times newspaper and, second, a number of the evicted people scratched messages on the window panes of the church where they can still be seen to this day.

Scratchings on the window of Croick PC - Photo credit thefourthcraw
In combination with other less well publicised clearances from the glens around Croick Church, it is left at the end of the public road in a virtually deserted glen in a place less appropriate for a church it is now hard to imagine. Having said that, Croick remains in use to this day as a church despite - or perhaps because of - its history.

Inside Croick Parliamentary Church - photo credit Lee Carson

No doubt there are other Parliamentary Churches with good stories to tell. I'd particularly like to hear about how Kinlochbervie came to be the only one: (a) in use today other than by the Church of Scotland (it's a Free Presbyterian Church); and (b) where the manse is derelict.

I leave you with a map of all the PCs and manses - click to enlarge.


Sunday, May 1, 2011

The loss of the brigantine "Aid" of Dundee

Amongst the thousands of volumes digitised in Google Books are some volumes of early 19th century Scottish legal case reports. I was drawn to these as a retired lawyer but they're as of much, if not more, interest for the human interest stories from a bygone era and local history they contain.

One such is the case of Thomson v Bisset, a suit between the owners of the brigantine "Aid" of Dundee and the ship's insurers arising out of its loss in East Loch Tarbert, Harris, in the Outer Hebrides in 1819.

In October that year, the Aid sailed from Riga (now in Latvia but in Russia in 1819) for Londonderry with a cargo of flax seed. Nearing the end of her voyage on the morning of the 15th, the Aid was sailing down the Minch when she was "driven by stress of weather into the harbour of Scalpa in the Hebrides" - Scalpay, as it's called nowadays, an island off the east coast of Harris.

As the Aid closed the Outer Hebrides, she came within what's known in nautical parlance as "pilot's fairway". In other words, she was sailing close enough to land away from home to merit having on board a local pilot to navigate her safely. The nearest official pilot was at Stornoway, 24 miles away to the north, but the Aid took on board the assistant lighthouse keeper from the Eilean Glas lighthouse at the east end of Scalpay who conducted her through the Sound of Scalpay to an anchorage at the west end of island. She dropped anchor at 1.00pm. The assistant keeper returned to the lighthouse (one of the very few in the 1820s) about three miles away and the sun set that day at about nine minutes past five.

At 6.00am the following morning, about two hours after high water, the Aid set sail again for Londonderry. She planned to follow the wind (being a sailing ship, she had little choice) and leave Scalpay to the west via East Loch Tarbert. But shortly after weighing anchor, the Aid ran aground on a sunken rock. She was stuck fast and holed and, as the tide fell, the ship fell off the rock and sank and was a total loss.

The map below shows the Aid's route in from the north east via the Sound of Scalpay to her anchorage near point X. The dotted line shows her planned route out to the west on the morning of the 16th except she was wrecked probably round about point Y. The Eilean Glas lighthouse is at the eastmost point of the island.

The owners of the Aid duly claimed on their insurance but the underwriters - a Mr Bisset and two others who were each liable to the tune of £100 - refused the claim. Not because the master of the Aid had been at fault in allowing the ship to run aground - it is, after all, against such accidents that one is insured - but rather due to an arcane nicety of marine insurance law as follows: The owners of a ship give its insurers a warranty that it will at all times be adequately crwed. When the ship is "in pilot's fairway", this involves having a local pilot aboard to navigate it safely. It is recognised that an official pilot is not available everywhere and the underwriters were not suggesting it was incumbent on the master of the Aid to send for the nearest one at Stornoway before sailing from Scalpay. But it was incumbent on him to take such local assistance as might have been had, namely, the Eilean Glas lighthouse keeper or at the very least one of the local fisherman (some of whom, it was noted, could speak English as well as their native Gaelic.)

Looking from the west end of Scalpay over the water where the Aid anchored on the night of 15th October 1819. She arrived from the right and attempted to leave to the left.
Legally, it mattered not that, in fact, when conducting the Aid in to Scalpay the previous day, the lighthouse keeper had pointed out to the master the rock the ship foundered on and warned him to take care of it if leaving to the west. In other words, the Aid went aground on a rock the location of which was known and the presence on board of a pilot would not have prevented the grounding. But that was beside the point, legally - if the Aid was deemed to be insufficiently crewed by being within pilot's fairway and not having a local pilot on board, whether the lighthouse keeper or a local fisherman, then the owners were "in breach of warranty" and the insurance was void.

So did the absence of a pilot in the particular circumstances the Aid found herself in on the morning of 16th October 1819 mean that her insurance was void? Five judges of Scotland's highest court, the Court of Session, ruled. You can tell that they all felt it was rather a hard case but in the end they voted three to two that the Aid was insufficiently crewed by not having the lighthouse keeper or a local fisherman aboard when she weighed anchor from Scalpay. An object lesson in taking care to comply with the conditions of your insurance to the letter even when it makes no difference to the outcome!

The Aid is not the only vessel to have come to grief in the treacherous waters of East Loch Tarbert. The Royal Commission on Ancient & Historical Monuments of Scotland lists at least eight, not including the Aid or what I believe to be the most recent wreck which you could still see on a rock off the south coast of Scalpay from the car ferry to Tarbert from Uig in 2006 when I was last on that ferry. I don't know if there's anything still visible but you can see it on Bing Maps aerial photography:-

If anyone knows the story about that wreck, then do leave a comment.