Monday, September 17, 2012


A few years ago, I wrote a series of articles about Peter's Port, the pier built in 1896 to serve the island of Benbecula in the Outer Hebrides.

OS Quarter Inch Map, 1922
The plan was to avoid traffic for Benbecula having to land at Lochboisdale or Lochmaddy piers and then brave the hazardous crossing of "the fords", as the tidal strands separating the island from its neighbours are known. But Peter's Port Pier ended up being a bit of a white elephant due to MacBrayne's refusing to call there on account of it not being equipped with any navigation lights or marks and consequently difficult of approach for their steamers. This most local of spats even led to regular questions being asked in the House of Commons until the issue was eventually overtaken by construction of a road bridge linking Benbecula to South Uist in 1939.

Another criticism levelled at Peter's Port Pier in its early years was that it wasn't actually on Benbecula at all. In fact, it was on an off-lying islet which, for the first decade of the pier's existence, wasn't even connected to its parent island by a bridge or causeway! And the reason for harking back to Peter's Port is that I've found another example of this apparently most bizarre of all creatures - a pier with no road to it. By coincidence, it's at Lochboisdale:-

OS 25 inch scale map, surveyed 1878
Zooming out a bit puts that in context and shows it's not the present ferry pier before surrounding present day detail, such as the Lochboisdale Hotel etc., had been filled in. The map extract below from the OS 25 inch map of 1903 (click to enlarge) shows the "roadless pier" at bottom right with the present day ferry pier and hotel at top right.

Map by National Libraries of Scotland
The old pier is still clearly visible on Bing Maps (which I note in passing has just recently added some new high resolution aerial imagery of this part of the Outer Hebrides):-

 It's even still marked on modern OS maps as a "jetty":-

The old pier at Lochboisdale is not, however, recorded on the Pastmap website of antiquities which I suspect maybe a bit of an omission. So I have no idea what its history is and it's pure guess-work when I conjecture it could date to the kelping era of the late 18th/early 19th centuries.

Kelping was the gathering of seaweed and burning it to derive a material ("kelp") from which chemicals were extracted for industrial processes such as the manufacture of soap and glass. A topic deserving a blog entry of its own (a book indeed), kelping had a profound effect on the economy of the western seaboard of Scotland before it collapsed in the 1820s when it became cheaper to import the same chemicals from countries Britain had hitherto been at war with in the Napoleonic Wars. During its heyday c.1790-1820, kelping was responsible for creating the crofts (allotments for part time kelpers, essentially) which remain such a feature of north west Scotland to the present day.

Let's not digress in to kelping too much - my guess is the old pier in Loch Boisdale was a trans-shipment point to where kelp (the crystalline product of burnt raw seaweed) was brought in small boats from around the coast of South Uist to be loaded on to bigger boats - sailing smacks most likely - for transport south to Glasgow or Liverpool.The point is that kelping, being an essentially coastal business, had no need of roads to any piers. It was only later in the 19th century, in changed economic circumstances when roads were built on South Uist, that the village of Lochboisdale we know today developed around its road/shipping trans-shipment point at the pier which remains as today's ro-ro ferry terminal.

The point is a pier with no road is not as daft an idea as it sounds if you go back to an era before travel by road - facilitated by the internal combustion engine from the beginning of the 20th century - became the norm. (The problem with Peter's Port pier was it was built just as road transport was coming in to vogue.)  

Red arrow shows the old pier in relation to the modern Lochboisdale village and pier: photo credit RCAHMS
This is all very topical as far as Lochboisdale is concerned because planning permission was granted in October 2011 for the construction of a new harbour on the island of Gasaigh (the one at top left of the photo above).

Clearly having learnt the lessons of Peter's Port, the plans include a causeway out to the island via Rubha Bhuailt (Gaelic for "cattle fold peninsula", I believe) past the site of our old roadless pier:-

Promoted by Storas Uibhist, the community landowner of South Uist, the project includes breakwaters to enclose pontoons for fishing and leisure use. It's going to cost about £10m to be paid for by a variety of public and lottery etc. sources. Last I heard was the funding package had been assembled but I'm not sure when work actually begins or when it's planned to be completed. I was going to suggest looking at Storas Uibhist's website for the latest news but I see they haven't updated since December 2011. I'm not sure if that's good news or means the thing's stalled, or what ...

I gather also that these proposals are just the first phase of a bigger plan involving the ferry terminal being moved out from its current location together with housing and industrial units and even a cruise ship terminal on Gasaigh.

I understand that CMAL (the Scottish Government owned company which owns the ships and ports operated by Calmac) have objected to the application for a statutory Harbour Order for the project - could this be an echo of MacBrayne's refusal to countenance Peter's Port? And has the County Archivist insisted on a condition to protect the historical significance of the old road-less pier on Rubha Bhuailt?

Could the Lochboisdale scheme end up going the same way as the ambitious plans for Kyle of Lochalsh in 1950 (pictured above) I wrote about a couple of years ago (link to that here), that's to say only partially completed and not fulfilling its whole potential?

Whatever, I leave you with an exceptional picture of Loch Boisdale (taken by South Uist native and very nice man Allan Macdonald) showing the Calmac ferry MV Lord of the Isles steaming down the loch bound for Castlebay and Oban. That's the island of Gasaigh behind the ferry where the new harbour etc. is planned.

I wonder what the view in Allan's photo will look like in five year's time? Maybe these guys know:-

Friday, September 7, 2012

Shuna Castle

Picture credit extra-minty
Duncraig Castle was at least Victorian but, having been built in 1911, Shuna Castle is not even Edwardian! The only feature it shares with any real castles (bar these faux battlements) is that it's empty and crumbling. In reality, it was no more than a rather pretentious farmhouse. And as I'm not certain even its owners ever called it a "castle", from hereon I'm going with the Ordnance Survey and calling it Shuna House.

Something I've always been interested in is small islands with disproportionately large and grandiose houses on them. At 1,100 acres (450ha), the island of Shuna, 15 miles (25km) south of Oban, is relatively big compared to its house in the spectrum I'm thinking about but Shuna House is the only example of the genre I've ever had afternoon tea in.

Mapping from National Libraries of Scotland
I read in Hamish Haswell-Smith's "Scottish Islands" that, in the 17th and 18th centuries, Shuna seems to have been contested between the local clans, the Campbells and the MacLeans. But as was so often the case, the island passed around the turn of the 18th/19th centuries from its ancestral owners to alien nouveaux riches. When owner James Yates died in 1829, he bequeathed Shuna to the City of Glasgow with the stipulation that the income be devoted to benevolent purposes. That didn't mean benevolent to the population of Shuna so Glasgow sold the island to invest the proceeds in something more profitable to its own citizens.

The north end of Shuna before the "castle" was built as seen on the OS 6 inch map of 1880
At the 1891 census, the population of Shuna was 11 meaning it was, in effect, a farm. Soon after, the island was bought - I believe - by Sir William Gully, speaker of the House of Commons. He was raised to the peerage as Viscount Selby upon his retirement from that office in 1905.

Mr Speaker Gully as cariacatured in Vanity Fair in 1896
The 1st Lord Selby died in 1909 so it may have been his son, James, the 2nd Viscount, who saw the crenellated new "farm house" on Shuna to completion two years later. If I'm sounding a bit vague about my facts, it's deliberate: I know the Selbys were the owners of Shuna for much of the 20th century but I've not been able to nail that it was they - and/or which one of them - who commissioned Shuna House.

Said to have cost £300,000 (about £30 million in today's prices), the architect of Shuna House, according to the Buildings at Risk Register, was a local, Neil Gillies from Lochgilphead. He is said to have died on the Titanic - more about him here where it's interesting to note his connection to the nearby Crinan Hotel.

Picture credit Andy Holmfirth
Zooming forward 60 years to the mid 70s, I remember dropping anchor off Shuna in my father's yacht (a functional and unpretentious 26' Westerly Centaur) and going up to the house. He had a business connection with the then chatelaine, Fiona Gully, and it was considered a ploy to call at her island home.

An attractive, vivacious lady in her mid 30s, a native of Iona, Fiona wasn't Viscountess Selby. Her husband was the younger brother of the then Viscount. I don't know what internal family arrangements had led to this "cadet branch" of the Gullys living on Shuna while the Viscount Selby of the day lived nearby on mainland Argyll. It doesn't matter because the Hon. Mrs James Gully (to give her her formal title) welcomed us into Shuna House irrespective of the details of her tenure.

We were given cups of tea in a cluttered but homely room. It obviously wasn't "the drawing room" and Fiona made no bones about the fact that the deteriorating condition of the house which her family were having increasing difficulty maintaining obliged them to retreat progressively into an ever smaller number of habitable rooms. I vividly recall a toddler trundling round the room on a tricycle ramming the furniture. Fiona interrupted the conversation to admonish the child: "Darling, please don't do that!" before turning back to her guests and saying, in a tone of charming self deprecation "It's Queen Anne, you know!"

Shuna House on Google Earth - the fact the road runs to the farm buildings but doesn't continue to the house suggests nobody's at home anymore.
The Gullys eventually gave up the unequal struggle of living in Shuna House in the mid-1980s. They went to live on the neighbouring larger island of Seil (the one that's connected to the mainland by "the Bridge over the Atlantic") but continued to farm Shuna.  

According to this website, it's the fact that Shuna House was flat roofed that had a lot to do with it being such a nightmare to maintain. In the course of googling information for this blog, I discovered an article in the Glasgow Herald in 1987. It reports that Edward Gully was being challenged by the Council for not having planning permission for the caravan he kept on the adjacent mainland to sleep in on the nights when he couldn't get over to Shuna (no public ferry) and it was too long a drive back round home to Seil. The point of mentioning this is the horrid irony that the article is next to an advert for "A permanent answer to leaking flat roofs":-

Too late for Shuna House, alas!

I was prompted to write this blog post by having chanced on this set of photos on Flickr showing the empty Shuna House in an advanced state of decay. Of these, the most arrestingly sad was the one below of the bathroom furniture clinging precariously to the walls after the floor beneath them had collapsed:-

Photo credit extra minty
If, on that day in the mid-70s when we called, uninvited, and were given tea, I'd asked if I could go to the loo, that might have been it.

Also in the course of googling the "research" for this post, I was sorry to find that Fiona Gully died in May 2012, far too young at 68. Another rather sad little coda to the tale was to learn of the death in a car crash in 2001 of Fiona's husband's nephew, Edward, the 5th Viscount Selby at the even younger age of 33. Noting that he was living on Mull at the time while his mother occupied the "family seat" at Ardfern, on mainland Argyll close to Shuna, Lord Selby's obituary in the Glasgow Herald also recorded that, having been a financier, he had been working latterly as a check out operator in the Tobermory and Oban branches of the Co-op.

Shuna House - photo credit rosyb
"How the mighty fall" was the expression that came to mind as I surveyed the evidence of the Gullys of Shuna. That's not to suggest, of course, that a person is any more or less worthy according to whether he be the holder of a great office of state like Speaker of the House of Commons or a check out operator; whether he lives in a castle or a council house. But it's another example (amongst many) of a man achieving a prestigious position, being rewarded with a peerage, buying a Scottish island and commissioning a "castle" on it. And yet, within four generations, his "dynasty" is a set of really very ordinary people struggling to make a living while still bearing the baubles of former splendour such as a largely meaningless title and a crumbling mansion they can no longer afford to maintain.

So far as I know, Fiona Gully's husband still owns Shuna and farms it in partnership with their sons. You can hire a holiday cottage there - see the island's website.

Photo credit extra-minty