Wednesday, September 27, 2017

The Inner Isles Mail Part 1 - Steamships and Crofters' Wars

The Inner Isles Mail

Following on from last year's post about the Outer Isles Mail, I can hardly now avoid writing about the Inner Isles Mail, the rather misleading - since it, too, sailed to the Outer Hebrides - name for the mail steamer service which ran from Oban to Tobermory, Coll, Tiree, Castlebay (Barra) and Lochboisdale (South Uist) until 1974 when Coll & Tiree and Barra & South Uist got their own separate car ferry services.

Before the 1880s, the Uists and Barra were served only by weekly cargo steamers from Glasgow operated by Messrs McCallum and Orme (separate businesses until amalgamated in 1929) and with their mail being delivered by a daily sailing packet from Dunvegan to Lochmaddy. Coll & Tiree were in a similar position, their mail packet sailing from Tobermory. Improved links to the new railhead at Oban opened in 1880 to speed up the mail (a letter from the mainland to Castlebay took six days via Dunvegan) and facilitate the export of fresh fish were therefore amongst the recommendations of the Napier Commission which enquired into crofting in 1883 so, in 1886, the Post Office was prevailed upon to breach its normal rule that developments in the postal service must be self financing and award a contract for the carriage of the mail by steamship from Oban: this mail contract would, in effect, subsidise the otherwise unprofitable carriage of perishable goods and passengers on the same vessel.

Hence in July 1886, the mail contractors, the Highland Fisheries Company of Oban, commenced a service from Oban to Tobermory, Coll, Tiree, Castlebay & Lochboisdale. Departure was at 07.30 every Monday, Wednesday and Friday with the steamer being back in Oban the following afternoon. The vessel employed was the Trojan. I can't find a picture of her and don't even know if she was a paddle or a screw steamer so I'm going to have to illustrate this post with pictures of other ships which at least give an idea of the sorts of vessel sailing out of Oban to the islands at the time:-

SS Hebridean - picture credit Bideford Buzz

But if we don't know what the Trojan looked like, some details of her inaugural run survive due to her tangential involvement in a saga ongoing at the time, the "Tiree Crofters War".

A number of radical Land Leaguers had raided - that is illegally occupied with a view to dividing into crofts for themselves - Greenhill Farm on Tiree and it had been resolved that the messenger at arms (similar to a sheriff's officer: Scottish equivalent of a bailiff) charged with serving notices of eviction on the raiders in order to restore the rightful tenant of the farm to his possession be accompanied by twenty commissionaires (retired soldiers) and twenty police constables. This posse had intended to charter John McCallum's Hebridean (pictured above: the predecessor to his better known Hebrides (I)) to take them to Tiree but McCallum declined the business: he was perhaps mindful of a threat allegedly made to the skipper of another vessel trading to Tiree that, if he landed any officers of the law on the island, he would not be able to take them off again because his ship would be sunk! But a Mr MacLaughlin, fishcurer of Glasgow and owner of a fleet of fishing steamers, had no such qualms: he dispatched his ship, the Nigel, to Oban and it sailed for Tiree with the posse in the small hours of the morning of Wednesday 21 July 1886. A few hours later, the Trojan sailed on her inaugural mail run to Coll, Tiree, Castlebay & Lochboisdale.

Radical crofters on Skye in 1884

The situation on Tiree was the talk of Oban. The town was agog to know how the officers of the law had been received - would there be a confrontation or resistance? But in the days before radio or telephone (an extension of telegraph services had also been recommended by the Napier Commission but it had not reached Tiree yet) there would be no news of events on the island until the Trojan returned to Oban the following afternoon.

In the morning, a snippet came with the MacBrayne's mail steamer from Tobermory, the Pioneer (I) - the Nigel had lain overnight at Tobermory. The tensions were such that, apparently, the MacBrayne crew didn't dare even speak to the Nigel's but it nevertheless emerged that she had landed the posse on Tiree but, there being no pier on the island in these days, an easterly gale prevented her lying off so she had retired to the shelter of Tobermory.

MacBrayne's Pioneer (I) at Corpach

So it appeared that the posse had landed on Tiree without incident but details of their reception at Greenhill Farm would have to await the arrival of the Trojan later in the day.

The Highland Fisheries Company's agent in Oban, Mr Blackie, had informed the Scotsman's correspondent that she was due at 4.00pm but due to the unseasonable weather she was half an hour late. A crowd had gathered on the pier and they assailed her master, Captain Mackechnie, on the bridge with questions before the steamer was even berthed: "Officers driven back by the islanders" the captain shouted back, a reply which appears to have stunned the crowd.

Thus was the Trojan greeted with more interest than might have been expected for the inaugural arrival of a new transport service. And the news she brought was rather more dramatic than the usual contents of the bags of mail she had been provided to carry. It turned out, however, that no violence had been offered by the islanders but rather the posse had deemed it prudent to withdraw to Scarinish Inn in the face of an apparently threatening crowd of about 300 at Greenhill. The authorities responded by dispatching a much larger force of 250 marines and 60 police and commssionaires the following week. This achieved service of the writs in something approaching a party atmosphere but eight islanders involved in the original confrontation were arrested. They were subsequently convicted of mobbing and rioting and deforcement (obstructing sheriff's officers in the course of their duty) and received sentences of four to six months in Calton Gaol: this was considered a lenient sentence in light of the absence of violence. Greenhill Farm was eventually legally divided into 18 crofts by the Land Court in 1912 (plan of that here - scroll down) and today the farmhouse - out of which its lawful tenant's furniture had been flung and its keys detained by Land Leaguers in 1886 - is advertised as a luxury holiday home on Airbnb.

Greenhill Farmhouse

Back from that little digression into the crofting history of Tiree, less dramatically but more in keeping with the purposes for which the mail service was instituted, it was recorded (here) that the Highland Fisheries Company was purchasing fresh cockles at the Trojan's ports of call, developing the market for them and helping alleviate poverty on Barra.

The Trojan was succeeded on the run in 1888 by the screw steamer Electric [EDIT 4/12/18 - the Trojan was, in fact, succeeded in March 1887 by the Holly, 379 tons built 1875. See also the useful comments by Iain Macleod below.] Sshe occasionally extended her trips to St Kilda but the HFC didn't retain the mail contract for long: in circumstances I don't know (if anyone does, leave a comment), it was handed over to MacBrayne's in April 1889. I'll continue that story in the next post.

Note - most of my information for this post came from transcripts of contemporary reports in the Scotsman you can read here.

OS One inch map of Tiree, 1895