Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Kingshouse Hotel demolished?

I was shocked - literally! - to see the above tweet the other day. Surely, the Kingshouse Hotel in Glen Coe can't be being demolished, can it?

Is it another of these establishments - like the Sutherland Arms Hotel at Lairg - which, no matter how venerable its history, is no longer viable in the modern market and has to go? But worry not, the Kingshouse Hotel is going to remain in business: it's the 1960s extensions to the rear which are being taken down for a redevelopment which will retain the original core of the building (below).

Aberdeen University - George Washington Wilson Archive

The Kingshouse Hotel was established as an inn in the early 1750s when the military road from Stirling to Fort William which goes past its front door was being built. It was one of a number of such "King's Houses" (inns) established along the military roads at this time (note to self to do another blog about the rest of them!). I've written about travellers' experiences at the Kingshouse in previous centuries before (here) and others are noted by Mary Miers' "The Western Seaboard - An Illustrated Architectural Guide" (indispensable to lovers of Kyles and Western Isles) who writes:-

So negative was the appeal of Kingshouse, that it was offered with a grant rent free to any inn keeper willing to take it on. The foul nature of its accommodation was widely documented. In 1802 the Surveyor of Military Roads thought it "had more the appearance of a hog stye than an Inn" and in 1819 Robert Southey wrote that it had "handsome English china but no bread" 

Interpretation panel on the West Highland Way - photo credit Barry Pretsell

Back with the current redevelopment plans, the hotel was recently acquired by the neigbouring Black Corries Estate and you can see the planning application (which hasn't been decided yet) here. Of the 63 (!) documents submitted, the most interesting is the Design Statement which includes these artist's impressions:-

Covell Matthews, architects

Note, however, that these plans don't include retention of the single storey wings on either side of the central original block. These wings seem to be of some antiquity as they feature in all old photos and also the footprint as shown on Ordnance Survey 6 inch map surveyed in 1870:-

National Libraries of Scotland

So I'm pleased to see that Highland Council's own Historic Environment Team has recommended retention of the wings in their consultation response but something I didn't see among all the documents, not even in the "Land and Visual Impact Assessment" - and I can't help wondering if this is deliberate - is an impression of what the iconic view of the front of the original building with the Buachaile in the background (below) is going to look like with that dirty great three storey extension behind? If I was a member of the planning committee, that's the question I'd be asking.

There's another curiosity about the Kingshouse Hotel which is that, despite the core dating back to the 1750s, it's not a listed building (although the bridge is). According to the Highland Council Historic Environment Team's response referred to above, the hotel used to be listed but was "de-listed" in 1985 for reasons not preserved. Does anyone else agree with me that it just doesn't look as old as 1750s? 1850s perhaps, but not 1750s. I don't think they did dormer windows breaking the eaves like that in the 18th century. I'm going to guess that the original inn as built in the 1750s was just a single storey and the extra half storey was added later.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Inner Isles Mail Part 4 - the Lochearn

Part 3 here.

picture credit John Park

We've reached the 1930s and the regular steamer on the Inner Isles Mail service from Oban to Tobermory, Kilchoan (Ardnamurchan), Coll, Tiree, Castlebay (Barra) and Lochboisdale (South Uist) was the Lochearn, built in 1930 and pictured above sweeping purposefully in to Oban.

Note, incidentally, that the Lochearn was not a steamship but she (and her diesel powered fleetmates) were always nevertheless referred to as "steamers", never as "ferries" which term was, until the advent of car ferries in the 1960s, reserved for launches which went out from the shore to meet steamers at places ("ferry calls") where there was no pier the steamer could get alongside. I've expatiated on the solecism of referring to steamers as ferries before (here) and I'm going to come back to the ferry calls (Kilchoan & Coll) on the Inner Isles Mail run in a later post.

The earliest timetable I have for the Inner Isles Mail is 1934, below:-

Basically, the Lochearn left Oban on Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings at 06.00 and ended up at Lochboisdale at 20.00. On Wednesdays and Fridays, she left again at 21.30 to return via the same calls as outbound to Oban where, including a 3 hour 15 minute layover at Castlebay, she arrived back at 14.45 on Thursday/Saturday afternoon.

On Mondays, the Lochearn waited at Lochboisdale for the arrival of the Outer Isles Mail steamer (her sister the Lochmor) from Harris and Lochmaddy (North Uist) at about midnight on her way to Mallaig. This allowed an interchange between the two ships such that passengers from Barra could travel to Mallaig and passengers from Harris and Lochmaddy could travel to Oban. The Lochearn then left Lochboisdale at 00.45 on Tuesday morning (15 minutes after the Lochmor left for Mallaig) and returned to Oban, just touching at Castlebay rather than making a 3h15m stop there as on Wednesday and Friday nights. The Lochearn also met the Lochmor at Lochboisdale at 20.00 on Fridays when the latter was en route northbound to Lochmaddy and Harris so this allowed passengers who had come from Oban on the Lochearn to continue to these ports.

Look closely (click to enlarge) and you can see both the Lochearn and the Lochmor are alongside at Lochboisdale here, the Lochearn, with slightly taller funnel, outside.

The schedule just described was the summer season (June to August) one. The right hand panel of the timetable pictured above says it's for "Until June 2 and from Sept 3 to 29" so it's not clear if that was for a "shoulder season" or the whole rest of the year. Anyway, note that the only differences are that, on Fridays off season, the steamer did not sail to Lochboisdale but returned to Oban from Castlebay via a call at Canna. Also, an extra 30 minutes is allowed to cross the Sea of the Hebrides between Tiree and Castlebay, presumably on account of less clement weather out of high summer.

This schedule remained the same until the War. There were inevitably disruptions during the conflict and the earliest post-War timetable I have is 1949 reproduced below.

The schedule has been simplified such that all three sailings per week now continue to Lochboisdale year round, arriving there at 21.30 and leaving again at 23.30. The Lochearn now met the Lochmor on the Outer Isles Mail on all of her calls at Lochboisdale, the Lochmor continuing north to Lochmaddy and Harris on Monday and back to Mallaig on Wednesdays and Fridays. The call at Canna on the return voyage once a week has been dropped as have all calls at Kilchoan since 1949: henceforth Ardnamurchan would be served by its own vessel crossing to Tobermory to connect with the Inner Isles and Sound of Mull mail steamers there. (I'll return to the Ardnamurchan services in a later post.)

The Lochearn at Castlebay

The Lochearn was re-engined in 1948 and, after her return to service, she went to take the Outer Isles Mail while the Lochmor was being re-engined as well. The Lochearn didn't return to Oban until June 1949 and, during her absence, the Inner Isles Mail was taken by the Lochness: this was the ship which had been ordered for the Stornoway Mail service in terms of the 1928 mail contract but had been relegated to spare overnight steamer (i.e. with sleeping cabins) by the advent of the Loch Seaforth (I) on the Stornoway run in 1947. The Lochness also relieved the Lochearn during her regular winter overhauls so she was seen quite frequently on the Inner Isles Mail in the late 1940s and early 1950s until she was sold in 1955.

The Lochness at Castlebay

In 1955, the Lochearn was replaced on the Inner Isles Mail by a new vessel. She went to take over the Sound of Mull Mail run (Oban to Tobermory via various calls on both sides of the Sound of Mull) until she was sold in 1964 upon the advent of new car ferries. But before we leave her, here's some video footage of the Lochearn leaving Oban in the 1960s when she was operating the Sound of Mull Mail (Note - the window below is too small to see the film properly so click on the title ("1960s Oban ...") to link through to Youtube to see it properly.):-

I'll come back to the story of the Inner Isles Mail under the Lochearn's successor in the next post..

The Lochearn in the Firth of Lorne on the Sound of Mull Mail service late in her career - photo credit Andy Carter

Monday, October 16, 2017

The Inner Isles Mail Part 3 - Questions in the House

Part 2 here.

After the First World War (I don't know the exact year: I've seen 1920 but also suggestions it was earlier), the mail routes from Oban to the islands were rearranged.

The Oban, Tobermory, Coll, Tiree and Bunessan run was abandoned and Coll & Tiree were added to the calls of the Castlebay & Lochboisdale steamer. The latter left Oban on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays and now terminated at Lochboisdale and returned to Oban the following day via the same calls instead of continuing to Lochmaddy and Dunvegan and returning via Pooltiel, Bracadale (on the west coast of Skye) and the Small Isles: it was, in effect, a return to the pattern between 1886 and 1891. (North Uist and the Small Isles would henceforth be served by the Harris steamer which was also relocated from Portree to Mallaig and Kyle while calls on the west coast of Skye were abandoned.)

The Cygnet (II) at Oban - scan from Duckworth & Langmuir's "West Highland Steamers", 2nd ed. credited to McIsaac & Riddle

The vessel employed on the Oban - Lochboisdale service - now known as "the Inner Isles Mail" - was the Cygnet (II) pictured above. She was a near sister of her immediate predecessor on the run, the Plover (III), which now operated "the Outer Isles Mail" from Mallaig and Kyle to Harris, Lochmaddy, Lochboisdale and the Small Isles. It's the angled derrick aft of the foremast visible in the pictures above and below which distinguishes the Cygnet from the Plover (whose derrick was attached to the foremast as you can see here):-

The Cygnet (II) approaching Gott Bay Pier, Tiree
The Cygnet came in for a fair bit of stick in the 1920s with questions even being asked in the House of Commons about her suitability: this one in 1925 is revealing:-

Mr Westwood [MP for Peebles] asked the Secretary for Scotland if he is aware of the primitive accommodation provided for passengers on the Royal Mail Steamship "Cygnet"; that there is only sheltered accommodation for about one dozen persons; and that passengers crossing from the mainland to the island of Barra are exposed to winds, waves, and rain; and, in view of the subsidy of £14,000 provided in the Scottish Estimates for the Hebridean steamer service, what action does he propose taking with a view to having this out-of-date canal boat service replaced by a suitable passenger service?

The Secretary for Scotland (Sir John Gilmour): I am informed that this vessel holds a passenger certificate issued by the Board of Trade, 66 first-class and 91 third-class passengers. Of this number the first-class passengers all have sheltered accommodation and shelter is available for 24 of the third-class passengers. I am informed that the owners are taking steps to improve the sheltered accommodation for third-class passengers. My right hon. Friend the Postmaster-General and I are at present examining generally the question of the Hebridean steamer services, including representations which have been made as to the vessels employed. 

Westwood's reference to the Cygnet being a "canal boat" shows he had been misinformed: it was the Cygnet (I) (1848-82) which had been designed to be able to pass through the Crinan Canal. In fact, in another parliamentary intervention (here), the MP even gets the canal wrong, referring to the Cygnet (II) having been built for service on the Forth & Clyde canal: she hadn't been built for any canal which all just goes to show there's nothing new about politicians pontificating about things they don't really know much about!

The Cygnet (II) at Oban

The mail contract was due for renewal in 1928 and the Government secured agreement from MacBrayne's to build two new ships, one for the Stornoway Mail service and the other for the Outer Isles Mail. The incumbent vessel on the latter route, the Plover (III), would replace the Cygnet on the Inner Isles Mail: despite the two being quasi-sisters, this was thought to be an improvement, perhaps because, unlike the Plover, the Cygnet had been built primarily as a cargo steamer and only adapted for passenger use after the War. In the longer term, MacBrayne's undertook to build a new ship for the Inner Isles Mail if they obtained the next mail contract in five years time. But if the Government was satisfied with that, Parliament wasn't: the House of Commons refused to ratify the contract and remitted the issue to a Select Committee to report (read the debate here).  The picture below is of the Plover so if she was considered an improvement on the Cygnet, it's perhaps understandable why she came in for such criticism!

On board the Plover (III) - I have it recorded I found this photo on Shipsnostalgia but can't now find it there to link a proper credit: if anyone recognises the picture as their's, please let me know so I can give due accreditation or remove it if preferred.

Meanwhile, MacBrayne's intimated their intention to withdraw their services altogether from 31 October 1928 so the Select Committee brokered a deal whereby MacBrayne's would (in effect) be taken over and recapitalised by a joint venture between the LMS Railway Company and Coast Lines Ltd, one of Britain's biggest coastal shipping companies. A revised mail contract was drawn up (although by now, "mail contract" was little more than a fig leaf for public subsidy for what would nowadays be called "lifeline services") providing for a new ship for the Inner Isles Mail as well as the Outer Isles and Stornoway and this was approved by Parliament (although not until after a division on an amendment concerning the size and speed of the proposed Stornoway steamer: read the full debate here).

The ships built for the Outer and Inner Isles Mail services were the identical twin sisters Lochmor and Lochearn respectively which entered service in 1930.

The Lochearn at Castlebay - from 1929 to (I think) 1932 MacBrayne's ships bore a grey hull as seen here.

The characteristically starchy description of the Lochearn and her sister by Duckworth & Langmuir in "West Highland Steamers" is worth quoting in full:-

The two ships were built at Ardrossan, and in profile are different from anything we have dealt with so far. With straight stems, exceptionally ugly cruiser sterns, two masts, and single funnels, the vessels were quite imposing; but the tout ensemble is not pleasing, largely on account of the insufficient rake of masts and funnels and the form of the latter. Viewed from forward the ships look well; but as broadside and aft views are obtained, their aspect becomes progressively worse, until when seen from aft they are definitely ugly. This was rarely the case with the old ships. We have heard statements to the effect that the Lochearn and Lochmor are like a pair of models bought at a toy shop, and this is frankly not far from the truth with respect to their external appearance! The best way of making it impossible to ascertain what a ship looks like in the water is to go on board, and this is what the vast majority of passengers do because it is of interest only to a very few individuals of odd habits - like ourselves - to know how the vessel appears!

Having arrived on board a whole host of pleasant surprises is at hand - particularly if the traveller retains vivid memories of the older ships on the route - because without fear of contradiction it can truthfully be stated that the passenger accommodation in both classes, bearing in mind the size of the vessels, is very good.

Within the limits of a little over 500 tons a total of 400 passengers could be carried. This was the extreme permissible figure and of course berthing facilities for such a number are not possible. The first-class cabins provided are on two decks, and were very well laid out with really comfortable bunks, reading lamps, and both hot and cold running water. For a passage of one or at most two nights on board nothing more could be desired. We refrain deliberately from employing that overwrought and much abused word "luxury". It has been boiled to rags, and now means in travel literature anything or nothing.

The public rooms comprise a dining room with separate small tables, a lounge, and a smoking room, all tastefully and comfortably furnished. All this accommodation is amidships and was repeated on a plainer scale for third-class passengers aft. The latter accommodation is perhaps the more striking of the two as far as comparison with the old ships is concerned. All the sanitary arrangements and equipment are excellent. Another important and highly necessary feature is the provision of ample covered-in deck space, again for both classes of traveller. In these two ships passengers who have not already made their acquaintance will find a revelation awaiting them in travel to and from the Hebrides.

* * *

The Lochearn and the Lochmor are very difficult to tell apart except that the Lochearn's funnel was slightly taller. Both ships had their funnels shortened early in their careers - more than once, I think - but the Lochearn's remained taller each time. In the picture below of the two at Lochboisdale, the Lochearn is lying outside (on the right):-

Next episode here.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Eoligarry revisited

Picture credit - Calum I MacLean

Back in 2010 (though it seems like yesterday!), I wrote a post about Eoligarry House on Barra. This was the incongrously large Georgian house pictured above built about 1790 and demolished in the 1970s which was briefly the residence of the MacNeils of Barra between when they vacated Kisimul Castle and when they sold the island in 1838. The house and surrounding farm were later sold to two brothers called MacGillivray around 1900 (their father having been the tenant since the 1840s) and they retained the house when the farm was acquired by the Board of Agriculture for Scotland in 1919 to be divided into crofts.

My reason for revisiting Eoligarry is that today I came across a description of it in the late 1930s in a book called "Hebridean Journey" by Halliday Sutherland available at Archive.org:-

At Eoligary are the ruins of an ancient chapel and an old burial ground, but near by was Eoligary House, a bleak, square building whose owner was the last of his race and the house the last of his possessions. His collection of stuffed birds had caused me to knock on the door, and the knocking echoed as it might have echoed from an empty house. The day was  warm and sunny, but as l stood on the doorstep I remembered the phantom listeners in Walter de la Mare’s poem:

“Hearkening in an air stilled and shaken
By the lonely traveller's call."

Soft shuffling steps answered my knocking, and an old bent woman let me in to a carpetless hall walled with cases of stuffed birds, and then into what once had been a dining-room. There was a mahogany table, chairs, a bare side-board, and stuffed birds in glass cases on the walls were the only decorations. There was no carpet in the room, and it must have been years since a fire had been lit in the empty grate, or windows had been opened, because the room smelt of mildew, damp, and dust. At last the owner of the house appeared, a tall, pallid, gaunt old man, who gave me a chair and drew one from the table for himself. I mentioned the stuffed birds, but in them he was no longer interested, because after his brother's death the best specimens had been given to the museum at Inverness. He talked incessantly of people and of times I had never known, and was petulant when I revealed my ignorance. His grievance was that no one ever came to see him, but from what I heard from the postman neither he nor his forebears had ever sought friendship in the days of their manhood. For one thing only was I grateful, namely that he neither offered me food nor drink in that house, and at the end of half an hour I rose and declared that I must leave him lest the postman returned without me. The old man asked me to call again, but as I left his decaying abode I knew that I would never return.

The old man who owned the house would have been the surviving MacGillivray brother. He died in 1939, very soon after his visit from Halliday Sutherland.

Eoligarry House in a cameo role in a film about Barra on the Moving Image Archive (at 8.32 and 8.44)

Sunday, October 8, 2017

The Inner Isles Mail Part 2 - Mail Steamers and U-boats

Part 1 here.

In April 1889, MacBrayne's took over the Oban to Coll, Tiree, Castlebay (Barra) and Lochboisdale (South Uist) mail contract from the Highland Fisheries Company which had operated it since it began in July 1886.

The first vessel MacBrayne's placed on the run was the screw steamer Clydesdale (I): like her HFC predecessors, she occasionally extended her voyages to St Kilda where she is seen below:-

The Clydesdale (I) - a scan from Duckworth & Langmuir's "West Highland Steamers", 4th ed. credited McIsaac & Riddle

The Oban-Islands mail route referred to in MacBrayne's 1889 "Summer Tours" handbook

In 1891, the mail runs from Oban to the islands were separated into two services: one ran to Tobermory, Castlebay and Lochboisdale and then continued to Lochmaddy and Dunvegan before returning to Oban through the night via Pooltiel and Bracadale on the west coast of Skye, Canna, Rum and Tobermory: this service operated six days a week employing two steamers, one going clockwise round these ports departing Oban Monday, Wednesday and Friday while another ran anti-clockwise on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.

Coll and Tiree, meanwhile, received their own thrice weekly service which also called at Kilchoan on Ardnamurchan and continued to Bunessan in Mull, returning to Oban via the same calls the following day. Both routes are shown on the map and timetable below:-

Mail routes from Oban 1891-1920

Oban mail steamers in 1894

The vessels employed on the Outer Isles service were at first the Flowerdale (MacBrayne's first twin screw steamer) partnered by the much smaller Staffa (III).

The Flowerdale at Tobermory

The Staffa (III) at Oban - scan from Duckworth & Langmuir's "West Highland Steamers", 4th ed. credited to McIsaac & Riddle

The Staffa was superseded in 1903 by the Lapwing (II) and, upon the Flowerdale being wrecked off Lismore in 1904, she was replaced by the Plover (III), a sister ship of the Lapwing's. The Lapwing was, in turn, replaced by another very similar ship, the Lochiel (II), in 1908 and the Plover and the Lochiel then served the Oban-Outer Isles route up till WWI.

The Plover (III) at Balmacara

The Lochiel (II) scan from Duckworth & Langmuir's "West Highland Steamers", 4th ed. credited to J B MacGeorge's Collection

The Coll, Tiree and Bunessan route, meanwhile, was served first by the Fingal (II) and then, after 1909, the Dirk. By this time, the Bunessan service had been altered such that the Dirk was stationed at Tobermory rather than Oban: on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays she sailed to Coll, Tiree and Bunessan while on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays she sailed from Bunessan back to Tobermory via Oban, thus completing a anticlockwise circuit of Mull. (I don't know but assume the call at Kilchoan must have been transferred to the Outer Isles steamer.)

The Fingal (II) at Rothesay - scan from Duckworth & Langmuir's "West Highland Steamers", 4th ed. credited to A Ernest Glen

The Dirk at Oban - scan from Duckworth & Langmuir's "West Highland Steamers", 4th ed. credited to McIsaac & Riddle

The mail runs to the islands from Oban were naturally disrupted during WWI and two of the three ships working them - the Dirk and the Lochiel - were lost after having been requisitioned by the Admiralty.  But the third, the Plover, has the distinction of being the only vessel to have been attacked by an enemy while on service with MacBrayne's! According to Duckworth & Langmuir's "West Highland Steamers":-

On 29th July, 1918 while on the Oban to Castlebay run Plover was shelled by a German submarine when one hour past the "passage of Tiree". With one small gun at stern Plover started counter-attack. The master (Captain Neil MacDougall) decided to lower the two ship's boats with passengers; and the submarine submerged. Plover arrived at Barra at 7p.m. and the first boat at Rhum during the night. The other boat followed the route taken by Plover to Castlebay, arriving at dawn.

I assume the thinking behind not picking the passengers back up from the boats was that they would be safer there than on board the Plover if the submarine returned to the attack, the Germans being more interested in destroying our ships than our civilians. But anyway, that's all I've ever been able to discover about this episode - I'm surprised it's not better known, the subject of books, films etc. a la Whisky Galore, the Scarp Rocket Post etc.         

After the war, the Islands mail services were radically restructured again but I'll continue the story in a subsequent post.

The Plover (III) leaving Castlebay - picture credit Calum I Maclean