Saturday, 4 January 2014

'Celtic Christianity' and St Columba

St Columba and ‘Celtic Christianity’

Donald E. Meek


Some time ago, on 9 June, which is the accepted date of the Festival of St Columba, I listened to a talk on the saint.  I am always both interested in, and wary of, such talks, as they are very likely to present a ‘Columba’ who does not conform to the picture that I have of the saint, if I have a ‘picture’ of any kind.  This talk was no exception to the general rule.

Several points made by the speaker remain vividly in my mind.   First, I was struck by the assertion that, in 563 AD, Columba moved from Ireland to what the minister called a ‘foreign country’, that is, Scotland.   Those of us who are speakers of Gaelic and/or Irish can immediately see the misconception at the heart of that claim.  We know that the western seaboard of what is now Scotland is likely to have shared the same culture as Ireland, that is, Goedelic or early Gaelic culture.  The density and vitality of that culture in the islands of western Scotland at that time are not clear, but Columba was by no means in foreign territory when he arrived in Iona.  It is highly likely that Gaelic-speaking people had been there many, many times before him.  Indeed, it could be argued that, in terms of its position, Iona was a bridgehead between similar cultures, not a dividing-line between different cultures.

If our friend had read Vita Columbae, Adomnán’s ‘Life of Columba’, composed a century after the saint’s death, it would have been evident that there was very little sense of ‘strangeness’ in Adomnán’s presentation of Iona and what was known as Dál Riata – there was, of course, a Dál Riata in Scotland, as well as in Ireland.   However, it would have been equally evident that the land occupied by the Picts beyond Druim Alban was truly ‘terra incognita’ to Columba, a land of hostility where there was competition, opposition and danger, compared with the relatively warm atmosphere of Iona and its environs.  It is a measure of the ‘otherness’ of Pictland that Columba encountered a dangerous monster in the River Ness – so dangerous that it killed one of his monks.   In other words, when Columba went to visit the king of the Picts, as Adomnán relates, he did venture into ‘foreign territory’, but it is unlikely that Iona would have been ‘foreign’ to him.  

Second, the speaker emphasised Columba’s affinity with the natural world, and how he and his monks lived in harmony with nature.  That was the ‘Celtic way’.   And for many people today, that is the ‘Celtic way’.   But was it the ‘Columba way’?   Not if you read Adomnán’s Vita Columbae, and follow his adventures in Pictland beyond Druim Alban.  There hostile animals have to be slain, like the boar that falls down dead by the saint’s very word, the verbum sancti.  The affinity with the natural world which was, apparently, typical of the ‘Celtic way’ was reflected in simplicity of lifestyle, and, in contrast to the so-called Roman church of the early Christian centuries, it avoided structures and organisations.  Well, no; not if you read about the synods of early Ireland to which Adomnán refers in his Vita Columbae, and had a bearing on Columba’s own life.  One could add too that there was plenty of ‘structure’ in the paruchia or group of monasteries established by Columba.  He was boss, and he supervised their overall operations.  Sometimes I think of him as the Chief Executive of a group of businesses, and thus much closer to our own management-driven form of secular life than we might dare to think.  Abbots of monasteries, like Chief Executives in our own day, were powerful people.

From there it was but a short step for the speaker to emphasise, thirdly, Columba’s natural kindness, the loving and generous atmosphere of the ‘Celtic Church’ in which he and his monks operated, and so on.  Well, again, on the basis of the Vita Columbae, we have to disagree, if we reflect on the power of the saint’s curses, his ability to foretell the demise of the wicked, and his potentially malevolent powers.   These have to be set alongside his periods of prayer locked away in Hinba, with bright light shining from his cell, his angelic visitations, his insights into the future – his positively supernatural attributes did exist, but so also did his negatively supernatural aspects.

One point that speaker made quite correctly, if we accept Adomnán’s Vita Columbae as a correct record of Columba’s life, was his love of the Psalms and the Psalter.   That is also suggested by objects like the the Cathach or ‘Battler’, a Psalter attributed to Columba’s penmanship.

I use these points from a commemorative talk on St Columba to illustrate how Columba weaves in and out of myth and reality, between Columba as we might wish him to be, and Columba as he may well have been.  I say ‘as he may well have been’, because we have to be aware that even what we may term our ‘historical sources’, that is to say, Adomnán’s Vita Columbae and its constituent parts, also has its own set of ‘myths’ at its heart.  Columba, it would seem, was subject to manipulation within a century after his death.  Indeed, I would go as far as to say that Adomnán wanted to give his saint the very best possible ‘make-over’, and consciously drew parallels between Columba and Christ, mainly in the realm of the miraculous, where similar miracles are attributed to Columba as are recorded of Christ in the Gospels. 

To make Adomnán’s Vita Columbae stand as an historical source, we have to be extremely judicious in what we are prepared to accept as history, and we have to peel off a considerable amount of later legends which were grafted on to the real life of the saint for various purposes, political, spiritual, canonical, or whatever.  Some might even be prepared to say that the real essence and value of the Vita Columbae lie not in the portrayal of the saint, but in the portrayal of his context, and the details that are furnished about the life and work of the monastery of Iona, as well as the political and social structures of Scottish Dál Riata .  In other words, even by the end of the seventh century, Columba has entered the realm of myth and its accompanying ‘functions’, and we are not dealing with the straightforward evaluation of an historical figure.  He is a literary figure too, made to carry messages on behalf of writers from a later day. Saints were ‘up for grabs’, particularly at times of special commemoration, because of their posthumous powers and their status after death, and if we do not recognise that, we wander into the Vita Columbae at our very considerable peril.

This takes me to the second part of the title of this talk, namely ‘Celtic Christianity’.  As many of you will know, back in 2000 I put my life on the line, and wrote a book entitled The Quest for Celtic Christianity.   This book was my response to what I considered to be an increasingly irritating movement that wanted me, as a Gaelic speaker and Celtic scholar, to affirm its basic presuppositions about saints and monks within what the movement called ‘Celtic Christianity’.  ‘Celtic Christianity’ was, and is, built on foundation pillars (very shoogly ones, of course!) which were similar to the points made in the talk to which I referred at the outset of this lecture – the missionary character of the saint (or saints), venturing into foreign territory, and converting the inhabitants to the Christian faith; the warm rapport between the saint (or saints) and the natural world; and the saint’s (single or plural!) natural kindness, generosity and love for all people.  In addition, the ‘Celtic Christianity’ movement of the 1990s made great play of its understanding that so-called ‘Celtic saints’ had achieved a happy compromise between pre-existing pagan or non-Christian practices and the Christian faith itself.  Allegedly, the ‘Celtic saints’ had been prepared to accept different aspects of ‘paganism’ or pre-Christian beliefs as part of a syncretistic form of Christianity which, said its advocates, we ought to recapture and emulate in our own time.

Over a decade later, and now well into the twenty-first century, what I find fascinating in retrospect is how the twentieth century seemed to be obsessed with ‘Celtic Christianity’ as the century came to a close.  Saints who for many years had remained largely unknown to the great British public suddenly achieved fresh profiles, and new ‘vitae’ were published, often in the shape of compact little paperbacks, complemented by dapper volumettes of ‘Celtic prayers’, beautifully illustrated with modern interpretations of so-called ‘Celtic art’, derived from the high crosses and other insignia of the ‘Celtic Church’.  The so-called ‘Celtic way’ was the way to go, or so many believed, at the end of the twentieth century.  New centres of ‘Celtic’ devotion appeared, pilgrimages became very fashionable, and so too did trails which followed the footsteps of the saints.  You could go for a ‘Celtic retreat’ in Lindisfarne, for example, or you could undertake a pilgrimage to Iona or to any number of places associated with saints, including, of course, our ubiquitous Columba.  Given the sense of place which was generated, and the notion of secure location, it was easy to assume that everything was genuine.

It was all a very sentimental, touchy-feely time, and stood in the sharpest possible contrast to the way in which the twentieth century had begun.  Things were much more macho, much less gooey, back then. The heroes then embraced by secular (rather than religious) society were not saints.  Rather, they tended to be sinners, failures in their own time, who, in spite of their faults, had been elevated to the status of great soldiers and explorers and missionaries. General Charles Gordon of Khartoum is perhaps the best known of the soldiers who became household names within a Christian interpretation of their ‘heroic last stand’.  On the side of the explorers, I think of Captain Robert Falcon Scott and the tragedy of his race to Antarctica which turned him into a national hero, ‘Scott of the Antarctic’, alongside Titus Oates.  Again, there was a profoundly religious aura to Scott and to Oates, as presented to the public after their deaths.  At the same time, the star of David Livingstone was still shining brightly.  He was seen as the archetypal missionary figure, opening darkest Africa for the bright rays of the Christian gospel. 

Almost all of these figures were subsequently knocked off their pedestals by researchers who went back to the documentary sources for the relevant periods, and reached very different conclusions about their roles.  I well remember when Tim Jeal’s ‘revisionist’ book on David Livingstone appeared.  I was a student at Cambridge then, and I was astonished when I read Jeal’s verdict on the old Scottish ‘saint’.  He had been a total failure as a missionary, more or less, and he was not a very pleasant person in many respects.  In fact, he had been instrumental in letting the British Empire into Africa, and had helped to fuel, rather than to eliminate, the slave trade.  He had been a poor father, spent little time with his wife, Mary Moffat, and so on…The ‘debunking’ of Livingstone, the Presbyterian saint, complete with his relics, continues, as does the properly academic and historical reassessment of the man and the myth.

At the end of the twentieth century, we were in a very different post-colonial, post-Imperial world.  Our old heroes had fallen off their plinths.  No more soldiering, no more exploring, no more imperially-nuanced missionary activity for us.   Our heroes were now ‘celebrities’, on radio and television; sportsmen and sportswomen, but especially the former, and many of them footballers; we had Princess Diana too, with much weeping at her untimely passing, and in all of this the saints of the ‘old Celtic Church’ were making a curious come-back.   In the process, they were being secularised, working their way down the ladders to avoid being ‘on a pedestal’, and becoming more and more like ourselves, the wayfarers of the new millennium.  They were our new role-models, the trans-denominational harbingers of a new age to come, offering an easy-going ‘Celtic alternative’ to the pressurised, managerially-driven and bottom-line-focused society of our demented age, and conveniently refashioned in our own image.  And ‘our’ meant everyone, Protestants, Catholics, the back-to-nature movement, the Glastonbury-goers, the tree-huggers of Tiree, and all shades in between.

And so I did what others had done to misrepresentations of earlier heroes…I applied the axe of reason to the root of the sentimental tree of wishful thinking which purported to represent the lineage of Columba and other saints.  I gave the movement quite a drubbing, and said, in my most profoundly pedagogic and Columban tones, ‘Get back to the sources, you brood of poisonous vipers, you pack of misleading, devious sinners!’   As one reviewer summarised my book, ‘Irascible Uncle Mocks Tree-huggers’!

Of course, when you do go back to the sources, what you find is that the remaking of saints, including Columba, is no new thing.  Even Adomnán participated in something of the kind when he wrote his biography of Columba, and added his own ‘spin’ to the formation of the saint.   Later, in 1532, Mánus Ó Dómhnaill employed collectors to gather tales and stories about Columba, which he then fashioned into another vita Columbae, this time in Irish, namely Betha Colaim Chille.   What we might call ‘the quest for the historical Columba’ has to tread a careful path through even our earliest sources.  The ‘Columba-makers’ have been going at it for a long, long time.

It is tempting to say that, along with the saints themselves, ‘Celtic Christianity’ has been bubbling down the centuries. That, however, would be wildly misleading. We must remember that, in the medieval and late-medieval context, Columba was still operating within a cult, or at least within a form of devotio which respected his name, and afforded him due reverence as a patriarchal figure of the Catholic church.   This was the case in both Scotland and Ireland.  Both Adomnán and Mánus Ó Dómhnaill, separated by almost a thousand years and operating on different sides of the North Channel, compiled their Lives of Columba out of respect for, and in honour of, the saint.

Matters changed in the Protestant areas with the arrival of the Reformation.  Columba was not a figure of devotion within Protestant belief after 1560 – far from it.  His name was, however, used to invest Presbyterian Calvinists with a respectable pre-Reformation pedigree through their supposed Culdee predecessors, or to lend prestige to a Protestant church building.  We must also bear in mind that Columba could be used for political purposes in the Middle Ages and later. 

We cannot therefore use ‘Celtic Christianity’ as a naïve label to cover everything.  My own view is that ‘Celtic Christianity’, which begins with the retro-conversion of Columba into a pre-Protestant Presbyterian, and offers a way of bringing Columba and other saints within the reach of Protestants without the embarrassment of Catholic rituals, is essentially a disingenuous Protestant hi-jacking.  Its overall message is: ‘We are not Calvins come lately; we have been here before, but in another guise – that of Columba and his followers!’

Bearing in mind the categories which we must distinguish, let us consider briefly some of the ways in which Columba has been commemorated across the centuries, whether ‘cultivated’ out of respect or (finally) appropriated to aid various causes.  Some of these will be dealt with more fully in other papers by later speakers, and I will provide only a few examples under each heading, to set the wider scene.

Land and landscape:  Columba’s name appears in place-names in Ireland (Gleann Colm Cille in Donegal), the Hebrides (I Chaluim Chille, which is, of course, Iona; Eilean Chaluim Chille in Loch Erisort, which takes its name from its church), and in the west and east of mainland Scotland, though predominantly in the west.  In eastern Scotland, a good example of a Gaelic place-name containing the element Colm is Innis Choluim, or Inchcolm, in the Firth of Forth.

Lore and legend: Columba became a figure of legend very early in his posthumous career, as the stories in Adomnán’s late-7th century Vita demonstrate.  By the time Mánus Ó Dómhnaill came to compile his Renaissance-style compendium in 1532, Columba was very much associated with legends attached to particular locations in Donegal, in the manner of dindshenchas or the ‘lore of famous places’, a well-known medieval category of Gaelic/Irish history.  In Donegal, he was presented as a rather frightening figure, short-tempered and possessing the ability to prophesy death to those who disturbed his relics or insignia.   In my native island of Tiree, he was likewise associated with the cursing of the rock in Gott Bay, Mallachdaig, when its seaweed broke, and his coracle (which had been moored to the seaweed) drifted out to sea.  He appears too in Gaelic proverbs and prayers, chiefly in Carmichael’s compendia known as Carmina Gadelica.  St Columba’s Day, Latha Chaluim Chille chaoimh, was regarded as a good day on which to begin a new initiative. He was also regarded as the protector of the poor and disadvantaged.  In Gaelic Scotland, he is a relatively benign figure, compared with the more formidable figure in Donegal.

Politics: From the outset, Columba was closely associated with political intrigue, as it affected the kings of Dál Riata .  He was also taken over by the Vikings, and in one saga he is portrayed as appearing in a dream to Alexander II, king of Scotland, in company with Viking warriors and prophesying his death at Kerrera if he did not turn back.

Poetry: Colum Cille, seen as the defender of the poets, was himself regarded as a poet in the Middle Ages, and several poems were ascribed to him.

Medieval dedications:  Dedications to St Columba, in the Gaelic and Latin forms of his name, are not uncommon. In St Kilda, two chapels were dedicated to him.  In my own native island of Tiree, for example, the two medieval chapels (12-13th century) at Kirkapol, one of which functioned as the local parish church until comparatively late, were dedicated to Colum Cille.  Another chapel at Soroby at the other end of Tiree was similarly dedicated.   Here in Lewis the saint is commemorated at what appears to be an early medieval site known as Teampall Chaluim Chille, in Eilean Chaluim Chille, Loch Erisort.  There is a church with a similar name in Benbecula.  The saint is also commemorated in Eaglais na h-Aoidhe or St Columba’s Church, Aignish, as it is sometimes called, built by the MacLeods in the late 14th century, and recognised as ‘the principal church in Lewis until late medieval times’.  These churches continued to be associated with burial grounds.

Protestant denominational dedications: The transfer of Colum Cille to a new denomination was reflected first in Londonderry, when the new Protestant cathedral was dedicated to Saint Columb in 1633.  Dedications to ‘Columba’ or ‘St Columba’ are well known in Scotland too, and span both the Protestant denominations, including the Free Church of Scotland, with St Columba’s Free Church in Edinburgh, for example.  The Church of Scotland has its own St Columba dedication in Glasgow, carried by a church much frequented by the Gaelic population of Glasgow in earlier days.  These Protestant dedications appear to be most prominent in the cities of Ireland and Scotland – certainly so in Scotland.

Ecumenism: In the later twentieth century, Columba and his fellows were refashioned as a means to escape from, rather than to reinforce, Protestantism in its more ‘restrictive forms’.  They were seen as representing a more refreshing, free-flowing.  The Church of England, in particular, embraced the so-called ‘Celtic saints’ in this way, and new groupings were also formed, free of earlier denominational labels.

Cultural initiatives:  At the end of the twentieth century, in 1997, the 1400th Anniversary of his death, Columba gave his name to two new ventures in Skye, Arainn Chaluim Chille at Sabhal Mor Ostaig, and Columba 1400 at Kilmuir. Iomairt Chaluim Chille also began at this point, and helped to reconnect Ireland and Scotland in a shared sense of Gaelicness. And his role as a connector of Ireland and Scotland continues to the present.  I need hardly say that we are here today partly because of the saintly trail known as Slighe Chaluim Chille. 

It strikes me that, even at this late stage in his posthumous career, Columba is still developing his virtues, and remains a very good saint to have on your side!  But be wary as you travel with him, and be prepared to do penance.   He could well punish you for carrying a plaster saint, even a plastic one, who is constantly being reshaped to meet the needs and aspirations of the centuries, reflected not only in the churches, but also in many other interested parties who want to make the saint ‘work for them’!



Broun, Dauvit, and Clancy, Thomas Owen (eds), Spes Scotorum: Hope of the Scots: St Columba, Iona and Scotland.  T. & T. Clark, Edinburgh, 1999.

Herbert, Máire, Iona, Kells and Derry: The History and Hagiography of the Monastic Familia of Columba. Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1988.

Lacey, Brian, Colum Cille and the Columban Tradition. Four Courts Press, Dublin, 1997.

Lacey, Brian (ed.), Manus O’ Donnell: The Life of Colum Cille.  Four Courts Press, Dublin, 1998.

Meek, Donald E., The Quest for Celtic Christianity.   Handsel Press, Boat of Garten, 2000.

Sharpe, Richard, ed. and transl., Adomnán of Iona: Life of St Columba. Penguin Books,  London, 1995.

Worden, Sarah (ed.), David Lingstone: Man, Myth and Legacy. National Museums of Scotland, Edinburgh, 2012.

















Transport to and from Tiree

Donald E. Meek
There was a time when individual islands of the Hebrides were self-sustaining units which seldom required to look far beyond their own shores.  Wooden boats of various kinds enabled sustenance to be obtained from the sea, while permitting interaction with neighbouring islands and, on a fairly limited scale, with the Scottish mainland.  This pertained until roughly 1800, but thereafter islanders began to venture further afield, with the arrival of steamships, and, after 1930, diesel-powered vessels. Most of the islands with larger populations were destined to make ever closer connections with the mainland, with the consequence that they came to depend increasingly on mainland goods and manufactures.  Connections with the mainland could be achieved much more speedily from the mid-1930s, following the coming of aircraft to islands with suitable landing-strips.  From that point, boats, ships and aircraft increased in size and frequency of service, and progressively reshaped the relationship between islands and mainland.  Islanders themselves were often to the fore in developing new opportunities for conveyance and commerce by means of sail and steam and motor, and, wherever possible, they gave strong support to the improvement of air services.  They also established companies for road haulage, especially after the coming of the larger roll-on, roll-off ferries of the 1980s.
Tiree illustrates most of the phases in the development of what may be termed loosely ‘island transport’.  The ferry-man, the local entrepreneur with trading smacks or ‘puffers’, the community coal club, the individual trader and the haulier, are all well attested.  So too are  mainland-based arrangements which altered the life of the islands profoundly, particularly in the twentieth century.   Until large car-ferries became dominant in the 1970s, different types of marine conveyance co-existed alongside one another for many years, e.g. the sailing-smack, the ‘puffer’, the passenger vessel and the cargo-boat. Change appeared in the sky as well as on the sea.  Aircraft developed within a smoother trajectory of design, from the de Havilland Dragon Rapides of the mid-1930s to the de Havilland Herons of the 1950s, 1960s and early 1970s, supplemented by Pionairs or ‘Dakotas’, as they were better known.
This chapter will examine the experience of Tiree from the perspective of a participant observer who has been familiar with island transport since the early 1950s, but whose ‘database’ contains much older material.  In addition to personal recollections, I was privileged to hear many stories from older relatives whose memories went back to the second half of the nineteenth century.
Ferries to Coll
Brought up in Caolas, at the east end of Tiree, and looking across the three-mile stretch of Gunna Sound to neighbouring Coll, I was inevitably aware of the major part that the sea played in the life of my fellow islanders.  In my school days, I used to visit Calum MacDonald (Calum a’ Ghobhainn,‘Malcolm son of the Smith’) regularly.  Calum was a close friend of my family, and he and my great-uncle Donald often fished for lobsters together, taking their catch to Arinagour, Coll, where it was sold to Robert Sturgeon.  Their boats were fifteen-eighteen-foot ‘yawls’ or geòlachan (singular geòla, from English and Scots ‘yawl’).  As the derivation of the word geòla suggests, the standard Tiree boat used for such purposes was itself modelled on Scottish east-coast vessels, and could be described as a ‘Hebridean Fifie’, with double ends (i.e. sharp bow and stern), and a large belly, which made it safe and stable in windy conditions.  The standard form of rig was the dipping lug, usually brown, reflecting its soaking in tree-bark preservative, and regarded as the safest rig available.  My great-uncle often recalled those days of Tiree-Coll transport by one’s own boat.   We might think today that the main hazard in such a context would have been storms, but for my uncle the real enemy was flat calm.  He would refer with lingering pain to his  blistered hands, the consequence of long, heavy rowing to Coll and back again, as he and Calum toiled to take their catch to Arinagour.  They were well familiar with sharks and the occasional rogue wave, but these were of little consequence.   Boils on the bottom (not that of the boat!), caused by the movement of the body on hard thwarts, and blisters were much more painful and much more dangerous, with the likelihood of suppuration and the need for some form of bandaging.
Malcolm MacDonald, Calum a' Ghobhainn, stands at the stem of a new boat, built by my great-uncle, Charles MacDonald, 'Coll View', Caolas.


Calum MacDonald, assisted latterly by his nephew, William MacIntosh (‘Uilleam a’ Ghobhainn’, father of Sandy MacIntosh), also ran a ferry to Coll, as and when occasion demanded.  Passengers were conveyed across the sound, and past Eilean Bhorramail, to Caolas, Coll, where they were disembarked close to An Tunga, the traditional burying-ground of the MacLeans of Coll.  Another popular landing-spot in Coll was Port na Luinge, to the north-east of An Tunga, which was equipped with an inn in earlier days.
The role of ferryman to Coll went back well before Calum’s day, and the position was held in the nineteenth century by MacArthurs.   In 1851, the ferryman was John MacArthur, and the ferry ‘station’ had an inn to accommodate those waiting for conveyance – ri port (‘[delayed] at harbour’), as we would say in Gaelic.  The MacArthurs later moved to the west end of the island, and are now in Middleton.[1]  The MacDonalds, who ran the service in my time, combined that with the maintenance of a smithy, which served the community of Caolas, and was no doubt a useful skill to have when boats required iron fittings.
Small boats from other parts of Tiree would have crossed to and from Coll, and also to the surrounding islands.  Tiree people had to go to Mull to cut peat, and also to acquire wood, and made a name for themselves by digging and cutting other folk’s natural resources!  Such supplies would have been conveyed across to Tiree in wooden boats of varying sizes.  Participation in regattas and other community events encouraged inter-island communications.  Stories of Salum crofters voyaging to Iona were very much alive in my time.  John Lachie MacInnes, Salum, was the last person to tell me of their adventures, centring on the Iona regatta, where the Tiree men’s supremacy in sail was never in doubt!   Likewise, the Outer Hebrides were well within reach of Tiree boats.
Many of these boats were built locally.   Boat-building skills were common within crofting families in Tiree, including my own MacDonalds at ‘Coll View’.  Boat-building was second nature to many individuals.   Some families acquired a professional reputation for business in this field, notably the MacKinnons of Vaul, na Bhallaich (‘the Vaul men’, ancestral relatives of Tommy MacKinnon), who built my great-grandfather’s last boat, and the one which I knew best, the geòla Peace & Plenty (second of the name), about 1900.   She remained in use until the 1970s, having been maintained well, with regular summer refits and paintings.

The 'Peace & Plenty' (II), built by the MacKinnons of Vaul about 1900.
Other builders whom I remember (at the east end of Tiree) are the MacDonalds of Caolas (the late Mrs Isabel Johnston’s father and uncle), and the Camerons of Miodar, Caolas.  The Camerons later moved to Scarinish Hotel and the Post Office, and were represented by the late Donald Archie, and his son Duncan, both of them fine boat-builders.  I remember well going with my father to inspect two splendid motor-launches built by Donald Archie Cameron, with Duncan’s assistance, in his workshop in Scarinish.   My great-uncle Charles MacDonald, a shipwright who served deep-sea in the First World War, also worked in Africa and Canada (mainly in the Vancouver area), where he built his own fishing-boat, the ‘Annabel’, which was large enough to accommodate families for ‘parties’ at the weekend.  I served a boyhood apprenticeship in boat-building with my uncle Charles, something for which I am very grateful.  
My father, Hector MacDonald Meek, was a well-known boat-builder, recognised for his very fine work-boats which were also exceptionally fast under sail, and often won prizes at local regattas.   One of his boats, built when he was Baptist minister in Colonsay in the 1930s, was remembered for its excellence in Colonsay tradition until comparatively recently.  Its launch in Colonsay was an event of considerable significance, and all the more so in an island well known for its boat-building and sailing skills.

Boat-building skills have declined sharply in Tiree in recent years, but have not died out.  A fine, and every much extant, example of a Tiree-built boat in traditional style is Donald MacIntyre (Gott)’s Isabella, which has won prizes at numerous regattas.

Nowadays the crossing of Gunna Sound is achieved effortlessly by means of fibreglass or ‘tupperware’ vessels, with a powerful outboard motor (or two!) attached to their sterns. RIBs and other small ‘fast craft’ can be seen regularly hurtling through and across the sound in a way that would have been beyond even my MacDonald family’s imaginings – though latterly they knew a thing or two about Seagull outboard motors!

Nicholas Maclean-Bristol and his wife Lavinia prepare to return to Coll in their twin-engined launch in the mid-1990s.  Their son gives them the final push, and leaps on board!  Greasmul (left) and Gunna can be seen in the background.
Smacks and schooners
In addition to small boats for off-shore work, a number of Tiree families owned smacks for conducting business further afield, not only between islands but also to and from the ports of Ardrossan, Irvine and Troon on the Ayrshire coast, where supplies of coal and other requisites were available.   My great-grandfather, Hector MacDonald, had his own smack, Peace & Plenty (first of the name), which he used to take cargoes of potatoes to Ardrossan, where these were exchanged for coal and other essential commodities.  He also used her to transport cattle to the Ross of Mull, where the cattle would travel by the drove road from Kintra to Gras Point, followed by further ferrying to Kerrera, and a final swim to Oban.  By the mid-nineteenth century, however, cattle were being transported increasingly by steamship (see below).
Alexander MacFadyen,and his wife Sarah, parents of Captain Alan, moved to Port Ramsey, Lismore, in 1872 (Lismore Gaelic Heritage Centre).

Smack-owning families were also attested in Tiree.  Among these pride of place must be given to the family of Alexander MacFadyen, Scarinish, who moved to Port Ramsey, Lismore, but who also maintained close links with Tiree.  His son, Captain Alan MacFadyen, known in Gaelic as Ailean Shandaidh (‘Alan son of Sandy’), was a Cape Horner with a deep-sea Master’s Certificate in sail.  Beginning his coastal trading career with the Isabella MacMillan, he acquired the Mary & Effie, built in Greenock in 1896, registered initially at Fraserburgh, and purchased by MacFadyen in 1919.  The Mary & Effie, which continued to function until the 1940s and was often in Tiree, was a wooden ketch-rigged smack capable of carrying 65 tons deadweight.   Captain MacFadyen owned two other well-known smacks, the Helen Brown and the Lady Margaret. 

The Helen Brown leaves the harbour at Scarinish (Lismore Gaelic Heritage Centre).

Among other duties, these smacks were employed in transporting lime from the kilns of Lismore, which provided an excellent source of local employment for the crews, and also in hauling stones for building projects, such as lighthouses.  They went as far afield as Orkney and Shetland and Ireland.[2]  The Mary & Effie and her companions were able to beach themselves on Hebridean shorelines, where they were held upright on the ebb by means of very stout ‘legs’ like pit-props, fitted under the gunwales and extending down to the sand.   At low tide, horses and carts would go down to collect the cargo, usually coal, which would be winched out of the hold and transferred to the waiting carts by means of a boom or derrick.   Such smacks could penetrate those narrow channels and rocky parts and places that no steam lighters (‘puffers’) could reach, like, for example, An Acarsaid (‘Harbour’), Milton, Caolas, where the Mary & Effie regularly discharged coal.


The Mary & Effie discharges coal at Harbour, Caolas, probably in the 1920s  (Hector M. Meek).

Smacks, usually one smack of relatively small and manageable dimensions, were owned by various Tiree families.   Inter-island and island-mainland transportation required either a small fleet of smacks (as in the case of the MacFadyens) or a single large vessel, such as a schooner.  The latter was represented by the Mary Stewart, owned by Donald MacLean, ‘Dòmhnall Og’, Scarinish.  The Mary Stewart (43 tons net) was built in Ardrossan in 1868, by the Barclay yard, for Stewart & Co., and her original master was A. Stewart.   The name Mary Stewart was therefore that of a member of the original owner’s family.  In 1876, she was sold to an owner by the name of Shaw, and Donald MacLean purchased her in 1908 from James Foster of Carnlough, Co. Antrim, Northern Ireland, who was the owner of the Carnlough Lime Company (1849-1963).[3]   The Mary Stewart would thus have been in regular use as one of Foster’s fleet for carrying lime.  When owned by Donald MacLean, the Mary Stewart carried general cargo, including coal (taking eight or nine cargoes per year to Tiree) and stone, and travelled extensively up and down the west coast of Scotland (reaching Stornoway and Thurso) and across to Ireland, and was noted for her considerable turn of speed.   James MacFarlane of Port Ellen, Islay, informed me that she would engage regularly in a race with a fast Islay schooner, but that the latter was unable to beat her.  Double-topsail schooners like the Mary Stewart were common in the British Isles until the 1930s, when they began to go out of use.  

Donald MacLean, owner of the Mary Stewart, and his family (An Iodhlann).

Donald MacLean, a skilled craftsman, maintained the fabric of the Mary Stewart single-handed, even lifting out and repairing her 50-foot main mast, which he removed by ingenious use of the after mast and block and tackle.[4]  About 1937, he beached the Mary Stewart in the ‘old’ harbour at Scarinish, where she gradually fell into decay.  Her keel and fragments of her frames are still visible in the sand.  


The Mary Stewart lies at anchor at Scarinish.

In the course of her slow death, the Mary Stewart’s remains became relics of an earlier era, when sail ruled the waves, and to some extent they retain their mystique to the present day.  I have lost count of the number of times that I have gone to the ‘grave’ of the Mary Stewart to pay my respects to her and to her owners.  She is a poignant reminder of the slow, perhaps even inexorable, loss of the island’s traditions in matters of sailing and ship-handling, but she represents more than that to those of us who are natives of the island.

The Mary Stewart approaches Dublin under full sail.

The Mary Stewart was not, however, the very last sailing coaster to serve Tiree.  Curiously, one of the so-called ‘puffers’ which came to the island was a former steel auxiliary ketch, though by the time I got to know her, and presumably for long before that, she had been powered by a diesel engine aided by sail, thus entitling her to be known as a ‘billy-boat’. This unusual vessel was the Halcyon (110 tons gross, 57 tons net), which was owned and skippered by Captain William MacMillan, Campbeltown.  Originally built by Henry Scarr at Hessle, Hull, in 1903, the Halcyon was an occasional visitor to Tiree in the 1960s.  My father knew Captain MacMillan well, and as result I used to go on board when the Halcyon was in the Old Harbour at Scarinish.  I well remember her curious lines, which were not quite as blunt as that of the average ‘puffer’, and her surprisingly shapely bow.   My last memory of the Halcyon, and indeed of the use of sail in the transportation of cargo to and from Tiree, is of seeing her sailing past Milton, Caolas, on her way back to Campbeltown, via the Crinan Canal.  She carried a red ‘leg-o’-mutton’ sail to assist her engine, and was making good progress to Crinan in an obligingly brisk north-westerly breeze.  Sail was thus maintained alongside steam- or diesel-driven engines for much longer than is commonly assumed, and the steamship was remarkably late in reaching Tiree.


The billy-boat Halcyon sails into port, with the familiar figure of Willie MacMillan at the bow.
The coming of steamships
Seaborne transport to and from Tiree depended primarily on sail until the middle of the nineteenth century or thereabouts.   In his important contribution to the New Statistical Account of Scotland in 1838, the Rev. Neil MacLean noted:
In Tiree there are 4 decked vessels, carrying from twenty to forty tons burden, which are sometimes employed in carrying country produce to market, but generally look out for employment elsewhere; twenty open, or half-decked boats, of from six to twenty tons, which are chiefly engaged in ferrying cattle, and conveying fuel from the neighbouring islands; and 82 fishing-skiffs, of which only 10 are regularly employed.
Although both Tiree and Coll had post-offices which were sub-offices of Tobermory, they had no regular packet service, and Mr MacLean noted that ‘Our means of communication are accordingly extremely irregular and uncertain, depending on any casual conveyance which may occur.’  He pointed out further that the harbours in Tiree and Coll were
very indifferent…in consequence of which, all the boats in Tiree are hauled up high and dry during four months of the year, or from the end of November to the end of March.  During this time the island is nearly locked up from all intercourse with neighbouring countries, unless it is found necessary to launch a light skiff occasionally, when a good day occurs.  The harbour chiefly frequented, and where the cattle and most of the other produce are shipped off, is Scarinish, situated on the south-east side of the island.  It is but a narrow creek, with a rock at its mouth sometimes covered with water, which renders the access very difficult, and the egress still more so, except with a favourable wind.  A pier has been long built there, but it is scarcely capable of ever being made a secure place. The only other harbour is Accarsaid, or “The Harbour” (so called, I suppose, by way of eminence), lying near the eastern extremity.  It is reckoned safer than the first; but the entrance to it is extremely rocky and intricate, and should never be attempted by strangers. I have already noticed, that a new pier has been partly built at Heinish, which, when completed, may be of much service to that part of the island.[5]
MacLean’s account shows that Tiree still lay far off the developing steamship track to the Hebrides.  Mull witnessed the arrival of its first steamship in 1818, and Staffa was accessible by steamship by at least 1831.  By that date too, Islay was being served by the steamship Maid of Islay II, which sailed from West Loch Tarbert, and passengers could travel from Glasgow to ‘East Tarbert’ (the town of Tarbert, Loch Fyne) by ‘steam boat’.
Proximity to the mainland was certainly an important factor in the use of steamships, as was the availability of relatively short crossings and sheltered waters, but even more important perhaps was the sight-seeing potential of each island.  Staffa, with its dramatic basalt pillars and Fingal’s Cave, was perceived to be an integral part of the ‘romantic’ Highlands, conforming to the principles of the Sublime, which emphasised awe- and fear-inspiring landscapes.   Even though it lay much further out into the Atlantic, St Kilda received its first steamship in 1835 because it was included on an itinerary of Sublime locations which began at the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland, and embraced Skye and the Cuillins.   Tiree, by contrast, had no dramatic scenery to entice ship-owners or tourists.  Low-lying and devoid of good, natural harbours, it was initially little more than one of a group of islands on the far horizon ‘beautifully diversifying the broad face of the western sea’, to be viewed at a distance by tourists who had reached the top of Ben More.
Before 1850, passenger steamships in Inner Hebridean waters seldom ventured west beyond Staffa. The earliest (so far noted) steamship sailings to Tiree took place between 11 Feb 1852 and 28 June 1854, when The Scotsman carried a number of advertisements by David Hutcheson & Co. for ‘direct sailings between Glasgow and Coll and Tiree’.  The ships involved were the paddle-steamers Cygnet and Lapwing, both built in the late 1840s at Port Glasgow.  The nature and frequency of steamship sailings to Tiree between 1854 and 1860 are not yet clear.[6]

The Cygnet, built in 1848, was evidently one of the first steamships to visit Tiree in the early 1850s.
Access to Lowland markets was also a major stimulus to the provision of steamships to the Hebrides.  After 1860, in addition to those vessels devoted to the conveyance of tourists intent on finding Sublime scenery, an increasing number of steamships appear to have been engaged primarily in the transporting of fish and cattle, along with some passengers. This favoured Tiree, which was a fertile island, noted for its cattle. The earliest cargo-related sailing to Tiree which I have been able to trace is that of the Cantie Queen, possibly owned as well as operated from 1860 by William Dick, Oban, ‘on the Oban, Tobermory, Tiree and Loch Sunart station, but temporarily only, until the advent of the new screw steamer Queen of the Isles…In October, she was succeeded by S.S. Islesman…’[7]  In fact, the Islesman was probably the first steamship to give the island some semblance of a ‘service’ at ‘regular’ intervals, though such concepts as ‘service’ and ‘regularity’ must be defined with very considerable semantic latitude.
The Islesman was owned initially by the Great West of Scotland Fishery, which had a number of fishery stations in the Hebrides.  When the Fishery was dissolved, the vessel was bought by William Lang and managed by Martin Orme, a former employee of the shipowners Thomson & McConnell, who had previously managed her for the Fishery.  The Islesman was lengthened in 1861.  Thus rejuvenated and apparently none the worse for various scrapes, including at least one sinking, she served the Hebrides until 1868, conveying passengers as well as freight.  William Donald, who joined the Islesman as clerk and traffic manager in 1860, wrote in 1913:
The Islesman was the first steamer to give direct steam communication to Colonsay, West of Mull, Tiree, Coll, Barra, South and North Uist, West of Skye, Canna, St Kilda, Badcal, Lochinver, Terera [recte Tanera], Ullapool and Altbea.  Messrs Hutchison’s steamers called at intervals at Lochmaddy, Ullapool and Lochinver.[8] 
Precisely what William Donald meant by the adjective ‘direct’ in the context of what would surely have been a round trip is not clear, and the accuracy of ‘first’ is questionable.  The Cygnet and Lapwing had already been advertised on ‘direct sailings’ between Glasgow and Coll and Tiree in 1852-54.
The rather poor quality of some of the cargo-vessels serving Tiree in this period is reflected in a tragedy which befell Donald MacKinnon, Captain of the celebrated tea-clipper Taeping, which won the Great Tea Race in 1866.  Captain MacKinnon visited his native island after his triumph.  When returning from Tiree, Captain MacKinnon took passage on board the steamship Chieftain’s Bride, which was carrying 54 head of cattle.  The Chieftain’s Bride got into difficulties in stormy weather, and Captain MacKinnon had to take charge to save the ship.  In the course of his exertions, he sustained injuries from which he later died on the way back to China on the Taeping, and he was buried in South Africa.[9]  The Chieftain’s Bride was built in 1866, and, according to the Shetland Museum’s website, she was ‘the first Northern Isles steamer, owned by the Shetland Islands Steam Navigation Co.  She was 94 gross tons and 88.5 feet long.  She was known locally as “The Crab”, as she was often drawn sideways in strong tides, on account of her 18 horsepower engine being insufficient for her size....’  The website, Ships of the North, provides further information about this ship:
The new company [i.e., the Shetland Steam Shipping Co., founded in 1868, and reformed in 1876 as the Shetland Islands Steam Navigation Co.] discovered the steamer CHIEFTAIN’S BRIDE in Glasgow and purchased her for £2100. She was grossly underpowered at 94 tons with only 25HP. Despite warnings from Alexander Sandison about her condition, the company went ahead and she was purchased and entered service early in 1869…The CHIEFTAIN’S BRIDE’s passenger certificate expired on the 18th May 1876 and was never renewed.
At the time of her sailing to Tiree in 1866, the Chieftain’s Bride was owned by a Mr John Wilson, who also ran her to Iona.[10]

The Chieftain's Bride (Courtesy of Mary MacLean, Scarinish).

Steamship provision for Tiree in the 1860s offers a somewhat untidy and uncertain picture, involving a number of single-ship operators. It is fascinating to note that an operator from Tiree itself is among their number, namely Duncan Colquhoun, who owned ‘the very small screw steamer Chase, plying to Strontian [in the summer of 1868], previously [owned] by Norman Buchanan, but sold in June 1869 to Thomas Ross, Glasgow. The Chase was operated through Messrs D. Cowan & Co. as agents for Colquhoun. In 1871 the steamship Swan, ‘owned by John Lorne Stewart, of Campbeltown…sailed from Glasgow to Mull, Tiree and Skye via the Crinan Canal’.
[11] Another agent or possibly owner in this period was William Robertson, a Renfrew coal-merchant, who entered the West Highland trade with a screw steamer Marchioness of Lorne, ‘which sailed (till sold in July 1872) from Glasgow every Wednesday for Ardrishaig, Lochgilphead, Crinan Canal, Oban, Sound of Mull, Tobermory, Tiree and Coll’.[12] 
Steamship services
Single-ship provision by different operators was difficult to fit into meaningful schedules, but, as Robertson’s Marchioness of Lorne suggests, a sense of regularity was appearing by the early 1870s.  In providing what we today would regard as a ‘service’, however, Martin Orme played a very considerable part.  Orme’s vessels were essentially cargo-boats which carried a small number of passengers, and the pattern of their acquisition shows that the 1870s were a crucial period in the development of steam-powered cargo services to the Hebrides. Within the Orme and Lang consortium, which operated under the name of Martin Orme & Co., the Islesman was succeeded by the Dunvegan Castle (1868-1875), the Talisman (1871-1874), the Dunara Castle (1875-1948), and the Aros Castle (later renamed the Handa, in MacBrayne ownership) (1878-1886). 

Warmly appreciated in spite of her limitations!  This newspaper notice pays just tribute to the 'enduring qualities' of Martin Orme's steamships, while the image shows the main features of this diminutive steamship and many others of the time - well-raked masts, derricks fore and aft, open bridge and tall funnel.  The Handa was often remembered in Tiree in my boyhood.  (Courtesy of Duncan MacQuarrie.)

All of these ships, with the possible exception of the Talisman, served Tiree at one time or another, but the ship that gave real meaning to the word ‘service’ was pre-eminently Orme’s flagship, the Dunara Castle, which remained on the route from Glasgow to the Outer Hebrides until she was scrapped at her birth-place, Port Glasgow, at the ripe old age of 73.  The ship became a legend in her own time, partly because of her role in initiating summer services to St Kilda in 1877, and then evacuating the archipelago in 1930. Her name endures to the present in Hebridean song and story, often as a symbol of power and reliability. 

She is still mentioned in humorous contexts too.   As I myself remarked recently and quite unconsciously, when seeing black smoke pouring from the chimney of my Tiree home, ‘Tha seo mar an Dunara’ (‘This is like the Dunara’)! 

This fine image shows the Dunara Castle uplifting a flock of sheep at Bunessan, Mull (Courtesy of Linda Gowans).
Another company also showed an interest in Tiree in the mid-1870s.  This was the Western Isles Steam Packet Company, formed in Glasgow in 1873.   Its steamship, the Lady Ambrosine, commanded by Captain John McCallum, a native of Crinan, sailed from Glasgow to the Inner Hebrides, and called at Tiree.  In 1876, when the company was dissolved, Captain McCallum bought the Lady Ambrosine, and began to build ships on his own account, thus establishing the company known as John McCallum & Co. 

Captain John McCallum (Courtesy of Mrs Margot Allman).

McCallum’s fleet included the St Clair, built in 1876, the Hebridean, built in 1881, and the Hebrides, built in 1898, all three of which served Tiree.  In fact, the St Clair, which seemed to be bent on self-destruction and caused trouble from the outset, ended her brief career when she grounded on the rocks of Raonabogh, at the southern end of the Sound of Gunna.  The Hebridean and the Hebrides, by contrast, gave outstanding service to the Inner and Outer Hebrides (including St Kilda).[13]  

Painting of Capt. McCallum's flagship Hebrides by Donald Meek.

The Hebrides provided alternate sailings from Glasgow with Orme’s Dunara Castle, and in 1929 the two companies amalgamated to form McCallum, Orme & Co. Ltd.   ‘McCallum, Orme’, as the company was affectionately known and greatly respected, passed into the ownership of David MacBrayne Ltd in 1947, and the doughty Hebrides continued to serve Tiree and the other islands until 1955.   Indeed, I can still remember the day when, as a boy of six, I heard the news that the Hebrides was to be replaced by the diesel cargo-vessel Lochard.   The Hebrides, which by then was partnering the MacBrayne cargo-vessel Loch Carron, was such a firm fixture in island life that it seemed as if the end of the world was imminent!

The old and the new: the Hebrides lies alongside the Loch Carron at the North Pier, Oban, about 1952.


Although we now tend to associate sea services to the Inner Hebrides with David MacBrayne (and latterly Caledonian MacBrayne), it is beyond question that the main service-providers before the Second World War were McCallum & Orme, whose ships, the Dunara Castle and the Hebrides, brought essential freight as well as passengers to Tiree as part of a chain of islands from Islay to St Kilda.   David MacBrayne Ltd was a relatively minor player, and its ships were not as well regarded as those of McCallum & Orme.   My mother often spoke of the Dunara Castle in glowing terms, remembering with delight her journeys from Scarinish, Tiree, to Uig, Skye, in the early 1940s, when she was working with the Air Ministry in Tiree.   She had fond memories of the beautiful accommodation on the ship, as well as the kindness and good humour of the crew.  She would board the ‘Dunara’ in the evening at Scarinish, and arrive at Uig with the morning sun adorning the slopes of Rubha Idrigill.   The ‘Dunara’ and the Hebrides made it possible for islanders to travel between islands with relatively little difficulty, and without the need to go via the mainland or Oban.  My mother was also given to contrasting the excellence of the Dunara Castle with MacBrayne’s Clydesdale, which she described to me on more than one occasion as ‘a floating slum’. 
The Clydesdale (Bill Lind Collection).

The inter-island service from Glasgow, established and maintained by McCallum & Orme, was continued by David MacBrayne following the demise of the Dunara Castle and the Hebrides, but only with its cargo-vessels, chiefly the  Loch Carron and the Lochard, which commenced their work in the early 1950s.   They had accommodation for only four passengers, who were not usually islanders going to and from Tiree, but tourists intent on a round trip of many of the Hebridean islands.  MacBrayne’s passenger-vessels operated from mainland ports with railheads, such as Oban and Mallaig, as MacBrayne’s adopted the policy of combining rail and sea services.  This reduced passage times, but meant that inter-island journeys became much more onerous than in the days of earlier steamships.
Landing at Scarinish
Before the construction of the ‘new’ pier at Gott Bay in 1914, steamships to Tiree disembarked and embarked their passengers by means of a wooden ferry-boat at the ‘old’ harbour at Scarinish.  Tiree had its own heavy black ferry-boat, which was rowed to and from ships such as the Dunara Castle and the Hebrides.   This method of un/loading steamships combined ‘row-row’ with ‘lo-lo’ (‘lift-on, lift-off’) by means of derrick, block and tackle.  Lady Frances Balfour was one of several passengers who put pen to paper to describe this laborious and rather unpredictable process about 1912:
The mail-boat calls at Tiree, winter or summer, three times a week, between five and six in the morning.  The steamer always “passes’, but there are many mornings when the mails and passengers in the cargo-boat cannot go out to her, and this may happen for a week, or ten days in succession.  Very often it turns on the number of young men present, and willing to take a hand, and with two or more men at each oar, they assist the agent of MacBrayne, to get the boat out of the narrow straits of Scarinish Harbour to the steamer.
If it were not for the voluntary aid of these men half the days in the winter the island would be without mail, for the one man and a half,  which represent MacBrayne’s crew for the cargo-boat, could never face alone the wind that drives a fierce sea into the funnel-shaped entrance to Scarinish.
“No one knows,” [Lady Victoria Campbell] has said, “the depths into which we go when the mails are not landed; on the other hand, they can never rise to the heights that we reach when we know that the steamer has effected their landing.”[14]

The Tiree ferry lies alongside a steamship outside the harbour at Scarinish (Courtesy of Linda Gowans).


As the island was ‘dry’ in this era, with the Temperance Hotel standing in ironically close proximity to the well-provisioned steamship, islanders took advantage of the ferry-boat to wet their thrapples on board the steamers with something a little stronger than water.  Such practices were noted by writers such as John T. Reed and Ada Goodrich Freer.
John T. Reid, who travelled to the island on the new McCallum steamship, St Clair, in 1876, observed at Scarinish harbour
…the Temperance Hotel – the only hotel in the island, and but seldom patronized; so those who want spirits find in the steamboat a house “licensed to retail spirits, porter and all”, and drouthy customers have thus a special interest in the steamboat sailings.[15]
When Ada Goodrich Freer visited Tiree in 1894, the ‘drouthy customers’ were much in evidence as soon as the MacBrayne vessel, Fingal, arrived at the same harbour.  Noting that two ferry-boats which were already ‘apparently quite full of people were boarding our little vessel’, she wrote:
Later we learnt that there were other reasons besides the desire to meet friends, to get the mails, to fetch the cargo, why some of the islanders greet MacBrayne with such eagerness….[16]
Going ashore from the Fingal, she shared a ferry-boat with ‘the men who had so mysteriously come on board and who now came out of the deck-cabin wiping their mouths and smelling of whisky.’  The ships, it would seem, were a very well-known source of alcohol for the hitherto licence-free island.  When asked by the Napier Commission in 1883 how a person who required it might obtain a ‘stimulant’ under such straitened circumstances, Hugh Macdiarmid, the local factor, replied, ‘Well, there are ways and means always – by having it in the house, they will get it from the steamers.’[17]
Cargo services from the mainland to Tiree and other Hebridean islands were supplemented by Scotland’s very own miniature bulk-carrier, popularly known as a ‘puffer’, though this name applied only to the very earliest vessels, which did not have a condenser to return used steam to the boiler.  Strictly, the ‘puffer’ was a steam lighter, and that explains its origin, as it evolved from a ‘lighter’ (or cargo barge) fitted with a steam engine. Its natural home was the Forth & Clyde Canal, where one of the best-known companies in Scotland, that of J. & J. Hay, had a yard at Kirkintilloch for building and repairing ‘puffers’.  Hay’s vessels were distinguished by their tribal/kindred names, such as Celt, Dane, Spartan, Boer, Kaffir, Lascar and Anzac.  Another fleet of ‘puffers’ was owned by Ross & Marshall, Greenock, and rejoiced in (sometimes) rather contrived names with the suffix ‘-light’, as in Starlight, Moonlight and Warlight.  Vessels belonging to both companies sailed to Tiree.  A range of other smaller owners and operators provided ‘puffer’ services to Tiree, including John Lamont from Ruaig.  Lamont owned and skippered a ‘puffer’ which was appropriately called the Tiree.  As Lamont was a coal-merchant, the puffer was at the very heart of his trade, though it carried other cargoes too.

The puffer Anzac unloads coal at Port an t-Sruthain, Caolas, in the early 1950s,

The average ‘puffer’ could carry about 100 tons of cargo, and was commonly used to take coal to Tiree, as the island lacked any significant supplies of peat.   In response to a request from one of the island’s ‘coal clubs’, the coal was shipped at the Ayrshire ports of Irvine and Troon, and the ‘puffers’, which were usually built to ‘canal-max’ dimensions, would travel via the  Crinan Canal.  Until the early 1960s, they discharged their cargo to horse- or tractor-drawn carts mainly on Tiree shore, appearing in early summer at Caolas, Gott (Gott Bay), Kenovay and Balinoe, and doubtless elsewhere in the island. 

Horses and carts assemble to take coal from the puffer Polarlight at Balinoe.

They made unforgettable images, as they stood high and dry at low tide, while horses and tractors with carts formed queues to take home a supply of winter fuel for each household.  I will never forget my own boyhood experiences of seeing ‘puffers’ like the Anzac and Lascar unloading coal on the shore at Port an t-Sruthain, Caolas, in the early 1950s.

Brothers Roderick and Donald MacDonald take coal from the puffer Anzac at Port an t-Sruthain, Caolas,
in the early 1950s,
From the early 1960s, ‘puffers’ began to make much greater use of the ‘old’ harbour at Scarinish, where they would sit on the inside of the pier, and ‘take the ground’ at low tide.   From this time too, several ‘puffers’ were fitted with diesel engines.  This changed their configuration, especially in regard to the crew’s quarters, bridge and funnel.  In the steam-powered version, the bridge or enclosed wheelhouse was placed astern of the funnel, because of the need to fit the boiler in the deepest part of the hull, but in the diesel-powered version, the wheelhouse was ahead of the funnel, in what now would be considered the ‘normal’ location.

The motorised puffer Spartan unloads coal at the old pier, Scarinish, in the early 1960s (Painting by Donald Meek).

‘Puffers’ also used the fine Stevenson-built pier at Hynish, where the diesel vessels owned by the Hamiltons often loaded cargoes of kelp for processing as alginate at Barcaldine.   The Hamiltons’ vessels and those latterly owned by Ross & Marshall (later becoming ‘Glenlight’ through merging both companies) were beautifully equipped modern coasters.  Gradually, however, these coasters lost their trade, as increasing amounts of their cargo were carried by the ships of David MacBrayne, particularly after the arrival from the 1970s of the car-ferries of Caledonian MacBrayne.    

The motorised puffers Anzac and Lascar lie at the old pier, Scarinish, in the early 1960s. 

David MacBrayne Ltd
Although David MacBrayne and his predecessors had provided shipping services to Skye and the Outer Hebrides since at least the mid-nineteenth century, visits to Tiree by MacBrayne vessels were comparatively rare before 1900.   One somewhat ominous MacBrayne visitor, however, was the veteran paddle-steamer, Glencoe, formerly the Mary Jane, built originally by James Matheson, proprietor of Lewis, in 1846.   The Glencoe acted as an emigrant tender, taking Tiree people away from island piers, notably Hynish, to join the ships that would carry them across the Atlantic.

The veteran MacBrayne vessel Glencoe, formerly James Matheson's Mary Jane (1846), is seen here approaching Mallaig late in her career, which terminated in 1931 after 85 years of service in the Hebrides. 

After 1900, MacBrayne’s interest in Tiree and the Inner Hebrides was stimulated by the award of contracts to carry the Royal Mail.  My older relatives in Tiree always referred to MacBrayne’s ship as ‘am mail’, and would ask, ‘An tàinig am mail an-diugh?’ (‘Has the mail(boat) arrived today?’).  They also regarded the first regular MacBrayne vessels to serve Tiree, namely the Cygnet and the Plover, as particularly poor vessels compared with the Hebrides and the ‘Dunara’. 

The Cygnet arrives at Tiree, probably in the early 1920s.

The Cygnet, built in 1904 and on the Tiree run from 1914, was considered to be an appalling ship, seriously deficient in comfort, and dreadful in heavy weather.  Constant complaints about the Cygnet were among the factors which caused David Hope MacBrayne, son of the original David MacBrayne, to relinquish his interest in the 1927 mail contract.   Another MacBrayne steamship serving Tiree in this period, the Fingal, was described by Lady Frances Balfour about 1912 as ‘small and desperately un-up-to-date in all its fittings’, although a good sea-boat.[18]
The acquisition of David MacBrayne Ltd by Coast Lines and the London, Midland and Scottish Railway in 1928 resulted in the building of three new passenger vessels, two of which were to serve Tiree.   The first of the new vessels to serve the island was the Lochearn, which arrived in 1930, and displaced the Cygnet, which was duly and thankfully scrapped.  The diesel-engined Lochearn was the twin sister of the Lochmor, which maintained the service from Mallaig to Harris, North Uist and South Uist.   Compared with the Cygnet, the Lochearn was a luxurious vessel, and both she and her twin were described as ‘little Mauretanias’ by a native of Tiree, the Rev. Dr Donald Lamont, minister of Blair Atholl.  Those who travelled, or perhaps more frequently wallowed, on the Lochearn between Oban and Tiree for the best part of six hours might not have agreed with that assessment, but the vessel’s accommodation was of a high order.  

The Lochearn at Coll when new (Courtesy of Ewen McGee).

She was inclined to be rather wet in heavy seas, and would ship a great deal of water over her long Promenade Deck, soaking passengers’ luggage, as I well remember.  Even so, she was a doughty and robust vessel, and I remember seeing her ploughing through Gunna Sound in September 1961 during a ferocious storm, when nobody expected that she would make the passage south from Castlebay, Barra, in such horrendous conditions.  She gave sterling service to the Inner Hebrides until 1964, when she and her sister were sold to Greek owners, and the Lochearn was transformed beyond recognition into the yacht Naias.

The former Lochearn being converted into the Greek yacht Naias at Pireaus (Courtesy of Colin MacLean).

A swan at last!  This is the only known photograph of the former Lochearn fully re-fledged as the Greek yacht Naias.  She is seen here 'beyond Glyfada Beach' in 1971 (Peter M. Stafford)


The much-maligned Cygnet served Tiree alongside the Dunara Castle and the Hebrides during the First World War.   During the Second World War, the island was served by the Lochearn and the Hebrides, which was temporarily drafted into the MacBrayne fleet because of her large cargo-carrying capacity.  This was required because Tiree had become an important base for Coastal Command, especially in weather reconnaissance and forecasting, and a sizeable aerodrome with three runways was constructed on the Reef, where the present-day airport is situated.    From 1947, the Tiree mailship was the Lochness, the first of the reconstituted MacBrayne company’s post-1928 new ‘builds’.   This fine vessel, which served Lewis until the building of the Loch Seaforth, was powered by steam-reciprocating engines.   She remained on the Tiree and Barra/Lochboisdale run until 1955, when she was displaced by the next motor-vessel built by David MacBayne Ltd specifically for the Inner Isles, namely the Claymore.

The Lochness at Castlebay, Barra.

The Claymore was a considerable improvement on the ‘old’ Lochearn.   As with most other post-1928 MacBrayne vessels, she was a scaled-down version of ocean-going liners which set the mechanical and stylistic trends of the era.   For the Claymore, Denny the shipbuilder’s reference ship was the French Line’s new transatlantic liner Flandre, launched in 1952. 

The French Line's Flandre.


The Claymore’s relationship to the Flandre was most obvious in her large, domed funnel with prominent front vents.  She had a finely raked bow, a broad beam and a substantial cruiser stern, which earned her the nickname of ‘Bessy Braddock’ in certain quarters!  The Claymore’s saloons and cabin accommodation were of a high order, and she could have been an extremely comfortable ship, had it not been for the tremendous vibration caused by her four-cylinder Sulzer diesel engines.   MacBrayne’s, in penny-pinching mode, had opted (against advice) for four-cylinder diesels rather than six-cylinder versions, which would have run much more smoothly.  As the Claymore was intended for slow overnight running to Tiree from Lochboisdale and Barra on the inward run to Oban, four-cylinder diesels were deemed sufficient.   Unfortunately, the ship’s passengers paid the price which MacBrayne’s meanness had imposed on the new vessel, and often found themselves shaken out of their slumbers, if not their skins, by a recurrent cycle of winding vibration which would reach a crescendo, and then die back, only to begin again within seconds.

The Claymore approaching Gott Bay pier in the late 1950s (Copyright: Ian Bald)

Even so, the Claymore was a model of the traditional passenger-ship of her time, offering silver service, spotless white tablecloths, and beautiful wood panelling. She was, however, destined to be the last-built MacBrayne-owned ‘RMS’, complete with a forward derrick (mounted on a Samson post) and ’tween-decks.   She maintained the Tiree service until 1972, when she was displaced in her turn by the former Lewis mail-ship Loch Seaforth. 

The Claymore's pens and stalls offered First Class accommodation for cattle!

Tiree people were none too pleased to receive the Outer Hebrides’ cast-off yet again, and had their revenge when the Loch Seaforth struck a rock in Gunna Sound in late March 1973 on the inward run from Lochboisdale to Oban.  She grounded in Titanic style, with Caledonian MacBrayne’s Chief Executive on board, as well as some of his officials.   She was towed to the pier at Gott Bay, where, in defiance of the Master’s preference to beach her, she was moored to the bollards.  Badly holed, she developed a list, and, as a bulkhead gave way, sank at the pier, blocking its use for six weeks by vessels other than ‘puffers’. 

Cartoon by Donald Meek - 'I've caught a big one this time, Dad!'

Nemesis reigned as the displaced Claymore was brought back into service, and performed heroically once more, using a red ferry-boat to convey passengers to and from the pier.  The ‘Seaforth’ was raised and refloated by a large German salvage crane, Magnus III, and towed to Troon for scrapping. 

The last haul: the salvaged Loch Seaforth is towed to Troon for scrapping.

The Claymore continued in service until 1975, when she was laid up at the East India Harbour, Greenock, and sold in 1976 to Greek owners, who rebuilt her as the day-cruise ship City of Hydra, serving the Cyclades successfully for another twenty years.  She finally sank in the ship ‘graveyard’ at Elepsis, outside Athens, in late 2000. 

Although rebuilt to a considerable extent, the City of Hydra is still recognisable as the former Claymore by means of her wheelhouse and funnel, and also the 'Coll door' on the port side.  She is shown here at Aegina Town, Greece.
With the departure of the Claymore and the inglorious finale of the Loch Seaforth, the traditional mail-ship service to Tiree reached its unlamented conclusion, and the way was open for the gradual introduction of car-ferries.
Island sailors
Like other islands of the Hebrides, Tiree contributed many sailors to the maintenance of seagoing services.  Indeed, Tiree earned a particularly high reputation for both the number and quality of its seafarers, and for producing many Captains for home and foreign trades.   In the era of the MacBrayne motor-ships, Tiree’s contribution to the fleet was particularly  evident. 

Captain John C. MacKinnon on the bridge of the Claymore.
The 1955 Claymore, for example, had a succession of Masters who were natives of Tiree, beginning with John C. MacKinnon (Teonaidh Dhòmhnaill Bhig) from Vaul, and continuing with Neil Campbell (Nilidh Mòr Nèill Chaimbeil) from Balemartine, and John Lamont (Iain Aonghais Mhòir) from the Green.  Previously Captain Campbell had been Master of the well-known turbine steamer, King George V, and his brother Sandy was Master of the Lochnevis.  

Captain Neil Campbell on the bridge of the King George V (Peter M. Stafford: courtesy of Linda Gowans).

John Lamont (then First Officer, but later Captain) on the foredeck of the Claymore.

Other Tiree Masters included Captain John Kennedy, Moss, and Captain Charles Hamilton, Balemartine, and also the famous Captain John MacCallum, who served briefly as Master on the cargo-vessels before settling long-term as the famous First Mate of the King George V.  MacCallum loved to tease passengers with his dry humour and acerbic wit, and his sayings and practical jokes have become the stuff of MacBrayne legend.  He often asked passengers on the King George V, as they rounded the Cailleach headland at the north of Mull, to look out for smoke from Tiree sawmills on the far horizon!  Tiree men also served on the decks of the MacBrayne ships.  Their numbers included Willie Lamont, Balemartine, and also John Fletcher, Mannal, who is still very much part of island life. 

Captain Donnie MacInnes, Ruaig and Heanish, on the bridge of the Clansman.

The tradition has continued to the present day, and is represented by Captain George Campbell, Cornaig, and Captain Donnie MacInnes, Ruaig.  Captain MacInnes now serves with Forth Pilots.  Roddy MacLennan, Caolas, has been a very prominent figure on the bows and sterns of successive MacBrayne and Caledonian MacBrayne vessels since the early 1970s.

The contemporary CalMac sailor in high-vis jacket and safety helmet:  Roddy MacLennan, Caolas, finalises mooring procedures at the stern of the Clansman.
Tiree people have many reasons to be grateful to their own seafarers for their immense generosity to passengers on trips to and from Oban, and I myself owe an incalculable debt to the generosity of the Captains of the Claymore and their families.  I travelled regularly by sea from Tiree to Oban from the early 1950s, and my enduring affection for ships and the sea is in no small measure due to the warmth, interest and kindness of Captains MacKinnon, Campbell and Lamont, and their respective families.

Passengers disembark from the Claymore, while Captain MacKinnon (left) and Second Mate (later Captain) Archie MacQueen (at the gangway) oversee the procedure.
Air services
Tiree has been particularly fortunate in having services by sea and also by air for the best part of the twentieth century.   Indeed, the 1930s, which were a bad decade in the UK more generally, seemed to favour the Hebrides somewhat, as the foundations of the transport services that we know today were laid in those years, with the coming of diesel-engined motor-ships and twin-engined de Havilland Dragon Rapide aircraft.  Occasional landings of aircraft on Tiree beaches are recorded in the late 1920s and early 1930s.   Captain David Barclay, who was then flying with Northern & Scottish Airways and would become a famous name in Scottish aviation history, landed a Dragon on the sands of Gott Bay on 4 October 1935.  Following investigative flights, an air service to Renfrew was properly established by May 1938, and this had become a daily service by 1939.     
De Havilland Dragon Rapide.

The airport used on the Reef was requisitioned and enlarged to aerodrome status by the RAF during the Second World War, with the construction of three long, hard runways and supporting ‘kit’.   Tiree was thus given a wartime legacy which was to benefit the island for many years thereafter.   This legacy was particularly evident in a couple of enormous, black hangars which dominated the airport during my boyhood, and which can often be seen as background to the arrival and departure of passengers in photographs taken in the 1950s and early 1960s.   When civilian services were resumed after the war, these were maintained by Scottish Airways and later British European Airways using de Havilland Rapides until 1955, when de Havilland Heron (DH 114 Heron 1B) aircraft came into service.  

Sister Jean Kennedy from Coll, killed in Islay in 1957, with the inscription on the memorial at Renfrew Airport (Courtesy of Ewen McGee).

BEA originally owned three Herons, but one of these (G-AOFY, ‘Sir Charles Bell’) crashed on an air ambulance flight to Islay in September 1957, killing the Captain, Paddy Calderwood, the Radio Officer, Hugh McGinlay, and the nurse, Sister Jean Kennedy, a native of Coll, Tiree’s neighbouring island. 

Heron aircraft Sister Jean Kennedy at Tiree Airport (Copyright: Robin Beck).

As a lasting mark of great respect, BEA renamed one of its two remaining Herons the ‘Sister Jean Kennedy’ (G-ANXA, originally ‘John Hunter’), and, together with the ‘Sir James Young Simpson’ (G-ANXB), this fine aeroplane served the Hebrides until 1973.   The two BEA Herons served other parts of Scotland too, but for the best part of eighteen years they were the backbone of air services from Renfrew to Islay, Barra and Tiree.  With fixed undercarriage, they were ideal for the rigours of island airports, especially at Barra, where they landed on the beach, as (famously) passenger aircraft still do.  Their pilots also became legendary, among them Captain Paddy Calderwood, who died in the Islay crash, Captain David Barclay and Captain Eric Starling.  Captain Starling was Area Manager for British European Airways’ Scottish Division, but regularly flew Herons to the Hebrides until 1971, though he devoted himself latterly to air ambulance flights.[19] 

Captain David Barclay with the Sister Jean Kennedy at Barra Airport (Copyright: Captain Bill Innes).

As I well remember with considerable pride, it was an honour to fly to Tiree on a Heron aircraft piloted by Captain Barclay or Captain Starling, as both men were pioneers of aviation in Scotland, and the island thus had the privilege of being served by pilots of the greatest possible experience and distinction.   Such experience was invaluable in the context of air ambulance flights.  It would be quite impossible to exaggerate the importance of the air ambulance service provided by the Herons in the 1950s and 1960s.  Countless lives were saved by giving sick or injured islanders a speedy conveyance to appropriate Glasgow hospitals.   I myself will never forget the experience of seeing a Heron aircraft landing at Tiree airport around 8 pm on a winter’s night in the early 1960s to air-lift one of my own elderly relatives.  Few things could underline the value of human life more powerfully than the roar of four aircraft engines descending from the sky, the flashing of navigation lights on the dark runway, the sight of two peak-capped pilots dimly illumined in a cockpit, a uniformed nurse with red cape stepping on to the runway, and the provision of a ‘large’ aeroplane to take one very ‘ordinary’ person to hospital.  The devotion, risk-taking and (sometimes) sacrifice of the crews on such occasions deserve to be written in letters of gold in this chapter.

A BEA Pionair/Dakota stands on the apron at Glenegedale, Islay (Courtesy of Old Islay).


During peak times in summer in the late 1950s and early 1960s, flights to and from Tiree were undertaken by Dakota (Douglas DC-3) aircraft, modified to become BEA’s ‘Pionair’ class.   These capacious aeroplanes, which could carry thirty-two passengers and sometimes made a round trip of the islands (Renfrew-Inverness-Stornoway-Benbecula-Tiree-Islay-Cambeltown-Renfrew), were massively conspicuous on a runway in the middle of the Reef, Tiree’s lowest-lying stretch of machair.  They would sit on their tails, with their noses and cockpits high in the air, and glitter pompously in the afternoon sunshine, resplendent in BEA’s red livery.   I made my first flight on one of these Dakotas in 1961, when I was suitably ticketed as a ‘Travelling Alone’ youngster, on the way to join my mother in Glasgow.  I can still remember clambering up the sloping aisle to my seat, which was a double seat of red leather.  As the somewhat cumbersome aircraft trundled down the runway for take-off, it swayed and rattled and roared for what seemed like an eternity, but gradually the tail lifted and the aisle became level, as it flew into the sky, and Tiree’s sweeping shores and beaches began to appear and disappear through a porthole.     The aircraft had a hostess who looked after me until we landed at Renfrew Airport.  On the way, passengers were treated to sweets and soft drinks, as well as an in-flight bulletin.  On the return journey, my mother and I were two out of six passengers who had an entire Dakota to ourselves.  We had been scheduled to fly from Renfrew on a Heron, but one of the Heron’s engines refused to start – not an uncommon event with the Herons! – and we were decanted to a Dakota instead.  It seemed remarkable to have an air host (not a hostess on this occasion!) and an in-flight bulletin, with so few passengers on board!  Those were the days of luxury air travel to and from Tiree!
Curiously, the era of ‘luxury air travel’ by Heron ended for Tiree at much the same time as ‘luxury sea travel’ by traditional motor-ship.   It so happened that on the day that the Loch Seaforth sank at Tiree pier in March 1973, I was travelling with my father on one of the last flights by Heron (G-ANXA) to Tiree.   I was accompanying him home after a long spell in hospital in Glasgow, following a tractor accident.   As the Heron descended over Tiree and took its bearings for landing at the Reef, it passed over the west side of Gott Bay, and the keeled-over Loch Seaforth was clearly visible as I looked out of the starboard window.   It was sobering indeed to see the once-mighty vessel that had braved the Minches between Mallaig and Stornoway lying in such a distressed condition.  

The BEA Heron aircraft Sir James Young Simpson is now preserved.
At the end of the month, both Herons, the ‘Sister Jean Kennedy’ (G-ANXA) and the ‘Sir James Young Simpson’ (G-ANXB), were withdrawn.  When I left Tiree several weeks later, I flew to Glasgow in a Shorts Skyvan, which British Airways (with which British European Airways had been merged) had redesignated as its ‘Skyliner’.   This was the grossest and most misleading of euphemisms, as the ‘Skyliner’ (SC7) was little more than a basic Transit van with wings, and, as such, a most profound shock to those of us who had grown up with the delights of the Heron.   I will never forget the noise in the cabin, if such it can be called –  the rattling, the constant, deafening roar of the engines, the egg-box fittings, the chairs which seemed to be little more than metal frames covered with flimsy net.   It was with an immense sense of relief, and with throbbing ears and considerable anger, that I stepped on to the tarmac at Glasgow Airport (Abbotsinch, as it then was).  Whatever else the future held for Tiree’s transport, by sea and air, an over-emphasis on luxury was certainly not to be one of the hallmarks of the successors of the motor-ships or the elegant and beautiful Herons.
The dismissal of the dreaded ‘Skyliner’ was, however, nearer than we could have imagined.  Soon after the formation of British Airways, the contract for the provision of these services was assigned to Loganair, a company founded in 1962 by the well-known contractor, William Logan, Muir of Ord, and Captain Duncan McIntosh, his pilot.   The company introduced a pair of stalwart Britten-Norman aircraft, the Islander and the Trislander, to the Hebrides.  The former, twin-engined and very useful for short-haul flights with capacity for eight passengers, became the indispensable mainstay of the air ambulance, while the latter, with its very clever name, reflecting its unusual configuration with a third engine mounted in the tail section, became the principal passenger aircraft, with capacity for sixteen.  The Trislander, with wings fixed above the fuselage, was thoroughly reliable, and, although noisy, had many advantages, including ease of loading. 

Loganair's Trislander G-BODS at Tiree Airport (Copyright: Alec Walker).  Note the support-frame under the tail, to prevent the aircraft from tipping, and the extended nose, specially adapted for carrying luggage.
It tended to hedge-hop wherever possible, but on good days its relatively low ‘service ceiling’ afforded passengers superb views of the ever-changing and magnificent profiles of the Treshnish Islands, Mull, Iona, Colonsay, the Argyll mainland and especially Cowal on the way south to Glasgow (or north from Glasgow to Tiree). This offered another way of understanding the Hebrides and the coastline of Scotland, and greatly aided my appreciation of ‘my’ world.  I have vivid memories of flying over the hills of Cowal on a glorious day in April, and seeing a pin-point sharp image of the Trislander gliding over a peak immediately below me, with wisps of snow still lying in crevices.  In fact, the aircraft had to gain altitude on numerous occasions to clear the peaks of these hills!  Then it would begin its descent to the Clyde estuary, with miniature ships leaving hairline wakes as they sailed between Greenock and Dunoon, and up the Gareloch and Loch Long.
Tiree Airport with a Twin Otter in FlyBe livery on the apron.

Loganair experimented with a number of other makes of aircraft for Hebridean routes, among them the beautiful and fast Embraer Bandeirante, manufactured in Brazil, which used to slice the travelling time between Glasgow and Tiree to less than half an hour, and the Shorts 360, a cumbersome removal-van version of the grim ‘Skyliner’ of the early 1970s. It had evolved via the Shorts 330, also used by Loganair, and it was infinitely more attractive than the appalling ‘Skyliner’.  The latter was placed on the Tiree and Barra service, but proved itself unreliable on the sands and water of Barra Airport.   The company’s most successful and most long-lasting service aircraft has been, and unquestionably remains, the de Havilland Twin Otter, built in Canada (and thus prefixed by the letters ‘DHC’ for de Havilland Canada), and well known for its versatility and its ability to function in very difficult terrain, most notably in the Arctic. 

A Saab 340 at Tiree Airport.

As the ill-fated attempt to introduce the Shorts 360 to the Tiree and (especially) Barra service was to prove in 1994, the Twin Otter is ideally suited to the rigours of Hebridean operation, and had to be ‘recalled’ when temporarily displaced by the former.  The Twin Otter, operated by Loganair under franchise from FlyBe, maintains the Tiree and Barra service to the present day, sharing the Tiree route at busier times with the larger Saab 340.  Ambulance flights are undertaken by fixed-wing aircraft and also by helicopter.


Colin MacPhail is shown on the day of his retirement with both Captains Barclay (left) and Starling (right) who had come to Tiree to mark the occasion (An Iodhlann).


Air travel to and from Tiree was ably facilitated by islanders who, as Station Managers or Superintendents, became legendary for their ‘unflappable’ qualities, their organisational skills, and warm and generous personalities.  The names of Colin MacPhail (Cailean Lachainn), Crosspol, assisted by Mary Munn, Heanish, and Archie MacArthur (Eàirdsidh Mòr Theonaidh), Middleton, are  remembered with gratitude.  Colin MacPhail, with his tall frame, trousers well above his ankles, and the prancing gait of a thoroughbred at a show, represents the great era of the Rapides, Herons, and Pionairs; while the broad frame, kind  heart and deeply personal and meaningful welcome of ‘Big Erchie’ will forever be associated with BEA – ‘Big Erchie’s Airline’ – though he was pre-eminently linked with Loganair.  It is thoroughly appropriate that the station is managed to the present by Archie’s daughter, Ishbel (‘Tish’) MacKinnon, who follows in her father’s efficient and kind footsteps.

Tiree Airport's incomparable Superintendent, Archie MacArthur, 'Eairdsidh Mor Theonaidh' (An Iodhlann).

Roll-on, roll-off

In the aftermath of the Second World War, Tiree had experience of ships which were able to load and discharge vehicles by means of ramps.  These were the well-known Landing Craft (Tank) – LCTs – which would beach themselves on the sands of Gott Bay, and, through open bow doors, disgorge vehicles and other plant for the Royal Air Force base at the Reef.  Air Force vehicles were shipped out in like manner.  However, it took more than 30 years for this mode of ramp-based operation to be extended successfully to the Hebrides in a civilian context.

A Landing Craft opens its bow doors at St Kilda.

When the ‘new’ pier in Gott was built in 1914, it was much easier to land passengers and cargo at Tiree, but lift-on, lift-off by means of derrick remained the standard cargo-handling method for more than sixty years, in effect, until the departure of the Claymore in 1975.  In the wider world, ship-owners began to experiment with drive-on, drive-off facilities, usually an open stern with gates, on sea-going vessels in the UK from 1936. 

The way it used to be: a car is held in suspense while being loaded on board the Claymore (FLICKR).

In 1939 William Denny & Bros, Dumbarton, built the first stern-loading vehicle-ferry, Princess Victoria, for the Stranraer-Larne crossing, but she was requisitioned for war service and subsequently lost.    The use of LCTs during the Second World War reinforced the potential value of ramp-loading of vehicles, and in 1946 Denny’s built the second Princess Victoria, also stern-loading and identical to her predecessor, for the same route, as well as the stern-loading Lord Warden for the English Channel in 1951.  All three had stern gates, and not stern doors, which made them vulnerable in stormy weather.  The new approach was taking root, but the loss of the second Princess Victoria, when her stern gates were breached in a severe storm in January 1953, retarded progress more generally for another decade.   

Tiree Pier in the late 1960s.
David MacBrayne Ltd received its first car-ferries, the triplets Hebrides, Clansman and Columba, in 1964, but these were equipped with vehicle-hoists forward of the bridge and not with ramps at bow or stern.  This reflected another challenge, namely the inadequate pier and docking infrastructure of the Hebrides, which could not accommodate or handle ships equipped with roll-on, roll-off facilities.  Because of their location forward rather than aft, the hoists could deposit cars on the strongest sections of Hebridean piers, which had been used previously by derricks. To some extent, therefore, the hoists were ‘reverse derricks’, operating by means of platforms ‘from the bottom up’, and the three ships were unique in configuration.  

The car-ferry Columba loads cars at a wet and windy Tiree Pier in September 1988 (Copyright: Richard Danielson).

None of the three car-ferries initially served Tiree, and, as car-ownership and the desire to take the car on holiday increased, a severe strain was imposed on the out-of-date Claymore of 1955, which had the capacity to carry only five vehicles on the Foredeck, and five more on the ’Tween Deck, when these were not occupied by other cargo.  Consequently, the Claymore’s Saturday sailings in the 1960s and early 1970s were supplemented by the services of the derrick- and crane-loading cargo-vessel Lochdunvegan.  This could be no-more than a stop-gap solution.

Sheep were not entirely co-operative when being loaded on board the hoist of the Columba (Copyright: Alec Walker).  Sailings could be delayed by up to two hours while the pier-head rodeo proceeded.

With the departure of the Claymore finally in 1975, a variety of much more modern car-ferries began to serve Tiree, thanks to the initiative and investment Caledonian MacBrayne, formed on 1 January 1973.  These were cleverly built with vehicle-hoists on their quarters in addition to bow- and/or stern-loading facilities, and could handle most types of piers.   The most sophisticated of these new vessels, and also the first to serve Tiree after 1975, was the Iona, which boasted full ro-ro facilities, with bow visor and stern ramp, in addition to a vehicle hoist and (for a period) a crane at the stern.  She was followed by the new Claymore of 1978, but from the early 1980s the principal vessel on the Oban-Tiree route was the 1964-built car-ferry Columba, now transferred from her original service on the Sound of Mull (Lochaline and Craignure).

The Columba approaches Tiree Pier in the summer of 1976.

The Columba was displaced in 1989 by the arrival of the Lord of the Isles, which had the same range of facilities as the Iona.   In her turn, the ‘LOTI’, as she is affectionately known, was displaced in 1998 by the Clansman, which did not have a hoist, as Tiree had been given a linkspan in the 1990s.  This remains the position, but with the use of the ‘LOTI’ in a supportive role during the summer months, taking sailings on Sunday and Monday.


The Lord of the Isles leaving Tiree.

The arrival of full car-ferry services to and from Tiree necessitated major changes not only in the configuration of piers, but also in the handling of freight and the travelling practices of passengers themselves. The old-style cargo-service from Glasgow was discontinued, and the last cargo-ship, the Loch Carron, was sold in 1976.  Freight was now to be conveyed by road to Oban for the first part of its journey from Glasgow to Tiree.   

The cargo-vessel Loch Carron is shown making her last scheduled call at Tiree in autumn 1976.

With the exception of the Iona, which was later fitted with cabins on the Bridge Deck, and the Lord of the Isles, which was equipped from the outset with several berths below the Car Deck, the new car-ferries did not have overnight cabin accommodation.  This meant that passengers could no longer sleep on board the vessels on the night prior to sailing.  The vessels were intended for day service, though early rises at Oban were not eliminated, except on Tuesdays, when a service leaving about 3.00 p.m. was instituted.  The ships also became much more functional in their décor and internal design, with ‘open plan’ lay-out in later vessels such as the Clansman.   The experience of sailing became much more impersonal, with far fewer opportunities for contact between passengers and crew than had been the case with old motor-ships. The most recent generation of car-ferries have much less deck space for passengers than earlier car-ferries, and are thus much less attractive for outdoor viewing of passing scenery.

Vehicles drive on board the Hebridean Isles at Tiree in November 2013.

For vehicle-owners, however, there were distinct and obvious advantages in the new car-ferries.  No longer did they need to stand nervously on a pier while their cars dangled from a derrick, as they were swung on or off.  It was now easy to drive on and off the ship, with complete control of one’s own vehicle; full ‘roll-on, roll-off’ was in operation – in one end and out the other!  The increasing capacity of successive car-ferries also favoured the transporting of heavy goods vehicles, and encouraged the creation of island-based haulage businesses, represented by the articulated lorries of MacLennan Motors and MacKinnon Haulage, which are regular users of the new ferries.  Deliveries from Oban by such carriers as Derek Wilson have been facilitated.  The overall results are an increase in cars and tourism in the island, and an ever-growing dependence on the mainland for essential services and foodstuffs. 

For farmers and crofters too, the new car-ferries brought advantages, especially in the loading and transportation of cattle.   I will never forget the horrors of having to load cattle on to the 1955 Claymore  in the early morning by means of a walkway under Gott Bay pier.   The reluctant cattle were forced, indeed whacked mercilessly with sticks, along this narrow path in the midst of the heaving swell, and then compelled to go through the shell doors of the ship, where they were accommodated on the ’Tween Deck.  The car-ferries now receive cattle and sheep on ‘floats’ made for the purpose – a much happier procedure for both human and beast.  No amount of nostalgia for the old motor-ships can eliminate their harsher dimensions, nor can we be anything but grateful for the improvements brought to Tiree transport by state-of-the-art car-ferries.

The Clansman prepares to leave Tiree Pier on a fine Tuesday evening.
Concluding overview
The theme which emerges most evidently in the course of this chapter is surely the gradual creation of a ‘sea bridge’ between Tiree and the Scottish mainland over the course of some two centuries.  Whereas the islanders of the early 1800s had few opportunities to travel to the mainland, and did so by sail and oar only in contexts of great danger and self-dependence, the world of the early 2000s is completely different, offering ‘services’ at every level of transport.  These require minimal activation or input by the intending travellers, beyond the ability to arrive at the relevant airport or CalMac terminal, pay the fare, and walk or drive on board the ship or aircraft.  Debates now are much less concerned with the chances of arriving or departing.   Rather, they are much more likely to focus on the quality and frequency of the ‘services’ in terms of schedules and the facilities offered by the ‘service providers’, their ships, aircraft and staff.  The changes in transport since 1800 are little short of phenomenal – in Tiree, as in other parts of the Hebrides.
Balfour, Lady Frances, Ne Obliviscaris: Lady Victoria Campbell: A Memoir, Hodder and Stoughton, London, [c.1912].
Cooper, D., Road to the Isles: Travellers to the Hebrides 1770-1914,  London, 2002.
Duckworth, C.L.D, and Langmuir, G. E., Clyde and other Coastal Steamers, T. Stephenson & Sons, Prescot, 2nd edn, 1977.
Duckworth, C.L.D, and Langmuir, G. E., West Highland Steamers, Brown, Son & Ferguson, Glasgow, 4th edn, 1987.
Hutchison, Iain, Air Ambulance: Six Decades of the Scottish Air Ambulance Service, Kea Publishing, Erskine, 1996.
Hutchison, Iain, The Flight of the Starling: The flying career of pioneer Scottish aviator Captain Eric Starling, Kea Publishing, Erskine, 1992.
Hutchison, Iain, The Story of Loganair: Scotland’s Airline: The first 25 years, Western Isles Publishing, [Stornoway,] 1987.
Lo Bao, Phil, and Hutchison, Iain, BEAline to the Islands: The story of air services to offshore communities of the British Isles by British European Airways, its predecessors and succcessors, Kea Publishing, Erskine, 2002.
Meek, Donald E., and Peter, Bruce, From Comet to CalMac: Two Centuries of Hebridean and Clyde Shipping, Ferry Publications, Ramsey, Isle of Man, 2011.
Meek, Donald E., Steamships to St Kilda: John McCallum, Martin Orme, and the Life and Death of an Island Community, The Islands Book Trust, Ravenspoint, Lewis, 2010.
Napier Commission Report 1884.
Robins, N. S., and Meek, D. E., The Kingdom of MacBrayne, Birlinn Ltd, Edinburgh, 2nd edn, 2008.
Simper, Robert, Scottish Sail: A Forgotten Era, David & Charles, Newton Abbot, 1974.
Woodley, Charles, Scotland’s Airlines, The History Press, Stroud, 2008.


[1] One of their descendants was Archie MacArthur, ‘Archie BEA’.  See the section on ‘Air services’ below. 

[2] I am very grateful to Lismore Gaelic Heritage Centre and especially Dr Robert Hay for providing information about, and photographs of, the Lismore smacks.  I am also deeply indebted to the late Johnnie MacFadyen, Lismore, whom I had the privilege of  meeting in 2011.  Johnnie was the son of Captain Alan, and frequently accompanied his father on the Mary & Effie.

[3] Information about the Mary Stewart was kindly supplied in a letter (21 October 1987) by N. Burden.

[4] I am very grateful to Donald MacIntyre, Gott, for first-hand memories of the Mary Stewart and her owner.

[5] NSA, Vol. 7, 216-8.

[6] I am most grateful to Ewen McGee, Coll and Bishopbriggs, for this information.

[7] Duckworth and Langmuir, Clyde and Other Coastal Steamers, 119.

[8] Oban Times, 22 December 1923.

[9] For this information, I am deeply indebted  to Miss Mary MacLean, Scarinish, Tiree, who has conducted extensive and important research into the life and death of Captain MacKinnon.

[10] Duckworth and Langmuir, Clyde and Other Coastal Steamers, 121.

[11] Ibid, 121.

[12] Ibid., 120.

[13] Meek, Steamships to St Kilda, offers a summary account of McCallum and Orme and their steamships.

[14] Balfour, Ne Obliviscaris, 240.

[15] Cooper, 2002, 161.

[16] Ibid., 217-18.

[17] Napier Report, 2162.

[18] Lady Frances Balfour, Ne Obliviscaris, 242.

[19] Hutchison, Flight of the Starling.