More Gleanings from the ‘Highland News’

Front-page masthead on the Highland News — a journal that gave weekly updates on steamer services to Lewis more than a century ago, painting an historical portrait for today’s researchers. Collisions and accidents, comings and goings, were all recorded in the paper’s columns

In this second instalment of west highland newspaper extracts from more than a century ago, Colin Tucker applauds the detail with which shipping incidents in the Stornoway area were reported.

News of shipping on the west coast has always been of interest, both to steamer enthusiasts and the general public, and the various Highland newspapers have provided a source throughout the years. As early as 1813 weekly snippets of news regarding shipping appeared in one paper under the apt heading ‘maritime intelligence’. What follows are more examples of ‘maritime intelligence’ which appeared in the Inverness-based Highland News between 1890 and 1910.

Like her sister Princess Louise, Langlands’ Princess Victoria was a regular visitor to Stornoway in the pre-1914 era. Built in 1894, she was torpedoed and sunk in 1915 on a voyage from Aberdeen to Liverpool. This is a Langlands postcard from the CRSC Archive

The summer season

In the years around the start of the 20th century, visitors to the Western Isles could be divided into two main groups: the wealthy coming to see new places, and native islanders working on the mainland returning home for their week’s ‘trade’ holiday. The former travelled by mail steamer, no doubt first class, or arrived on their own yachts; the latter would have no choice but to endure the hardships of steerage on the mail boat.

In May 1893 it was reported that Messrs Langlands’ “Princess Louise, from Liverpool to Leith… called here on Tuesday… with about ninety tourists on board.”

By the following month the tourist season had clearly started, the newspaper reporting that three yachts had anchored in the bay. On a larger scale, it noted that “besides these [yachts] the City of Richmond, from Greenock to Norway with several hundred tourists, and the Gael from Oban, also with tourists, put into Stornoway,” adding that “the latter, we understand, is to continue running between Oban and Stornoway during the tourist season.” This must have been the case, as a month later it was noted that a “large number of holiday-makers… have arrived at Stornoway on the Liverpool and Glasgow steamers, and by the Gael from Oban.”

Every year large numbers of Lewis people returned home during the Fair fortnight. In July 1898 “the mail steamer brought with her a great many Glasgow Lewismen.” In July 1900, beneath the heading ‘My Foot is on my Native Heath’, the paper told that “the mail steamer arriving on Saturday last had a good many passengers coming home for a short holiday on the Greenock Fair. The Glasgow Fair holidays commenced on Thursday, and the Lovedale (which had exchanged runs for the day with the Clydesdale) brought about sixty excursionists. It was expected that a big crowd would come on Friday and Saturday.”

Lovedale was one of David MacBrayne’s useful secondhand purchases in the early 1890s. Based at Kyle of Lochalsh, she made occasional visits to Stornoway on reliefs and backups

In 1901 MacBrayne’s guide book Summer Tours in Scotland highlighted that year’s Glasgow International Exhibition on the front cover, but this did not deter large numbers of Lewis folk from heading home for their holidays. Highland News reported that “Notwithstanding the attractions of the Glasgow Exhibition the number of pleasure seekers from the south to our Island was not diminished this season. For several nights the mail-boat was crowded with holidaymakers.”

The following year the mail steamer was again busy during the Glasgow Fair. “Large numbers of visitors arrived on Thursday, Friday and Saturday last. The biggest crowd came on Friday, arriving about 10.45pm, and the passengers were loud in their complaints of the boat having been sent to Portree. All had been travelling since the early hours of the morning, and there was a considerable proportion of women and children.”

The mail boat was also busy during Glasgow Fair in July 1903. “The mail steamer at the close of last week nightly brought large numbers of south country Lewis people home to spend the Glasgow Fair holidays on their native heath, and on Friday night there were 300 passengers.” 

In 1906 it was briefly mentioned that “Messrs Macbrayne’s steamers Clydesdale and Clansman from Glasgow, are being well patronised by tourists, and bring large numbers to Stornoway on their weekly trips.”

“The tourist season is now in full swing . . . crowds come by the Dunara [Castle] every Saturday on a weekly tour to the Hebrides”: Martin Orme‘s ’all the way‘ passenger-and-cargo vessel was a regular visitor to Scalpay

The well-to-do also visited Harris: in August 1898 it was noted that “the tourist season is now in full swing . . . crowds come by the Dunara [Castle] every Saturday on a weekly tour to the Hebrides.” The Harris correspondent was clearly not used to large numbers, describing the passengers disembarking from Martin Orme’s vessel as ‘crowds’.

Not everyone was happy with the service provided by David MacBrayne. In a letter published in August 1901, ‘Yearly Visitor’ made “a few remarks on how the Harrismen from Glasgow enjoyed their holidays at home,” adding that “the visitors were mostly young unmarried tradesmen, who enjoyed their holidays in a sober, rational manner….there was very little drinking”. ‘Yearly Visitor’ then came to the point: “The Harris people have reason to complain of Mr Macbrayne, as he does not give the Harris people a through ticket from Glasgow to Harris as he does to Stornoway and Lochmaddy.”

He continued: “We hope Mr Macbrayne will at once remove this grievance. Tarbert (Harris) is on the way to Stornoway, and it is not fair to charge the Harris people three shillings and that sixpence from Portree to Harris when it is nearer hand than Stornoway. There are more Harris people going on holidays, and we hope Mr Macbrayne will be able to see fair play done, or we will have more to say on this subject.”

Collisions and accidents

Collisions and accidents appeared fairly often in the newspaper columns. It will come as no surprise that major incidents were reported, but minor bumps and scrapes also attracted the reporters’ pens.

On 1 July 1893 it was reported that “the s.s. Clydesdale, while coming alongside the wharf, collided with the Swedish steamer Noreg which was loading herrings for the Baltic, struck her on [the] port bow and carried away her own jib-boom, which pierced a hole in the Noreg.”

MacBrayne’s Lochiel of 1877 approaches the pier at Tarbert (Harris) c1900

Later the same year, at the end of September, Lochiel “went ashore at Harris.” It was during a “severe storm” that the steamer, on passage “from Portree to Dunvegan with mails and general cargo, struck a rock at Tarbert, Harris, and sprung a leak. She was beached at Rodel Harbour for survey.” There was no rushing off to a dry dock on the Clyde in those days!

Another mishap of a minor nature was reported under the heading ‘Skye News’ in March 1898. “While the mail steamer Clydesdale was leaving the pier at Kyle on Thursday afternoon, one of the hawsers fouled her propeller, which necessitated her putting back. The mishap detained her about four hours.”

Less than a month later news reached Stornoway that the Clansman was ashore. “A telegram was received in Stornoway stating that Mr Macbrayne’s West Coast steamer Clansman had that morning struck a rock near Badcall; that, while her hold was dry, the engine-room was full of water, and in consequence she was unable to proceed. She was on passage to Stornoway.”

In June 1899 an accident of a different kind occurred, which was reported under the heading ‘An Involuntary Bath’. “While the Clydesdale was about to depart for Kyle on Monday evening, a young man, in leaving the steamer, accidentally fell into the harbour between the steamer and the pier. Fortunately, however, he was able to extricate himself, and appeared none the worse for his unexpected immersion.”

An accident of a more serious nature involved Claymore, Clansman’s sister ship on the Glasgow to Stornoway service. In July 1903 “a collision occurred… below Cloch Lighthouse between Messrs Macbrayne’s steamer Claymore, which was on passage from Stornoway to Glasgow, and the Clyde Trust hopper Barge No. 13, then on its way down the firth. The weather was hazy at the time. Neither vessel it is said, was going at full speed, although the impact was a fairly sharp one. The Claymore was struck aft on the starboard side, and had several plates stove in above the water-line, the bows of the barge being damaged.”

MacBrayne’s fine steamer Claymore had a serious accident in July 1903 on passage from Stornoway to Glasgow — and another going in the opposite direction in January 1910

The report captured the dramatic contrasts of the incident: “Some excitement was caused among the passengers, of whom there were over a hundred, but the utmost coolness characterised the actions of the Claymore’s crew, and on the assurance being given that there was not the slightest danger, confidence was soon restored. The Claymore arrived at Glasgow before noon. She will be repaired at once, but meantime Messrs Macbrayne are making arrangements for continuing the service without interruption by means of other boats.”

The story ended with a nice human touch: “Just before the collision occurred one of the passengers, a lady, had gone into her state-room, when the sudden impact caused the door of the room to bang shut and become fixed. She was unaware of the extent of the damage done to the steamer, and it was a decided relief when, half an hour later, with the assistance of the steamer’s officials, she was released.”

The following year it was Clansman’s turn — and on this occasion the ship was involved not in an accident but a rescue. “Captain Baxter, of the s.s. Clansman, on arrival at Stornoway on Thursday reported that on passage from Lochinver to Badcall, in response to signals, he bore down on what proved to be the small boat of the brigantine, Bessie Rowe, of Carnarvon, containing Captain Jones and four men who comprised the crew.”

After being taken on board, the Captain stated that while on passage from Carnarvon to Macduff with a cargo of slates the ship sprang a leak, and that “about five o’clock on Thursday morning, finding that they could not keep her afloat by pumping, they took to the boat, the ship foundering immediately afterwards. They managed to save part of their effects together with two dogs. Captain Baxter took boat and crew to Stornoway.”

It was almost as if Clansman and Claymore took it in turn to be involved in incidents. The next report, in February 1906, was headed ‘Disabled Steamer’. It described how, “owing to a defect in her rudder the s.s. Claymore was unable to leave Glasgow on her usual weekly trip to Stornoway.” The report went on to say “her place was taken by the chartered steamer Plasma.” The replacement ship “encountered very severe weather on the passage up, and consequently was slightly behind time.”

MacBrayne’s elegant new tourist boat Chieftain came out of hibernation in May 1909 and January 1910 to relieve Clansman and Claymore respectively on the Glasgow-Stornoway passenger-and-cargo run. She is pictured in the River Clyde

This section ends on a more serious note, with Claymore once again being the ship involved in the incident. In January 1910 the Highland News reported that “we regret to learn that Messrs MacBrayne’s fine steamer Claymore, while on passage to Stornoway on Saturday last, met with a very serious accident near Broadford, where she now lies stranded. Active salvage measures, we understand, are in progress. Meantime the firm’s new steamer Chieftain will take up the Claymore’s run.”

Claymore was recovered, and continued to sail for another 21 years. 

These are reports of probably only a few of the accidents which involved MacBrayne’s ships.

Steamers of other companies serving the Western Isles were equally accident prone. One example from 1898 involved John McCallum & Co’s Hebridean. “On Saturday 5th November the Hebridean called at Castlebay, and after being moored alongside the pier, it was discovered that she was leaking so badly that she had to be beached in order to prevent her sinking. It was alleged that the injury was caused by the vessel coming in contact with an unsheathed stay which acted as a strut to a pile at the north-west corner of the pier. The pier was at the time under repair.”

An action was brought by John McCallum and Co against Lady Gordon Cathcart, owner of the pier. At a Court of Session, held two years later, Lord Pearson gave judgment: “His Lordship found that the defender was at fault, and gave decree for £750 and expenses.”

Incidents involving mail boats and others

The mail boat to Stornoway was always of great importance, carrying not just the mails but also passengers and cargo. It is not surprising that items regarding it appeared fairly often in the Stornoway column of the Highland News.

The announcement of a new ship for the service creates excitement today, and in 1903 details of what was to be Sheila were announced, although perhaps in more muted tones than would be the case now. Below the heading ‘New steamer for the Highlands’, it stated that “An interesting addition is being made to Messrs David MacBrayne’s popular service of West Highland steamers. An order has been given for an up-to-date screw steamer fitted with electric light and all modern improvements. This will be the first addition to the MacBrayne fleet since the head of the firm took his two sons into partnership, and if all stories are true, the augmentation of partners will be signalised by a still further augmentation of floating stock. Other two steamers are said to be under consideration.”

Gael often undertook relief sailings on the Stornoway mail run from Kyle. Here she is seen leaving Rothesay while relieving on the Ardrishaig mail service

Even the changeover from one ship to another for annual overhaul was given notice. In April 1903 it was noted that “the steamer Glendale resumed her run on the Stornoway mail route. Since she was here last she has undergone extensive alterations in order to fit her for the work. She has been making splendid time on the passage, and it is understood she will remain at least for the summer season.”

The ship must have been replaced at some time that year, for in October it was noted that “The steamer Clydesdale, after delivering a portion of the Militiamen returning from Fort-George on Monday night, left for Glasgow for her annual overhaul, and her work has been taken up by the Glendale, which will be on the run for a few weeks at any rate.”

Changes in the steamers on the Glasgow service were also mentioned. Presumably coming out from her winter hibernation, Chieftain was described in May 1909 as having “resumed the cargo and passenger trade between Glasgow and Stornoway, replacing the Clansman, which had been on the route all winter. She was in on Thursday on her first trip this season. We observe she is now under the command of captain Robertson, her late commander, Captain Macfarlane, having been promoted to the Claymore.”

A fast crossing of the Minch was clearly of importance. A report headlined ‘A Record passage with Mails’ described how, in October 1901, “the paddle steamer Gael is at present running the mails between Stornoway and Kyle and Mallaig during the temporary absence of the Clydesdale. The Gael has been making some excellent runs, the record being on Tuesday, when she was moored at the pier by 6.30pm, after a run of 4 hours and 47 minutes from Kyle.”

Lovedale at Kyle of Lochalsh. MacBrayne bought her from the Great Western Railway in 1891. During a refit two years later her two funnels were replaced by one, placed too far aft to give her a balanced profile. She nevertheless retained many elegant features, including her nicely shaped paddle-box and stern

Sheila was also reported to have been breaking records. In July 1908 she had been “making some quick passages across the Minch this week. She broke the record on Wednesday by arriving at 7.10pm, and on Thursday again she came in at 7.30pm. Stornoway people consider this something like the thing, and it would be the customary thing in fine weather if the Sheila got away from the other side up to time.”

Another ship seen on the mail run during this period was Lovedale. It would appear that her crossings were not always plain sailing, and on one occasion an unusual situation led to a question being raised in the House of Commons in May 1902.

According to the transcript printed in the Highland News, “Mr Weir asked the president of the Board of Trade whether he is aware that neither the first nor second mate of Mr Macbrayne’s 35-year-old paddle steamer Lovedale possess the qualifying navigation certificate, and seeing that the vessel now carries the mails between Stornoway, Kyle and Mallaig, and that recently during the illness of the master she had to be navigated from Stornoway to Kyle by a visitor, who happened to possess a master’s certificate, will he take such steps as may be necessary to secure the employment of fully-qualified officers on this steamer?”

The response came from Gerald Balfour, stating that “the declaration of the Board of Trade surveyor in November last shows that the master and mate and engineer of the vessel referred to hold certificates of competency as required by section 29 of the Merchant Shipping Act. If, in the absence of the regular master, another duly certificated master took charge of the vessel, that would not be contrary either to the Act or any of the regulations of the Board of Trade.”

Even in those days parliamentarians did not answer the questions!

Sheila was reported to have been breaking records’: the new Stornoway mail boat is pictured at Kyle of Lochalsh. She was considered a big improvement on her predecessors

What must have been a sad part of the duties of the ships leaving Stornoway during these years would have been the regular departure from the island of those seeking a better life elsewhere. One such case was described in February 1907, when “Another large party of emigrants left Stornoway by the Clansman on Thursday en route for the Dominion. They are to be joined at Glasgow by a number of others who are, like them, going out to the Canadian railway works. Altogether the contingent sailing from Glasgow will number about 130 men.”

A decade earlier, in November 1895, a sad item appeared beneath a heading which would not be printed today: it read ‘Escaped Lunatic’, and went on to describe that, “there arrived on board the mail boat Clydesdale a pauper lunatic – Mary Nicolson or Macrae (“Mairi Mhor”) – for some time confined in the Lunatic Asylum at Inverness. It appears she made her escape through a pane of broken glass and tramped to Stromeferry, where she got on board the Stornoway steamer, of course without having the wherewithal to pay her passage. She was taken in charge by the police authorities… and returned the same night to Inverness.”

On a lighter note the following heading appeared in August 1908: ‘Gulls and the Mail Steamer’. The item read that “The crew of the Sheila and passengers crossing from Kyle have, during the past few weeks, been much interested in the movements of a flock of about a score of seagulls that nightly accompanies the mail steamer across the Minch. The birds approach the Sheila each day shortly after she leaves Kyle, and continue in her wake till outside the Stornoway Lighthouse, when they drop off and return across the Minch, probably next morning, in time to cross with the steamer again next day. This has been going on for several weeks.”

Now that I think of it, where are all the seagulls which always used to be seen following ships? Are there no longer tantalising smells coming from the galley, or do our health and safety laws no longer permit scraps and other tasty bites to be thrown over the side?

Click here to read Colin Tucker’s first instalment of ‘Gleanings from the Highland News’, and here for a report on his CRSC talk about ‘The Coast Boats to Stornoway’.

Click here to scroll down all CRSC’s recent website articles.

Published on 26 January 2019