Category Archives: 100 Objects

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Colour photograph of a gas wall-light in The Studio, Balephuil, 2017.

Tiree in 100 Objects – 48 – Gas Light

This working gas light, possibly the last on Tiree, sits in The Studio, Balephuil. Bottled gas, used for cooking and lighting, became popular on Tiree between the end of the last war and arrival of the electrical grid in the 1950s.

In 1899, the artist Duncan MacGregor Whyte was at the start of a career that was to take him to Antwerp, Paris, Canada and Australia. His connection to Tiree was via his grandfather, the Rev Archibald Farquharson, who was the long-serving Congregational minister in Cornaig from 1832 to 1878.  In letters just released by the Inveraray Archive, we find that he wrote to the factor Hugh Macdiarmid in Island House: “I am very anxious to get permission to build a wee studio in Balephuil. The spot I prefer, if not already in hand, is to the left of Gilleasbuig Campbell’s house at Ceann na Creige on a little point there at the extreme end of Traigh Vee [the beach at Balephuil]. It was at one time in someone’s possession, and yet remains of a dwelling of some kind exist, perhaps Gille Criosd had a hand there?! as the debris is at least not prehistoric.” (Gille Criosd may be a reference to Gilbert MacArthur, who lived at the far end of the West Hynish road above the quarry). A gifted portrait painter, MacGregor Whyte went on: “My figure things from Tiree are greatly liked, and intend carrying these into more perfection this year.” But he became increasingly fascinated by the beaches and seascapes of the west end of Tiree.

He must have received permission from the estate. Having ordered the wood in Glasgow, MacGregor Whyte, whose first training had been as a joiner, built the hut himself. It was said that he found two skeletons and a gold ring while digging the foundations, and he may have been wrong when he described the site as “not prehistoric”. What he went on to call ‘The Studio’ had a large window to the north to provide good light for painting. Two decades later and from the other side of the world, he sent a letter to his wife in Oban while working in Perth, Western Australia, in 1919: “I sent money recently to D MacArthur to get Studio tarred, and last year too, but received no answer. Guess he did not receive it. I sent you a £1 PO [postal order] but never heard more of it, and if you have not received it, then I’m too late to reclaim it. It is awful to think that cabled money should have been so long. A letter would have carried as quickly.” Having returned from Australia, MacGregor Whyte came to Tiree every summer from 1921 until his death in 1953.

Gas lighting was first introduced onto Edinburgh’s North Bridge in 1819; five years later, Sir Walter Scott, then at the height of his literary and commercial success, had gas lighting installed into Abbotsford, his grand home. But this gas, derived from coal, was not an option for less wealthy, rural households. Their turn had to wait for the discovery of liquid petroleum gas in 1910, after an American chemist was intrigued that almost half a bottle of petrol he had bought had evaporated by the time he got home. LPG, a mixture of butane and propane, was a by-product of oil refining and natural gas purification. By the 1920s, a million gallons of LPG was being sold in America. Europe, however, was slower to adopt the new fuel; the Calor (Distributing) Company was set up in Britain in 1935. After the Second World War, their blue cylinders became a common sight on Tiree, mainly because the electrical grid did not cover the island until the 1950s. (Blue bottles contain butane; red bottles propane). The first outlet on Tiree to sell bottled gas was Calum Salum’s shop, which opened in 1938. Neil MacDonald from Brock, known to all as Niall a’ Ghas, distributed the gas canisters by van all over the island. (To make matters somewhat confusing, there were two other men who were also, later, known Niall a’ Ghas: Neil MacNeill from Scarinish, and Neil MacDonald, Niall Rob Eachainn, who had a small shop in Eite, Heanish).

Other houses on Tiree were fitted with gas lighting too, including that of Donald MacKinnon, Hough, and Millhouse in 1959. When Sheila Lilley’s family rented number 3, Lower Square in the 1950s: “There was no electricity in the house; everything was Calor Gas, which provided our lighting and cooking, we even had a Calor gas iron.” Calum Salum’s shop itself had several gas lights; there was a chain to turn the gas supply on and off, and then, presumably, a race to light the mantle with a match!

This object is not actually in An Iodhlann, but it could easily fit through its doors, and so qualifies for this series. The idea was kindly suggested by Iain Knapman, who provided me with the photograph as well as much of the information about The Studio. Ailean Boyd from Balephuil passed on his historical knowledge of the township, and Charlie MacDonald, Dunmore, nephew of the original Niall a’ Ghas, told me about his uncle. Thanks to Douglas Hunter for repairing the gas supply at The Studio in 1978, and to Cathie MacNeill for the gas light spares that have kept it working.

Dr John Holliday, 2017

The History of Tiree in 100 Objects


Large, scale model of the thatched house at Sandaig that was once a museum. Made by Ron Stirrat and Edward Rose in 2004, and now on display at An Iodhlann. Perspex cover and rotating stand.

Tiree in 100 Objects – 33 – Thatched House

Made by technical teacher Ron Stirrat with Edward Rose some years ago, this beautiful scale model of the Sandaig thatched house museum is probably our most talked-about exhibit.

Tiree’s thatched houses are a signature of the island’s landscape. Other islands have similar designs, but the low, curved profile of the Tiree version is instantly recognisable.

There are four reasons for this. The local stone, Lewisian gneiss, is virtually unworkable, so house builders had to make do with the glacial boulders lying on the hillsides and fields. Unshaped stones are unstable, so the walls were built low and thick, with a layer of sand in the middle of a stone ‘sandwich’. This produced walls that were up to eight feet thick, thick enough to keep out the wind, warm enough to retain the heat, and strong enough to support the full weight of a rain-sodden roof.

Wood is difficult to source, coming for many years from the Duke’s oak woods on the north bank of the Sound of Mull. Tiree also suffered for many years from fuel poverty, as peat banks were emptied. A low, tight roof meant a space that was easier to heat.

Lastly the flat Tiree landscape gave little shelter from the winter gales. If you go to Coll, you’ll find real trees growing in the middle of the sliabh: that’s how much protection you get from just a few undulations. Additionally, with Hebridean houses always built with their backs to the main southwesterly gales, the roof timbers at the back were cut a foot shorter to give a steeper slope. Thatch was put on thicker in the middle of the pitch, and along the ridge there were two ridgepoles instead of one, meaning the Tiree roofs were much more rounded than on other islands.

The roof timbers were first covered with turfs cut from the sliabh with a flauchter spade. The moorland soil, with its heathery roots, was stronger.  An average roof might need a thousand turfs: five days work. The preferred material for thatching was bent or marram grass. This is flexible, fine and water-repellant. About five hundred sheaves would do. A new roof had to be thatched every year, but more ‘mature’ roofs could be left for two or three years. Cutting the bent is hard work, mainly because the sickle or scythe becomes blunted by the sand every few minutes. IBent is also much less common than it used to be probably, because the large areas of ‘blown sand’, where bent thrives, are now grass. Thatched roofs have been held down with chicken wire since the 1950s, but before that elaborate webs made of hand-twisted straw ropes were created, held down by a line of anchor stones.

The old houses had no windows (glass did not feature in the houses of most crofters and cottars until the 1850s), and the door was made of sheaves of straw bound together. The peat fire was in in the middle of the floor, with two small vents cut into the thatch just above the wall head. One of these was closed, depending on the wind direction. The door was kept open most of the day, summer and winter, something you still occasionally see today on Tiree. Often the interior was divided with framed clay and pebble partitions into a bedroom end and the ceann-an-tinidh ‘the fire end’. Between the two there was often a small room known as an closaid, a loan word from the Scots ‘closet’.

When coal became more popular, in the late nineteenth century, the hotter fires were moved to the gable walls, small ranges installed and tower chimneys built, usually leaning outwards slightly in case of accidents!

There are fewer thatched houses on Tiree than there used to be, but their graceful shape finds a faint echo in the popular black tar-roofed houses that are still so popular.

Dr John Holliday, 2017

The History of Tiree in 100 Objects


Medieval bronze brooch from a collection of around 200 bronze objects found by amateur archaeologist George Holleyman at Balevullin in 1941-43, when he served at RAF Tiree during WWII. Identified by Dr Colleen Batey, Senior Lecturer in Archaeology at Glasgow University and David Caldwell, retired Keeper of Medieval Department at the National Museum of Scotland during a visit to An Iodhlann on 29th April 2016.


Tiree in 100 Objects – 10 – Viking Brooch

This Norse brooch was found somewhere on Tiree in the nineteenth century. This style of oval brass jewellery, known as a ‘tortoise’ brooch because of its shape, was very popular among Viking women in the ninth and tenth centuries, so much so that they were often buried with them. They were worn in pairs on the front of the chest, holding up a woollen, apron-like overdress. The brooches were made in two halves with a plain domed back, and an intricate pattern on the front with the ‘bosses’, or pointed bits, often studded with amber or glass.

This report was written about this brooch when it was handed in to the museum: ‘One of a pair found in the island of Tiree was presented to the [National Museum of Antiquities in Edinburgh] in June 1872 by the late Rev Dr Norman MacLeod [Caraid nan Gàidheal, a well-known Gaelic-speaking minister in Glasgow, who is likely to have known many Tiree people]. Nothing further is known concerning the circumstances of their discovery than that they were found in a grave along with the peculiarly-shaped and massive bronze pin here figured…This brooch measures 4  inches in length, 2  inches in breadth and 1  inches in height. It is double, the under part having a flat rim with a band of lacertine [intertwined] ornamentation in panels. The plain portion of the under shell has been gilt [covered with a thin layer of silver or gold]. The upper shell has a raised boss in the centre, pierced with four openings. Two similar bosses are placed at the extremities of the longer and shorter diameters of the oval, and halfway between each pair of these bosses there are spaces for beads or studs, four in number, which have been fastened on by rivets of brass, one of which still remains in situ [in place]. From the central boss to the other bosses there are channelled depressions in the metal, in which are laid three rows of a small silver chain formed of two strands of a very fine wire twisted together, and forming a double diamond figure on the oval surface of the brooch. On 15th March 1847 a notice of a similar brooch found in Tiree was read to the [Society of Antiquaries of Scotland] and the brooch exhibited by Sir John Graham Dalzell [an Edinburgh advocate, very interested in archaeology]. It is described as ‘resembling, to minuteness, several in the Museum’ and as these brooches usually occur in pairs, it was probably found with the one presented by Rev Dr MacLeod.’

Dr John Holliday, 2016

The History of Tiree in 100 Objects




Telegraphic instrument for tapping out and receiving telegram messages at Scarinish Post Office between 1888 and 1930. Originally from Skye and probably operated by Margaret Robertson (Mona’s mother), who is listed as the telegraphist in the 1911 census of Tiree. There is a key for sending messages and a sounder for receiving. Known as a KOB set (key on base), it is marked “20 ohm” on the base. The lever of the mechanism is steel and unmarked.


Tiree in 100 Objects – 24 – Telegraph Key Set

After years of lobbying the telegraphy cable was laid first to Coll and then across the Gunna Sound to Roisgal in Caolas in 1888. This was two years after the serious disturbances over the allocation of
land in Greenhill, where 250 marines had ‘invaded’ Tiree, and the
two events may have been related. From there the cable was taken to
the post office in Scarinish, which at that time was in the east
side of Donald MacFadyen’s shop on the site of the present Coop.
Hugh MacDonald from Milton was the postmaster, assisted by a
telegraphist, who had to be able to use Morse code at speed. Hugh
himself never became reconciled to the new ‘dot-dot-dash-dash’
machine, and it was said he once hurled the whole contraption across
the room.

The new cable was at the mercy of the strong tidal race between Coll
and Tiree and damage by fishing gear, and the cable needed repair
just three years after being laid. In 1911 the cable was again
interrupted for five months, and questions were eventually asked in
the House of Commons. By 1923 the frequent breakdowns and the
inability of underpowered repair vessels led to the Post Office
setting up a temporary wireless station inside a ruin in Scarinish.
Two sixty foot masts relayed about twenty messages a day to Malin
Head in Northern Ireland on an hourly schedule.

Balemartine Post Office was connected to the telegraph before 1911,
with Cornaig following in 1925 to connect the new weather station at
the school to the Meteorological Office in London. By the 1930s
Ruaig and Middleton were also part of the network. Messages were
priced according to their length, so were kept short and sweet.
Incoming telegrams arrived in Morse code and handwritten onto orange
forms which were then folded and given to boys to deliver on foot.

For fifty years until the telephone arrived on Tiree in the 1930s,
this was the only way to pass quick information. Matters would
include serious illness and death, the arrival of a bull on the
ferry, or congratulations on a wedding day. This KOB (key on board)
set must have been party to many secrets in its day. If only it
could talk!

Dr John Holliday, 2016

The History of Tiree in 100 Objects


Wood-handled brass Post Office seal imprinted “Balemartine P.O”, plus sticks of sealing wax in their metal container.


Tiree in 100 Objects – 47 – Post Office Seal

This seal for the Balemartine Post Office, complete with case and sealing wax, was given to An Iodhlann by Calum MacKinnon. Calum comes from Balinoe, although he now lives in Seattle after a distinguished career as an engineer with Boeing.

The first postal service between Edinburgh and Glasgow started in 1663 – on foot. The postal network gradually spread out from the urban centres, and in 1791 a post office was set up in the new fishing village of Tobermory. In 1801, the Tiree chamberlain reported to the Duke: “A small packet [boat] has been established between Croig [a village on Loch Cuan on the north coast of Mull] for letters and the accommodation of passengers, for which it is hoped your Grace will get some encouragement from the Post Office as she goes regularly every Thursday if the weather permits, and to give a situation to the packet-man. It is hoped that your Grace may be pleased to order him a croft at Scarinish upon more easy terms than others are to have them.” (Iain MacKinnon from Heanish was known as Iain Èirdsidh ’ic Eòghainn a’ Phacaid ‘Iain the son of Archie the son of Hugh of the packet’).

By today’s standards, speeds were painfully slow. A letter posted on Edinburgh’s Princes Street at that time would have travelled to Glasgow by mail coach, then on to Inveraray and Oban by horse, crossing Loch Awe on a ferry. From Oban the mail was carried in a small boat to Kerrera and then from Kerrera to Auchnacraig near Grass Point on the south coast of Mull. The bag would then have been carried on foot by a runner to Tobermory and then on to Croig, where it would have waited for the weekly packet across to Tiree. The whole journey would have taken two weeks to complete. The post office in Scarinish may have opened in 1803 inside the shop, but sending a letter was the preserve of the wealthy until the 1840 Uniform Penny Post. It was not until 1881 that the first foot post was established on Tiree for the general public, a twice-weekly route from Scarinish to Middleton, although Alexander MacLean from Balemartine was recorded as a “post runner to the [Hynish] lighthouse [base]” in the 1871 Census.

In 1880, the railway came to Oban. This allowed mail posted in London to be delivered the following day. In addition the paddle steamer Pioneer, operated by David MacBrayne, made a daily trip from Tobermory to Oban and back to coincide with new train time. Despite these improvements, service on Tiree remained patchy. A visitor to the island in 1882 reported that a Tiree girl who was a housekeeper in Glasgow had become seriously ill. Her employer wrote urgently to the family on Tiree, asking them to visit urgently. After four days he wrote again. Sadly, the housekeeper died, and her body was sent home to the island. The first thing her family knew was her coffin being brought to the door. The original letter to her family arrived at the house half an hour later. The commissioning of the new pier at Gott in 1917 was meant to improve matters once and for all. However, in 1926 the mail boat service fell off due the steamer’s poor quality coal, and questions were asked in the House of Commons in London.

Tiree’s second post office had been scheduled to open on Shore Street, Balemertine. The second postmaster, however, took ill, and new premises had to be found. Alasdair MacNeill, who had previously run a shop in Balinoe, won the contract. Balemartine Post Office opened in 1894 in Balinoe, and the name has stuck.

Sealing wax was widely used to ensure letters and parcels could not be opened surreptitiously. I remember it myself as a common household item in the 1960s. By the nineteenth century, it had come to be made of shellac, the resin produced on the bark of trees in India and Thailand by the lac insect, dyed with venetian red.

Dr John Holliday, 2017

The History of Tiree in 100 Objects


Photocopy of a hand-written account of the story of Donald ‘The Pilot’ MacLean, Ruaig (born 1727), who piloted Bonnie Prince Charlie’s rescue ship after the Battle of Culloden in 1746. The seven-page letter was written on small pieces of paper around 1900 by Donald’s grandson, also Donald MacLean (1817-1907), who lived at Hynish House. It begins “the following is what report I heard from my father over 70 years ago”.

Click here to view 2016.6.1

Tiree in 100 Objects – 8 – Donald the Pilot

In our archives is a copy of a fascinating handwritten text by Donald MacLean of Hynish House, who died in 1907. In it he describes the adventures of his grandfather, also Donald MacLean, in September 1746.

Bonny Prince Charlie had been on run for five months following his defeat at the Battle of Culloden. Keeping one step ahead of the redcoats, the prince was sheltered by sympathisers around the Highlands and Hebrides. Eventually the French sent the frigate L’ Heureux to rescue his party from Loch nan Uamh south of Mallaig. Donald MacLean’s text is as follows (the spelling has been left largely in its original form):

‘The following is what report I heard from my father over 70 years ago. A French frigate, anchored in Got Bay east of Scarinish sent a boat ashore on the sandy beach. [They] captured a man Niel Mac Faden and wished him piolate [pilot] them to Lochnarnuagh [Loch nan Uamh]. He told them he knew nothing of the coast, but pointed to my grandfather’s house and told them that Donald MacLean, Ruaig, Tyree knew the coast better than any man about the place. My gran Father went with them on condition they would land him at home on there return. They were 2 days at Lochnarnuagh. On there return, instead of takeing the south side of Coll and Tiree, they made for the north side straight for Barra Head. When my glanfather observed there course he understood that France was there destination. As it was very dark at the east end of Coll, my father advised Mac Faden to slip in a boat that hung at the stern and lay at the bottom. When near a cluster of small island at the east of Coll my granfather entered the small boat, cut the ropes and made for the small rocks before they put the frigate about and got a boat launched they were away among the rocks. They pulled away to the south and landed on south west of Coll at Port na Liugeadh, near MacLean’s castle. MacLean claimed the boat. My granfather never forgot the loss of the boat. He and MacFaden had to cross the ferry between Coll and Tyree. The report of their motion became known before they returned. MacFadyen [was] not interfered with as it was known he was carried against his will, but my granfather was led to a cave in Vaul on the north side of Tiree where he remained for 9 months. His health give way. His father brought him home and went with him to Tobermory. On the way the packet [ferry] from Tobermory past them with [a] pardon for all below a Captain in Charley’s army. My glanfather was surrendered to the [indecipherable] but they never let him of[f] the pardon. He was send the army, it must have been the Black Watch, or what we now call the 42 [nd Highland Regiment]. A lot of young gentlemen [in] the country. He was observed by [Allan] MacLean of Drum [sic, possibly Drimnin]. When Drum heard his tale he told him he would soon release him for 2 years. When MacLean met him again he was much surprised but he got off in a few days.’ Donald MacLean left the army, returned to Tiree and lived to be nearly 80, dying around 1800.

This piece was the basis for an article in the Daily Express in 1930. ‘Donald the Pilot’, as he became known, has a large number of descendants around the world, one of whom, Charles MacLean of Edinburgh, has done much to publicise the story. The events are certainly plausible. During the 1745 uprising many on Tiree were still extremely hostile to the Campbell acquisition of the island in 1679. They supported the Jacobite cause, threatening, as one report had it, ‘to sacrifice the factor…they have constantly been upon the flutter’. Donald MacLean may well not have needed much persuading to serve Bonny Prince Charlie. The anchoring of a French frigate in Gott Bay, however, is likely to have created a stir, and it is hard to believe that Campbell loyalists would not have tried to alert the authorities, who were engaged in a huge manhunt. There is also another ‘Donald the Pilot’, Donald MacCleod of Galtrigill, Skye, who sailed the prince across to the Outer Isles. He has been named ‘The Faithful Palinurus’ after a Roman mythical figure. Although he was quite an old man, Donald MacCleod of Galtrigill was captured in Benbecula and held on a prison ship in London before being released.

Dr John Holliday, 2016

The History of Tiree in 100 Objects


Section of brass plumbing from the wreck of the schooner ‘Oceana’, which grounded on Crossapol beach in 1949. Found by Charlie Berlie on Crossapol beach.


Tiree in 100 Objects – 49 – Brass Fitting

This brass connector was found on Tràigh Bhàigh by Charles Berlie. While it may not appear to be that interesting, it packs quite a story.

The Thais had been launched in Cowes in 1879, a luxury two-masted sailing schooner, a hundred feet in length. She sailed with a crew of sixteen, and was therefore quite an expensive plaything; she therefore changed hands regularly. One owner was Sir Percy Florence Shelley, the son of the poet. Shelley happened to be a friend and neighbour of Robert Louis Stevenson in Bournemouth, and re-named the boat the Oceana in tribute to Stevenson as he set off to travel the Pacific in 1887. Two small engines were added in 1923.

The schooner was bought in the 1940s by Major John Campbell, a charismatic veteran of the war. Campbell, the grandson of the 14th Baron Louth in Ireland, had joined the special forces known as ‘Popski’s Private Army’ in 1944 for the push through Italy. When I talked to him four years ago, he told me: “I had an extraordinarily interesting war.” An understatement. On one occasion he emerged unscathed from the wreck of his car after hitting not one but two successive mines. On another, his patrol succeeded in capturing a house occupied by ten Germans without a shot being fired. He won two Military Crosses during the campaign.

De-mobbed after the war, Major Campbell satisfied a long held ambition to go to sea by buying a fishing boat and the Oceana. He fished out of Howth, just north of Dublin. At something of a loose end, he found himself in harbour next to a boat of some six Latvians. These had escaped the second Russian occupation of their country in 1944, and were looking for a way of travelling across the Atlantic to seek asylum in the United States. They asked to hire the Oceana, but on looking her over, their skipper, an ex-tugboatman, recognised that her engines were too small for the ocean crossing. Major Campbell and the Latvians struck a deal, one that must have appealed to the retired commando: they would sail to Sweden, fit new engines, and then make the Atlantic voyage.

The party left Dublin in December 1948 only to be hit by a winter storm, which tore many of the sails to shreds. They limped into Liverpool, where the Latvians managed to patch things together. Two months later, in March 1949, the Oceana sailed again, bound for Sweden. Having made good progress, Major Campbell handed the wheel to the Latvian tugboat skipper, believing him to be more experienced under sail at sea. It was a decision he later regretted. Hit by more wild weather, the Latvian steered a course to the south of Tiree, rather than keeping north in open water. As night fell, the Latvian crew kept an anxious lookout, finally spotting a red light on their port side. The Latvian skipper tacked towards this, believing it was another vessel. Minutes later they felt the juddering as the boat hitting the sands of Tràigh Bhàigh between Baugh and Crossapol.

Although the beach was shallow, the height of the waves made it impossible to abandon ship. Fortunately, the alarm on the island was soon raised, and the island’s coastguard unit raced to the scene. At that time they were equipped with a breeches buoy with a rocket to fire the line out to the stricken vessel. The late Archie Brown, Kilkenneth and Donald MacKinnon, Hough, were part of the team. The crew was brought ashore using the line. The Latvian skipper was the last to leave, with “his cap glued to his head” despite the gale, as Archie remembered years later. The crew was adamant no one should touch a large chest on the deck. Rumours that they were a party of smugglers or they were going to Russia to pick up a dissident flew around the island.

The crew was taken to the old Crossapol Hall, and then to the Scarinish Hotel, under the ownership of Johnny Brown. As day dawned, it soon became apparent that the beautiful, seventy-year-old teak ship had been irretrievably damaged. They conducted a sale of her parts on the beach. Some of her teak was made into slightly curved fence posts. Willie Lyons in Mannal used part of her masts to mount his television aerial. Johnny Brown himself bought two aluminium water tanks. However, by the following day, the wreck had almost disappeared under the sand.

By another twist of fate, it turned out that Major Campbell’s batman in the army had been Alan MacCallum from Tiree. Major Campbell went on to work for the Foreign Office, ending his career as Consul-General in Naples. He died in 2015, aged ninety-three. To this day, the sands shift from time to time, revealing the ghostly outline of the Oceana at low tide. Thank you to Charlie and Jean for finding this and presenting it to An Iodhlann.

Dr John Holliday, 2017

The History of Tiree in 100 Objects


Oval, wood-framed profile of Captain Donald MacKinnon, Heanish, moulded from white wax in 1867. Captain MacKinnon was captain of the tea clipper ‘Taeping’ which won the Great China Tea Race of 1866. The portrait is believed to have been made by William Murray of Glasgow, whose daughter, Margaret Anne Murray, married Donald MacKinnon in 1855. William Murray is known to have made wax and plaster portraits of his relatives as gifts, and probably sent this one to Captain MacKinnon to celebrate his success in the race. After Captain MacKinnon died aboard ‘SS Roman’ in Table Bay, South Africa in 1867, the plaque was most likely still among his possessions aboard ‘Taeping’, and would have been retrieved by his wife when the ship returned to London.



The portrait hung on the wall of the donor’s mother’s home (near Oban?) for many years, from at least 1970 to 2015. The family connection is not certain although there is a Flora MacKinnon born around the 1760s in the family tree, and who may have been a relation of Captain MacKinnon’s grandfather.



2015.46.1 back


When the portrait arrived at An Iodhlann, the wax was broken into many pieces and the label on the back had been cut out. It was sent to the Scottish Conservation Studio at Hopetoun House, Queensferry for restoration, where conservators discovered that there had been two previous attempts to repair it, once with candle wax and once with sellotape.



Tiree in 100 Objects – 44 – Wax Portrait

This wax profile represents Tiree’s most famous sailor, Captain Donald MacKinnon of Heanish. It was probably made by the captain’s father-in-law, the carver William Murray.

Miniature wax profiles became very popular in the middle of the eighteenth century, and were only superseded by the advent of photography in the 1840s. They were made in a plaster mould. This meant many copies could be produced, if the subject was famous enough. Being wax, they were quite fragile, and not many have survived. They were carved in what is called bas-relief, a technique where the image is flattened to make it easier to view from different angles.

Donald MacKinnon was born in Heanish in 1828 into a large family. One sister married Captain Angus Lamont, who wrote the Tiree classic song Lag nan Cruachan. Donald left home at the age of sixteen to become an apprentice on boats sailing out of the Clyde, before joining the Jane Brown carrying cargo between Canada, the West Indies and Glasgow. He gained his Master’s certificate at the age of twenty-three. As a sign of things to come, he was presented with a gold watch for making the fastest voyage between the St Lawrence river and Glasgow: nineteen days. When captain of the Montgomery, he was at sea with his wife when his first child was born.

China tea was a luxury drink in the tea houses of London in the mid-nineteenth-century. Traders competed to be the first with the season’s crop, which had the status of today’s beaujolais nouveau wines. The first Tea Race was in 1856, and a special design of sailing ship, the clipper, evolved to meet the demand. Donald MacKinnon was selected to captain the Ellen Rodger in 1861, and then promoted to take over the newly built Taeping, a composite boat with a steel frame and wooden planking, designed to suit light winds. Donald’s brother, Colin, took command of the Ellen Rodger in his place, but was lost at sea on his first voyage with her.

The Taeping‘s first two years on the China run were hamstrung by a late start and then typhoon damage. But 1866 saw her line up in a strong field of nine clippers in the Chinese port of Foochow (Fuzhou). The Fiery Cross had won the prize five times in four years, and The Ariel, under the redoubtable Captain Keay, was another favourite.

After 16,000 miles of racing and one hundred days at sea, the Taeping and the Ariel raced up the English Channel under full sail absolutely neck-and-neck, in what must have been a thrilling spectacle. Arriving at Dungeness station off the Kent coast at the same time, the Taeping took the faster tug, and her shallower draught allowed her to inch into dock thirty minutes before her rival. The Serica made her way into the harbour an hour later on the same tide, in what was agreed was the most exciting clipper race of all time.

The tea merchants behind the race had earlier agreed to split the bonus the tea attracted between the two boats, but Donald MacKinnon won the captain’s prize, with a further £500 from the vessel’s owner. Captain MacKinnon promptly gave every member of the crew a sovereign. However, five million tons of tea hit the London market at the same time, which hit the pockets of the tea traders.

Captain Mackinnon returned to Tiree to a hero’s welcome. It was said that the Duke added a field, Pàirc a’ Chrannaig ‘the field of the pulpit or mast top’, to the family’s croft in recognition. On his way back to his command, Captain MacKinnon took the ferry Chieftain’s Bride. Overloaded with cattle and in bad weather, she took on a list and MacKinnon personally supervised putting fifty-seven animals overboard, saving the vessel. It is possible that he was injured in the process, because although he started the voyage to China on the Taeping, he had to be put ashore in South Africa, and died on board a steamship as started the voyage home at the age of thirty-nine from a psoas (or deep abdominal) abscess. He is buried in Cape Town, but the exact whereabouts of his grave are not known.

This delicate wax profile was cracked into several pieces when it was gifted to our collection. It was sent for specialist repair to Edinburgh, and has now been restored.

I am grateful to Lloyd Pitcher and Mary MacLean, Scarinish, for the information on which this account is based.


It is always good to be reminded of the expertise of readers of An Tirisdeach. Alasdair ‘Bunchy’ Johnston from Scarinish, a merchant seaman, had read my article about Captain Donald MacKinnon and the Taeping. He pointed out that the passage “five million tons of tea flooded the London market” after the Great Tea Clipper race of 1866 was stretching the capacity of even these legendary boats. The figure should have been “five million pounds“. Tea clippers were built for speed, and their hold capacity was limited: typical loads for the journey from China to London were between 500 and 900 tons of tea. Thank you, and well spotted!

Dr John Holliday, 2017

The History of Tiree in 100 Objects


Portable sewing machine, ca 1900

Ornate, pearled, hand-operated, `Medium` sewing machine in an ornate wooden carrying case, made in Glasgow by Kimball & Morton between 1887 and 1910. Includes cotton thread manufactured by J&P Coats, Paisley. Belonged to Maggie Robertson. From the belongings of Angus MacLean, Scarinish.

Tiree in 100 Objects – 18 – Sewing Machine

This gorgeously decorated sewing machine comes from the collection of the late Angus Maclean, The Coolins, Scarinish. It had belonged to his mother-in-law, Margaret Robertson from Broadford on Skye, who had come to Tiree around 1910 to work as the telegraph clerk at Scarinish Post Office.

The sewing machine had been invented in the middle of the nineteenth century by a series of engineers working independently, most notably the American Elias Howe in 1844. Isaac Singer started to manufacture a similar machine in the 1850s, and rapidly grew to become the world’s leading producer. Singer set up his British headquarters in Buchanan Street, Glasgow in 1856 to get round Howe’s English patent. His first manager there was Alonzo Kimball, who immediately hired John Morton in his sales team. In 1867 Kimball and Morton set up in their own right with a new design aimed at the more industrial sack and sail market. Their most famous machine was in the shape of a standing lion with the machinery cunningly hidden inside the body. The ‘Medium’ machine was introduced in 1878. Some versions of the ‘Medium’ were elaborately inlaid with mother-of-pearl, the iridescent lining of the inside of pearl mussel, oyster and abalone shells.

The spool of cotton on top of the machine is also significant for us on the island. J & P Coats were a Paisley firm that surfed the wave of the sewing machine craze, becoming the world’s largest manufacturers of cotton thread. The unmarried James Coats junior was one of the wealthy owners of this company, while the whole  family became known for its philanthropy. A keen sailor, he came to know the northern and western isles of Scotland well. One of his projects was to donate a library to a number of remote Scottish communities. By 1898 the ferry waiting room in Scarinish (now An Iodhlann) became known as the ‘Reading Room’ after the Coats’ gift, and the five Tiree schools were also endowed with a collection of classics.

Dr John Holliday, 2016

The History of Tiree in 100 Objects


Spinning wheel

Wooden, pedal-operated spinning wheel made by Archie MacLean (Eirdsidh an Tuairneir), Cornaigmore. From the belongings of Angus MacLean, Scarinish.


Tiree in 100 Objects – 31 – Spinning Wheel

This beautiful spinning wheel was made over a hundred years ago by Archie MacLean, Cornaigmore. It has been kindly lent to An Iodhlann by Mary MacLean, Scarinish.

Hugh MacLeod, Eòghann Charrachain, remembered Archie well. “Èirdsidh Tuairneir was the brother of Dòmhnall an Tuairneir in Whitehouse. His father [Charles] was a turner and it was he who taught Archie. He was making spinning wheels, lots of things, bannisters … He was making a few coffins as well, I remember that! He had a small felt house [Taigh Èirdsidh an Tuairneir] with a workshop beside it. He worked the machine with two feet on pedals, his feet going up and down and turning the wheel. It was amazing to see; there was no electricity then! He later built a small tin hut beside the big house.”

Archie was born in 1849. His father Charles was a ‘wheelwright and turner’ as well as a crofter. His mother Christina had come to Tiree to be the housekeeper for her brother-in-law, the Reverend Archibald Farquharson, the Congregational minister who lived in the manse beyond Whitehouse.

Hugh continued: “Every house had a spinning wheel in these days. [Archie] was making them for the whole island. It took a while to make them; they were quite complicated. He was good at any kind of woodwork – I’m not saying he could have built a house – but [he could make] furniture, or anything fancy. He could make table legs, round ones. There wasn’t anyone else on the island doing that sort of thing.”

Yarn has been spun in Scotland from sheep’s wool for five thousand years. This was done with a drop spindle, which consisted of a wooden rod or dowel with a stone or clay whorl disc at its base. The spindle was twisted round as it pulled down the yarn. The great advantage of this method was that it could be done while walking. The spinning wheel was invented in India at about the time Viking longships were landing on Tiree’s beaches, but didn’t reach the Highlands until the 1850s. ‘In the Hebrides in 1850 most of the women were still using the spindle. Yet by 1884 very few women were said to be using it.’ The 1861 Tiree Census counted 26 woolspinners (using a spinning wheel) and three ‘spindlers of wool’. Despite their late arrival on the island, there were a number of superstitions about their use, one of which was that the band should be taken off the wheel at night to prevent fairies from using it.

Spinning wheels produce yarn much more quickly than a spindle. But they had to be used sitting at home, which encouraged some women to make it their trade. Almost everyone on Tiree wore clothes made with tweed made on the island, and it was said that one weaver needed the yarn from three spinners. In 1851 there were forty-eight weavers (all women apart from one man). As world markets brought factory-made fabrics to the island (the spinning jenny was widespread in English wollen mills by the 1820s), demand for hand-spun wool or hand loomed tweed fell. By 1911 there were just two active weavers on Tiree, along with five spinners and three stocking knitters, although An Iodhlann does have a number of photographs from the 1920s of island women at their spinning wheels. As demand for hand-spun wool fell, so too did the demand for Archie’s hand-made wheels.

This is a ‘cocked up’ Saxony type spinning wheel, where the wheel and spindle are on the same level. The double band around the wheel drives both a spindle to twist the wool and a hake to wind the yarn. It is stamped ‘A MACLEAN’ at the front of the base. Archie posted his wheels all over the country. We know of one in Sussex that is now in Germany.

Archie himself remained unmarried. He died in 1942 at the age of 93, and is buried in An Cladh Beag ‘the small graveyard’ in Kirkapol.

Dr John Holliday, 2017

The History of Tiree in 100 Objects

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