Category Archives: 100 Objects


Lead and acid accumulator `battery` used in the 1940s

Lead-acid 2V accumulator made by the Chloride Electrical Storage Company around 1940-1950. Two lead plates submerged in sulphuric acid (no longer present) within a glass box with carrying handle. The accumulator would be charged every week and used for powering radio sets (heated the valves).

Tiree in 100 Objects – 27 – Accumulator

This glass box was an early form of electrical battery, allowing the first radio broadcasts to be heard on Tiree in the 1920s and helping families on the island follow news about the Second World War. As such, they were a familiar sight in many Tiree houses in the 1930s and 40s, until the mains electricity grid was set up on the island in the 1950s.

The BBC broadcast its first radio programme from a studio at Glasgow’s 202 Bath Street on 6 March 1923 with a pipe band playing the tune ‘Hey Johnnie Cope’. Nine months later the first Gaelic broadcast featured a religious talk from Aberdeen. Early radio sets used crystal detectors. These are known as passive receivers and work without a power source, using the energy of the radio waves alone. However, because of this they only produce a faint signal and need to be used with earphones. Later in the 1920s amplifying receivers became available: these needed an external power source, but in return had loudspeakers so that a family could gather round and listen together to a broadcast. Neil MacDonald, Niall Tais, heard his first radio in 1926 when the travelling salesman Peter MacNeill from Colonsay set up his radio and aerial on An Cnoc Mòr in Balemartine. MacNeill was immediately surrounded by a crowd, listening for the first time to speech coming from a box. After the initial wonder had worn off Neil realised that he couldn’t understand a word: it was only later that the penny dropped that he was listening to English!

Until the 1950s the power source for radios was an accumulator like this. The glass case enclosed two lead electrodes immersed in a solution of sulphuric acid. The whole thing was protected by a wooden carrying case. Every week or two the accumulator had to be charged by an electrical generator; it then functioned as a two volt DC (direct current) battery.

In 1930s Tiree the weekly Oban Times was the nearest thing to the twenty-four hour news cycle. So listening to a daily BBC news bulletin became very common, particularly as world peace became threatened as 1939 unfolded, and re-charging facilities became important. In addition, by the 1920s cars came fitted with an electric starter, rather than needing to be cranked into life.  An early one was in Scarinish. Sam Stevenson from Glasgow had lost a leg during the First World War. He came to work on Tiree soon after and bought a corrugated iron shed on the site of today’s pier car park as a place to live and work. Being a talented engineer, he rigged up a windmill that ran a twelve-volt system and he was able to charge car batteries and radio accumulators. The new Cornaig School opened in 1936 with a diesel generator that charged a bank of fifty batteries, which lit the schoolrooms and (fascinatingly) powered a small vacuum cleaner in the headmaster’s house. The arrival of the RAF in 1940 meant an explosion in the number of generators, including proper power stations for the airport complex itself and the large and important radar station behind Ben Hough. Duncan Grant remembers walking to the Radio Location Station on the Ruaig machair, being careful not to spill the corrosive acid contents of the accumulator onto his bare legs. Duncan MacPhail remembers asking for the same favour from soldiers in the army huts at Crom na Creige in Balinoe. John Fletcher remembers leaving his family’s accumulator outside the front door ”like a milk bottle” for George Haden, who worked at the power house but who lived in Hynish, to pick up on his way to work in the 1950s.

Eventually the electrical grid we take for granted today was rolled out, one end of the island at a time. The entry in the Heylipol School Log Book of 16 March 1956 was:

‘Today is a special day in Tiree’s history. At 3pm Mrs Hunter, wife of the local doctor, is to turn on the current to light up the east end of the island under the Hydro-electric scheme. We hope we will be in the same position before next winter.’

House by house these accumulators became redundant as mains electricity with its vastly more powerful 230 volt alternating current lit our houses and powered the glowing machines that increasingly dominate our lives.

Dr John Holliday, 2017

The History of Tiree in 100 Objects


Superex vacuum cleaner from the 1950s

Metal and wood `Superex` manually pumped vacuum cleaner from the 1950s.


Tiree in 100 Objects – 45 – Vacuum Cleaner

I am so used to modern timber floors, fitted carpets and electric vacuum cleaners that I rarely think about how floors used to be cleaned. But this early hand-pumped ‘Superex’ vacuum cleaner has made me reconsider the subject. The cleaner, worked like a large reverse bicycle pump, dates from the first decades of the twentieth century, a time when flooring on Tiree was changing rapidly but there was no mains electricity supply.

The floor of traditional Tiree thatched houses was an ùrlar dubh ‘the black floor’, made from a mixture of earth, clay and dung. To compact the mixture, Mabel Kennedy remembered a dance with a piper at a new house in Balephuil around 1910, and Hector MacDougall described how a flock of sheep was herded into a new building on Coll for the day. Once smoothed and dried, the mixture created a hard surface, cleaned every morning with brushes made of heather or mealtarachd ‘roots of marram grass’, and then sprinkled with clean, dry sand. This was particularly necessary because, until the end of the nineteenth century, many houses had a peat fire on stones in the centre of the floor. Donald Sinclair from West Hynish, born in 1885, told Eric Cregeen: “I remember myself homes over at Moss; they were the last place they [had a] fire on the floor.” Wooden floors were expensive in this timber-poor land. Grand houses such as Island House, built in 1748, or the new Gott manse, completed in 1833, were built to a different specification. They had coal fires in the gable walls, chimneys and wooden floors covered with small carpets that needed cleaning. These were hung on the line in spring and the dust beaten out of them. By 1863, an inspection of the old Balemartine School found: “The floor over the greater part is boarded and below the fixed desks where it is not closely boarded, flooring deals are placed for each form for the children’s feet to rest upon.”

As housing improved on the mainland and carpets became commonplace, numerous inventors around the world competed to build the machines to clean them. The Ewbank carpet sweeper went on sale in 1889. The first petrol-driven vacuum cleaner was invented in America in 1899, and the large machine, drawn by horses, would visit your house, feeding hosepipes through the windows. One model was powered by the man of the house rocking slowly in his chair while his wife vacuumed around him. 1907 saw the invention of the portable electric vacuum cleaner with a cloth filter bag: this became the first Hoover.

This whirlwind of invention largely passed Tiree by. While there were three thousand Glasgow homes connected to mains electricity by 1901, the first electrical system was installed in the new Cornaigmore School in 1936. A diesel generator, fired twice a week, powered a row of fifty batteries that lit the building with a 110V DC supply. It also ran a small vacuum cleaner in the house of the head teacher, Allan MacDougall. In 1956, electrical grids covering the whole island were completed, and within ten years most houses on Tiree could start to use the electrical vacuum cleaners we now take for granted. While we think.

Dr John Holliday, 2017

The History of Tiree in 100 Objects


Four pieces of bog iron ore from Vaul

Four pieces of bog iron ore from Vaul, 400m west of Dun Mòr Bhalla. Bog iron ore occurs naturally in wet ground associated with sand. It was refined and used by Iron Age settlers to make tools etc.


Tiree in 100 Objects – 34 – Bog Iron

These pea-sized lumps of orange gravel don’t look much like one of An Iodhlann’s crown jewels. But they provided the raw material for most iron tools on Tiree from the Iron Age into the Viking period.

Iron is the fourth commonest element in the earth’s crust (after oxygen, silicon and aluminium). But it was not until the Iron Age (around 700 BC in Scotland) that the technology existed to make metallic iron. For 1,500 years Tiree produced most of its own iron. The large iron ore furnaces in Furnace, Argyll, were built in 1755.

If water running through iron rich rocks comes to the surface on an area of moorland, the acidic, oxygen-poor environment allows certain bacteria, that convert the dissolved iron to a form that precipitates, to flourish. Over decades this creates nodules of grit and iron powder. Bog iron is a renewable resource, and the same area can be re-harvested after twenty years.

Areas where this is happening are easy to spot. The surfaces of the streams or pools are covered by an iridescent film, and the water is the colour of weak tea. You can tell it is not a diesel spill if you break the film with a stick. An oil film re-forms quickly, whereas these ones stay broken. The Vikings called an area like this Rauða-mýrr ‘the red bog’. They were prized. One early settler in Iceland chose his farm at a place he called Rauðanes ‘the red headland’ where he built a smithy and ‘smelted a lot of bog iron in the winter’. One possible explanation of the name Ruaig is the Norse Rauða-vìk ‘red bay’. The moorland above the township is still called in Gaelic An Sliabh Dearg the red moor’.

If you run your hands about a foot below the surface along the edge of an orange, film-covered stream, you can sometimes feel these nodules of bog iron like bits of gravel. One way to test the purity of a nodule is to crush a small piece between the teeth. The iron content is washed out in the saliva, leaving the unwanted bits of sand and vegetation!

Bog iron was made into metallic iron in small, clay bloomery furnaces. First, peat-charcoal had to be created by burning peat over several days in clamps under a turf covering. Two thirds of the peat was lost, leaving almost pure carbon that would burn as well as coal. This process therefore consumed a lot of peat, and iron manufacture must have used up huge areas of the island’s peat banks. The bog iron nodules were then roasted to introduce small cracks. Bloomery furnaces were constructed using clay mixed with dung, making what looks like a large tapering chimney roughly three feet tall and one foot across at the bottom. After lighting a fire inside the furnace to dry the clay, the bog iron and peat-charcoal were loaded into the top in equal proportions. The furnace was then pumped from below with bellows. After a while, liquid waste slag collected at the bottom, and could be drained through a small hole, leaving the sponge-like iron-rich bloom, which was picked out of another hole with tongs. The bloom then had to be beaten and re-heated to purify it. Objects made with bog iron have a certain sheen due to the high silica content.

I have found numerous pieces of grey slag with their embedded bubbles like ‘Aero’ chocolate, as well as fragments of the clay furnaces themselves, in dunes at Baca Charrachain in Balevullin, and on the Barrapol machair.

Dr John Holliday, 2017

The History of Tiree in 100 Objects


Roll of Honour 1914-1919

Original booklet “Roll of Honour 1914-1919” in memory of the Tiree men who fought and fell during the Great War.



Click here to view pages 2011.55.1



Tiree in 100 Objects – 32 – Roll of Honour

‘In Proud and loving Memory of the Tiree Men who Fought and Fell in the Great War, also in Honourable Recognition of the Services of all who helped to bring the Campaign to a Triumphant Conclusion.’

The First World War was the first conflict marked with the creation of Rolls of Honour. This wonderful effort was produced for the Tiree Association by Mary A MacKinnon working with the Ladies’ War Guild. (Interestingly the rake and pitchfork on the Tiree Association crest are pictured upside down.)

‘The island of Tiree measures only twelve miles at its greatest length, but when the Call of Empire sounded throughout our shores in the fateful August of 1914, no place responded more enthusiastically than the little island nestling so snugly on the bosom of the wide Atlantic. From their island home, from the cities where they had started to carve out a place and a name for themselves, and from any lands where they had departed to seek their fortunes, the sons of Tiree answered the call. With the Australians, New Zealanders and Canadians they came, but many will never more return to the countries of their adoption. In Flanders’ mud, in Egypt’s sand and on Africa’s veldt they sleep. Cha till iad tuilleadh [they will never return] − but their work is done; and we hold them evermore in proud and grateful memory.’

In all, 208 men and women are listed in Tiree Roll of Honour for the First World War, including forty men who died, three who became prisoners of war, and four who won medals for gallantry. To take one entry at random, but one that illustrates the personal tragedy, heroism and youth of those involved:

‘Seaman Donald A Brown, HMS Halden, was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal for sinking a German submarine on 11th January 1917. He was only nineteen years of age at the time. He is a son of Mr George Brown, Balevullin, and his brother, Hector Cameron Brown, was lost at sea on 28th October 1916, through the sinking of the SS Marina by a German submarine.’

As well as men on the front line, the Roll includes those serving in the Merchant Navy, seventeen of whom drowned at sea in 1916 and 1917, six Chaplains to HM Forces, and Ladies on Service. The Roll also celebrated the efforts of those who remained at home. This included of a photograph of a Sopwith Pup biplane called An Tiristeach, ‘of which every Tiree man has a right to be proud’, and which had been bought out of a fund of donations from islanders. The British war effort was estimated to be costing £5 million a day, and in 1916 a War Savings Campaign was set up by the government, with local committees given funding targets. £1 War Savings Certificates could be bought from post offices for 15 shillings and six pence. These could be redeemed five years later free of tax. War Savings Campaign 1916-1978 local savings weeks were held which were promoted with posters with titles such as “Lend to Defend the Right to be Free”, “Save your way to Victory” and “War Savings are Warships”. By the end of the war £207 million had been raised in this way.

The Ladies Guild of the Tiree Association provided ‘comforts and parcels’ to Tiree men on service, and entertained wounded soldiers in the Woodside and Oakbank Hospital in Glasgow.

‘The daughters of Tiree responded not less nobly than their men folk, employing every spare moment, every talent and opportunity in collecting funds for the Red Cross, in knitting comforts for the men on service, and in keeping the home fires burning until the boys would come back. Several hundred pounds in money were collected at various times for the Red Cross, besides gifts of fresh eggs for the wounded; gifts of tea, milk butter, scones and cakes for the canteen at the Pier at Gott. Many a tired war-worn hero, home for much-needed leave to Tiree, or the Outer islands, blessed that canteen.’

Creating this Roll of Honour was a magnificent achievement, involving long and patient research at what must have been a time of great sadness. Attempts since then to update the Roll have shown how difficult it can be to be accurate and inclusive. We owe those who fought on our behalf, and those who recorded their sacrifices so beautifully, an enormous debt.

Dr John Holliday, 2017

The History of Tiree in 100 Objects


Copy the first Evening Times newspaper to be delivered to Tiree by aeroplane, 1929

Original copy of The Evening Times newspaper, July 18 1929. It was the first newspaper to be delivered to Tiree by aeroplane. Front page states “Delivered in Tiree by Aeroplane” with an article about the delivery and passengers. The newspaper was initially kept on display in the Thatched Cottage Museum, Sandaig, until its closure and sale in 2010. The plastic sleeve is the original from the museum with a label that reads “Read all about it”.

newsbyplane.jpgTiree in 100 Objects – First Plane

The first plane to land on the island came on the day of the Tiree Association sports on July 18 1929. It came bearing that day’s editions of the Glasgow Herald and Bulletin as well as a special edition of the Evening Times, which contained a message in Gaelic addressed to the islanders.

Newspaper ‘Plane For Tiree

‘Residents of the remote little island of Tiree…today will see for the first time at close quarters the modern magic carpet – an aeroplane. The machine, an Avro, which leaves Moorpark Aerodrome, Renfrew, early this afternoon is expected to arrive at the island while a sports programme is being carried out on the Reef, and its visit will be one of the features of the day. It has on board a supply of…today’s edition of The Evening Times, which contains a message of greeting in Gaelic from the editor to residents and visitors. The paper will be in demand as souvenirs of a unique occasion. Credit for this enterprise goes to Glasgow Tiree Association, one of the most energetic of the Highland associations in the city.’

The message translates as: ‘The Editor of the Evening Times in Glasgow sends his best wishes to the people of Tiree, and to those welcomed onto the island, and he hopes they will always be happy, friendly and cheerful.’

Local people were gathered on the top of Cnoc nan Deilgeanan ‘the hillock of the thistles’ in Crossapol, just north of the Camp,. Janet Wilson, Cornaigbeg, remembered the day. “We always came in July, Glasgow Fair, and the Tiree Sports were on…we had the slow cycle races…piping competitions, dancing, Eightsome Reels and the Highland Fling…Just up the road from us [in Glasgow] was Renfrew Airport, I remember airships in the first World War, these things weren’t new to me [but] to the Tiree people a plane was something wonderful…the plane came in, Oh! Great rejoicing! It took people up, I think it was half a crown, they called it a ‘flip’. My cousin Hector…hid under a horse or a cow.” Hugh MacKinnon (Eòghann Dhòmhnaill), known as ‘The Contractor’, owned one of the few cars on the island, and met the plane, taking the pilot and a representative of the newspaper group to lunch.

The flight had been commissioned by the Tiree Association, founded in 1900, under its president Hugh Alexander Low. The weather leaving Renfrew was showery with low clouds, and the two-seater kept to the coast of Argyll and along the Sound of Mull. The pilot was Albert Norman Kingwill, who had joined the Royal Flying Corps as a 15 year old during the First World War, ending the war with the Air Force Cross. By 1929 he was working in Manchester for Northern Air Lines. The Herald report has him piloting a de Havilland DH 60 Cirrus II Moth, but he had been flying an Avro 504N powered by Armstrong Siddeley Genet engines the month before at the Manchester Air Pageant in a display of ‘inverted’ (upside down) flying, and the Evening Times reports he was flying an Avro. Part of the Manchester Air Pageant was an enactment called ‘The Rescue’. The show was described thus: ‘a passenger machine flew to a village situated in troubled country where the natives were threatening the white population. It was escorted by fighting aircraft. It landed and the white people dashed towards it, whilst the natives opened fire to show their irritation. But the machine took off safely as the fighting aircraft attacked the natives with machine guns and eventually tried a little persuasion with bombs. Then the village caught fire, which was not surprising, and so the poor natives got none.’

The spectators in Tiree were not treated to a display on this scale, but Kingwill did some acrobatics, returning to Glasgow after four hours. He went on to perform in the 1930s with the Cobham Air Circus, which featured ‘Dancing in the Air’ and an air race around a course of pylons. In the Second World War he re-joined the RAF, leaving with the rank of Wing Commander. In 1958 Kingwill was reported to be training officers of the Peruvian Air Force in new jet aircraft. He died in 1979 aged 80.

The Tiree Association may have brought out planes for a few years, and some early plane stories may have occurred in 1930 or 1931. Certainly one year you could pay half a crown for a flight around the island.

Dr John Holliday, 2016

The History of Tiree in 100 Objects


Round pebble used as a ‘strike-a-light’ or for sharpening sail-makers` needles.

Palm-sized round brown pebble with deep straight grooves on both sides. Used by sail-makers for sharpening their needles. Possibly also used as a strike-a-light to create a spark for lighting fires/lamps/pipes.


Tiree in 100 Objects – 50 – Strike-a-light

This oval, purple-brown, flat pebble fits comfortably in my hand, polished by years of use. It was given to us as the needle sharpener of a sail maker, and it looks as though it has indeed been used for this purpose. In fact, this is a strike-a-light, a tool to produce sparks and create fire.

Fire has been used in a controlled way by humans for about a million years, essential for keeping warm at night and making the catch of the day more digestible. It was essential ’bushcraft’ to know how to make fire. One way was to rotate a wooden stick between the hands on a notched piece of dry wood. But a commoner method was to create a spark by striking two stones, or, more recently, a stone and a piece of iron, together. Stone-on-stone strike-a-lights have been used since prehistoric times, and are sometimes found placed beside skeletons (interestingly, almost always male skeletons) in ancient graves, presumably to give the dead an ability to make fire in the afterlife. The best striking stones were flint. These can easily be found on Tiree’s pebbly beaches, washed here from deposits near the Giant’s Causeway in northern Ireland. The second stone needed to have a high iron content. Rusty red iron-rich stones are occasionally found on Tiree, particularly around Barrapol. Fool’s gold, or iron pyrites, is the best, but is not found naturally on the island. Fascinatingly, however, we found several lumps of fool’s gold and a flint beside the bones in the grave we excavated this summer in Kirkapol. A handful of fluffy, bone-dry tinder was also vital. The shredded fibres of the horseshoe fungus, which grows on birch trees (found on Tiree until the Iron Age, two thousand years ago), was especially good for this, but dried moss or grass would do.

Once iron tools became commonplace, quartz pebbles like this came to be used. After many years, the stones developed a groove on both sides and around part of the edge. A stone very similar to our strike-a-light was found during the excavation of the Iron Age Dùn Mòr Bhalla in 1964, and was dated to around AD 200. They continued to be used on Tiree into the twentieth century. The late Archie MacKinnon, Cornaigmore, kindly gave An Iodhlann a steel strike-a-light, and described its use: “During the last war matches were very scarce, so men smokers had a steel hand-held striker made in one of the local blacksmiths’ smiddies. They then looked for a small flat flint stone among the gravel on the beach. They also obtained a sheet of brown parcel paper, which they dampened with water and then sprinkled saltpetre on to it. They then dried the paper. Step one was then to tear about a square inch of the paper and lay it on the edge of the flint stone and with a downward strike of the steel striker the sparks from the flint would ignite the paper. They then put the smoldering paper into the bowl of their pipes. As a young lad in Cornaig I used to watch this performance with great interest!”

Friction matches had been invented in the 1820s and 30s by a number of chemists, but early versions contained white phosphorus. This was extremely poisonous and workers in the match factories often suffered from “phossy jaw”, a disfiguring and often fatal disease involving abscesses around the teeth. The London matchgirls’ strike of 1888 at the Bryant and May factory in London was a turning point, and the use of red phosphorus ‘safety matches’ was strongly championed, among others, by the Salvation Army. These are essentially the matches we use today. The next time you use one of these, think about this beautiful pebble and the skill needed to create fire in years gone by.

Dr John Holliday, 2017

The History of Tiree in 100 Objects



RAF brevet for Meteorological Air Observers of the Tiree 518 Squadron

RAF brevet or “wings” for the Meteorological Air Observers of 518 Squadron based on Tiree during WWII. The badge would have been sewen above the left breast pocket of the airmen`s uniform, above any medal ribbons. Depicts single wing with letter `M` in white and brown stitching on black fabric background.


Tiree in 100 Objects – 21 – Brevet

This tiny piece of embroidery tells quite a story. It’s an RAF brevet worn by Meteorological Air Observers of Tiree’s 518 Squadron. The word ‘brevet’ has an interesting history in itself. It comes from an old French word brievet ‘a little letter’ and means a military rank given to someone in wartime without paying him the promoted pay. You might speak of a “brevet major”. But the word also came to mean a small badge sewn onto uniforms, such as the classic ‘wings’ worn by pilots. This badge was worn with pride above the left breast pocket of the uniform, above any medal ribbons, and shows a single wing with the letter M.

518 was the most famous squadron of RAF Tiree. Formed in Stornoway in 1943, they flew deep into the Atlantic in a relentless hunt for weather information in the pre-satellite age. Within two months the squadron was on the move from the Western isles to Tiree’s new air base, where they were stationed for the rest of the war. The island’s three huge runways allowed takeoff and landing in most weathers, the island’s position on the fringe of the Atlantic was ideal, and the open spaces of the aerodrome allowed room for the huge hangars housing their Halifax aircraft.

The squadron had twenty-eight aircrews. Bernard Jamieson remembered one. ‘I was a Flight Lieutenant pilot on 518 Squadron. We had eight-man crews, consisting of captain, second pilot, navigator, engineer, three wireless operator/air gunners and a specialist Met Observer. These flights were made whatever the weather and were almost never cancelled. These crews had to make arduous flights at specific heights, keeping to pre-arranged routes. They ensured that the constantly varying weather patterns were recorded and notified by code at set half-hourly intervals throughout the nine, ten or eleven hour sorties. In their specially adapted Halifax aircraft they gathered vital data on matters such as wind strength and direction, cloud, temperature and humidity readings. The meteorological information obtained from these trips [codenamed ‘Bismuth’ and ‘Mercer’] was relayed back in code by a wireless operator’.

Winston Dimond, an Australian member of 518, gave this detailed account. ‘During the morning of the sortie, we did a half hour air test of our plane, reporting anything amiss. During the afternoon we tried to sleep. Awoken about 9pm, a transport truck would take us to the Mess where the traditional pre-flight meal of ham and eggs would be served. We’d be given flight rations and then a truck would take us for a briefing and the latest weather. Take off was about midnight. We’d fly west for 700 nautical miles at 1,500 feet – about half way to Canada – on oxygen with no heating, only thick underwear and padded flying suits to try and keep warm in. Weather readings were taken every fifty nautical miles. Descent was then made to sea level to take weather readings every 100 miles. After 700 miles a descent to sea level was made, then a climb to 20,000 feet. Weather readings were taken every 50 miles. On our return trip we flew due east for 500 miles at 20,000 feet. After a further 500 miles we made another descent to sea level, then returned to base at 1,500 feet, arriving home at about 10.30 am (roughly a 10 ½ hour trip). By the end of the war, over 16,000 Met sorties had been flown from various airfields and fifty-two aircraft had failed to return.’ The squadron’s meteorological reports are credited with a crucial delay in the D-Day landing plans. 518 left Tiree just ten days after Victory in Europe Day in 1945.

[See Tiree – War among the Barley and Brine by Mike Hughes and John Holliday, Islands Book Trust, for more details.]

Dr John Holliday, 2016

The History of Tiree in 100 Objects


Brass deck light from HMS Sturdy which was wrecked on the rocks off Sandaig in 1940.


Tiree in 100 Objects – 46 – Sturdy Lantern

This beautiful brass light was salvaged from the Royal Navy destroyer HMS Sturdy, after it was wrecked on the rocks of Sandaig in October 1940. The vessel broke up over the next few months, but some salvage, both official and ‘unofficial’, took place.

HMS Sturdy was one of sixty-seven S-class destroyers, designed during the First World War. Built by Scotts of Greenock, she was, in fact, not launched until 1919. During the inter-war years, she spent much of her time at anchor as part of the Royal Naval Reserve. She did spend a period, however, in rough weather trials out of Portsmouth, only going to sea in the most atrocious conditions. At the start of the Second World War, only eleven of her class were still in action for the Royal Navy and she was starting to show her age. At first, she was tasked to defend the British flagship Royal Oak, before that was sunk in Scapa Flow. She then sailed to the Mediterranean, and went though another long refit in Malta. She was subsequently allocated to Western Approaches Command based in Londonderry. Albert Gallier, one of the ship’s stokers, had never been to sea: “I was born in Shropshire. I left home quite young, seventeen and a half, and I went down the pits [following his father] … I joined the Navy in 1939 (in June actually, before the war started), but I didn’t get called in till the November. Did all the training on Hayling Island, and was drafted out to Malta to pick up the Sturdy. In 1940, I was twenty-one – I was coming round the Bay of Biscay on my twenty-first birthday. We went out on a cargo-passenger … Things were pretty quiet then – we left before the attack on Malta started. She was an oldish boat – she was having a refit. What they were putting on it, I don’t know.”

It was a difficult time. On her first convoy, HX73, no fewer than twelve merchant ships were sunk by U-boats. On 26 October 1940, she left port to pick up another convoy, only to be pulled off that and sent to shadow another flotilla. Battered by dreadful weather, low on fuel, and unable to get an accurate bearing for two days, the captain, thirty-one-year-old Lt Cmdr George Cooper, failed to allow adequately for the vessel’s drift. HMS Sturdy crashed into Sgeir an Latharnaich off the coast of Sandaig. Five sailors died in the initial attempt to reach land before the bridge received a message from Captain Donald Sinclair (Dòmhnall an Dan), who was home in Greenhill on leave from the Merchant Navy. Flashed in Morse code from the shore using the postman’s torch, it advised the remaining crew to stay on board until the tide receded. This action saved many lives. Albert Gallier again: “We were in our hammocks, asleep [when the Sturdy hit the rocks]. [It was] 4.30 in the morning.  You wouldn’t feel [the impact] being in the hammock. You don’t feel the roll of the ship. In cases like that, you are warned to be clothed and have your lifebelt on, you sleep in your lifebelt. You never have your boots laced up when you’re working. Saves you having to buy laces! As much as I remember, you don’t feel [the cold and wet]. The first thing I remember getting on deck was seeing the stern go round. It had already broken in two, the ship had. I can’t remember being frightened. Just concerned. We got organised. Someone got a rope off the bows onto the rocks. First one down would hold the rope for the next one come down. That’s how we carried on. As soon as you got to the bottom, he was gone! You’re up the shore! I remember running up the grassy bank, and I remember seeing the bloke before me going over the top. Then there were some houses. I don’t actually remember going in, but I can remember sitting at a table and looking up the corner there, and there was a woman making bread on a flat [griddle].” (Albert Gallier, the last surviving member of that crew, sadly died earlier this year.)

The wreck jackknifed and was driven towards the shore. Most of the surviving crew were rapidly evacuated to Oban, leaving a detachment to guard the vessel while the shells and torpedoes were made safe and removed. The hulk could be reached at low tide. Hugh Maclean from Barrapol was one who passed by: “It wasn’t very safe. It’s a wonder to me no one was hurt or even drowned. I was there myself looking for souvenirs, and I’ve got one of the clasp knives out there in the workshop. And as for tobacco! My goodness, tobacco! Cigarettes by the million! Rum if you wanted it, plenty of rum too. And some of the boys [the Navy salvage party] would pinch a drop for a person, too!” Later, Iain Campbell (Iain Bàn) was employed as a night watchman at the site. Another islander remembered Tiree at that time: “There were a lot of white overalls and large frying pans all of a sudden!” Potatoes from the ship’s galley were planted in Middleton the following year, and ‘Sturdy potatoes’ became a popular local variety. Walter Hume from Hynish was contracted by the Navy to transport stores, including large tins of corned beef, from the Sturdy to the pier. His route passed near his father’s house in Heylipol, and sometimes a tin appeared to fly out of the window at the appropriate time.

This solidly made brass paraffin cabin bulkhead lamp was made by Bulpitt and Sons of Birmingham in 1918. It is therefore one of the original fittings for HMS Sturdy, lasting twenty-one years in service. Its brass construction, glass panes and wooden handle (in case the lamp got too hot) seem to speak to us from a different, imperial, age. It also reminds us of the five young men who sadly drowned that night in 1940. Just this week I met the daughter of another crewmember in An Iodhlann. She was making her first pilgrimage to the island to follow her father’s wartime footsteps, and was surprised to find how vividly the accident is still remembered on Tiree.

Dr John Holliday, 2017

The History of Tiree in 100 Objects


Captain`s chair from the S.S. `Malve`.

Wooden swivel chair with iron base from the bridge of the S.S. `Malve`, a Finnish steamship wrecked off Balephetrish Bay in 1931. The chair was salvaged by Charles Lamont (Tearlach Iseabail) of the Coal-ree in Kenovay and acquired by Mairi MacFarlane (Mairi Tearlach Mairi) of Creagan Breac in Cornaigbeg, whose parents Charles (Tearlach Mòr) and Flora (Floraidh Lachainn Eòghain) MacKinnon ‘purchased’ the Coal-ree in 1952. It was restored by Alan Reid of Kenovay.


Tiree in 100 Objects – 28 – Chair

This beautiful mahogany swivel chair was salvaged from the wreck of a Finnish cargo vessel in 1931 on the skerries of Belephetrish. The stranded sailors were put up in the Reading Room, so its donation to An Iodhlann is very appropriate!

The night of the 14th February 1931, with a gale and driving snow, was one to stay tucked up in bed. Little did islanders know that a large boat had gone aground on the dangerous Balephterish skerries Na Sgeirean Mòra and that three fishing boats were fighting the storm to stay within range.

The SS Malve was sailing from Tallin to Manchester with two hundred tons of wood pulp. In zero visibility a crunch alerted the crew to the fact that the ship had grounded. At first Captain Boxberg believed the boat was on the rocks off Coll, and put out a Mayday call to that effect. Three fishing boats, the Armageddon, Caldew and River Clyde responded to a call for assistance from Malin Head Radio and stood by. It was low water and after checking that the vessel seemed to be undamaged, the captain lightened the boat by pumping out the ballast water and moving a quarter of his cargo into the hold at the stern of the ship. As the tide rose, the ship re-floated and they were able to anchor in Balephetrish Bay, meaning to assess the damage at first light. The fishing boats sailed off. However, the wind freshened again, the anchor dragged and the despite efforts to steam away, the boat was driven onto the rocks again. This time there was no escape. The captain put most of his crew ashore, remaining on board with two other men until the break-up of the vessel meant that they had no option but to get into the last lifeboat.

The ship was declared a total loss. Today there is little left in seven meters but the propellor shaft. Amazingly, a salvage vessel, the SS Glenlyon from Belfast, also went aground trying to transfer her cargo in September and was also declared a wreck.

The Malve had been built in Thunder bay, Ontario fourteen years before and launched as the Star Fish. After war service in the Atlantic she was sold to French owners and re-named the Roubaix and subsequently Monique Vieljeux. The year before the sinking she had been bought by the Swedish shipping company Nordjöfrakt and re-named for the fourth time. (So much for the superstition of not re-naming a boat).

The ship remained intact on the rocks throughout the summer of 1931, and naturally attracted the attention of curious islanders. Catriona Watt’s grandparents lived in Balephetrish and heard about her family’s visit to the wreck. ‘Access was by rope ladder, which the younger ones found terrifying. Sheila, the cousin, climbed it like a monkey, which took them by surprise as she was an elderly lady in her forties!’

A china serving-dish with the initials DV (after the owners at the time Delmas Vieljeux) was bought at a sale of small items from the vessel and is also in An Iodhlann. The chair, from the bridge and said to have been the captain’s, was salvaged by Captain Charles Lamont (Tèarlach Iseabail), who lived at the Coalree in Kenovay. It was generously given to the museum by Mairi MacFarlane and restored beautifully by Alan Reid. So now you can sit in the seat of Captain Boxberg as he tried to reverse the boat off the rocks! Living history.

Dr John Holliday, 2017

The History of Tiree in 100 Objects


Two stud book entries dated 1947 for a stallion and mare bred by John MacLean of the Brae, Cornaigbeg.

Two stud book entries dated 1/9/1947 for a stallion Pioneer Again and a mare Brae Blossom bred by John MacLean of the Brae, Cornaigbeg.


Tiree in 100 Objects – 3 – Stud Book

Horses provided the strength that powered the island’s agriculture since the Scotti people arrived on Tiree from northern Ireland around 300 AD. This page from a Clydesdale Stud-Book is a reminder from a later period of the crucial importance of Clydesdale horses to the Tiree economy from the 1870s to the start of the Second World War.

The Clydesdale breed as a heavy horse had its origins in Lanark in the eighteenth century. In addition to farm work, the Clydesdale found a niche in the developing cities of the Industrial Revolution, pulling everything from brewers’ carts to coal wagons. In 1864 the young Ayrshire farmer Tom Barr moved to Tiree to take up the tenancy of the large farm of Balephetrish. He brought with him a Clydesdale stallion and islanders quickly realised its potential. A Tiree Heavy Horse Breeding Society was set up and Barr commissioned to bring two further Clydesdale stallions to Tiree to start a breeding programme. The cross-Clydesdales produced with native mares proved particularly popular in Glasgow as they trotted faster and were cheaper to feed than the pure bred horses. The export of these horses to as far afield as New Zealand became the main source of income for Tiree crofters. Hector MacPhail made this point,

‘The horse not only did the heavy work on the island. It was also the crofters’ main source of income. Over a hundred foals were born here every year and these were usually sold out as two year olds which would fetch as much as five or six two- to three- year-old bullocks…There was a family of MacLeans in Kenovay. They lived where Fiona Maxwell had a craft shop. And one of these men, Charles (Tèarlach Ghilleasbuig), he sold a stallion pony before the First World War for £600. That was a colossal heap of money in those days…You know the story. Tèarlach Ghilleasbuig got up this morning. And his brother, Ailean, was still upstairs. ‘Where are you going?’ [Ailean shouted down]. ‘I’m going for a wee visit to New Zealand!’ [Tèarlach replied, as he walked out the door]

The Clydesdale Horse Society’s annual Stud-Book (first produced in 1877) was carefully read by many crofters on the island. John Maclean, Cornaigbeg, the father of Ailig Mòr, was one of the leaders in the field, walking the chosen stallion from croft to croft and looking after the mainland Clydesdale breeders when they came to Tiree. This is a page from John’s stud-book, showing the details of a two year pedigree colt. The days of the working horse were numbered, however. Within the next few years the little grey Fergusson tractor changed the Tiree landscape forever.

Dr John Holliday, 2016

The History of Tiree in 100 Objects