Category Archives: 100 Objects


Wooden and rope bridle for tethering a horse.

Wooden and rope bridle known as a `brangas` used for tethering a horse when grazing or in the byre. The cheek pieces were made from the oakstaves of a whisky barrel. It was found by Donald MacKinnon of Hough in his stackyard in October 2006.


Tiree in 100 Objects – 42 – Brangas

This is a brangas, a halter made with two wooden cheek-pieces and rope (An Iodhlann cat. no. 2007.9.2). This one was found in his stackyard by Donald MacKinnon of Hough in 2006, and we are fortunate that Donald had both the knowledge to recognise it and the expertise to repair it. The brangas was used for tethering horses and cattle in the byre or field, or for leading a team of packhorses with a taod ‘head rope’. The Gaelic word brangas is a loan from the Scots branks. The wooden cheek pieces gave slightly more control over the horse than a simple rope halter, and the brangas was also used for riding by those who could not afford a bridle. The wooden brangas was also found in the Northern Isles, and antler cheek-pieces from a halter dating from the Bronze Age have been found in central Europe.

The rope used to make a brangas would originally have been made from marram grass or straw, and from the 1850s out of sìoman ruadh ‘coir rope’. This was made from the husks of coconut. The cheek pieces were made from the staves of an old barrel, which were suitably curved, strong and smooth. Barrels were quite common on the island, used to transport and store many things. By 1764, salted beef was being exported in barrels from Tiree, because cattle from the island often became ill and died as they were driven through the Ross of Mull. The minister also reported in 1792 that two to three hundred barrels of whisky were sold every year from this barley-rich island. And in 1845, the minister recorded that: “[Whales stranded on the shore] are commonly from fifteen to twenty feet long, and their blubber yields about a barrel of oil each.” In the Gott Bay herring boom between 1914 and 1921, the pier was piled high with barrels to carry away the salted fish. Charles MacMillan, a teacher’s assistant from Mannal, is remembered to have been so athletic that he could jump into, and then out of, an empty herring barrel without using his hands. Oak barrels are still widely used to age, and add flavour to, wine and whisky. Cooperage was a skilled trade, demanding a seven-year apprenticeship. Donald Kennedy, 71, in Balephuil and Lachlan MacLean, 58, Kirkapol, were both recorded as “coopers” in the 1871 Census.

But the word branks had another, more sinister, meaning as a ‘Scold’s Bridle’. This was, as a 1772 description goes: “An instrument of punishment … a sort of head-piece, that opens and incloses the head of the impatient, while an iron, sharp as a chizzel, enters the mouth.” These were used all over Europe from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries to punish women who talked out of turn, or who were suspected, in a minor way, of practising witchcraft. A branks was often displayed by the authorities in a public space, like a marketplace or a church, to cow women into obedience. Men were rarely punished in this way. A prehistoric standing stone in Strontian had an iron ring stuck into it, and was known as Clach a’ Bhrangais or the ‘Penance Stone’. As in other churches in the Highlands, the brangas was also used to humiliate offenders on Tiree into the nineteenth century, as Donald Sinclair from West Hynish recalled when he talked to John MacInnes in 1968:

John MacInnes: ‘Were they putting the branks on people and a lead rope [on Tiree]?’

Donald Sinclair: ‘Yes!’

‘And were they leading the person around by pulling on the rope?’

‘No! They were putting it on in front of everyone in the church as a warning. I remember the grandson of the last person who had the branks put on him. And his brother stood up in church and took the branks off him. He said no one should have a branks put on them.  And no one did have the branks put on them after that!’

‘And was the minister there?’

‘Yes. The minister was in front of them all organising it. I think there were branks in every place. Duncan Bàn was talking about it too’. (Tobar an Dualchais SA1968.019, translated by JH)

The ‘Fair Duncan’, to which Donald was referring, was the famous poet Donnchadh Bàn Mac an t-Saoir who died in 1812. In Òran do Charaide Tàillear airson Cuairt Shuiridh, he writes: “‘S am brangas a theannadh ri pheirclibh / The branks that would be tightened around his jaws.”

The church also had other ways to bring parishioners into line. In 1814, the Tiree Kirk Session ordered “two pairs of Joggs to be made and fixed in the walls of the church in Terror of Offenders.” (Tiree Kirk Session Minutes 1807-16, volume II, Archie Henderson 2016, 66). Joggs were an iron collar and chain, which were locked around an offender’s neck to humiliate them. The church in question was Eaglais Sgairinis, sited next to the old pier and now demolished. Annie Kennedy from Scarinish had played inside the building in the 1920s; she described it to me as having been a “prison” because of the rings fixed to the walls.

This beautifully crafted halter, however, has nothing to do with punishing people. It was an everyday, homemade item, whose use goes back to prehistoric times, and which shows us that recycling is nothing new!

Dr John Holliday, 2017

The History of Tiree in 100 Objects


Lump of `cutch` or catechu.

Lump of `cutch` or catechu, bark extract from India, which is bolied with water for tanning fishing lines, nets and sails.


Tiree in 100 Objects – 22 – Catechu

I want to talk about sailing – and urine. This piece of hard, brown material, shown with a fragment of herring net is catechu, or cutch. It is made from acacia trees, native to India and China, by boiling their heartwood in water followed by evaporating the mixture. The dense, red wood is rich in tannins, chemicals that protect the trees from pests. Tannins are found in lots of plants and are responsible for the astringent taste of black tea, unripe fruits and red wine. The same extracts are sometimes added to liquorice pastilles to cleanse the breath, and in traditional Indian medicines to help sore throats and diarrhoea.

Commercial fishing for cod and ling was slow to start on Tiree. The lack of a good harbour meant boats had to be dragged up the beach every evening, which limited their size. But in the 1841 Census it was recorded that Tiree had forty-three fishermen; the peak year was 1881 with 171. Where there were boats there were boat builders, and in 1851, at the start of the boom, there were seven on the island. There were also sail makers, and Willie Lamont remembered one who lived in his own township of Mannal. In 1860 the Duke built a larger fishing boat called the Duchess as an encouragement for the island’s industry. The island chamberlain, John Campbell, informed the Duke that ‘I had a letter from McQuarrie informing me that the crew of the Duchess who were [given] Scarinish Store [also known as Eaglais Sgairinis down by the harbour] to keep their things in, had stolen a quantity of fine sail cloth and other articles belonging to the sloop Dream‘. The Duchess was wrecked in 1871.

Sails were as important to islanders up to the 1940s as petrol is to us today. Traditionally they were made of linen, which was grown as flax and woven on Tiree. In 1662 a Tiree rental detailed a ‘sail and hair taikle to a galey’. By the middle of the nineteenth century imported mass-produced (and, until 1865, slave-grown) American cotton had begun to take over. However, both these plant fibres tend to rot slowly when wet and don’t like bright sunlight. To preserve precious sailcloth, the material was soaked in a tanning agent. In medieval Europe this was the bark of the oak tree, much used in leather tanning. But by the end of the nineteenth century catechu from the Indian Ocean was finding its way to Tiree with its merchant seamen, and it began to be used here to preserve sails and fishing nets. The catechu, a pound weight to a gallon, was dissolved in a cauldron of hot water. Nets were dipped into the liquid and dried in the sun, while sails were laid on the grass, wetted and then brushed, front and back, with the brown solution. In Shetland, groups of fishermen used communal ‘cutch kettles’, and on the mainland fishing communities often had a ‘barking shed’ for the same process. The tanned sail or net would last for a decade or more before needing to be re-tanned.

There was often one other ingredient, something that was found in almost every household in the Highlands: stale urine or maistir. To colour a fabric, like tweed or sailcloth, you need more than a dye; you need something called a ‘mordant’ to stick the dye to the fabric. Stale urine contains lots of ammonia (responsible for its smell), which is very good at doing this. Ammonia is also a useful cleanser, and an important building in Ancient Rome was the laundry, or fullonica, where stained clothes were trampled in vats of urine collected from houses round about, before being rinsed and dried in the sun. Maistir was so admired as a disinfectant that it was sprinkled around Highland doorways and cattle four times a year to keep the fairies away.

This insignificant brown lump from an Indian tree was therefore an important part of a Tiree fisherman’s toolkit, just as maistir was an important part of a weaver’s workshop.

Dr John Holliday, 2016

The History of Tiree in 100 Objects


Framed photograph of Turnbull`s 1768-9 map of Tiree

Turnbull`s 1768-9 map of Tiree, original of which is in the collection of the Duke of Argyll at Inverary Castle and copied by RCAHMS.

Tiree in 100 Objects – 1 – The Turnbull Map

We start this epic series with a map. It is huge – 8 feet by 6 – and painted on canvas. It belongs to the Duke of Argyll and sits in his archives at Inveraray Castle. We have a small copy in An Iodhlann. In 1768 the Campbells had owned Tiree for less than one hundred years, but already the Duke had decided to use his crown jewel not as a clan chief, but as its landlord. Driving up revenues from this fertile island was this main aim, and moving a medieval farming system into the modern age was his method. First he needed to know the island’s potential.

Heanish area of Turnbull’s map of Tiree, hand-painted 1768

James Turnbull was his chosen surveyor for this enterprise. We know very little about him, other than it took him five weeks to travel to Tiree and return to his Edinburgh home. But he was obviously a supremely skilled professional and his map a thing of lasting beauty as well as being a treasure trove of information about the island in the 18th century. The boundaries of the old farming townships curve through the landscape (for example either side of the Caolas road), every house is drawn in its place and every field and its furrows are marked precisely. The map was drawn thirty years before the crofts were marked out: the thirty or so houses in Vaul are clustered at the bay, just east of Seaside, while the township’s cropped fields cover the golf course!

Turnbull also wrote an accompanying field-by-field report: ‘Barapol: Field number 44; Infield; A compound of loam, gravel and clay, a good soil’. He calculated that 3,474 acres, 25% of Tiree’s land area, were sown with oats and barley – numbers we can only dream about today!

Dr John Holliday, 2016

The History of Tiree in 100 Objects


Foghorn from the schooner `Mary Stewart`.

Foghorn (missing rubber bulb) used on board the schooner Mary Stewart, originally an early 20th century car horn. It was a family tradition of the owners (Donald Maclean of Scarinish and his sons) to blow the horn if there was a marriage in the township.


Tiree in 100 Objects – 13 – Foghorn

This is said to be the foghorn from the smack Mary Stewart, whose keel still lies in Scarinish harbour. It was originally a car horn, possibly from the first car on the island, which Johnny Brown from the Scarinish Hotel brought to Tiree around 1924. Janet Martin remembered that it was a family tradition to blow the horn and hoist the Mary Stewart‘s flag up the chimney if there was a wedding in the township.

The Mary Stewart was built in Ardrossan on the north Ayrshire coast in 1868 for Andrew Stewart from Whiting Bay on Arran. Mary was presumably one of his family, but we have not, so far, pinpointed her. After a number of owners, in 1908 she came to Tiree from Northern Ireland to be skippered by Donald MacLean, Dòmhnall Og ‘young Donald’. She worked the west coast, from Thurso and Stornoway to Ireland, and brought coal to Tiree regularly. She was rigged as a double topsail schooner, with two masts and a long bowsprit with two jibs, and was one of the fastest boats in her trade.

Getting into and out of Scarinish harbour in a large sailing vessel was not easy. To enter she needed a south wind, and would sometimes have to anchor in Gott Bay for a week or more awaiting the right conditions. To leave she needed a northerly and was towed out to the lighthouse by a rowboat.

“We used to get out of school when the Mary Stewart was setting sail to go to Troon for a cargo of coal…The teacher used to take us out to the lighthouse…The skipper was a very good sailor, and he was also a very good man with his hands, joinery…he would do all the repairs himself. On this occasion there was something wrong with the seat of the mast, and he found out it wasn’t quite safe to carry the sails without carrying out some repair. He had to take the mast completely out. He used the aft mast to [lift it out] and he used the rings in the rocks to keep the boat secure. People in the village wondered what Mr MacLean was up to with all the ropes and blocks and tackles. And somebody asked him what he was going to do, and he told them he was going to take the mast out. So the news went round. Somebody said, “He’ll never manage it” and somebody said, “Yes. He’ll manage it. He’s a clever man!” Anyway, Mr MacArthur the shopkeeper said to this man, “I’ll give you half a pound of tobacco if you bet that Mr MacLean will take the mast out of the schooner. The butcher, Mr MacKinnon, said “I’ll give you a gigot of lamb if you take the mast out of the schooner”. The great day came, and he took the topmast first…that one was lowered onto the sandy beach. Then he laid the mainmast down on the beach and he carried on with the repair to the seat. And then he put the mast back…and the man won his bet…I remember that myself; I was at school” (Donald MacIntyre talking to Dr Margaret MacKay, SA.1974.140).

As steam puffers ate into her trade, the Mary Stewart was beached for the last time in 1937 in the harbour, where her hull has gradually rotted. Donald MacLean continued to fish until his death in 1944 at the age of 86, and his family received the cheque for his last consignment of lobsters after he had died.

Dr John Holliday, 2016

The History of Tiree in 100 Objects


Identity card issued 8/7/1942 for Christina MacKinnon of West Hynish

Identity card with photograph issued on 8/7/1942 for Christina MacKinnon of West Hynish

idcard.jpgTiree in 100 Objects – Registration Card

This card was a common sight during the Second World War, and many families will have one tucked away in their ‘history drawer’. National Registration Cards were made compulsory in September 1939, and citizens had to produce them on demand, or, failing that, at a police station within 48 hours. To register the entire population at the start of the war, 65,000 enumerators fanned out across the country to issue 40 million cards in people’s own homes. In 1939 there was a flood of people leaving the cities, and this was one way to keep a handle on who was where. Cards were also part of the food rationing system and had to be shown regularly to shopkeepers. They also told the authorities where they might find a bricklayer or a telephone operator if they needed one. On Tiree they also allowed access to the ferry after the island became a Restricted Area in 1939, having to be shown at Oban’s North Pier before embarkation. A central register was kept in Southport on Merseyside, which grew to 7,000 handwritten books. The original cards were brown and did not contain the date of birth, changing to blue in 1943. Government officials carried green cards like this one – these did contain the date of birth. Service personnel and merchant seamen had their own system. Fraudsters wanting extra rations or deserters hoping to evade the military police made use of a thriving black market in fake cards. The National Registration Card was abolished in 1952, those thirteen years being the only time the whole population of the UK has been forced to carry identity cards.

Christina MacKinnon from Balephuil, whose father was the shoemaker Donald MacKinnon, was forty when the war started. We do not know why she had an official card, but may have worked on RAF Tiree.

Dr John Holliday, 2016

The History of Tiree in 100 Objects


An corran / sickle.

Sickle made in Gott smiddy around 1840.


Tiree in 100 Objects – 43 – Sickle

This corran ‘sickle’ was made on Tiree in Cèardach Ghot ‘Gott smiddie’ in the 1850s, probably by Malcolm or John MacIntyre. Sickles have been used to cut grasses since Neolithic times, when they were made from a curved piece of wood and small, triangular flints. In the Middle Ages, however, the short varieties of barley and oats that thrived on windy Tiree were often simply pulled out of the ground, rather than being cut. This gave a longer stalk for thatching or rope making, but weakened the soil and left nothing for winter grazing. When blades did come to be used for harvesting corn, at first it was usually the sickle that was preferred over the scythe. Despite the uncomfortable position, holding the stem of the corn with one hand as you cut reduced the fall of ripe seed. In addition, many poorer people could not afford a scythe when they went to the dunes to cut marram grass for thatch, as Donald Sinclair of West Hynish explained: “In my father’s [day: the 1870s], it was all cut with sickles, because the cottar doesn’t have a scythe. There was a sickle in every house. They were getting hold of the top of the bent, and the sickle was as sharp as a razor … You would wonder how many sheaves they would do in an hour.” (Donald Sinclair talking to Eric Cregeen on SA1968.243)

In the nineteenth century, the more powerful scythe was introduced to the island. Donald continued: “In my time [he was born in 1885], when I was a boy, every crofter got a scythe … (My English is not good, but still and all, it might do!) In the olden times they used to go by the score to the harvest in the Lowlands. And some of my people was going there too. One of my ancestors was there, say over eighty years ago, and it was him that brought the first scythe to Tiree. Aye! The farmer he happened to be working with; they got scythes there. And he got one when he was coming home … John Black [Donald’s great-grandfather, who came to Tiree from Inveraray in the service of the Duke in 1801]. I’ve seen them often cutting corn with a sickle, but when this scythe came home to Tiree, they were coming from all parts of the island to see the big scythe, an corran mòr … They were calling it ‘the big sickle’. They didn’t know anything about a speall [the Gaelic word for] ‘the scythe’.”(Donald Sinclair talking to Eric Cregeen on SA1968.243)

The modern sickle usually comes with a smooth blade; older sickles, an corran fhiaclach, more often had a serrated or toothed saw-like blade. These were latterly used for cutting bladderwrack, Fucus vesiculosus, off the rocks at low tide. The floating mass of black seaweed was then pulled to shore at high tide with a long rope called a ràth, and then used as a fertiliser or to make kelp. Toothed sickles were also used to catch mùsgain ‘razor clams’. These shellfish bury themselves in the sand with a small dimple on the surface as the only sign. But they can be caught by walking silently along the beach at night at spring low tide, hooking them out with an old sickle. The eastern part of An Tràigh Mhòr on Gott Bay is known as Tràigh nam Mùsgan.

This sickle, like so much else, was made in a Tiree smiddie: “[Tiree blacksmiths] made everything in those days: even the nails that went in the houses, the nails that went in the boats, the nails that went in the horseshoes were made in the smiddie, just hammered out. Bolts, horseshoes, ploughs and grubbers, everything like that. All the tools for himself and tools for other folk.” (Hugh MacEachern talking to Dr Margaret Mackay on SA1974.130). The Duke had long been aware of the importance of having good blacksmiths on the island. He wrote to the factor as long ago as 1792: “I am told that a good smith and cartwright are both much wanted on the island. You must be at pains to get both, as it is impossible that any good husbandry can go on without them. I will be at any reasonable expense to establish them, and I desire that you will not delay or slur this over but attend to it immediately and earnestly.” (Cregeen 1964, 25). By 1881, there were smiddies in Gott, Earnal, Kenovay, Cornaigbeg, Kilkenneth and Balemartine.

Donald MacIntyre from Gott is the last in a long line of blacksmiths in Gott: “You can see the ruins [of the smiddie] still just south of the gate going up to the church [in Kirkapol] … that’s where my great-great-grandfather, [and] my grandfather [worked]. Neil, my grandfather’s brother, he was the last smith there. [His son] Calum taught me.” (Donald MacIntyre on AC189)

Hector MacPhail told this story: “Neil MacIntyre (1843-1908), known as An Gobhainn Beag ‘the small blacksmith’, had worked for many years in France and Italy, specialising in making frames for street gas lights. The story goes that a puffer which had been discharging coal on Gott Bay suffered an engine breakdown because the connecting rod (three inches in diameter) from the piston had snapped in half. The skipper came ashore with the broken rod and asked Neil MacIntyre if he could carry out a repair that would allow them to proceed home to the Clyde. The blacksmith forge-welded the rod, not only enabling the skipper to depart for home and arrive safely, but prompting a visit two years later, when the same puffer returned to Tiree and the skipper was able to inform the blacksmith that his ‘temporary’ repair was still working perfectly! Apparently, Neil’s repaired rod was driving the engine until the puffer finally went to the scrapyard.” (Hector MacPhail’s township histories, AI 1998.44.4). The smiddie was also a warm place for men to meet and ceilidh on a cold, wet day, as Hector MacPhail explained: “A smithy in the old days was the centre of society, a very busy place. People were always coming with horses every day and coming for other work to be done. Some people just came to sit and enjoy the conversation.” (Hector MacPhail on AC 41)

Dr John Holliday, 2017

The History of Tiree in 100 Objects



Saddle quern

Photograph of a partially broken saddle quern found in Moss.

Saddle quern

Courtesy of Catriona McLeod

Saddle querns are the most ancient and widely used type of quern-stone. This one was found in Moss in the mid-1980s and may date back to Neolithic times. It was used with a rubbing stone held in the hand, a process that crushed the grain rather than ground it.

Considered women’s work, preparing grain using a saddle quern would have taken many hours and placed great strain on the body, particularly the toes, knees, hips and lower back. They continued in use into the medieval period and were superseded by rotary querns.

Turnbull, in a report on Tiree written in 1768, wrote that meal was made ‘with querns or hand mills which appears to be an expensive and troublesome method. Two women at once, or sometimes three, are commonly employed. By this means there is so much of their time taken up that it greatly retards them from other industry.’

Tiree in 100 Objects – 2 – Saddle Quern

This large stone was found in a garden in Moss and is now on display in An Iodhlann. It’s a saddle quern, used for grinding grain, and these are found all over the world. Indeed, I found one in the Australian Western Desert that had been used in the last century by the Pintupi people I was working for. Saddle querns were first used on Tiree in the Neolithic period, about 6,000 years ago, when the early farmers began to grow barley in small fields. I have seen them in Baugh, Kirkapol and Vaul, and one was dug up in my back garden in Balephuil. If you find one, you can be fairly sure there was a Neolithic or Bronze Age farm right there.

A saddle quern is in two parts: the bedstone, which was a piece of local rock, too heavy to move very far, and a rubber or handstone, which was pushed up and down the groove. Experiments have shown that a saddle quern can produce fine flour from grain, the main disadvantage being that it can hold only a small amount of meal at a time, making using one a slow business. Going from evidence from different cultures around the world, grinding was mainly women’s work. The improved round rotary quern was introduced from Europe in the Early Iron Age, around 500 BC. Indeed, an early example was found by Ewen MacKie in Dùn Mòr Bhalla at Vaul. Rotary querns are five times as quick, and the best stones, being lighter, were often imported from Norway. Many houses on Tiree have rotary quern stones lying whitewashed at their front doors.

Interestingly, this one has been broken at the side. It’s made of gneiss, which is a very strong rock. It is hard to imagine it breaking naturally, and it may have been broken deliberately. This would have been an effective way of attacking your enemy, because it would have taken years of use to get a replacement to the most effective shape.

Dr John Holliday, 2016

The History of Tiree in 100 Objects


Gunter’s chain.

Measuring chain found at Heylipol.


Tiree in 100 Objects – 41 – Gunter’s Chain

This rusty chain, found in Heylipol, does not look much. But in its day, this was a revolutionary piece of equipment that transformed the appearance of the island.

When the Campbells took control of Tiree in 1679, they found a medieval landscape. Farm boundaries snaked across the island from rock to rock, loch to loch. Fields were a convenient size for the horses and ploughs of their day. Villages grew up next to the most fertile land and near a water supply. In other words, the farms had evolved around the landscape. And these irregular areas of land were measured by how productive they were, using an ancient measure only used on Tiree, Coll and Orkney: the mail-land.  Four mail-lands gave a tenant grazing for twelve cows, twelve horses or sixty sheep. The 1776 Census of Tiree had the approving entry for Middleton: “John McLean is a good tenant for four maile land; he has five cows and five horses”.

Around 1760, the fifth Duke of Argyll became determined to drag Tiree into the modern age, at a time of agricultural revolution known as ‘Improvement’. He turned to two members of a new profession: the surveyors James Turnbull and George Langlands. They used a Gunter’s chain like this one with a surveyor’s compass to accurately measure distances and areas for the first time. Placing a ranging rod at the corner of a field, the chainman lined his chain up, pulled it taut, pinned the end link into the ground and pulled it round to start again. The surveyor noted in his logbook the number of chains and links between the starting point and the ranging rod. With two edges of the field, he was able to calculate its area. Longer distances were calculated using triangulation. A triangle with measured baseline and angles was staked out. A distant feature like a hilltop was sighted and its angles from both ends of the triangle measured. With these numbers, the surveyor was able to calculate how far away the hilltop was. The Ordnance Survey started chain triangulation of the country in 1783, and the system of ‘trig points’ was born.

The surveyor’s chain had been invented in 1620 by the English clergyman and mathematical genius Edmund Gunter, who went on to become a professor of astronomy and invented an early version of the slide rule (younger readers, ask your parents). Gunter’s chain, as it became known, has one hundred links and was twenty-two yards long. Eighty chains made one mile, and crucially an area ten chains by ten chains was ten acres. This made calculations of field sizes much simpler.

Tiree, with its flat landscape, must have been surveyor heaven. Turnbull was able to produce the first accurate map of Tiree in 1768, with farm sizes measured in acres, roods (a quarter of an acre) and falls (1/160th of an acre). Starting around 1800, Langlands laid out a grid of rectangular crofts with planned sizes: the crofting landscape we know today. The 1851 Census now had the entry for Balephuil: “Alexander Sinclair, crofter four acres”. Crofting sideroads were plumb straight, crofts usually close to a neat rectangle, and tenants could look over their walls and think for the first time: my neighbour has six acres, while I have only four”. Modern, commercial ‘farming’, for good and ill, had come to Tiree, all made possible by the invention of a simple chain.

These rusty links were probably last used last to measure ditches, when they were still cleaned by hand. The chain as a unit of length is no longer used, except on the railways, where the ‘chainage’ from the main station on a line is still used to identify bridges and level crossings. And the cricket pitch: one chain long!

Footnote: With reference to the piece on Gunter’s chain in the last issue, Ian Gillies tells me that he last used the chain as a young factor in 1978, when he was doing an island-wide rent review. Hector JC Campbell, the crofter at Corrairigh in Cornaigbeg, wanted his croft re-measured, went into his byre and presented the ‘new boy’ with a beautifully maintained chain. Fortunately, Ian had a copy of Conversion Tables for Research Workers in Forestry and Agriculture that allowed him to do the necessary calculations. The new measurements tallied exactly with the estate records. We believe this was the last time the chain was used on Tiree.

Dr John Holliday, 2017

The History of Tiree in 100 Objects


Tiree knitwear polo-neck jumper in natural wool.

Tiree knitwear polo-neck jumper in natural wool.

knitwear.jpgTiree in 100 Objects – 11 – Tiree Knitwear

In 1969, partly due to the efforts of Robert Beck, the island’s vet, the Highlands and Islands Development Board supported the opening of knitwear operations on Tiree and North Uist under the banner ‘Hebridean Knitwear Ltd.’ At first production was in the then-empty United Free Church in Kirkapol, and the manager was Hugh MacKay, Vaul. Six island women – Hughina MacCallum, Ann Burns, Ann Munn, Jean MacKay, Flora Brown and June Weston – were sent to a factory in Coatbridge for six months’ training.

Before long HIDB had funded a huge purpose-built factory in Crossapol managed by Neil MacLean, Kenovay. This jersey in our collection is one of the few surviving from that period. Sadly, in 1982 Highlands and Islands Enterprise reported, ‘Hebridean Knitwear closed their operations on Tiree – the last survivor of their three production units in the Western Isles – but we succeeded in attracting a new knitwear group based in the west of Scotland to take over the factory and re-commence production.’ However, the chill economic winds that closed many British clothing manufacturers did not blow over, and by 1984 the factory closed for good. The ‘knitwear factory’ is now the Business Centre and is in community ownership.

Dr John Holliday, 2016

The History of Tiree in 100 Objects


The Campbell-Stokes Heliograph sunshine recorder from Tiree Met Station.

The Campbell-Stokes sunshine recorder

Courtesy of Mr Ray Sharp

The Campbell-Stokes sunshine recorder was invented in 1853 by John Francis Campbell, the editor of ‘Popular Tales of the West Highlands’, and modified by Sir George Gabriel Stokes in 1879. It consists of a glass sphere, about ten centimetres in diameter, mounted on a metal stand.

Manufactured to Met Office specification, the glass sphere focuses the rays of the sun to an intense spot which chars a mark on a curved graduated card mounted concentrically with the sphere. As the earth rotates, the position of the spot moves across the card. The card is held in place by grooves, of which there are three overlapping sets, to allow for the height of the sun during different seasons of the year.

Its main advantage is its simplicity and ease of use. However, the results require interpretation by an observer and may differ from one person to another.

Tiree in 100 Objects – 26 – Heliograph

‘The island has a mild climate with some of the highest levels of sunshine recorded anywhere in the British Isles’ –

This must be one of the simplest, most beautiful objects in our archive, an elegant instrument invented by one of the greatest Gaelic scholars of the nineteenth century, and one who visited Tiree himself in 1871. It also sits at the heart of an important, and regularly repeated, Tiree myth: that the island is the sunniest place in Britain.

This is the Campbell-Stokes heliograph from the Tiree meteorological station, given to us when the station went automatic in 2000. It was invented by John Francis Campbell, Iain Òg Ìle, who was the Gaelic-speaking son of the Laird of Islay. Crippling family debts, however, forced his father to sell the estate, and he moved down south. Educated at Eton and Edinburgh University, he became secretary to the General Board of Health. While dealing with the famous London cholera outbreak of 1854 (where the disease was proved for the first time to infect people through contaminated water), he deployed his new sunshine device on London roofs to see if sunlight was also involved. The original device was a glass sphere filled with water inside a wooden bowl, the magnified rays burning a mark in the wood. It is in the Science Museum in London. So successful was the instrument, now with a solid glass sphere, that it was taken up by the newly established Meteorological Office. In 1879 the Cambridge physicist Sir George Gabriel Stokes designed a more elegant metal frame and substituted a heat sensitive recording paper for the wooden bowl. The device went on to become used world wide due to its simplicity, lack of moving parts and relative cheapness. Its disadvantage was its lack of sensitivity distinguishing hazy from bright sunshine. Today the Campbell-Stokes heliograph has been largely superseded by electronic meters.

John Francis Campbell may have been tied up in London much of his life, but he remained true to his cultural roots, collecting a huge number of traditional Gaelic stories published in four volumes of Popular Tales of the West Highlands from 1860 onwards. His collecting method has stood the test of time, being remarkably faithful to his sources. In 1871 he took the train from London and visited Tiree on a field trip, meeting the minister of Kirkapol and fellow folklorist John Gregorson Campbell in the process. He wrote to his mother that ‘We landed on a rough pier [at Scarinish] and stumbled up somehow to the splendid Hotel where I am doing the usual thing, waiting.’

The first weather report from Tiree was sent on 16 September 1926 by the head teacher at the time D O MacLean from a small enclosure in the playground. Within a few years the records were attracting attention. An article in the Meteorological Magazine by J Crichton in 1933 reported that Tiree ‘enjoys, during at least the months of April, May and June, as much sunshine as any part of the British Isles …  and that in a somewhat unexpected region.’

In fact, most of southern England enjoys more sunshine than Tiree, if you take the whole year into consideration. Tiree’s average is around 1400 hours per year, while most of southern England has more than 1600. However, the common northeasterly winds of May bring cloud to the southeast of the country. The average in London at that time is 200 hours, while Tiree boasts 235 hours. The myth of our ‘sunshine isle’, however, has been a very useful marketing device – so please don’t tell anyone!

Dr John Holliday, 2016

The History of Tiree in 100 Objects