Category Archives: jewels

1 2 3 55


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


Colour photograph of ex-Scotland footballer Johnny MacKenzie (1925-2017), Caoles, with his wife Betty and two Derry City supporters at a friendly game with Barcelona in the Brandywell on 12th August 2003.

“Johnny was a hero to all Derry City supporters. He joined the club in 1964 and, with his great help, we won the IFA cup and the League the following year. When we played Barcelona in a friendly game in 2003 (Ronaldinho the world’s most expensive player at the time played that night), Johhny and Betty were invited over from Scotland as our guests. But the biggest reception was for Johnny was as he came on the pitch at half time to a rapturous reception from our supporters. Johnny and his wife Betty were guests of honour at the game and also at the banquet the night before. Having played for Derry City, Johnny once said, “I wish I could turn the clock back to those days. Derry was a second home to me.” “ David Doherty, 12 July 2017


Coloured photograph of ‘Ruined Temple, Kenavara’, 1941-43, taken by archaeologist George Holleyman FSA when he was stationed at RAF Tiree during WWII. Scanned from one of his hand-coloured glass lantern slides now held at An Iodhlann (see 2017.54.4). This is Saint Patrick’s Chapel with Travee (Balephuil Beach) beyond.


1 2 3 55