Tag Archives: post offices and postmen

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Hand-framed newspaper obituary for Jessie Ann MacDonald of Milton Cottage, Caoles, who died at the age of 18 in 1898. She attended school at Ruaig and Glasgow, worked in Glasgow, then returned to Tiree to work in the post office. Daughter of Archibald MacDonald, who worked for MacBrayne ferries. From a collection of items found in Milton Cottage, Caoles.


Tiree Memories Calendar 2017, by Alec Walker. Includes photographs of Stewart Langley 1991, aerial view of the Co-op 1979, Kate MacDonald (Ceit Chalein) 1958, Scarinish harbour shoreside houses 1953, Ruairidh Lachainn and Domhnall Lachainn ca 1930, ferry ‘Iona’ 1991, Duncan & Margaret MacInnes 1991, Archie MacArthur (Eairdsidh Mor) and Margaret & Norman MacIvor 1990, two Regatta boats and sailors 1985, MacKinnon family at the Farmhouse in Balemartine 1924, mini cooper being loaded off ferry 1934, group of crofters at the Agricultural Show in 1968, Captain John MacDonald, ca 1970.


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


Newsletter `An Tirisdeach`, No. 432, 13/12/08

Local news: Christmas parties; interview with Santa Claus; An Talla news; Christmas message from the Provost of A&B Council; primary children visit the Post Office; sheep scab alert; Skerryvore winter tour; RSPB information; SWRI Christmas party and Commemorative Bench.


Post Office telegram, 1951

Photocopy of a Post Office telegram to Flora MacKinnon (now Flora MacLean, Druimfraoich): “Congratulations on being twenty-one. Mary Ian and Angus”, dated 29 June 1951. Sent by George Paterson, Crossapol, from Balemartine PO to Middleton PO (postmaster Calum MacArthur). Includes photocopy of envelope.

Click here to view 2014.102.1

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