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 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
Dr John Holliday, 2016
The History of Tiree in 100 Objects