The St Kilda mail

To round off the year and the story of St Kilda mail, we move forward from the days of the Fleetwood trawlers’ role in mail delivery mentioned in last month’s article.

As Fleetwood trawlers moved south to other fishing grounds, their place was taken in the early ‘60s by both French and Spanish trawlers, often to be found breaking their journey or sheltering in Village Bay.

On occasions, and particularly during the winter months when LCTs did not make the journey to St Kilda, the foreign trawlers provided other means of getting mail off St Kilda. A good relationship built up between the fishermen and the new St Kilda occupants, and services were exchanged amicably, including the carrying of mail in exchange for fresh bread from the Cookhouse! Here we have an example of mail addressed to Edinburgh via San Sebastian!

Over the summer months, mail was carried by landing craft (LCTs) and we see examples of such items of mail exhibiting the official registration number of the vessel carrying the mail. The item of mail illustrated was carried on LCT 4062 named Aachen. The photograph shows LCT 4041 named Abbeville, berthed at Loch Carnan pier. The landing craft fleet engaged in marine logistics at that time adopted names from Second World War battles and included, over and above the foregoing names, other names including Agheila, Audemar, Ardennes, Antwerp, Arromanches and Arakan.

Moving from maritime mail to airmail, occasional helicopter visits, often for emergency medical evacuation, would be used for the dispatch of mail.

At the same time, “experiments” were taking place with small aircraft dropping stores and newspapers by low swoop over the island – sometimes a hit or a miss!

Following a period of trial and error, an “Airdrop” contract was set up with Airwork Services of Perth, operating from Scone airfield and stopping at Benbecula to pick up their consignment for St Kilda. The first official airdrop took place on 19th August 1960, and given the number of both military personnel and civilian contractor employees present on St Kilda at that time, each airdropped delivery could contain two to three hundred items of mail.

In the first edition for the new year (February 2023) we will look at the more unconventional communication method of St Kilda mailboats.

The St Kilda post – part 3

In last month’s edition of Am Pàipear, I mentioned the Fleetwood fishing port’s role in the St Kilda postal service and how, in the early days of re-occupation of St Kilda, the Ministry of Defence made an official contract with the Boston Deep Sea Fishing and Ice Co. Ltd, based in Fleetwood, to carry mail to and from St Kilda on their journey to the northern fishing grounds.

Here we have an example of an item of mail addressed to St Kilda via PO Box 99, Fleetwood, Lancashire. This particular letter is postmarked Saltcoats, Ayrshire 18 March 1959 and it would appear that the addressee had relocated to Benbecula by the time the letter was delivered to St Kilda by trawler. The letter was therefore redirected to the Royal Artillery Guided Weapons Range, Benbecula; it would have undergone a return journey by Landing Craft and then passed through Nunton Post Office where the St Kilda postmark was applied on 13 April 1959. An interesting journey that took one month for a letter to finally reach its destination.

The Fleetwood connection was not new to St Kilda. Back in the 1920s and up to the time of the evacuation of St Kilda in 1930, the mail service, particularly in the winter months, was an issue for the GPO and the St Kilda residents. Over that period, following recovery from the First World War, Fleetwood trawlers were regular callers at St Kilda on their journeys to and from the Icelandic fishing grounds.

Mary Cameron, daughter of St Kilda missionary Donald Cameron, writing in her account of Childhood Days on St Kilda, refers to, on one occasion, counting no fewer that forty-seven trawlers sheltering in Village Bay. One particular Fleetwood fisherman, Tommy Sandham, Skipper of the trawler Erna (FD 158) took a particular personal interest in the welfare of the St Kildans and became the main carrier of mail between the island and the mainland.

An example of 1920s St Kilda mail dispatched on the Erna is this letter from missionary Donald Cameron to Duncan Cameron, editor of the Oban Times, dated 27th August 1923 and postmarked Fleetwood on 11th September 1923.

This all leads to opening up other pieces of local history.

Missionary Donald Cameron was a native of Ballachulish where his father, also Donald, was a slate quarrier.

When engaged as a lay missionary in the Faith Mission in North Uist, he met school teacher Mary Flora MacCorquodale of Carinish, daughter of Peter MacCorquodale and his wife Mary, née MacDougall. Donald and Mary Flora were married in Clachan Church on 26th September 1912 before making their home in Stornoway, where Donald was Missionary Assistant to Rev. Roderick Morison of the United Free High Church in the town. Their first daughter, Mary, was born in Stornoway on 16th July 1913.

Donald and his family then moved to the Mission Station at Callanish where second daughter Christina was born on 5th October 1914.

The move to St Kilda came after the First World War: the family stayed on St Kilda for seven years between 1919 and 1926. The term of office for the St Kilda Mission was generally three years but Donald was given permission to serve two terms and he would gladly have stayed longer.

From St Kilda, the family moved to Glenelg, where Donald was ordained to the ministry, then to Easdale and Lochaline where the family was reunited with many of the St Kildan families who had been evacuated to the mainland in 1930.

Their last move was to Shawbost in Lewis from where Rev. Donald Cameron retired to Kyle of Lochalsh where he passed away in 1950; his widow Mary Flora passed away the following year.

Next month I will round off the year with a “Snapshot” of other ways and means of conveying mail to and from St Kilda.

Fàilte air ais

Recent editions of Am Pàipear have highlighted preparations under way to mark the centenary of the 1920s emigrations on well-known emigrant ships including the SS Marloch and SS Metagama.

Someone who has undertaken her own Hebridean Homecoming ahead of the centenary celebrations is Effie MacEachen of Aird, Benbecula, who has returned to the island of her birth following sixty years of living and working in Canada.

Born in Aird in 1935, Effie entered the nursing profession shortly after leaving school. Following several years of training and working in and around the Glasgow area, Effie chose to spread her wings and emigrate to Canada in the summer of 1962.

That first transatlantic journey was taken on the Cunard liner RMS Carinthia, setting out from Greenock on a journey taking one week to reach Quebec, then on to Montreal. From there, it took another week to reach her destination, the city of North Battleford in west-central Saskatchewan, where she spent two years before moving ninety miles north in the same province, to the small city of Meadow Lake; Indian Reservation country.

Through correspondence from home in Aird, Effie was put in touch with Mary MacCormick, living in the city of Regina and whose family originated from Hacklet. Frequent visits to the Gaelic-speaking Regina household followed, until eventually Effie moved from Meadow Lake to work in the Regina General Hospital.

Following a visit to the “old country” with Mary MacCormick in 1965, Effie decided to remain on this side of the Atlantic, working alongside her older sister Agnes who was in the nursing profession in England.

As time went on, Canada came calling once again and Effie emigrated once more, this time in 1968, to take up nursing duties in a hospital in Pembroke, Ontario, about ninety miles north west of Ottawa.

Effie’s time off would often be spent in the big city of Ottawa and, following some time in Pembroke, an opportunity arose to take up a post in the city’s Grace Maternity Hospital, where she remained for twenty-five years before taking her well-earned retirement.

Now back home from her six decades on the move, Effie is looking forward to the “warm” Hebridean winters in her new abode overlooking the place of her birth.

Remembering those who left and those who stayed behind

The 100th anniversary of the departure of the SS Marloch has inspired the development of a unique memorial, one that’s not specifically for those who died but for those who left.

The Marloch Memorial is being planned for Lochboisdale, South Uist where the journey to the New World began for so many islanders. The April 1923 sailing will be the focus of this memorial but the group behind the project hope it will be the start of a series of projects and a journey to help islanders and emigrants embrace their history and allow generations of suppressed hurt, loss, absence and grief to be recognised. 

 Our islands suffered greatly during the clearances and the economic circumstances created by the landlords at the time also led to people choosing to look across the Atlantic to improve their lives so it is fitting that Stòras Uibhist, the Community owned landlord is involved in taking this project forward. 

Stòras Uibhist Director Donnie Steele said: “We see this as the first stage of a wider project working towards making Lochboisdale a destination; a place for people to remember the clearances and the people that chose or were forced to leave.” 

Mr Steele added: “We want people to come here to reconnect with the families of those who once called this place home.

“The potential of the memorial to attract local, national and international visitors as part of a strategic approach to regenerate our islands is clear and the irony that marking the loss of 300 people, virtually a generation of islanders, could benefit the economy is not lost on the group’’. 

The plans are part of a wider Lochboisdale regeneration plan currently being undertaken by Stòras Uibhist in partnership with the Comhairle and Highlands & Islands Enterprise.

Cllr. Paul Steele, Leader of Comhairle nan Eilean Siar said: “The cultural and natural assets of our islands are second to none and vital to creating a thriving economy. Nothing is more important to that than our people, so this project by the descendants of those who stayed, encouraging the descendants of the people who left to come back to visit or even consider returning to stay, has a nice duality to it, reflecting the movement of so many people 100 years ago” .

“The idea for this project came from work on an artwork trail I was doing with our young people through the South Uist Youth Development Group and coalesced with posts on social media about the Marloch’s upcoming anniversary and the desire to commemorate the people who have left our islands.”

Initial proposals were developed and following discussions with Donald MacDonald, a modern day South Uist emigrant living in New Zealand, the monument began to take shape. Mr MacDonald said: “This memorial is not only for those who left but for those who stayed and kept the home fires burning. It is a celebration of the home as well as a reference to all those who leave Uist. There almost has to be a space where there is an understanding that yes it was ok to leave. The monument represents the physical and emotional journey we’ve been on ever since, capturing the connections between the travellers and the crofter.”

The unveiling of the monument will be one of a series of events and activities being organised by different groups throughout Uist and Barra to mark the anniversary of the Marloch. Those looking for further information, or wishing to assist the project with informations or resources, are asked to contact the project team by emailing:

A glimpse through time with Alasdair MacGillivray

When the contents of the Balivanich School time capsule were exposed to the light of day on 30th September 2022 before the gathered school community and former pupils and staff, I thought that it might be a good time to look back (from the security of retirement!) at the first twenty-five years of the ‘new’ (now ‘old) Balivanich Primary School by the sea.

When we were completing our teacher Training in Aberdeen in the mid-1960s, a saying often heard around the training college was: “While a week, or even a day, can be a very long time in politics, twenty years can be a very short time in the life of a school!” These wise words of caution were obviously given to try and temper our enthusiasm, and probably over-enthusiasm; the suggestion being that a school was akin to a giant oil tanker. If you wish to institute major changes, you need to make very minor adjustments to the course you are steering at a very early stage: major change is for the long haul. The political comment has certainly come home to roost over the last few days and weeks. I think that, though, even in those distant years, school buildings were built to last, but static schools preserved in aspic were on the way out! The new constant from now on would be CHANGE.

Balivanich Primary school was physically opened in April 1972 and officially opened in September 1972. It is believed to have been the only solely primary school built by Inverness County Council in its island areas. I would think that the first twenty-five years in the life of the school witnessed more changes to the school – and probably in the school – than any other period in its relatively short operational life.

The time capsule assembled in 1997 was to mark the anniversary of the first twenty-five years of the ‘new’ school beside the sea. It contained items which we thought would be of interest to pupils in 2022 – a snapshot of school and community life in the late 1990s. How many items one can remember is quite a taxing exercise! A programme of events and activites was drawn up for the whole of 1997 school year- the time capsule is the last of these.

I wonder how many pupils thought that it would be their own children who would be opening the boxes with them. How many members of staff thought that it would be their children or grandchildren who would be assisting in the ‘big reveal’ in September 2022? I must confess that I saw the year 2022 from that 1997 viewpoint as a grey blob in the distant future; it seemed so very far away, and possibly someone of my age daren’t think that they might actually witness its opening!

Balivanich Primary School set out on its path to fuller more modern ICT provision in a very slow and hesitant way: the school was nearly three years old before the local authority thought it would be a good idea to install a telephone; my predecessor had to visit the telephone kiosk in Columba Place if he wished to make urgent telephone calls. This was many years before the introduction of that wonderful institution The School Secretary. The Director of Education had a well-prepared and well-rehearsed defence against requests for additional school expenditure such as this during his regular visits to the school.

Year 1: You can’t have a secretary because you don’t have a typewriter; Year 2: You can’t have a typewriter because you don’t have a secretary. Repeat annually as required!

In 1975 we had a black and white television set to be timetabled for the whole school of about 140 pupils; we had a master radio in the headteacher’s office, piped to all the classrooms, and we had a rather wonderful cassette tape recorder (a really modern invention at the time!) we had won for submitting an entry and winning, to a national slide-tape competition. With the introduction of computers in the early- to mid- eighties our ICT steps began to gallop, so much so that after considerable begging, bargaining and fund-raising, it is safe to say that all within our school were reasonably computer literate and proficient by 1997, when the time capsule was being assembled.
What were the main challenges during these twenty-five years from 1972 to 1997 can be summed up (like the best sermon) with three ‘Ts’: Tides, Tempests and Turnover!

Tides. This part of Aird/ Balivanich was well known for tidal incursions long before the school was built, so it was inevitable that the high tides would continue to visit us, especially if backed up by strong north-westerlies. I’m sure that the good folk of Balivanich and Aird would have warned Inverness County Council of this risk. The school was barely two years old when the tide came in to a depth of 15 cm throughout the building: we had permanent tide marks on all the new furniture to commemorate this event. I can recall the tide lapping at the front door on at least seven occasions and coming into the school at least three times. Canute only had a kingdom to worry about, we had the safety of up to two hundred precious pupils and fifteen very valued members of staff to guard! It was the sea that finally defeated the school as a viable centre for education.

Tempests. During a visit from an executive from CLASP Buildings (the makers of this type of prefabricated structure, very popular with local authorities in the 60s and 70s) the fellow expressed the view that our location was probably the most exposed of any of their buildings throughout the world. I think he was pleasantly surprised that it was still standing, which wasn’t overly-reassuring! (…and 50 years later it’s still standing). It’s not surprising we had a constant battle with the elements. In addition, the flat roof, covered with tar and stone chippings to absorb the sun’s heat(?), ensured that our large armour plate glass windows were constantly being smashed under an avalanche of stones (twenty on one occasion), which also stripped the paintwork off staff cars from time to time. Where the tar cracked, the rain found its way to the classrooms and store cupboards below.

Turnover. As most of our pupils were children of service families (Army and RAF) there was a constant coming and going of pupils throughout the year: it wasn’t exceptional to enrol as many as 80, 90 or more new pupils during one school session and to see just as many leave us during that year – all at different times, after attendances of a few days up to two years on average.

Just before the end of our twenty-five years under the microscope, all this sadly came to a sudden and very abrupt end.In the mid-1990s just in the space of two years, 90 pupils left us not to be replaced, reflecting the developments at the Range and RAF Benbecula. No more would we look forward to drawing some of our pupils from all over the world.

In spite of (or because of) all of the above, I think it fair to say that we all loved working in Balivanich Primary School during 1972 to 1997, and beyond. There is a theory which maintains that the more challenging the conditions within the workplace, the more the staff work and pull together. Many visitors to the school often complimented us on the feeling of welcome, harmony, warmth, care and co-operation, they experienced on entering the school buildings.

The overarching feeling for us throughout these twenty-five years was: what a joy and privilege to share, even in a small way, in the development of all the pupils who passed through our school. We think most of them found it a very positive and happy experience.

Perhaps twenty – even twenty-five – years, is indeed a very short time in the life of a school?

Alasdair MacGillivray Oct 2022

Benbecula’s role, eighty years on

‘Jack Delarue was a very handsome bloke in his dark blue Aussie RAAF uniform. I flew with his crew to Ballykelly [Northern Ireland] in late September 1942 as part of a training exercise. 206 Squadron were “working up” on the mighty B17 Flying Fortress aircraft, which seemed so large and powerful. [The squadron had just converted from the smaller Hudson aircraft]. During the next couple of weeks squadron flying was hampered by atrocious weather. Then on 6th October – tragedy.’

This was Tom Blue from Glasgow, [later Ardrossan], talking to Mike Hughes about some poignant memories of his time at Benbecula during World War Two. Tom was groundcrew, a corporal driver in the RAF, but did get to make occasional flights. Tom dearly loved the island and made a number of return visits with other RAF veterans in the mid and late 1990s.

206 Squadron and later 220 Squadron were operating out of Benbecula as part of RAF Coastal Command. Late 1942 and early 1943 was a desperately worrying time in the war, as merchant navy ships bringing vital supplies to this country were suffering dreadful losses as they were relentlessly being sunk by German U Boats. Coastal Command and Royal Navy convoy escorts were engaged in a tremendous struggle to avoid us losing the war.

‘On October 6th, 6.00am, before dawn, Pilot Officer Jack Delarue and his crew had been given the “all clear” for take-off and they went thundering along the runway, fully fuelled, gunned and depth charged. Roaring halfway down the runway at full throttle, they had to make a sudden violent climb to avoid another aircraft which came into view in the darkness, taxying toward them. Poor Jack and his co-pilot had to pull back on their controls with all their might, in a desperate attempt to avoid the other “Fortress”. They did, merely breaking an aerial. However, they did not have enough power to complete take-off, and after climbing only a few feet, all four engines cut out, and they dived onto the end of the runway, bounced and went careering on to the rocks and finally came to rest some 50 yards into the sea.’

‘Two crewmen located nearer the rear of the fuselage were thrown clear, or managed to scramble from the wreckage, but five brave men were lost. Some bodies were eventually pulled from the mangled Fortress and others were “given up” by the sea over the next couple of weeks. One chap was never found. When daylight broke the huge tail fin stuck out of the water like a stranded whale. About a quarter of the fuselage was above water. I got my tanker, which had a huge metal hawser cable and hook, for rescuing aircraft which became bogged down on grass. Two Royal Navy divers had arrived and I fed my cable to their boat. They rowed out and attached balloons to keep the aircraft from slipping into deeper waters and becoming completely submerged. I watched with tears in my eyes; such a happy bunch of chaps, their lives obliterated at such an early age.’

On that night, exactly eighty years ago, a tremendous commotion followed the sound of the aircraft crashing. Two extremely brave officers, Flight Lieutenant Willis Roxburgh and his co-pilot Flying Officer Johnny Owen rushed to the beach overlooking the site of the horrendous accident. In his haste, in almost total darkness, Roxburgh stumbled in the sand dunes and dislocated a thumb, but he and Owen continued on, stripped off their uniforms and did all they could to swim out to the crash scene to try to rescue their colleagues. Sadly, the extreme cold and incoming tide drove them back to shore. Along with Jack Delarue, those who perished were Sergeants Jaeger [2nd pilot], Robinson, Guppy [RAAF] and Taplin [RAAF]. The survivors were Sergeants Coutts and Hunt, who got ashore in a dingy.

The pilot on the other aircraft involved that night was Bob Cowie. Bob also returned to the island for an RAF reunion in 1995. I recall he cut a forlorn figure at the remembrance service at Nunton cemetery. However Bob became much more relaxed after attending that service, and was adamant he had in fact received a signal from the control tower, that fateful dark night, that he was to proceed onto that runway. He was certain the mistake was not his. After the accident Bob Cowie was actually given the order to take off with his crew at 7.00am on 6th October. No time for stress counselling in those days.

Bob continued operating from Benbecula and sank a U Boat on 27th of October, only three weeks after Jack Delarue was lost. He then sank another in April 1943. Bob Cowie was a most distinguished airman, finishing up with a DFC and the rank of Squadron Leader. Jack Delarue had already given outstanding service while attached to 206 Squadron [from the Royal Australian Air Force]. He might have been considered for an award for his actions on 6th October alone, when he undoubtedly prevented the loss of lives in Bob Cowie’s crew. The fortunes of war.

Willis Roxburgh [a Scotland rugby international] went on to sink a U Boat in March 1943. Johnny Owen amazingly, attacked three U Boats in the one operational ‘sortie’, flying from Benbecula on 11th December 1942. Three days later, on 14th December, he and his valiant crew were lost without trace on another anti-U Boat hunt. In total, B17 Flying Fortresses operating from Benbecula made no fewer than 14 successful attacks sinking or damaging U Boats. A remarkable contribution to victory in the Battle of the Atlantic.

Willis Roxburgh wrote ‘Jack Delarue was a very good pilot and immensely popular on the squadron. I well remember forming up behind the simple gun carriage and slow marching up the hill to the little cemetery. The local RC Padre took the service and he was really excellent. We all retreated to the Officers’ Mess afterwards under his leadership.’

Tom Blue remembered: had come such a long way to help us. I was there when they laid those lads to rest in the small graveyard. I was determined to return one day to Benbecula to pay my respects’. Tom did so, three times, and was so fulsome in his praise of the reception given by islanders the RAF stationed on the island at that point. Sorry to say, I, in turn, lost a great friend when Tom Blue passed away. I miss him a lot. If you are passing Nunton, perhaps visiting a relative’s graveside, why not pause a while, remember these boys who came here during World War Two, some of whom remained. Perhaps you might say a wee thanks for your liberty, and maybe a wee prayer, if you are inclined.

By Mike Hughes, author of: Hebrides at War; Stornoway in WW2; Tiree, War Among the Barley and Brine.

Mike lives in Lanarkshire, is married to Barbara who has strong Hebridean and West Highland connections. He is a father and grandfather, is a retired teacher and has a great love of the Hebrides.
Mike would be delighted to hear from anyone with memories or information relating to the Western Isles during World War Two.