When we found and copied the 1937 architects drawings of the old herring station buildings, we were intrigued at the annotation in the southernmost compartment of the red herring building  as  ‘Tank…..5’deep’  This tank appeared to fill the entire compartment. Could this have been so? What would a tank have been for?  We had to work on the belief that the architect was drawing what he was seeing, not what was being proposed for Commander Vyner’s mill. It does seem from the mill proposal plans that this compartment was not going to be used.

If a tank was part of the herring curing process, there are two possibilities. The Yarmouth method of smoking involved the herring being put into a brine  for a few days, while on the Isle of Man the herring were laid on the floor and salted, this salt would then have to be washed off before smoking. So this tank could have contained fresh water or brine, depending on which process Woodhouse used.

Right at the end of term, on an uncomfortably hot day, we had the pleasure of the services of a group of Ullapool High School pupils. We set about exposing the footings of the demolished red herring building

We opened a trench 1m wide which would run into the compartment where the tank is supposed to have been. Sure enough, we went down and down….
Until we couldn’t get any deeper. The whole compartment seemed to be filled with demolished rubble and lime mortar, and many of the stones were too large to remove. We stopped at about 1m below what would have been floor level, but if this tank was really 5′ deep, there was still a way to go. Some other time. As the architect’s plan showed, the tank filled the compartment almost entirely, with only a 200mm wide shelf. there was certainly no room for anyone to have walked around the edge unless there was some form of wooden walkway. Could they really have been brining or washing herring in this?

Then barely a week later, we received some black and white  photos from the Mutch family, dating to about 1962.
In the photo on the right, the pale line running back from the middle bottom is the shelf round the tank, with the demolished internal wall to the right and the tank to the left. Surprisingly, the tank is not filled entirely with demolition rubble. In the photo on the left you can make out the head of Mr Mutch. Is he standing upright? Why are the steps going up if the tank is going down?

More on that Railway

Information is coming in faster than I can write it up. Since the iLand Festival we received a great series of photos, and some cine film dating to about 1962. The photos show not only the railway pretty much as it is in the 1940s below, but also the pier where the Penola came alongside to load and unload. Not the best quality photos but still…

The photo on the left also shows the remains of the old stone pier in the foreground, before it was rebuilt and  lowered . This was the pier where large sloops would come in to collect the barrels of red herring, taking them on the first stage of their journey which could be all the way to the West Indies.


It’s well known that Commander Vyner’s flour mill had a narrow gauge railway running down to the rocks where the Penola could come in to load and offload. The photo below, from the 1940s, shows the flour mill workers standing in front of the railway where it was raised on concrete pillars to cross the bay

When the mill closed down, the wagons were tipped into the sea. Lost forever? No, just this weekend  (iLand festival May 2018) Noel Hawkins and his band of snorkellers found the iron frames of the bogies lying on the sea bed near the pontoon (thanks, Noel for these photos)
What is on the bogies is not one of the mill wagons, but, John Mcintyre has told me, the ‘floating’ oil tank that was used to bring fuel for the generators and heating to the island.

It would be towed to Ardmair left on the beach to be filled and then they towed it back to the island, put on the track and hauled to the top of the beach. The oil was emptied into drums and rolled to the generator shed and croft house. That makes sense of the rails being placed at the south end of the beach, but the whole system now seems like an environmental disaster waiting to happen

Julia Ridgman converted the tank to a duck house (poor ducks!) That’s where John found it rusting and cut it up.

The rails are still there, and the bogie, lying upside down below the high tide line and very rusted.

The Quarries

We were over on the island recording archaeological features along the shore, and got as far as the area where we knew there were large piles of tailings (waste stone) from the quarrying. Our priority was to find the actual stone outcrops which had been quarried in the 1860s-70s and again at the beginning of the 20th century. It turns out we were looking for something a but too grand. The rock faces which were being worked were all quite small and very close to the shore, in fact some were probably below the high tide line.

In the first photo, this is bedrock, about half a metre above the ground, with three holes drilled in a row so the stone could be split using plug and feather. Some of the rocks are drilled vertically and some horizontally. The second photo shows a rejected block down on the shore, with two drill holes in the edge above the compass. We selected a similar one to bring back to the museum. It’s impossible to tell now what volume of rock was removed from the shoreline, but it left us wondering how they got the blocks out to the ships where there is no obvious safe place to bring a boat in to shore.


 This isn’t at all an unusual building stone on the mainland, but it really stands out among the gneiss buildings of Lewis. So it was immediately obvious that the Stornoway post office, which is just over the road from the Martin’s Memorial Church, is built of the same stone, as are the halls to the rear of the Martin’s Memorial Church, added in 1893.


Stornoway Post Office, built 1907-1912.

The CANMORE entry for the post office states that it is faced with Lochbroom sandstone, but I haven’t been able to link it directly to Isle Martin. Were there any other sandstone quarries in the parish operating in close proximity to where Stornoway boats would have been picking up a cargo?

Seaview update

We had been wondering how the rather grand croft house improvements were paid for by the Stewart family. Jackie tells me that when Alexander Stewart left the island to emigrate to New Zealand, he first spent some time in London and made an incredible amount of money trading on the stock exchange! Not bad for an island fisherman.


This is a photo of Jackie Wright, the granddaughter of John Stewart, standing in front of the family home on Isle Martin during her visit to the island on 9th September 2017. The house is quite ruinous now and it’s hard to recognise immediately that this is the same house in the photograph on the left, below dating to the early 1920s , with Roddy and Barbara Stewart standing by the door.

In the photo on the right the same house can be seen behind the central mast of the Penola, its white harled walls shining quite bright, but clearly roofless by 1940. This is not a house which has been allowed to collapse naturally, it looks like all the roofing slates and the internal timbers have been deliberately robbed. Presumably the roofing slates ended up on the roof of the mill.

Jackie told us that the house was the first to have piped water, and a flush toilet! We were wondering how all these improvements had been paid for. By 1900 nearly all the croft houses had been improved with financial assistance from the landowner, with fireplaces and flues in the gables replacing the old way of having the fire on the floor in the middle of the room, timber for A frames replacing the old roof couples and corrugated iron sheets replacing thatch. The Croft House is a typical example of these improvements. But ‘Seaview’ went much further, with its internal plumbing and superior slate roof. Did the water get piped all the way from the lochan? We’ll have to go and see if there are any 1920s era cast iron pipes up there.

John Stewart’s older brother, Alex, was the first of the family to go to New Zealand. He worked as a drover and never married. Jackie thinks it’s quite likely that he sent the greater part of his wages home to Scotland, and that this could have paid for the improvements to the house.

While we were looking at the house, I noticed for the first time that a number of the dressed stones still have the drill socket from where the stone was split during quarrying. There are a few on the Macrae house too. I guess they were using plug and feathers to split the stone, and hope when the vegetation has died down to find the working face of the quarry. So far I’ve only found the tailings down by the shore.

Five Red Herrings

Curing red herrings: what did it involve? How do we interpret the buildings that are left? Where are the buildings?

1. Isle Martin

In 1775 John Woodhouse spent £3,000 (about £190,000 in modern money) on buildings on Isle Martin, the most important of which would have been the red herring curing house. Although not used for curing herring for over a hundred years, it was still a substantial ruin in 1938 when Commander Clare Vyner decided to convert it into his flour mill. Architects plans of the surviving ruin show a building 137 ft long by 31 ft 4″ wide, (41.75m x 9.5m) divided by internal stone partition walls into eight compartments, each with a doorway and window on each side. The southernmost compartment is shown as being entirely filled by a ‘tank’, shown as an uncoloured space on the plan below.


As the herring needed to be kept in salt for about three days, then washed, before smoking, we are assuming that the tank either held salt or water. the herring would then have been hung on rails, filling one compartment at a time, so there could be up to seven stages of smoking taking place. The process could take about three weeks if the herring was for the British market, and longer if it was for export.

2. Lochinver

In the same year as Woodhouse was developing the curing station at Isle Martin, his colleague and fellow merchant from the Isle of Man, John Joseph Bacon, was building an almost identical business at Culag, Lochinver, in partnership with a local man, Donald Ross. They spent £2000, but by 1795 had transferred the lease and buildings to other ‘adventurers’. The whole fishing station is now under the Culag Hotel.


This is the only image I’ve managed to find of the Culag fishing station, from a William Daniell print of about 1820. Again, there is a tall building with multiple windows, towering above the lower buildings facing it across the enclosed courtyard. This view is remarkably similar to the photograph of Tanera, below.

3. Tanera Mor

In 1784 one Roderick Morrison, a ‘sober pushing man’ and ‘man of extensive mercantile talents’ set up a curing station on Tanera, with five houses for smoking red herring as well as warehouses for salt, casks, nets, etc.

This photo of the Tanera fishing station was taken by Frank Fraser Darling in 1938. He describes, in ‘Island Farm’, a ‘continuous block of three-storeyed buildings 38 yards long and 6 yards wide’. Darling thought that this taller range was accommodation, while the lower range on the other side of the courtyard was the factory. This theory is possibly backed up by the evidence that the lower range was divided into five compartments, possibly corresponding to the five houses. However, in 2007 the North of Scotland Archaeology Society carried out a measured survey of the buildings, much depleted by Darling’s ‘making safe’ and concluded that the taller buildings were the curing house, with just four smoking compartments attached to the manager’s house. If you carry on reading and get to ‘On Bricks’ below, you’ll be very interested to find that Darling uncovered a brick floor .

4. Ullapool

In May 1788 Robert Melville undertook to build a smoking house for red herring at the newly established fishing settlement at Ullapool, at a cost of £290. Sadly for historical research, almost no photographs survive of the building before its conversion at the end of the 1970s, and none that I know of, of its internal layout. But maybe someone still living in the village will remember what it looked like inside?

5. On Red Herrings

Well, there isn’t actually a number 5, so the title of this piece was itself a red herring. If you’re wondering why a red herring has come to mean something misleading, it’s because they were so strong smelling they could be used to set a false trail. And if you’re wondering how to make a red herring interesting to eat, there are a lot of Caribbean recipes online, not surprising as so many of the red herring went to feed slaves on the West Indies plantations.  I guess the slaves developed ways of making them palatable, and these recipes have survived as the local cuisine.

On Bricks

Look what has appeared, after some serious clearing out of vegetation. This view is looking south towards the MacLeod House and the New School in the background. It’s boat-shaped and set into the bank. It was probably some sort of fishing gear store, with a boat roof, it’s very neatly made with traces of a door frame. What is remarkable is the brick floor:

This photo is looking down onto the brick floor in the southern half of the structure.

When you start looking, there are a lot of bricks on Isle Martin. The long-drop toilet just to the south of this boat-shaped structure, probably also some sort of store originally, also has a brick floor, as does the building behind the mill house. There are bricks strewn along the beach. Most of them are pretty rubbish bricks, poorly fired and badly formed, with massive inclusions of pebbles. these ones have no maker’s name and are probably quite old

Look around the old buildings of Ullapool and elsewhere on the West Coast. See any bricks? They just weren’t used as a building material except  by wealthy landowners who imported them, so you occasionally find walled gardens and glass houses using bricks. Otherwise, it’s not until the First World War, when there was a huge need for materials to build the coastal defenses and military accommodation, and again during the second World War (lots of structures around Loch Ewe and Durness) that bricks were manufactured and imported in huge numbers. These bricks are all stamped with the maker’s name. I found two bricks with the manufacturer’s stamp, on the beach:

The manufacturer is P&M Hurll Ltd, of Garnqueen Fireclay Works, Glenboig, Lanarkshire. They traded between 1887 and 1980. My guess is that these particular bricks arrived on the island in the 1940s.

As for the other, poorly made bricks, there is a reference to the sloop Gilmerton, sailing for Isle Martin in 1787 with a mixed cargo of skilled craftsmen and materials for the building of the fishing station and village in Ullapool. The cargo included 8,000 bricks and tiles and another shipload of these was dispatched at the same time from Aberdeen. I wonder how many of these bricks got no further than Isle Martin. It is also possible that bricks came up as back cargo from Glasgow in the ships which transported the red herring from the island to the markets.