Morvern Lines: a very special Highland postman

T20-Todays-Lochaline-Fishnish-Mail-Ferry

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With the cost of sending a letter, let alone a parcel, by Royal Mail these days, it cannot be long before this famous service disappears altogether.

Despite their usefulness at times, Facebook and Twitter haven’t helped. Who and whatever eventually replaces our postmen and women, who are the eyes and ears of our remote and rural communities, their demise will alter a way of life forever.

Believe it or not, there are still many folk living alone in the Highlands and Islands who look forward to the arrival of a hand-delivered message and rely on the social contact.

In the long history of mail deliveries in Argyll, few posties were as conscientious about maintaining the ambitious standards set by the great British Post Office for the area as Hector Currie, Lochaline, who could claim to have walked 112,000 miles in the course of his duty.

In the 1840s, the Mull and Morvern mail came from Oban, as it does today. Instead of leaving Oban and arriving in Craignure, it went via Kerrera to Grasspoint and then to Fishnish. After being sorted, letters, for there were few parcels in those days, were returned to the mail bag which was duly sealed and ferried across the Sound to Lochaline in the mail boat to the post office at Kiel, where Samuel Cameron added to his duties of schoolmaster, session clerk, precentor, catechist and elder those of the local postmaster.

At that time mail came just once a week. Although the population of Morvern numbered almost 2,000 – today it is less than 400 – letters were few and only delivered as opportunity offered. Post haste, claimed the parish minister, was unknown in these parts; the poste restante being much more common.

Hector Currie’s duties with the Post Office began in 1837 when, at the age of 19, he and his brother Gillean, took charge of the Lochaline mail ferry. For the next 25 years or so the brothers sailed backwards and forwards over the unpredictable Sound in their open boat, summer and winter, without any loss of life or their precious cargo. They were a popular sight and always ready to oblige.

Dr John Maclachlan, the celebrated Gaelic bard of Rahoy, was a frequent passenger when attending to his patients on Mull and beyond, and wrote a song praising Hector’s boatmanship and friendly nature (translation): ‘Seaman of surpassing skill, when the sky is being torn asunder, a fierce sea roaring and heaving up in great masses. From your early days you were highly esteemed in the place, for the way in which you would so safely steer a boat to land. You would not refuse to ferry a timid woman or a destitute man. I hope that prosperity and blessing may attend you as long as you live.’

With the opening of the Highland railway to Kingussie in 1860, Fort William, instead of Oban, became the head post office for Morvern, which meant the withdrawal of the Sound of Mull mail ferry boat. This created a good deal of disappointment in Morvern, so much so, that a petition was raised but it was unsuccessful and Hector, much against his wishes, had to exchange the tiller for a shoulder bag.

Donald Mackinnon, another Morvern bard, penned a very fine song sympathising with Hector in his new role in which he wrote: ‘In the evening I heard a report and I am sure that it is true; that the Lochaline packet had been drawn up on the land. It is contrary to nature for you to have a bag on your back, and that the steersman of the boat should take to the glen. I am sure you would prefer spray from the crests of the waves than to travel through bog land carrying a heavy bag.’

When this new arrangement started, the Morvern mail was routed from Fort William via the Corran ferry. It was then carried to Inversanda by the Strontian mail cart where it was passed on to Archibald Maclachlan. He carried it between there and Kingairloch where he arrived each alternate day at 4am.

Hector’s role in all this was rural mail messenger, which saw him walking the 16 miles to and from Kingairloch with the outgoing and incoming mail each alternate days in the week.

One of Hector’s unofficial duties was to cut the Kingairloch minister’s hair for which he always got a large dram. On one occasion, when the measure was less than usual, probably on account of the manse supplies, the minster asked his friend why he was looking so thoughtful. ‘Well, minister,’ came the reply, ‘I was just thinking how nice it would be if you had two heads.’ The hint was taken and the glass recharged.

Hector retired in 1881 after 44 years’ service and was given a purse of gold sovereigns from his friends and a private pension from Thomas Valentine Smith of Ardtornish – a great Morvern benefactor in the days before state pensions.

Hector died in 1906 and is buried with his family in Kiel, overlooking his beloved Sound of Mull.

Iain Thornber

iain.thornber@btinternet.com