Nostalgia - Recalling the Islands’ early knights of the road

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First there was horse, then came horsepower. As an island community life wasn’t all about boats and cross terrain transport brought its own excitement.

For many a year the horse and gig was the only transport for hire but the internal combustion engine brought a new phenomenon, the motorised carriage.

In the mid-20th century, the Stornoway Gazette carried the recollections of that era by WH Macdonald, of Lewis Street, Stornoway.

Describing himself as ‘Old Timer’ Mr Macdonald was able to provide a first hand, personal account of the sights during the period of transition from hoof to engine.

“Like many young’ boys reared in Stornoway at the early part of this century, I was imbued with the spirit of adventure coupled with what is known today as wanderlust.

This being the case I would often leave my native stamping ground in Lewis Street and wander down to Bayhead, which was a natural thing for me to do as my forebears lived there and their business was in hiring and horses.

This was an added assurance of further adventure and also de­noted travel to the further­most parts of the Island even if it was only by “slow gig to Islivig.”

What a hive of industry the Bayhead Stables were in those days, long since passed!

There were many horses to be fed and groomed, harnesses to be cleaned and polished, brakes and gigs to be got ready for the various hires to the country districts.

Amidst all this activity were the jokes and badinage of the drivers and stable boys and the pranks they played on each other.

The following items may help some of you to recall a few of the “old-timers’’ in the equine business.

Down at yonder stables

At the top of

Ceann-a- bhaigh,

Where Henderson once hired out his nags,

From Bayhead to the “Braigh,”

You’d find the finest bunch of wags

That you could hope to meet,

The toughest, bravest lot of men that sat

on Jehu’s seat.

Among those men we re­member well was ‘Tolas’. A good man with the horses, he also had a natural bent for mimicry and on one occas­ion was so realistic with his “Cock-a-doodle-do” that the boss sent other drivers scur­rying out to the oat bins to chase the intruding cockerel away!

‘Eoropie’ was a great groom and with his graip and broom could always be relied on to keep the stables clean and tidy.

‘Dol Dhu’ was the doyen of the driving fraternity. I can recall him decked out in his hard white “choker”, his plumed hat jauntily set on his head, when his fare was an important personage or some opulent citizen.

‘Dr Muckerich’ handled all the heavier horses in this equestrian business and I remember being privileged to sit beside him on the box of the lorry, all my frontal view being obliterated by the Pecheron’s hind-quarters, as we ambled down to the quay.

From his natural habitat at Garynahine there came a driver whose sobriquet was ‘Ball of Shine’. He is best remembered as quite a speedster and if modern radar-traps had been extant in those days he would have been a sure candidate for a booking!

To finalise on the foibles of these gay cavaliers we mustn’t forget Freddie Welch’. He was often the butt of the others due to the impediment in his speech and the way, when talking, he was wont to belch. Despite this, Freddie always had the best turnout with his harness shining like burnished gold.

We in Lewis today owe a great debt to those brave and intrepid ‘Knights of the Road’, who, in all kinds of weather in open gigs and brakes maintained communication between Stornoway and all other parts of the Island.

Their motto was, to parody a late war directive, “The mails and passengers must get through.”

As time progressed horse transport was ousted by the advent of the motor car, and I well remember the arrival of the ‘Metallurgique’.

This was a veritable juggernaut with an enormous gear-lever operated on the external side of the body and could do a “ton- up” of around 10 miles an hour! Quite a nifty turn of speed for those pioneering days of motoring.

The first chauffeur to drive the “Met” was Bob Scott who came across from Inverness.

When later, a Daimler and an Albion were added to the fleet, Johnny and Andrew Henderson who received their instruction down South took charge of their respective cars.

While out riding in those cars women passengers often tied their hats down by means of a veil and men passengers often wore goggles.

Could this have been for effect or on account of the excessive speed?