Nostalgia: Public transport in the islands when Bedfords ruled the roads

This 1939 Bedford, owned by John Murdo Morrison of Gravir, is seen in 1949 with driver DJ Morrison, the owner's brother. (Donnie Morrison MBE ' Pairc Historical Society)
This 1939 Bedford, owned by John Murdo Morrison of Gravir, is seen in 1949 with driver DJ Morrison, the owner's brother. (Donnie Morrison MBE ' Pairc Historical Society)

A new book about early bus operators in The Outer Hebrides is sure to be welcomed not only by bus spotters but by those with an interest in local history.

The book: ‘A Fleet History of Pre-War Independent Operators in the Scottish Islands’ does much to fill the gap in the market, even if only 69 of its 250 pages relate to bus activities in Lewis, 11 in Harris and another five in the Uists, Benbecula and Barra.

It is both well researched and illustrated.

Good communication from the crofting communities to Stornoway has, of course, always been vital. From 1924, following the Stornoway Trust initiative, an explosion of ‘township buses’ took to the roads during the rest of that decade - all bound for Stornoway, typically with one return journey per day (Sunday excepted).

Apart from John Mitchell of Stornoway, an entrepreneur who built up a successful bus, parcels and garage business, the other bus operators developed from the crofting townships - usually operating only one or two vehicles - and the small buses themselves carried cloth, animals, hay, goods, timber, mail and people - including workers at Stornoway. There were no cars - the only alternative was by boat.

The all-purpose vehicles were small, normally licensed for between seven and 14 passengers and usually based on goods chassis.

An article, produced by John Murdo Morrison of Gravir on his 40 years of providing a typical bus service, illustrates the challenges that such operators had to face. Sections of his article are reproduced below [by kind permission of Donnie Morrison MBE, the son of John Murdo and chairman of the Pairc Historical Society].

“The road between Balallan and Habost opened in 1926, and in the following year we got a Ford 7-seater bus, which Murdo Alex ran between Gravir and Stornoway. Each village had a gate - there were 11 of them between here and Stornoway.

“I would travel the island with the bus, sometimes overflowing because of communions, weddings, funerals and excursions. I would go to town for a coffin, and take the funeral party to the cemetery. At weddings I would go round the villages bringing people. I would take the bride-to-be to town and her ring. She could get a ring for three shillings out of McGillvary’s shop.

The world changed dramatically during these 40 years.

“There were no gritters or salt lorries in those days and it was difficult to negotiate roads in snow. I put chains round the wheels to make it easier, but even then it was very dangerous driving.”

A staggering 114 licensed operators ran bus services into Stornoway in 1932. Although this figure had reduced to 63 in 1939 the number was still unsustainable and, after the War, many of these grouped together (Galson-Stornoway Motor Services and Lochs Motor Transport being two of these and who still trade today), whilst others were taken over or just stopped altogether.

By about 1950 just a handful of bus companies remained, ending a fascinating period in the history of transport in Lewis. Full details of all these operators (company history and vehicles - including postwar activities) are included in the publication.

Copies of the book (£16) can be obtained from the Baltic Bookshop, Roderick Smith Ltd, 8-10 Cromwell Street, Stornoway, HS1 2DA (telephone 01851-702082) or direct from the publisher - The PSV Circle, Unit GK, Leroy House, 436 Essex Road, London N1 3QP (or its website www.psv-circle.org.uk).