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by David H Murdoch

15th November 1974

In the 1920's it was the responsibility of the WTS (Wireless Telegraphy Section of the British Post Office) to provide a communication service when the Islands in the Western Hebrides were cut off from the mainland arising from the failure of the normal telegraph system. These failures usually occurred during the early part of winter, and was attributed to the cutting of the submarine telegraph cable by trawlers fishing in this area. The duration of these breaks often extended until the folowing months of May or June when one of the GPO (General Post office) Cableships, "Alert" or "Monarch", woudl call in the area to repair the cable and restore the normal telegraph service.

I was fortunate to be sent on long periods of detached duty to three of the islands; namely Scarnish (Isle of Tiree), Castlebay (Isle of Barra) and Lochboisdale (South Uist), and these experiences are amongst the most vivid and happiest memories of my days in the WTS.

The radio equipment for Tiree and Barra was stored in the Engineering department, Oban, and then transported to the island as soon as a cable interruption was reported. A member of the Radio Branch, Engineering Departemnt from the London headquarters proceeded to the island and was responsible for the installation of the equipment before handing over to the Radio Operator.

At Scarnish (Tiree) the equipment was housed in a disused Crofter's cottage with walls about six feet thick, earthen floor, two small windows, and close to the only hotel on the island. Two temporary aerial masts, about sixty feet in height, were erected and a suitable lead-in brought into the side of the house. The transmitter was a 500 watt Rotary Gap unit, powered by a petrol engine generator set, and the receiver consisted of a typical ED base-board valve detector and 2 LF amplifiers fed by dry batteries. All communications were effected through Malinhead Radio (GMH) and the procedure adopted was a calling system every hour, commencing at 9am each day and finally closing the station at 6pm. The telegraph traffic amounted to an average weekly number of 20 messages and were delivered to the local post office by a messenger boy.

The Radio Station was situated close to a large common ground of sandy soil which was used by the Crofters for their small herds of cattle. One of my earliest visitors was the local island policeman (PC John Glenday) and we soon discovered that we were both keen golfers. In consequence of this, and within a very short time, we had planned and laid down a 7-hole Pitch and Putt Golf course with suitable greens and with three of the holes extending about 120 yards from tee to green. When the golf course was completed, this was the procedure we carried out whenever suitable weather conditions permitted us to play. As soon as the 9 am sked to GMH was over we would set off to play round the course which, being planned in a semi-circular fashion, could be accomplished in about 50 minutes. Then when the second traffic call to GMH at 10 am had been completed a further round of golf would be possible if no other station duties were required. On of our visitors was Col. Somerville of the Radio Branch and, after giving his his first lessons in the art of golf, I was agreeably pleased to learn from him several years later that he had become a real golfing enthusiast.

Two interesting characters with whom I became acquainted shortly after my first spell of duty there were a Mr Jack MacEwan (of Edinburgh) and Commander James Dewar RN (of Perth), both members of large brewing family concerns on the mainland. They were known among the local inhabitants as 'remittance' men, and had apparently been exiled to live on Tiree under strict family conditions. Both of them were very charming, well-educated companions, and appeared to be quite reconciled to their exile style of life. The reason why Tiree had been selected for their stay was that the Duke of Argyll, owner of the island, would not allow any establishment to hold an excise licence. However, despite this prohibition, the inhabitants on the island were able to obtain wholesale supplies of spirits etc. from Oban by conveyance on the weekly Mail Steamer. This facility was taken advantage of every few weeks by one or orther of my two friends to obtain their supplies, and then they would disappear entirely from the social scene for a few days until the consigment was consumed.

The commander was greatly interested in the early days of broadcasting and I was able to help him erect an impressive aerial system and suitable receiving equipment (the first on the island) which became a source of much interest to the other inhabitants.

Throughout the long winter evenings, and particularly when it was moonlit, this was the time when the social life on the island gave one a real insight into the traditional Highland welcome of kindness and generosity. After walking many miles along quiet roads to some Crofter's house, it was the custom to gather around the peat fire for a 'Ceilidh' or gathering consisting of Gaelic folk songs, story telling, music and resfreshments.

Looking back on those days makes me think they were amongst the happiest of my days in the WTS, and after spending 5 or 6 months in the Hebrides it was with some regret that one returned to the different way of life on the mainland and the routine duties at a coast station.

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