A very spe­cial Highland post­man

The Oban Times - - NEWS - Iain Thorn­ber iain.thorn­ber@bt­in­ter­net.com

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.

To­day’s Locha­line to Fish­nish mail ferry.

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