Letters  from the Past
"Quarrying for Skerryvore Lighthouse, Scotland 1839"


This letter was written from Easdale, dated 27th Sept 1839, addressed to Lau Davidson Esqr, W.S. 43 N. Castle Street, Edinbr. (Fig.1)  It has five clear postal markings.


1) Good two line OBAN PENNY POST. In Haldane’s book “Three centuries of Scottish Posts”, he notes that  one of the earliest places outside the immediate neighbourhood of Edinburgh or Glasgow to get a Penny Post service was the small community of Easdale, ten miles south of Oban.  Here an application in 1824 led to the establishment of a post runner to take mail to and from Oban on a penny post basis, the local people guaranteeing the Post Office against loss  —   a guarantee which in fact proved unnecessary.  The establishment of a penny post for Easdale was no doubt at least partially due to the important slate quarries at that time in active operation.

2) Good framed 3 line OBAN SE 28 1839 date stamp in black .
3)  Manuscript charge mark ‘11’.  This is for a distance of between 170 and 230 miles,  but working on the usual system of the distance each town is from London,   the distance works out at only 108, as Oban is  504 from London, and Edinburgh is 306. In that case, it should only have cost 9d.  However, on Haldane’s map which shows the actual route for the letter,  I make it about 160 miles, which cost 10d. It was a circuitous journey, beginning with a footpost to Oban, then gigs or rides to Glasgow, then mailcoach to Edinburgh.  With the addition of the Penny Post charge that is the 11d.
4) Additional ½d mark was applied in Oban. This is a type IIIB which is a boxed ½, 19x12mm in black ink recorded in use from 11-6-1838 to 8-11-1839.
5) Edinburgh arrival circular date stamp SEP C 29 M 1839 in red. 
It also has an intact red wax seal with the initials J.R. The letter was opened very carefully, and cut around the seal.
            So now to the letter. (Fig.2)  It is a very short one, but is one of those which has fascinating references.  It was written by James Robertson of Easdale. Iain McDougall, chairman of the Easdale Island Folk Museum, kindly checked on this man and advised me that in the 1841 census he was listed as a factor on the estate.

letter contents

“Easdale 27th Sept 1839
Dear Sir,
I have just heard that during my absence at Barra, Mr Stevenson Junr, Engineer Edin. was up Loch Feochan inspecting Eallanewtis Quarry, and that he also visited ours at Barnacarry — His object was to see if good stones could be got for the Light House now building at Skerryvore — I am sure the Barnacarry quarry would afford the best stones to be got for the purpose and it might therefore be well if you could see Mr Stevenson and ascertain if he would be inclined to deal with us — as the Marquis is anxious to get a market for the stone.
I remain,
yours very truly,
James Robertson.”
The interesting sidelines to this letter are the references to Mr Stevenson Junior, the Skerryvore lighthouse, and the Marquis.The latter would be the Earl of Breadalbane, who wrote a good many letters to the Postmaster General of the time, Francis Freeling, requesting more frequent mail services for his part of Scotland.
The ‘Mr Stevenson Junior’ is  Alan 1807-1865, civil engineer, eldest son of Robert Stevenson,  and uncle of Robert Louis Stevenson the author of ‘Kidnapped’  ‘Treasure Island’ etc.  Alan was educated to enter the church, but decided to follow his father's profession, and became a pupil in his father's office, at the same time gaining experience in practical engineering. After entering into partnership with his father, he was engaged in general engineering practice, especially in connection with marine works, such as piers, harbours, etc. He was also engaged on work for the Scottish lighthouse board, and in 1843 succeeded his father as engineer to the commissioners. He designed and carried out work on  ten lighthouses, including Skerryvore lighthouse tower, the finest example for mass, combined with elegance of outline, of any extant rock tower.
            The National Lighthouse Board has a marvellous website http://www.nlb.org.uk/history/skerryvore.htm which gives the full story of the building of the lighthouse, including this picture (Fig.3) – (the helipad would have been built later!) which begins with these details :-
Skerryvore Lighthouse, the name of which is derived from the Gaelic words "Sgeir" meaning the rock and "mhor" ("mh" is pronounced "v") meaning big, marks a very extensive and treacherous reef of rocks lying in the sea off the Hebrides some 10 or 11 miles south west of Tiree. It was built of granite quarried on the Island of Mull during the six years from 1838 to 1844, to the design of Alan Stevenson, Engineer and constitutes an outstanding example of lighthouse engineering. The beautiful symmetry of the outline of the tower, the proportions of which are a height of 156ft with diameter of 42ft at the base tapering to 16ft at the top, ranks it amongst the most graceful of all lighthouse towers; it is even asserted by some that Skerryvore is the worlds most graceful lighthouse. It is 48 metres tall and has 151 steps to the top.


Skerryvore lightbouse

My further research revealed details of the building: the ‘solid’ or monolithic part extends to 26 ft. above the rock, the cubic contents are double the entire contents of Smeaton's Eddystone tower. The walls, as they spring from the solid, are 9¼ ft. in thickness, gradually diminishing to 2 ft. The interior is divided into ten floors, including the light-room, each 12 ft. in diameter. The optical apparatus is dioptric revolving, the most complete which had been constructed up to that time; the height of the eight central lenses was extended to 3 ft. 3 in. and, instead of Fresnel silvered mirrors below the lenses, Stevenson designed prismatic rings, which were introduced for the first time in this apparatus.
            Easdale has a community website and I contacted Jess Hill and her reply was from the village shop
Thank you so much for the email. We are always delighted to receive information like this. The island community trust 'Eilean Eisdeal' has recently bought the museum so its future is now more secure. I will forward your email on to the manager and also to one of the directors, whose family goes back for generations here.

We would be very pleased to receive a scanned copy of the letter. Barnacarry is not far from here just at the entrance to Loch Feochan. 

Iain McDougall, one of the trust directors, whose family has had continuous connection with the island since 1730, also advised me that the only quarry on Barnacarry that appears on the maps is one where mill stones were quarried but  millstone grit would not be suitable for a lighthouse. The records show that the stone for the lighthouse was actually quarried on the Isle of  Mull.

The great thing about collecting postal history is that each item is different. In all the years I have been collecting I have seldom found any item which did not have something of interest – either the postal markings, or the contents of the letter.  In this case, it had both, which was a bonus.

Acknowledgements:- Encyclopaedia Brittannica; Dictionary of National Biography; Haldane ‘Three Centuries of Scottish Posts’;  Hodgson & Sedgewick  ‘Scottish Additional ½d  Mail Tax 1813-1839’;  Robertson’s ‘Great Britain Post Roads Post Towns and Postal Rates 1635-1839’.

This article was first published in Stamp News the Australian monthly magazine.

Copyright By EARS Leisurewrite

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