By Ashley Taylor,
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WHAT is literally a cradle-to-the-grave transport service for a sparse population scattered over a huge area in the north of Scotland is provided by the Sutherland Transport and Trading Co., Ltd. This is an organization that forms part of the near-patriarchal administration set up by the late Duke of Westminster's estates. The principal objective behind the whole scheme was the prevention of further depopulation of that part of the Highlands.
The Sutherland company's operations cover not only haulage and passenger transport, but also the supply of ambulances _and hearses. In addition, they are concerned in other activities connected with the motor trade. Their predecessors laid not only the foundations of the transport system in those parts, but can well claim to have built many of the highways in the area.
This story may be regarded as starting in 1829, although it was not until nearly 50 years• later that the present road transport system began. From 1878 to the present day its history has been continuous. The business was completely converted to motor operation as long ago as 1906 and the first public garage in the county of Sutherland was opened a few years later by the proprietors at that time. Only during the past five years, however, have these transport interests been fused with the Westminster Estates organization.
Exceptionally difficult operating conditions distinguish the activities of the passenger fleet, for the services are run almost exclusively on single-track roads where each passing " loop " is marked by a post surmounted with a white diamond. Here one must wait if a vehicle is seen approaching in the opposite direction. When I was in the district recently a few miles of these con ditions inspired one woman passenger from West Africa to remark to me: "Whoever would have thought there'd be anything so absolutely bush' in Britain?"
To provide the background for this story one must go back over a century and a quarter. In 1829 the great Sutherland family purchased an enormous area of what is now known as the Reay Forest estate in the far north of Scotland. Among the principal points encompassed by this acquisition were Tongue, Durness and Eddrachillis Bay, and the cost was £300,000—a staggering sum in the transactions of those days.
The family may be said to have opened up the "interior," for they immediately set to work to build a series of roads which ran them into a total cost of nearly £40,000. As a result of these efforts it was possible to start running mail vans between such places as Inchnadamph and Kyleshu, between Kylestrome and Scourie, and between Scourie, Rhiconich and Durness. It is over these roads that the Sutherland organization provides a busy service.
The last of the major road-making projects was from Lairg to Laxford Bridge, a link which was completed in 1851, when Earl Grosvenor and Lord Wenlock were the first passengers to traverse it. The Earl Grosvenor in question was a nephew of the Duke of Sutherland and the following year was to become the Duke's son-in-law. He became the first Duke of Westminster in 1874.
Thirty-eight 'miles of road from Lairg to Laxford Bridge cost £7,000 to build. The road, with its extension to Durness, is stilt very much in the news. Of recent times this stretch of highway has suffered from the stress of relatively abnormal traffic and, in view of the low yield of a penny rate in Sutherland, meetings have been held between the Ministry of Transport, the Air Ministry and the North of Scotland Hydro-Electric Board to secure contributions to the cost of reinstatement which, even on a modest basis, is likely to amount to about £70,000.
Reay Forest area covers approximately 100,000 acres. This is the sort of district from which men are readily drawn into urban work, but the Westminster Estates engage in a variety of activities which retain the interest of the people and keep the lifeblood coursing through the territory.
Progress in Afforestation
Fishing, of which more will be heard later, has been stimulated at the old port of Kinlochbervie, whilst afforestation schemes are progressing well and will ultimately cover 2,600 acres. The men working on forestry are, in the main, crofters and their sons from neighbouring parishes, an important feature being that their afforestation and drainage work coincides with what are normally slack periods on the crofts.
As the Sutherland family saw in the beginning, the land would be barren and unattractive without transport, and for over three-quarters of a century the organization that is now known as the Sutherland Transport and Trading Co., Ltd., have played their part in that sphere. In 1878 Messrs. Gray and Murray set up in business at Lairg, their activities including the carrying of mails by horsed coach to Tongue, Scourie and Lochinver. Stables for the horses were provided at Overscaig, Achfarry and Altnaharra. These buildings still stand, whilst the stable at Lairg forms part of the premises at present occupied.
As early as 1905 the first motor was acquired for mail transport and at the same time the firm assumed the title of a coaching company. The following year the business was sold out to Messrs. Wallace's, Oban, who disposed of the horses and invested in a complete motor fleet. About that time they also started the first garage in the county and adopted the title of the "Sutherland Motor Co." for this section of their enterprises.
As today, much of the fleet was devoted to mixed traffic. In 1910, Sutherland's were operating a dozen motor wagonettes, each of which accommodated five passengers who, there being little protection from the elements, had every opportunity of enjoying the fine fresh air of those parts.The vehicles were fitted with platforms for carrying such varied loads as mail, calves and lobsters. They normally ran out of Lairg one day and returned the next, the Lairg-Laxford Bridge run then occupying four hours, as compared with 1 hours today.
Wagonettes Used Until 1928
Among employees still on the payroll is a driver who was with the company in 1919. He recalls that resourcefulness in dealing with the motors, and a robustness to enable the individual to endure exposure to the elements, were essential qualifications for the outside staff of those days. Almost anything might happen on the road and tradition has it that drivers refused to leave Lairg without the reassurance of a full hip flask. The wagonettes were employed until 1928, when the first fully covered vehicles made their appearance in north-west Sutherland.
The motor spares business was entered in 1920, when the company became the Sutherland Transport and Trading Co. The first specifically goods vehicle, a Lancia 3-tonner, was acquired in 1927. Three other vehicles—Albions and Lanchesters—followed about seven years later. Further units were acquired during the years that preceded the 1939-45 war and the fleet consisted of 11 buses and seven lorries when taken over by the Duke of Westminster's Estates in 1951.
The fleet at Lairg now consists of a dozen buses and 16 goods vehicles, together with extra service vehicles. Working under A licences are two 15-ton Leylands, a 12-ton Leyland, two 7-ton A.E.C. Monarchs, a Bedford 10-ton articulated vehicle and a 7-ton Bedford. The B-licence fleet includes seven tippers.
On the passenger side there are two A.E.C. machines, a Crossley, two Bedfords, three Albions, two Leylands and two Austins. Seven of the buses have mail compartments at the rear, leaving seating capacities varying from nine to 18. The remaining passenger vehicles each accommodate between 30 and 40 passengers.
A variety of influences, mostly not unconnected with the past war, contributed to the rather mixed nature of the fleet, but concentration on products of the Leyland and Bedford factories appears probable for the future.
A few months before the Sutherland fleet was purchased, the late Duke of Westminster's Estates bought a transport fleet from Mr. J. Macleod, who then had four B licences, with authorization to offer occasional facilities to Glasgow. This system now operates under the name of Pulford Estates, Ltd.
Four Buses and 13 Lorries
The Pulford section runs four buses—a Leyland, two Bedfords and an Austin—and 13 lorries—a 7-ton A.E.C., an Albion Chieftain, eight Dodges and three Austins. The business is one which provides a story in itself. Hearing something of it when considering a licence application in March, 1954, Mr. Alex Robertson, Scottish Deputy Licensing Authority, congratulated the villagers of Kinlochbervie on the progress they had made, for, starting in 1948 with four or five boats, they had built up a resident fleet of 25 for the little port. During the 1953-54 season 300,000 stone of white fish, plus herrings, were landed.
Kinlochbervie is on the sea-loch of Loch Inchard, a dozen or so miles south of Cape Wrath, and a century ago was a relatively busy place. But, virtually cut off from the markets, the little fishing port fell into disuse and was only reopened seven years back after a lapse of nearly three-quarters of a century. The white fish and herring sates business in this remote corner of Scotland was purchased by the Duke of Westminster in 1951. With it went this local transport fleet already mentioned. Linked with the Sutherland organization, it provided a fife-line to the market at Aberdeen. The big vehicles employed on the main fish service perform two round trips a week, giving a total of roughly 50,000 miles a year. The first 60 miles of the journey eastward is practically entirely by single(rack highway.
The other lorries of the Pulford fleet are chiefly engaged on fish haulage and council work on the roads. The buses are mainly emp.oyed in taking forestry and drainage workers to and from their jobs, and transporting the local children to the various schools.
The bus services of the Sutherland fleet cover an extensive route mileage all over the north-west of Scotland, carrying patsenurc and large quantities of mail. As the mail train leaves the station at Lairg, the Sutherland bus backs across the tracks and stands against the platform ready to receive bags for distribution over a wide area. A glance at the bus time-table shows how the vehicles on many of the routes work into Lairg in the morning and return with the mail in the afternoon—just as was done when motors were first employed by the company's predecessors.
Once " Southern Territory"
Many of the names along the routes are reminiscent of those Norsemen who regarded what is now Scotland as southern territory and therefore called the area the Sutherland. From Durness on the north coast the route comes in by way of Gualin, Rhiconich, Sgireha and Laxford. That from Batchreick comes through Oldshore More, Kinlochbervie, Badcall, Inshegra and Achriesgill. From Lochinver the route lies through Inchnadamph, Altnacealgach, Oykell and Rosehall.
The run from Lairg to Laxford, which is common to a number of the routes, is by way of Achnanerain, Shinness, Fiag and Overscaig. Services to Bonar Bridge are run through Rosehall and Invershin, also by Shin Falls and Invershin. From Bettyhill the road takes in Navcrbridge, Dalcharn and Rhitongue, and then Tongue, Inchkinloch, Altnaharra, Crask and Rhian. A further service is operated between Lairg, Rogart and Golspie.
Running over almost uninhabited areas to serve remote villages, the buses are expensive to operate and it is not surprising to discover that fares work out at an average of 2d. a mile, and sometimes even 3d.
Although the company were some time ago authorized to discontinue the issue of returns, there has been no increase in single fares for over 20 years. How low is the passenger potential can be gleaned from a survey of the pnoulation served along each route. On the way to Lairg Ststion the figure is 962, to Gol.snie 2383, Bonar Bride 1,722, Shinness 97, Scourie 788, Durness 813, Kinlochbervie 400, Bettyhill and Tongue 2,193. and Lochinver 889. During 1953-54, 219,032 miles were run and 37,964 passengers were carried. The following year the mileage figure was 216,824, whilst the numbers carried rose to 40,571. In most cases the buses are operated by driverconductors, the necessary dispensation having been received from the Licensing Authority. However, two conductresses are employed, they being mainly engaged on special services where large numbers of school children are carried.
Something has already been said regarding the heavy outward loads of fish moved by the goods fleet. Timber, sheep, cattle, seed potatoes and general goods are also transported, whilst on the return the loads are largely feeding stuffs, fertilizers, flour, sugar and lime. Although the vehicles operate principally in the north of Scotland, on many occasions working extends down to a line running roughly between Aberystwyth and Harwich.
Provision for Livestock Periodically, particularly when the sheep have to be moved down from high ground, large numbers of livestock are carried. For this purpose the company hold seven transferable containers, including two of threc-. decker design that will each accommodate 300 sheep.
In addition to the activities already mentioned, the Sutherland organization is, by contract, responsible for the ambulance services over an area covering Lairg, Durness, Lochinver, Kinlochbervie and Scourie. A Hillman ambulance, for sitting cases, and two Morris ambulances, for stretcher cases, are held at Lairg on behalf of the Scottish ambulance authorities. Drivers are supplied by contract from the Sutherland staff on a 24-hour roster basis. They receive instructions by telephone from doctors or from the matron at the nearest hospital at Ciolspie, and must be ready to make anything up to a 140-mile round trip at any hour of the day or night. A final service that the Sutherland organization provides takes the form of a Humber hearse.