Interconnectors through the Ages

24 08 2014

There has been great rejoicing on the island of late relating to the news that the high speed fibre super optic Broadbayband ‘broader than broadband’ cable is in the process of being laid.
A large crowd gathered at the Braighe recently to watch the cable-laying ship Rene De’cearc start reeling out cable to the Mainland. There was much cheering as the cable was plugged in from the crowd of spectators who had gathered, no doubt eager to upload a clip of wee Shonnie singing at the local Mod to EweChube. However, this was swiftly followed by much booing as it was revealed that the high speed broadband wouldn’t actually be in operation for quite some time and that Auntie Seonag in Paisley would have to wait until 2016 to see Shonnie blasting out a verse of Calum Sgaire.

Some of the locals in that crowd would be aware that there was a touching piece of historical symmetry taking place, as that very part of the Braighe was where the old Telegraph Cable used to come ashore. There had been similar scenes of rejoicing when the first telegram arrived at the Braighe in 1872 and the islanders caught up with world events (such as hearing that the Jacobites had lost at Culloden and that America was no longer a British Colony)

But the telegraph was not the first time technology had been used to connect the Isle of Lewis to the mainland.

The first recorded attempt at connecting with the Mainland took place in the Neolithic Period when a group of cavemen, stranded on the Isle of Lewis following a sudden Ice Age and the subsequent rise in sea level, tried to wave to their companions who had made it safely back to the Mainland. Or at least this is what the Stone Age cave drawings found in Mac an t’ Shronaich’s Cave are thought to depict, or it might just have been some of the graffiti produced by the Manor Gang with some spray paint they nicked from Woolies.
The Outer Hebrides prospered during the Stone Age, due to the islands’ plentiful supply of olacs and the world’s seemingly inexhaustible demand for them. But the advent of the Bronze Age in 2900BC was accompanied by a steep slump in the global rock price, and the islands’ economy nosedived. To attract inward investment, the HIDB (Highlands and Islands Druid Board) decided to invest in the hi-tech communications infrastructure of the day by constructing a high-capacity multi-channel ley line from Stonehenge to the Callanish Stones. The high-speed connector and big tax breaks on offer soon attracted a number of multinational druid firms. Within months they’d set up a large scale human sacrificing plant where the Callanish visitor centre stands today, a curse factory at Breasclete, and a mistletoe packing facility near Garynahine (despite the fact that there was fleek all mistletoe on the island). Naturally all 3 schemes went bust within a year, the foreign druids fleeked off without paying back their HIDB grants and the Callanish Stones fell into disrepair for the next 4000 years or so.

Next, during the brief Roman occupation of Stornoway (see previous MUHOS entries), plans had been put in place to build a connection to Ullapooldinium to transport the high quality spa waters of Loch Mor a’ Stairr to the posh villas of Invernessium. Roman engineers came up with the idea of building a subaquaduct under the Minch over which the pure fresh Lewisian waters would flow gently towards civilisation.

A conventional aqueduct was built from Loch Mor a’ Stairr which carried the waters down to the Briagh. A huge holding pond was dug out in the middle of the Braighe where the spa waters were to be stored prior to making their journey across the Minch. This holding pond is still in existence but of course goes by the name of Loch Branahuie nowadays. To this day, the crystal clear waters of Loch Branahuie are testament to how pure the local Lewisian waters were.
A Roman galley called the Renus Decartus was commissioned to lay the stonework of the subaquaduct. It was loaded up with huge ollacs from the Marybankus Quarry and set sail for Caledonia. Ever few feet, a slave was chucked over the side clutching the ollac, with instructions on where to place the stone. After five years (and several thousand slaves) the subaquaduct was ready. A grand opening ceremony took place on the west side of the Minch featuring the finest of Roman Britain’s nobility. The personal representative of Emperor Calumigula declared the scheme complete and opened the sluice gates. Several hundred gallons of Lewis water flowed out of Loch Branahuie and disappeared down the subaquaduct and into the Minch.

The obvious flaw in the plan was only discovered when the spa waters flowing out at the Ullapoolindium end were found to have a distinctive salty taste.

The next attempt at connecting the islands took place in 550AD and was instigated by St Columba and his monks. Shortly after arriving on Iona and establishing his religious community there, St Columba decided that he needed to spread his message to the rest of the Inner Hebrides and in particular the barbaric and heathen Outer Hebrides. 

He tried sending out monks in wee coracles, but they were all beaten up by rogue Vikings. Instead, St Columba came up with the idea of Cuireamlink. The plan was to build a network of wee chapels on each and every island throughout the Inner and Outer Hebrides. Each island would have its own monk on duty in the chapel. On Sundays, St Columba would stand in the pulpit in Iona and would blast out his sermon.  A monk standing on the beach at Iona would then shout each line of the sermon to another monk on a neighbouring islet.

That monk would in turn shout across to the next island and on to the next eager monk. In this way the Gospel was sent up through the Hebrides until it eventually reached Stornoway. Unfortunately the Sunday sermon didn’t reach Stornoway until the Monday, a fine tradition still kept to this day with the Sunday papers not reaching until Monday. 

After a few weeks of sending the sermon up through the islands, the various Monks began to predict St Columbas sermons and were able to shout the next part of his message across the sea before it had actually reached their wee island. This technique was known as ‘Pre-Sending’ and eventually evolved into present day precenting. 

Next, in the tempestuous years of the early 17th Century, the Fife Adventurers attempted to dispossess the Macleods of Lewis, colonise the island and seize control of its lucrative fisheries. Niall Odhar Macleod and his clansmen retaliated by sinking the ships transporting the colonists’ catches back to the East Coast markets, and flogging their cargoes to the Dutch.  The Fifers decided that the only answer was to “conftruct ane muckle braw pypelyne aneath ye Mynche fur fafe conveyance o’ wur Herrynges awa frae the Teuchters”. The “pypelyne” ran out of their permanently besieged stockade near Zebo’s, past Chicken Head, turned left up the Minch, right at Cape Wrath, right again at Wick and down the East coast to Methil. Once ashore, it continued overland to a massive fish processing plant constructed near Dumfermline, roughly where thon big Amazon warehouse off the M90 is today.  Sgadan were gutted and salted in Stornoway and pumped down the Herrynge Pypelyne. Customers would send their orders by pigeon to Dunfermline where they’d be packed and dispatched by high speed oxcart,with a guaranteed standard delivery time of no more than 24 months, to any destination in the land (Highlands and Islands excepted).  The Fifers’ scheme ran successfully for a year or two until King James VI realised the bleigeards weren’t paying him any tax, and cancelled their royal charter. 

In  1874, local inventor Alexander Graham (from Dell) thought it would be handy to invent some way of communicating with his cousin Alexander Graham Bell. Dell envisioned a device where upon a person could talk in one end, and then through a cunning array of wires, make oneself heard to another person with a similar talking device some distance away. Dell was perhaps somewhat lacking in the scientific skills of his cousin, as was borne out by the failure of his device. Dell had tired out his device over short distances with some success, but felt that he should try it out over the more impressive distance covering the Minch. However, the main flaw seemed to be that the string between the two tin cans got wet, thus rendering Dells instructions to his Ullapool based assistant totally inaudible.

In the 1930’s a few enterprising entrepreneurs tried to establish an electricity connection between the island and the west coast of Scotland. The plan was basically to run an electric cable across the Minch and plug it in to a socket in a house near the coast. The plan would also be more economically feasible if they could find an empty summer house where the owners wouldn’t notice their electricity bills being slightly higher then usual. The shareholders also managed to get a bargain deal on 50,000 Woolies extension leads. A fishing boat was chartered to take the leads over the Minch and once all the cables were connected up, the plug at the mainland end was attached to the wall socket of the house and the switch was pressed. The poor cove who turned on the electric switch was thrown across the living room and out the window, shouting ‘Fleek sakes!’ as he flew past his bemused colleagues. It is now widely accepted that this is where the phrase ‘A flick of the switch’ first originated.

As well as giving the poor cove a good deal of burns, the electrical discharge into the Minch killed most of the fish in the vicinity. The dead fish floating to the surface did help regenerate the Stornoway fishing industry for decades after, as the hundreds of thousands of herring electrocuted in the disaster were able to be shipped off around the world as fried herring