The village of Bowmore, almost situated in the centre of Islay, was at one time the largest and most important village in the island. It had all the best shops and most of the island bread was made by the three bakers in the village, to be sent out daily by horse-drawn van to all parts of the island. Messrs Alex Currie & Son, who were well known for bread making, used to employ six or seven bakers and apprentices. The third generation of the family has the business now and at one time there were also three generations of the Logan family working together for this firm. The baker’s working day used to begin at 4.30 a.m. and it was all done by hand. All kinds of loaves were made and also tea-bread and cakes. Now only Messrs Currie makes bread (which is brown), and also tea bread and cakes. Other varieties of bread are brought by steamer from the Mainland.
Before the last war most people, especially in the outlying districts, baked scones and pancakes and oatcakes two or three times a week. Flour was bought by the hundredweight and the oatmeal was obtained from oats grown on crofts and farms, and ground into meal at the only meal mill on the island, at Bridgend. Now in spite of modern cookers and all other modern appliances, home baking is a lost art.
Bowmore, situated as it is on Lochindaal, had at one time very good fishing and Lochindaal flounders were very much appreciated. There used to be five boats, sometimes more, fishing regularly, and each had three or four of a crew. The fishermen dug the bait while the tide was out, then baited their lines and when the tide was suitable went down the loch to fish. They returned most evenings with a good catch of flounders, cod, haddock and whiting. The fish was put out on the pier and each member of the crew got an equal share, while the owner got a share for the boat in addition to his own share. To show that there was no favouritism in allotting the shares, small articles were collected such as a piece of string, a nail, an empty matchbox and a pebble, and each fisherman picked out whichever article he pleased. These were then given to an outsider to place on the different shares. If a fisherman picked the nail, his share was the one the nail was thrown on. Each man then took the fish home for sale and at that time a shilling’s-worth of fish made a substantial meal for four or five people, and what a flavour! Now-a-days fish doesn’t taste the same. Most of what we get comes from the mainland.
Fishermen were very superstitious. There were certain people they preferred not to meet when on their way to fish and they used to say that if “Old Chisholm” (a large white seal) followed the boat they would not have a good fishing.
In the autumn, shoals of herring used to come into the loch and an old bellman called Shawfield went round the village announcing that there were herring at the corner-6d for twenty.
At the beginning of the century Bowmore was bounded by the school on the west side and High Street on the south. There were only houses on the south side of High Street as the gardens belonging to the Shore Street houses were on the other side. Outside the village past Hawthorn Lane were Bank House, The Highlands, Springfield and Kilarrow Manse. Now, in 1966, new houses extend from Hawthorn Lane to Springfield and also along the north side of High Street. The old houses were all built of stone and lime. The new houses are all brick.
The school was modernized in 1964 and is now one of the most modern schools in the county. There are 20 classrooms, one headmaster and nineteen teachers. All subjects up to Fourth Year are taught, including typewriting and bookkeeping. Before the school was built, the Church was responsible for education in Bowmore and the Free Church had the school. The last headmaster was a Mr MacBean, an eminent Latin and Greek scholar. At that time parents had to pay Id per week for each child and also provide peats for the fire. Scholars went to school each day carrying peats. There was also a small private school, which I think may have been an Established Church School held in the first house on the right-hand side coming down from the Round Church.
In those days there was no paraffin. Lights were obtained from cruskeens and later there were candles. Dr. Blair, one of Bowmore’s famous scholars, tells how his mother used to hold the candle for him to do his lessons.
Many good scholars were sent out by Bowmore School but most of them seem to have found their vocation in the ministry. The Rev. Dr. John McGilchrist and the present Dr. Donald Caskie are two who did well. Professor Alistair Currie, at present in Aberdeen, was also educated at Bowmore and has gained great credit for his work in medicine. All these have paid tribute to the grounding they got at Bowmore School.
The outstanding building in Bowmore, and one which is quite unique, is the Round Church, which stands at the top of Main Street and looks out to the pier and across the loch. There is a beautiful view from the church steps. Designed by a French architect, the church was built round so that there would be no corner for the devil to hide in. It is of stone and lime, and quite a number of local builders worked at the building of it in 1767.
One enters by seven steps and inside to the left are the stairs leading up to the vestry, and the bell rope. As was customary in early days there are vaults belonging to the landlords. Another door leads into the church, with a gallery running round three sides. I can remember when the seats downstairs and quite a number upstairs were occupied every Sunday. People then were interested in religion and always attended church. There were three services each Sunday – Gaelic at 11.30, English at 1 p.m. and an evening service at 6.30, with good attendances at all services. There used to be a very good well-balanced male and female choir. The Gaelic service always had a Precentor – all men who loved Gaelic and honoured God.
There was always a well-attended Sunday School and though Gaelic was not taught in school at that time, one of the elders- Mr. Murdoch MacTaggart – taught his class to read the Bible in Gaelic.
When the church was first built, feuers and farmers and all interested bought seats in the church and so helped church funds. There is a story that if the church is full to its utmost capacity, it will collapse. But there is not much chance of that in these times!
At the beginning of the century there were four churches in Bowmore; the Round Church, the Free Church in High Street (its members, I believe, carted the stones and built it themselves), the Baptist Church in Jamieson Street and the Episcopal Church in Shore Street. All had quite good attendances. The Episcopal church has been closed for ten years. Members worship at the Red Church in Bridgend. Now there are only two churches, the Round Church and the Baptist Church, and only a very small attendance at each. When the last Free Church minister died about thirty years ago the Established and the Free Church joined, so now we have only the Round Church.
At the beginning of the century the first water supply was brought into the village from Ballytarsin. That did give work to a number of people. Pumps were installed in each street and householders could get their own supply installed. Before then houses all depended on springs for water – each house having its own well and what beautiful clear water it was. Now, in 1966, a new supply is being brought from Torra.
In 1900 transport was by horse and cart or trap but most people walked. I remember hearing of stone masons walking from Bowmore to Port Ellen to be ready to start work at 7 a.m. These men had no mechanical devices, and worked till 6 p.m. with only a break for lunch. There were no tea breaks in those days.
Mails were conveyed by horse and trap from the Mail Boat each evening to the various villages and letters were delivered the same evening. The cargo boat called once a week at Port Ellen, Port Askaig and Bruichladdich. There was not enough water for the boat to get in at Bowmore Pier, so a lighter went out to meet her in the loch and brought the goods to the pier. These were then delivered by horse-drawn lorry to the shops.
Nowadays we have not only motor transport, but air transport too, yet one does not get service as in the old days. Before Labour Exchanges were thought of, labour, male and female, was hired at the Feeing Markets held in Bowmore in November and in Bridgend in May. At that time workers were all engaged for six months. Horse markets were also held in Bowmore in February, August and November. Hundreds of horses attracted the drovers to the August Market especially, and as children we joyfully watched the horses being put through their paces up and down the street. We also used to watch how many ” fairings ” the girls got from their boy friends. At that time ” conversations ” were the favourites, costing 1 / per lb. Some girls would have a dozen packets.
Another attraction at the August Market was carts from Portnahaven, twenty miles away, with bundles of large-sized cod and ling fish – sold in bundles of 12, cod at 6 /- and ling at 8/- per bundle. These were bought and stored for winter when fresh fish could not be obtained. Most delightful they were. Dried saith was also sold, at 6d for 20.
Crofting and fishing were the main industries in Bowmore. The distillery had changed hands several times and at the beginning of the century it worked only occasionally and employed only a few men. The present owners, Sherriff’s Bowmore Distillery Co., work most of the year and give regular employment to twenty men.
With crofts and farms being mechanized, very few horses are to be seen and also fewer men. And since artificial fertilizers are in general use for crops, gone are the days when in late Autumn horses and carts used to be on the foreshore gathering sea-wrack for manure heaps and making sure there was sufficient manure for crops. It used to be that when a man took a croft or farm he agreed in his lease to carry on the stated rotation of crops. Nowadays that system is no longer carried out and so the land is all the poorer.
At present in Bowmore there is plenty of work as new housing schemes are being built. Already 120 houses have been built, and more are to be erected. A new water supply, the renovation of bridges and work on the distilleries is also giving employment to very many men. Once these projects are finished, work will be scarce and something will have to be done for Bowmore.
War as a rule does not benefit the ordinary man and woman, but Bowmore inhabitants and, in fact, all Islay benefited from the last war. A very handsome pier was built at Bowmore for the benefit of Coastal Command, a Squadron being stationed in Lochindaal and an R.A.F. Squadron in Bowmore, Glenegidale, and other parts of Islay. The pier was built so that barges could come in to discharge petrol etc. A pipeline for petrol was laid from the pier to large tanks at the back of the church and also to Glenegidale. While the R.A.F. were here they kept the pier free from sand by dredging regularly, so that barges got in easily with supplies.
The R.A.F. also built a small powerhouse near the school to supply electricity for their camps. After the war the North of Scotland Hydro-Electric Board bought the powerhouse and since then have built a new one at Bunanuisge, which supplies the whole of Islay with electricity. Last year-1965, we were joined by cable to the mainland but with our gales the powerhouse at Bowmore is still the sure supply. Eight men are employed regularly there and six or eight others on the maintenance side.
Among the first new houses built were four Swedish houses by the Hydro Board. Since then over a hundred new ones have been built by Argyll County Council and there are also eight houses for lighthouse keepers and their families.
Main Street, Bowmore, is listed by the Scottish Development Department as of special architectural merit and no alterations or building can be done without their consent. It certainly is an unusual street, whether viewed from the harbour at one end or from the Round Church at the other – a long straight street, rising from the harbour to the church on top of the hill.
Bowmore in the olden days was a kind of fort. On the hill at the back of the school was a tower from which a lookout was kept for ships entering Lochindaal and if any foreign ships were sighted, guns were fired to prevent them reaching the Laird’s house at Bridgend. According to an old legend, the “Bloody Yankee “, a pirate ship, was sunk by gunfire from Bowmore Battery.
Before the low road between Port Ellen and Bowmore was made, the only way between the villages was down past Island House and along the Big Strand. Farmers etc. attending the markets at Bowmore took their horse and cart or rode along the Big Strand.
There was an old legend that a black horse used to gallop along the Strand at night and was an omen of disaster to those who saw it. Nobody could properly describe the apparition so it was probably the result of too many drams at the market.
The low road to Port Ellen was cut through the peat moss and is a credit to the makers, for considerable foundation and building up was entailed to get a firm basis. There is approximately seven miles of straight road between Bowmore and Port Ellen.
Since 1940 Islay has been fortunate in having an Air Ambulance Service, which is of great benefit to the islanders and has saved many lives as in most cases of serious illness sea travel would be fatal. The Air Terminal is at Glenegidale, five miles from Bowmore. This we also owe to the R.A.F. but since their time it has been much improved and at present is undergoing major repairs.
The old people used to be great believers in herbs. In the springtime a tonic was made from bog bean found in the peat moors. This was boiled with water, strained, sugar added and bottled. A glassful, taken in the morning, gave added iron to the blood.
Nettle soup was supposed to be good for cleaning the blood. When the nettles started growing in the spring they were cut young, well scalded in boiling water, chopped up finely and added to soup.
Carrageen, a moss found growing on the rocks, was gathered in the autumn, well cleaned, bleached, dried and stored. It was used to make milk puddings and was especially suitable for patients suffering from stomach trouble.
Gaelic as a spoken language is dying. In Bowmore at present there are about 110 who converse in Gaelic. The language is taught in school, that is, reading and writing, but none of the scholars will answer if addressed in Gaelic.
With most people having television, pictures in the Public Hall, and dances several times a week, the young are well catered for. Gone are the days when people had to make their own amusement and the highlight of the winter evenings was Ceilidhs in each other’s houses – each one present singing or telling a story. But what pleasure it gave! There used to be an excellent Dramatic Society in Bowmore before and after the First World War. Plays such as Rob Roy, Gilderoy, Colleen Bawn, etc., were some of the productions I remember. Bowmore School, when Mr Bryce was headmaster, put on an operetta each year – Aladdin, and such like. What work the teachers had, and the pupils, but how we all enjoyed it!
Weaving in Bowmore has not been done much since the beginning of the century. At one time we had a most excellent large-loom weaver in High Street, a Mr Grieve who came from Pitlochry, and what excellent tweed he turned out! One or two people did spinning at home, and quite a number of schoolgirls helped with the singing and waulking.
First Footing used to be a great occasion, though in isolated hamlets “Sceann Nollaig ” (old New Year) was more adhered to. This had to be held on a Tuesday (usually the 12th), or on the Friday following. The First Foot had to be a dark-haired person to ensure good luck and had to bring something into the house to ensure plenty for the New Year. An old custom that has died out is the holding of the Fast Day (a Thursday). The school and all shops were closed and the day was usually referred to as “wee Sunday.” That was the day when people attended the Preparatory Service before Communion Sunday. When the United Free Church was functioning they also used to have a Service on Saturday before Communion and on Monday afterwards.
When transport to funerals was by horse and cart, and friends all walked to the cemetery, refreshments were always given at the house before the start of the journey, whisky, biscuits and cheese, and sometimes halfway and always in the cemetery. A member of the bereaved family always gave invitations to a funeral personally. Nowadays a Public Notice is put up and as motor transport is available no refreshments are given.
Peat cutting used to be done by all households and it was always a great occasion. Several people at adjoining peat-banks joined together for their meal-breaks. Kettles were boiled over a peat fire and no tea ever tasted as good as tea in the moss.
During the first week of the Glasgow Fair holidays sports were held at Kilmeny on Monday, in Bowmore on Tuesday, Port Ellen on Wednesday and Port Charlotte on Friday, all well supported. Regattas were held at Bowmore and Port Ellen and these always caused great excitement. But after the last war the Games got little support and now only Port Ellen has Games at the Fair.