Port Ellen must originally have been a fishing community whose inhabitants worked the land round about. One can imagine little cottages dotted on the shore just barely above the high-water mark, like those that used to be on South Side, once popularly called ” Greenland,” and probably built by the occupants themselves. There they would live rent and tax-free. Later Ramsay of Kildalton, at his father’s instigation, made a road and sea wall round the village, which changed the situation. The little houses were now well beyond the limits of the tax-free area. A rent of £5 per year was levied, which allowed the tenant to have a vote, some at first refusing to pay. The houses would then, probably, be improved by the landlord. The village was originally known as Leodamus, the bay still retaining that name. The name is not easy to explain. It is said to be of Norse extraction, meaning Leod’s Moss, or it could be a corruption of two Gaelic words – lebig – a runnel, and camus – a bay, i.e. the Bay of the Runnel. The present village was deliberately planned, probably about 1821 and certainly before 1836, by Walter F. Campbell, the father of John F. Campbell (fain Og Ile). The purpose was to create urban areas by draining people from the scattered town-ships spread over the fertile areas, and getting them to live in the village instead. It was then that the village became known as Port Eleanor, after Lady Eleanor Campbell. It was later corrupted to Port Ellen.
The system of land holding at that time was very interesting. The land was in the hands of Tacksmen who let it out to sub-tenants. There would be ten sub-tenants for every £4 of the Tacksman’s rent, and for every 50/- of farmers’ rents, so that on a £30 tack of land there would be about 70 persons. These sub-tenants would pay as much as from £3 to £4 for a turf hovel and a few “run-rig” strips of land, and they had also to work at peats or harvest. It would seem, though they were so poor, that they wished their children to be educated, for they sent them to school at 3/-to 4/- a quarter–and they all had Bibles! This sub-tenancy system accounts for the great numbers of people living in places, which are now derelict, or one-family farmers. The houses, which were land-leased to the people, were two-storeyed. They opened out on to the back roads, where byres were built for the cattle, which were taken in at night from the surrounding fields where they grazed. The byres are still there, but today only one of them is used for its original purpose. The houses were slated with slate from Islay. Some of it came from the quarry at Carraig Fhada (near the Lighthouse), but this was found to be too soft, and so slate from Kilchiaran had to be used.
This building ‘ boom ‘ in Port Ellen, while it was the result of a deliberate experiment in town planning, is said to have been connected with the property qualification of voters. Before you could vote, you had to have a two-storeyed house. The list of the 66 people who were the practical founders of Port Ellen makes very interesting reading, but it would take too much time here to go into details about it. The name Campbell predominates. There were McDougalls, McNabs. McCuaigs, McMillans, Sinclairs, and many other names still known locally. They came from the country round about, and included in the list are the names of many small townships long since forgotten, e.g. Tigh-an-droma, Tosabus, Baileneill, Tigh-carmigan. Some even came from the other side of the island. The trades of these people were equally interesting – shoemakers, tailors, masons, weavers, spinners, millers, cartwright’s and even seamen.
One small community would have several craftsmen of different trades. While most of the houses were taken up, many were left unfinished until 1888-89, when the last of the Charlotte Street houses were roofed. Incidentally, the first house was built as a store by the laird, and the first house to be occupied was taken by a Neil McMillan. I was under the impression that a Mr Allan McDougall first ” raised smoke” in a house in Frederick Crescent, now occupied by a Miss Carmichael. The son of this Allan McDougall still occupied the old home and followed his father’s trade as a joiner and cartwright within living memory it was still rented from the heirs of the family from Tigh-an-droma, who had originally built the house on land leased from Campbell of Shawfield.
By 1836 Port Ellen was a showy village, with paved streets and handsome, two-storey houses, built of stone and mortar, and slated. These houses were said to equal those of the county clergy. In 1847 a pier was built and part of what we now call Pier Road had to be filled in to make the road to the pier. Before this there was just a wharf, which can still be recognised below the War Memorial. An old painting in the hands of Mrs Freda Ramsay shows this wharf, with several schooners in the bay. At one time several families in the village owned schooners, which sailed to Largs for cargoes. I still remember the names of some of these ships through hearing stories about them in childhood. The Isabella, the Christina, the Progress, the Mary Jane and the Texa were well known. A schooner called the William Berry, which was owned by my grandfather, carried the granite, which was incorporated in the building of Port Ellen School. Later she foundered on the Oa. The Texa was still in existence well into the present century. Incidentally, a sailing ship from Tarbert, the ‘ Margaret Wotherspoon’, used to come in with salt within my memory. This ship must have been very old, because each time it anchored in the bay it caused concern and commotion by threatening to sink – which it ultimately did, somewhere else!
Walter F. Campbell put through an Act of Parliament to make Port Ellen a haven of refuge for ships. Steam came, and the Act was cancelled. The building of the stone pier was a great inducement to people to settle in the village. Shops were opened and hotels were built, including The Steamer Tavern, better known to locals as ” An Inn Ur”. The site of this building is at present occupied by the premises of Mr John McNab. The steamer itself, after which the tavern was named, was the ‘Islay’, and her two namesakes were locally known and managed.
Port Ellen now became a beachhead of some importance. In the Stent Book of Islay will be found the accounts of the distribution of mails and the runners who carried them. For this area the Receiving House was at Lagavulin until 1836, when the Islay Parliament decided that it should be removed to Port Ellen, now a new village, as being more centrally situated. This was done between 1836 and 1838, and the first postmaster was a Mr McKerral. The mails were taken by packet to Tarbert, there being no steamer service at that time. In 1849 John Ramsay of Kildalton built and operated the first “Islay”, mainly for the convenience of Port Ellen and other distilleries in the parish. The steamer also carried mails and on certain days she sailed to and from Portrush. After she had gone aground on a reef at the entrance to Port Ellen harbour, there were two other steamers of the same name. The first foundered on Rathlin and the second perished like the original ‘Islay’ at the entrance to Port Ellen harbour.
In 1876 David Hutcheson & Co. (afterwards David McBrayne) took over Ramsay’s services, and the call to Portrush was discontinued. In 1879 a daily service was inaugurated. In 1915 the Post Office inaugurated a mail bus service between Port Ellen and Port Askaig, and this was subsequently extended to the rest of the island.
The year 1948 saw a wonderful innovation in the introduction of the air service, formerly run by Scottish Aviation and now by British European Airways. The first landing place was at Duich but now there is a fine Air Terminal at Glenegedale, with a refreshment lounge where tea, coffee and soft drinks can be obtained, and a shop where books, newspapers, sweets, souvenirs, etc., can be had. The Air Ambulance Service has undoubtedly saved the lives of many people by getting them quickly to the mainland for treatment, and the Air Mail service ensures early delivery of mails.
Port Ellen at one time had four churches. The “Free” Church held a commanding position overlooking the village, and is now used by McBrayne’s as a garage and repair shop for their buses. Built in 1845, it went out of use about 1911, its last minister being the Rev. David Munro. St. John’s Church is rather an unusual one, and a very interesting building. The idea of erecting it came from the Rev. James MacKinnon, for many years the much respected minister of the parish. The foundation stone was laid in 1897 and the church was opened for worship in December 1898, free of debt. The design was based on a church at Laggan in Northern France, and the architect was Mr Sydney Mitchell. The beautiful stained glass window in St. John’s Church was put there in memory of the above Mr MacKinnon, and was subscribed for by his many friends and parishioners, both in and outwith Islay.
The United Free Church and the Baptist Church were built about the same time. The foundation stone of the Baptist Church was laid by Miss Lucy Ramsay of Kildalton, and the church was opened in 1910. The first minister was Rev. Mr Lippiatt. After the union of the churches the United Free Church eventually became redundant. At present it is used as a centre for the activities of the church and youth organisations, and as a recreation centre.
The present school at Port Ellen is said to have been built in 1866. Before that there were dame’s schools here and there, and two gentlemen – a Mr Ross and a Mr McAlpine – are also mentioned as running schools at different times. There seems to be some ambiguity, however, as to when the present school was built. An old school log book refers in July 1875 to an Inspector’s Report on the bad sanitation of and around the school, blaming this for a virulent fever raging in the vicinity and causing the deaths of many children, and advising the managers to have the school removed elsewhere. On 20th September 1877, it was noted that “the school is now in new and excellent premises erected by the School Board.”
Mr McAlpine held school at Laphroaig, probably in what is now known as Bleak House. He was a relation of Neil McAlpine of Gaelic Dictionary fame, and Mr Ross was the first head master of the new Port Ellen School. There was a school too in a house in the row beyond St. John’s Church. When the house was undergoing improvements, a slate belonging to my father was found with his name carved on it. The lettering was as fresh as if it had been done yesterday. Another school was held in a house at the end of Charlotte Street. By 1821 Port Ellen had its own “legal” distillery, owned by D. McKay. This was taken over in 1836 by John Ramsay, a pioneer of the whisky trade to America. The first spirit-safe was used in Port Ellen and was in use for several years before the idea was adopted by H.M. Customs and Excise. The earliest duty-free warehouse in the United Kingdom is still in use at Port Ellen. The Distillers Company Limited is spending £400,000 on the improvement of the distillery, which is now being re-opened after a long closure. The re-opening will be a great boom to the village.
A News and Reading Room was inaugurated on April 1st, 1859. This developed into a Library and became a Literary Society. Directors were appointed to collect books from “Brown’s Corner to McDougall’s house.” There was also a Port Ellen Sacred Harmony class, which attended the services in the Reading Room, and agreed to sing tunes and anthems at soirees and socials. These soirees were held in the distillery loft, and sometimes as many as 600 people attended. On one particular occasion the programme contained five serious lectures and fifteen songs.
The schoolrooms of Miss Shaw, Miss Russell and Mr McAlpine were used as suitable places for lectures. Candles were used for lighting, but in 1869 a “Diamond Lamp ” was bought. It is recorded that the lecture on 3rd January 1868 was not so well attended because of fever in the locality of the school. In 1869 dancing commenced at 10 p.m. and was kept up till about 12 p.m. when all dispersed peaceably to their homes. It is interesting to note that 37 periodicals, magazines and newspapers, many of them now no longer published, were taken up by the society. The choice and range were very wide. Apart from papers like the Glasgow Herald, The Scotsman, and, of course, The Oban Times, there were religious publications, Chambers’ Encyclopaedia, building and agricultural magazines and Irish papers. There was even a New York Journal.
Much later, on 2nd November 1908, a Literary and Debating Society was started. This Society usually met in the school, though they held functions in the public hall. They had debates and lectures on a wide variety of subjects, including such topics as “Woman’s Suffrage,” “Socialism,” “Emigration v. Home Colonisation,” and more humorous ones like “Should Bachelors be Taxed?” The last recorded meeting was held on 14th March 1917.
In spite of all the assets of Port Ellen, the sanitation was very bad, and this was blamed for a very severe outbreak of throat infections (fever and scarletina) among the children, which continued for a very considerable time from 1874 onwards. Many children died as a result. “The school log book,” comments one inspector, ” reads more like an obituary column than a log book.” This was remedied in 1877 when the school moved into fine new premises, the present school in Port Ellen.
Most houses had their own well in their back garden, but almost all of these have been covered over, and today there is little indication as to their position. Many were fine wells of beautiful clear water, better than the supply in the village today. They were very deep, so had steps leading down into them. A very fine one under the road beside the old U.F. Church was uncovered when the prefabricated houses were being erected. Two others are behind Charlotte Street and one on the Back Road in what used to be a field. A not very big one, still uncovered, is in a corner of the White Hart Hotel garden and on the South Side there is a very big one, which is still in use. Many wayside wells can still be seen. At one time a Mr John McDougall supplied these with very fine metal drinking spoons. It was a delight, after a long, hot walk on a sunny day, to take a drink of fresh water from these spoons. The water always seemed so cool and refreshing. The spoons, however, have long since disappeared, probably removed by souvenir hunters. The last to remain was chained to the well at the lighthouse and it may still be there. They were all suitably inscribed.