THE HEBRIDEAN CABLE TRANSIT COMPANY.
The HCTC is one of my collaborations with Philippa Thomas, and is a series of narrative artworks involving installation, restoration, multi-speaker soundscape and literary fragments. The first exhibition ran during the winter of 2016/2017 in An Lanntair, Stornoway, and the second is currently open in Taigh Chearsabhagh on the Isle of North Uist until July 29th.
For info on the latest news and exhibitions, please visit the HCTC WEBSITE. For a brief primer on the story of the HCTC, read on...
The Hebridean Cable Transit Company (known locally as the “Slighe-Sìoman”, or “Straw-Rope Highway”), was the brainchild of Hugh Morrison, a civil engineer and public works contractor originally from the Lochs area.
Thinking that his native island was under threat from economic migration to the cities, Morrison sought to transform it by connecting outlying and hard to reach communities with a modern and sustainable mode of transport. Roads on the island were slow and treacherous, and people and goods at that point went from place to place with difficulty and at great expense. “The lands between Stornoway and Tarbert, and between Stornoway and Barvas,” wrote Morrison in a letter to the Gazette, “are among the worst imaginable for road building, taking into account the subsiding ground, the sudden steep inclines, the constant interruption by lochs and streams, the weather, the deer… If ever a vehicle was driven in defiance of God’s will,” he continued, “It was across the Barvas moor.”
His solution - designed with assistance from a colleague in Nörsjo in Sweden, and backed by a group of councillors and philanthropists - was a cable-car: at that time the longest cable transit system in the world. Running from Barvas to Stornoway, and on down Lewis’s east coast to Tarbert, the project was visionary and controversial, but Morrison was well known for triumphing with a combination of enthusiasm and high rhetoric, even where he lacked expertise. At the opening ceremony of the HCTC’s first phase in 1948 he announced: “It's all a question of extrapolation, innovation and imagination. What could be better than traversing treacherous swirling rivers or scaling the Clisham with the fresh air on your face and the sound of cogs and chains churning in your ears”.
The Slighe Sìoman ran from 1948 to 1961, transforming Lewis's industries, society and way of life and formed part of a progressive vision of Stornoway's role in post-war geopolitics.
Concept art from the planning stages of the HCTC, circa 1946
During the Slighe Sìoman's heyday in the mid 1950s, the system even expanded into the sound of Harris, when an unsuccessful attempt was made to create a new shipping hub on the east coast of the tiny island of Hermetray. Backed by investment from the then owners of Amhuinnsuidhe Castle, a small team built a prototype car which travelled from Berneray along the Grey Horse Channel to Hermetray, spending much of the route underwater to avoid crosswinds and interference with shipping.
Roberta Sinclair was a marine naturalist and keen sea swimmer who was stationed on Berneray at the time, and bore the nickname An Giomach (The Lobster). She helped modify HCTC gondola No. 72 into an amphibious vehicle and was the only passenger on the prototype's single voyage. Her story, and her notebooks from that period, are celebrated in THE LOBSTER AND THE LACUNA (Taigh Cearsabhagh, Lochmaddy - May - July, 2017).