Mallaig's Story

settlement after 1840 : growth of fishing : the 20th century : village growth
first car ferry : boom and decline : Mallaig today

Mallaig is a fishing village with a population of about one thousand, situated at the most westerly end of the peninsula of North Morar and is now the largest centre of population in West Lochaber. The name is probably derived from the Gaelic Mol or Mal, meaning 'shingly' and the Norse vik, meaning 'bay'.

Mallaig Pier in 1895

Lovat Pier, Mallaig, in 1895

THE FOUNDING OF MALLAIG: The village of Mallaig itself is a relatively recent creation, dating from the 1840s, when Lord Lovat, owner of North Morar Estate, divided up the farm of Mallaigvaig into seventeen parcels of land and encouraged his tenants to move to the western part of the peninsula and turn to fishing as a way of life.

We cannot be sure of precisely what motives lay behind this or how willing the local population were to move from the more fertile but certainly overpopulated settlements beside Loch Morar and Loch Nevis onto the rough and windy plots of land at Mallaig, but what is certain is that between 1841 and 1851 the population of Mallaig rose from 24 to 134 and it had become the largest settlement in the district.

THE MOVE TO FISHING: In the census of 1851 the heads of many of these households already described themselves as "crofter-fishermen" and by 1861 fishing was obviously becoming more and more important, as no fewer than 18 "fishers" were recorded there. However, fishing in the 19th century was a hazardous business. Everything revolved around the shoals of herring, which could not be depended upon to turn up where they were expected. The local boats were too small to follow the fish further afield, so if the herring did not appear in Loch Hourn or Loch Nevis in July, hard times would follow.

In November 1881 there was a combination of gale and high tide which carried away a number of boats and destroyed some of the houses built near to the sea. This must have affected Mallaig and Mallaigvaig seriously because the population fell from 170 to 133 and the number of houses from 31 to 28 by 1891. Fortunately Lovat provided replacement boats and nets at his own expense and in 1882 the fishing was so successful that 'two steamers ran daily with fish to Oban, which raised the price per cran to 38 shillings, the highest on record in Loch Nevis'. The opening of the Oban railway in 1880 and its impact on fish prices must have registered strongly with Lovat and his tenants. If a railway to Oban could do this then imagine what the effect would be of a terminus in Mallaig itself!

In 1883 the local priest commented that none of the Morar people took any grievances to the Napier Commission, which had been set up by the government of the time to look into the plight of the people of the Highlands. 'The Proprietor seeing this was pleased, and to assist their efforts and advance their prosperity in the fishing industry, he thought proper to build for them a Storehouse at Mallaig Pier, at his own expense, and fill it with salt and barrels. The first night of November thereafter, the bay was full of herring and some boats caught as high as 24 and 30 crans. This success elated the fishermen to such an extent that numbers of them have provided themselves with larger and better boats and a new set of nets'. In 1885, 1886 and 1887 the herring failed to appear in great numbers and the fishing was bad, making fishermen and crofters unable to pay their rents. Although both proprietor and people had decided that their future lay with fishing its immediate progress was limited. It is understandable that Lovat wanted to bring the railway to Mallaig - it was a way of ensuring the future of the community, the fishing industry and his own investment.

the 20th century begins: the railway extension to Mallaig finally opened in 1901 and rapidly transformed the local economy and way of life. even before construction of the line began, people had moved there in anticipation of the increase in trade. with the opening of the line others arrived to set up shops and businesses and to work on the railway and for the steamer company. steamer passengers travelled along the line from glasgow before transferring to vessels bound for skye, stornoway and the outer hebrides. fishermen, curers and coopers moved in from the aberdeenshire and berwickshire coasts, and with the coming of the herring season, were supplemented by teams of herring girls, following the herring around the coasts of britain and ireland.

Fish train on the pier

Fish train on the railway pier

The new harbour was far closer to the rich fishing grounds west of Barra than either of the other railheads at Oban and Kyle of Lochalsh and fishing vessels were quick to exploit the possibility of getting their catches to market faster. A concrete breakwater had been built as part of the railway infrastructure and fish was loaded directly into railway wagons on the quay ready to be taken south. By sheer good fortune the opening of the line coincided with the great movement from sail to steam in the fishing fleet. Steam drifters were not as dependent on the weather as were sailing vessels and, important for Mallaig and its railway, they needed to be supplied with coal, which could be easily brought north along the new railway.

Before long Mallaig harbour was being used by far more vessels than had been expected. Extensions to the wharf began almost immediately, with the construction of a fish platform on the landward side of the railway pier. Further improvements were made in 1908 and again in 1915, creating a timber landing stage bridging the space between the railway pier and Lovat's masonry pier. On the rocky and exposed point on the seaward side of the railway pier were built several kippering sheds and about thirty wooden huts, used as accommodation for migrant fishworkers. So basic did the accommodation appear, even in the less-than-affluent early years of the 20th century, that this part of Mallaig acquired the name "Chinatown".

THE VILLAGE EXPANDS: In the years following the First World War new houses were built at Clanranald Terrace and Marine Place but flat land for further building was already becoming scarce. During the 1920's the track leading round East Bay towards Mallaigvaig was widened to form a road and more houses built there, including three blocks of flats. Other houses, including the doctor's house and the manse were constructed beside the road to Glasnacardoch, where the old school had been replaced by a new building in Mallaig itself, where the primary school now stands.

Mallaig now boasted two boatyards and a large number of kippering factories. On a calm day smoke from kippering sheds, steam locomotives and drifters could make it impossible to see the harbour from the hills around. Fish landed at Mallaig were smoked, salted and exported to destinations all over Europe.

THE FIRST CAR FERRY: In 1932 local boatbuilder John Henderson and marine engineer Ian Macintyre constructed a flat bottomed vessel capable of carrying two cars and began transporting vehicles across the five miles which separate Mallaig from Armadale on Skye. At that time cars were few in number, and even fewer were drivers intrepid enough to tackle the switchback route from Fort William. However, the 'Road to the Isles', as the ferry was named, was successful enough for Henderson and Macintyre to double its capacity by lengthening the vessel and to form 'Road to the Isles Ferries Limited' in 1935.On the outbreak of war in 1939 tourist traffic ceased and the 'Road to the Isles' stopped operating. It was eventually beached in the Morar estuary and could be seen there for many years after, slowly disintegrating.

During the Second World War the whole area west of Fort William became a Special Protected Area. Through Mallaig passed supplies and agents bound for SOE training centres in Knoydart and along Loch Nevis.

YEARS OF PLENTY: In the years following the war new fishing methods brought hitherto unimaginable catches of fish and in the 1960s Mallaig could realistically claim to be the busiest herring port in Europe. During the herring season the harbour would be a hive of activity, as vessels scrambled to unload their catches into lorries from as far afield as Denmark and Holland. More fish left by sea, bought by fleets of Norwegian 'Klondikers'.

However, by the mid 1970s, Mallaig's prosperity was crumbling. The railway was repeatedly threatened with closure and new ferries introduced to cater for the growing use of the motor car began to use more direct routes - Kyle of Lochalsh became the main route to Skye, ferries for Stornoway began leaving from Ullapool and services to Barra and South Uist moved to Oban. Fish stocks were suffering from years of overfishing and a four year ban on herring fishing was imposed. The Mallaig fleet was forced to turn to alternative catches, such as mackerel and whitefish.

Tourism was becoming more and more important and in 1984 Scotrail introduced a steam-hauled service on the Fort William - Mallaig section of the West Highland Line.The experiment was a success and the service continues to this day, operated by a private company and known as the Jacobite Steam Train.

MALLAIG TODAY: After the lean years of the 1980s Mallaig is modestly prosperous again, landing large quantities of shellfish, especially prawns. The village now has facilities that were sadly lacking for many years. A new primary school has replaced the 1920s building, and a new High School serves the area from Knoydart to Acharacle, ending at last the system under which children commuted each week to school in Fort William. The Fishermens' Mission and the swimming pool provide meeting places and recreation as well as opportunities for spiritual and physical development. Rollon-rolloff car ferries were introduced in 1984, increasing and accelerating services to Skye and also enabling the return of services to South Uist and Barra. The new outer harbour completed in 1998 permits larger vessels to use the port and has freed up space in the inner harbour for visiting pleasure craft.

As the 21st century begins, Mallaig is poised to take advantage of its position as the most westerly port on mainland Britain and is difficult to recognise as the hastily developed harbour of just one hundred years ago.