The last surviving Hebridean Cable Transit Company gondola (detail above) has been fully restored to form centrepiece of the new 'Suspension and Disbelief' exhibition by artists Philippa Thomas and Hector MacInnes
“If ever a vehicle was driven in defiance of God's will, it was across the Barvas moor,” said civil engineer Hugh Morrison.
In the aftermath of the Second World War, the public works contractor and visionary from Lochs, set out to transform transport in his native island stating: “What Lewis needs is a modern, sustainable, brave new transport solution.”
Hugh's fear was that the Western Isles were under threat from economic migration to cities – a possibility, he felt, that could be deterred by connecting the islands' outlying and hard to reach communities with a modern and suitable mode of transport.
His proposal was to establish The Hebridean Cable Transit Company (HCTC) and build the world's longest cable car system, one that would stretch almost the entire length of Lewis, from Barvas to Stornoway and south through Lochs to Tarbert.
And the tale of Hugh's 'Slighe Sìoman' ('Straw-Rope Highway') as it was known locally, has been celebrated by Skye-based artists Philippa Thomas and Hector MacInnes in the latest exhibition at An Lanntair arts centre, 'Suspension and Disbelief: The Story of the Slighe Sìoman'.
Head of Visual Arts and Literature at An Lanntair, Roddy Murray, said: “Just when you think you are beginning to draw a bearing on local history, something comes along that shakes your complacency and makes you marvel at the innovation and ingenuity of previous generations.
“Hector and Philippa are to be thanked and congratulated for having shone a light onto this extraordinary project, which had inexplicably slipped out of the historical record.”
Running from 1948 to 1961, the Slighe Sìoman transformed Lewis' industries, society and way of life and formed part of a progressive vision of Stornoway's role in post-war geopolitics.
Not only forward-thinking the project also proved 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, Hugh 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.”
Showing in the main gallery at An Lanntair over the winter months (November 19th to January 17th), 'Suspension and Disbelief' is a culmination of Philippa and Hector's retracing of the HCTC journey from its 1948 launch, through its glorious heyday and onwards to its subsequent demise.
During their research, the artist explored the entire island cable-car route, writing in their HCTC blog on website www.thehctc.com: “We followed the whole route from Ness, through Barvas, across the moor to Stornoway and then south along the Minch shore through Lochs to Loch Seaforth and on to Harris.
“We were also lucky enough to spend some more time looking through the maps, log books and letters which survive in the re-opened archive centre.”
Philippa and Hector also speak highly of Stornoway's 'brilliant new archive centre' at the new Lews Castle Museum and Archive, adding: “It was incredible to see some of the account books, diaries and letters in real life!”
The artists also experienced a 'rare rural public transport cable-car' still in operation today on the Beara Peninsula in the far south of west Ireland – set up in the 1960s to transport crofters and livestock to and from Dursey Island.
“The cable care is now a minor tourist attraction on the 'Ring of Beara',” they expanded. “Paddy, the cable car operator, talked us through the Dursey Island story including many interesting details such as that the gondola itself was built in Ireland but sent to England and back for galvanisation as no tank in Ireland was big enough.”
Back to the Scottish isles, and the last surviving HCTC cable-car gondola also had to take a trip south of the border, spending two weeks at an engineering works in Bristol being stripped back to its frame, with portholes, decking and cladding cleaned and prepared for refit as part of its complete restoration undertaken by Philippa and Hector, allowing the HCTC gondola to take centre-stage in the 'Suspension and Belief' exhibition.
“We've had an amazing few months exploring this little known story, speaking to locals, and visiting every corner of Lewis and Harris,” said the artists.
“Hopefully others will enjoy learning about the Slighe Sioman, thinking about what ties different parts of the island together, and reflecting on what might have been.”
A public opening with Hector and Philippa will take place at An Lanntair arts centre on November 18th at 5pm. For more details, please visit www.lanntair.com