A Newcomer’s view

Alastair Cunningham takes us on a journey of discovery from Arabia to Antwerp and back to Isle Martin through the museum’s catalogue.

I first moved to Ullapool 18 months ago, with no family connection to the village. Interested to find out about my new home, I joined Ullapool Museum and headed over to our curator’s store to see what treasures we had. One caught my eye – a battered blue book that looked unprepossessing until I opened it (carefully and wearing white gloves, of course). The front-piece identified it as a merchant seaman’s certificate of discharge; and its pages chart voyages from Arabia to Antwerp and many spots in between. Armed with the catalogue number – ULM 1999 289 – I searched our online directory to find out more.

The catalogues tells me that the passport belonged to a John Mackenzie of Tanera and covered the period 1906-1921. I wondered what he might have looked like and, rather speculatively ran a search for 1910 to see what photographs we had. One – ULMPH 2000 0117 – shows Kenneth Stewart, a crofter of the period. Running that search was so easy that I tried something more ambitious and searched for ‘John Mackenzie’. That threw up plenty of hits.

I think one, of a sailor from 1920 is probably the seaman I was interested in – ULMPH 2000 0840 shows him to have been a dapper looking figure. But Mackenzie is a common name and there are plenty of other images. One – of a John Mackenzie from the hamlet of Letters – shows a sailor on a yacht (ULMPH 2000 0802). He was from the wrong place to be connected with the seaman’s passport. But seeing him standing on his yacht intrigued me – what was a local man doing on board a luxury yacht? Answer: the men of Lochbroom were popular as crewmen on board the yachts of the Edwardian wealthy. The museum has plenty of shots in the archive.

I played some more and substituted ‘schooner’ for ‘yacht’ as a search term. That pulled up an image of the ‘Penola’ at anchor on Isle Martin (ULMPH 2000 0711) which introduced a whole new chapter of local history: the short-lived and economically suspect flour mill set up by Captain Vyner early in the twentieth century. ULMPH 2000 0400 shows the flour workers in their dusty kit. And a quick search reveals that Lady Vyner once mixed with royalty: ULMPH 2000 0340 records a visit by the Queen Mother. Back to Isle Martin and a search picks out ULM 1999 263: a single key on a plastic fob. What had looked uninteresting when I first saw it in the stores now links to something real: the life of people scratching a living on this small island.