The Hebridean Cable Transit Company
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.
Taigh Chearsabhagh, North Uist
In 2016 and 2017, Philippa Thomas and Hector MacInnes restored the last surviving Hebridean Cable Transit Company gondola (No. 72, "Effie"), carefully converting her into a cable-car simulator as the centrepiece of a diptych of installations in An Lanntair (Lewis) and Taigh Chearsabhagh (Uist).

In An Lanntair, "Suspension and Disbelief" explored the HCTC's heyday, taking visitors to the gallery on a virtual tour of Lewis, watching the unmistakable landscape roll by and listening to voices from the company's past, as they swung from pylon to pylon. The exhibition included a selection of bric-a-brac and cultural remnants from the 1950s including a ticket machine, a clippy's uniform (this was the nickname of the conductors), a recording of a novelty song from the time, "The handsome cable girl", and so on.

In Taigh Chearsabhagh, "The Lobster and the Lacuna" explored one of the weirder stories from the years running up to the HCTC's collapse in 1961. Specifically, it followed "Effie" into the hands of naturalist, submariner and avid sea swimmer Roberta Sinclair (known locally as An Giomach: 'The Lobster'). During the company's hubristic glory days, the system expanded briefly 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, Ms. Sinclair helped modify HCTC gondola No. 72 into a prototype ambhibious cable-car which might travel from Berneray along the Grey Horse Channel to Hermetray, spending much of the route underwater to avoid crosswinds and interference with shipping. Thinking both of a species of intertidal sea snail (Lacuna Vincta) and also of the silent unknowns of the world beneath the waves, she referred to her adapted cable car as The Lacuna. Her maiden voyage, however, ended in disaster when both Effie and Ms. Sinclair came loose and disappeared - Effie was eventually salvaged in 1994, with the only trace of Ms. Sinclair that was ever found being her notebooks, which were displayed as part of this exhibition.

copyright 2021 Hector MacInnes, All Rights Reserved
portrait photo by Julia Rebaudo