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    Mike Tomkies’s life ‘Between Earth & Paradise”…

    After a rich life of adventures, from the mundane circles of Hollywood where he spent years writing about the biggest movie stars of the world to the wilderness where he finally chose to retire ‘Between Earth and Paradise’, Mike Tomkies, the unforgettable master of Moobli, died on October 6th 2016. Maybe Moobli and Mike’s friends who crossed the “Rainbow Bridge” before him were waiting for him on the other side, on that melancholy autumn day when Nature did lose one of its best defenders…


    Mike Tomkies, naturalist and author of "Wildcat Haven" (still from the film), Steve Piper

    Mike Tomkies, naturalist and author of “Wildcat Haven” (still from the film), Steve Piper


    “In the time of middle-earth, timeless aeons before the fall from grace, there was a place where men could pass quite freely between earth and paradise. So that men’s minds should not be dazed by the shocking beauty of paradise, the place was made in the celestial image, a high place of ethereal beauty, masked in soft mist, earthly yet shot through with a spirit beyond the range of men’s minds. So perfect it could not be other than the roots of heaven.”

    (“A legend told in the Allinson family of Westmorland”quoted by Mike Tomkies in Between Earth & Paradise.)

    The more I read Mike Tomkies’s books, the more I like them even if I have to use my English-French dictionary quite often and more especiallay to find the translation of bird names or other animals. But the author’s life reads like a novel with many chapters full of adventures and unexpected developments. Who could have imagined that, after spending so much time socializing and making friends with the most glamorous  stars of Hollywood, the brilliant and popular celebrity journalist would retire to the wilderness and become one of the greatest and most popular naturalists of his time, spending the rest of his life in some of the most beautiful and remotest places of Canada, Spain and Scotland?
    The time Mike Tomkies spent in Scotland, first on the small island of Shona and then in an old crofthouse on the shore of a Highland loch, is what interests me most. As I had deliberately chosen to put his books on the shelves of my “Scottish library”, though I perfectly knew he was born in England,  I was particularly happy to discover in Between Earth & Paradise that he had Scottish roots ;-).


    Between Earth & Paradise Mike Tomkies Jonathan Cape 1981

    Between Earth & Paradise Mike Tomkies Jonathan Cape 1981

    “As I drove round a bend the road suddenly opened out on to a view so magnificent, right down the sea loch and over the islands of Eigg and Rhum, that its beauty hit me like a stroke in the soul. Entranced, I stopped the Land Rover  and impulsively knelt down to kiss the ground, to touch the rocks on the shore. A strange excitement grew within me for I felt in some odd way that I was actually coming home. (Although I knew I had some Scots blood, I didn’t know until a talk with my father over a year later that my mother, Adele MacKinlay Stewart, who died when I was four, was pure Highland, and that her father, John Stewart was born on Islay).

    (‘Homecoming’ – Between Earth and Paradise  – Mike Tomkies)

    Wildernesse Gaskan in winter

    Wildernesse Gaskan in winter

    “The old stone cottage was cold and cheerless. As I shivered on a fish box in its empty dampness for the first time, surrounded by the debris of my former life, I felt a sudden panic. Soaked to the skin, I was fatigued after a long day ferrying boat loads of lumber and belongings up the steely grey loch under the onslaugh of heavy rain. Now, my cherished hope that after seven years of wilderness living, first on a remote coast in western Canada and then in an old wooden croft on the Atlantic edge of a Scottish island, this new place would be my base for the deepest wilderness experiences of all, seemed not only presumptuous but foolhardy. No one had lived here, all year round, since 1912. When the old steamer that had once plied the loch was removed, so had died the human life along its shores.”

    (A Last Wild Place – “Into the Wild”)

    Wilderness in autumn from A Last Wild Place ©1984 Mike Tomkies Jonathan Cape

    Wilderness in autumn from A Last Wild Place ©1984 Mike Tomkies Jonathan Cape

    Moobli is the book which made me discover Mike Tomkies. I knew since the first page of this book that it would remain forever engraved in my memory though I never managed to read up to its end the chapter entitled “Decline”. In this heartbreaking chapter Mike Tomkies remembers the last hours of Moobli. This is heartbreaking reading. Truly. But Iain and Margaret who had so kindly and judiciously offered this wonderful book to me had also warned me about the sadness of some of its passages. I could not but feel the unbearable pain of such a moment having lost our dear Ralph who looked so much like Moobli… a twin of Moobli in a different place and circumstances…

    Moobli Mike Tomkies Jonathan Cape 1988

    “My grief lasted a full two years and it was exactly five years to the anniversary of his death before I could face writing about it…

    For a long time I could not adjust to the knowledge that I had lost my aide-de-camp in the wilds, my adjutant, befriender of the wildcats, brilliant tracker of all forms of wildlife, my best pal, and twice the saver of my life…”

    Moobli at Wildernesse   Moobli  Jonathan Cape 1988 ©1988 Mike Tomkies

    Moobli at Wildernesse Moobli Jonathan Cape 1988 ©1988 Mike Tomkies

    “In the first months many people told me that the best way to assuage grief was to replace Moobli with another dog. To me the idea was total anathema. I could not ‘replace’ Moobli in any such way. He was not just a family pet. He had been my only and constant companion through both idyllic and harsh times for nearly nine years. I had spent more time in his company than with any other animal or human in my whole life, including my parents, for my mother died when I was four and my father, a travelling salesman, had been seldom at home. To this day, five years after his death, I still miss my beloved old comrade. I have never felt the urge to get another dog. Maybe I will one day, and of course it will be a totally different character and perhaps just as lovable, but for me there will never be another Moobli…”

    (Moobli – “Epilogue”)


    Moobli & Ralph in the Scottish and French  mountains © Scotiana

    Moobli & Ralph in the Scottish and French mountains © Scotiana

    Who is Who ? 😉

    From the Wikipedia page devoted to Mike Tomkies, I’ve tried to select  the key features of his life. It’s not easy task given how rich and multi-faceted it proved to be. “Au fil de mes lectures”, or following our readers’comments,  I will try to complete and improve this “summary” but, whatever its shortcomings, let’s not waste more time in our quest to discover the philosophy of life of one of the most fascinating men of our contemporary world.

    • Born in 1928 in West Bridgeford, Nottinghamshire, Mike Tomkies spends the first years of his life with his family in Whitley Bay, near Newcastle, in the north of England, before moving south to Worthing and then to Henfield near Brighton in Sussex. After the loss of his mother, who died during childbirth with his sister, and under the guidance of his father, Mike develops his love of nature in the English countryside that surrounds him.
    • In 1952, at the age of 24, an attempt to sail around the world ends up with a shipwreck and a 400 miles (640 km) walk from Lisbon to Madrid.
    • A period of military service with the Coldstream Guards leads him in the Middle East and… at Buckingham Palace!
    • He begins his journalistic career at Fleet Street, in London, and then goes on  as a free-lance in Paris, Madrid and Rome and finally as a Hollywood columnist until the age of 38.
    • Weary of society life Mike Tomkies decides to return to nature and begins his exploration of Canada, settling in British Columbia, on the Pacific coast, where he builds a log cabin and works in various trades and activities to survive. It is here that he begins his wildlife studies tracking grizzly bears, cougars, caribou, bald eagles and killer whales, telling his adventures in Alone in the Wilderness, a very popular book first published by the Reader’s Digest.
    • Running short on funds, Tomkies returns to writing in Hollywood, accompanied by Booto, a stray wild dog who has adopted him in Canada and who enjoys the attention of stars such as Cary Grant, Omar Sharif and Peter Finch during interviews.
    • The two also travel around Mexico and Belize, where Mike Tomkies spend hours with Dean Martin – writing for the Daily Express
    • He returns briefly to Canada, hiring North America’s greatest Red Indian guide, Clayton Mack, to follow dangerous treks deep in grizzly country, seeing 21 bears in three days.
    • After another year in the wilds of Canada, Tomkies bids a very sad farewell to old Booto and returns to Hollywood for more amazing experiences with major film stars.
    • He goes motorbiking in the Mojave Desert with Steve McQueen and then meets some of the greatest stars of Hollywood: John Wayne, Doris Day, Robert Mitchum…
    • However, the wild keeps calling and Mike Tomkies decides to return to the UK. He finally settles in Eilean Shona, a remote island off the west coast of Scotland, restoring an old wooden crofthouse which has been used as a shelter for sheep to live in. “There was no road, no electricity, gas, phone, bathroom, kitchen, sanitation or even piped water” he remembers. Sheep dung five inches thick covered the floor… During the week it took to make one room habitable I slept in an old caravan on the shore below the bigh house. There he begins his work as a naturalist, observing and writing about Scottish nature, golden eagle, black throated diver, pine marten and Scottish wildcat.
    • After a few years spent in Eilean Shona, Mike Tomkies settles on the shore of Loch Shiel, in a small crofter’s cottage called “Gaskan” which he renames “Wildernesse“. The place soon becomes a shelter for a whole variety of injured animals. It is then that Mike Tomkies decides to go in search of a four-pawed friend to share his solitude. He drives down to Sussex, in his well-equipped Land Rover, to fetch Moobli whose first appearance as a pup had disconcerted him: “He was droopy, fat as a piglet,, and he stood square, knock-kneed, his four huge paws out of all proportion to his size.” The description of little Moobli is quite irresistible but the dog will soon prove to be a most lovable, intelligent and faithful dog, always ready to follow his master in the mos perilous circumstances. In Moobli , a book full of love and gratitude, Mike Tomkies tells us the adventures of master and dog in the Scottish wilderness. After Moobli died Mike Tomkies spent the next four years alone and sad, missing his dog while completing his studies of golden eagles and rare Scottish species.The government had asked him to track and study golden eagles over a 300-square-mile (780 km2) area and he will be the first person to successfully breed the now critically endangered Scottish wildcat and to return individuals to the wild. Far from the madding crowd, on the very mahogany desk on which “JM Barrie had written the first film script of  Peter Pan and part of his Marie Rose” and which had been given to him by his friends from Eilean Shona, Mike Tomkies will write nine books about the wildlife in the Scottish West Highlands.

    A Last Wild Place Mike Tomkies Whittles Publishing 2017

    • A Last Wild Place, first published in 1984, is the most famous of his books written about Wildernesse. The above cover of the book is that of the next edition which should be available in February 2017. As I only have an old edition of this book, I’ve pre-ordered it. I love very much its cover!

    Mike Tomkies In Spain's secret wiilderness Jonathan Cape 1989

    • Mike Tomkies then leaves Scotland for Spain where he spends five years hiking in the mountains, making films and writing a book about species including brown bear, lynx, wolf, wild boar, vultures and eagles. He has made his home a crumbling old villa with no glass in the windows or running water.
    • All in all, twelve feature-length films on wildlife will be produced by Mike Tomkies with a focus on Scotland and the golden eagle. Three network TV programmes will also be made about his life and work in the wilds, the last of which “Wild Cathedral” having been repeated seven times.
    • In 1988 Mike Tomkies is elected as an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland.

    Wildcat Haven & Running Wild by Mike Tomkies

    • Mike Tomkies spends the last years of his life in an Elizabethan Farmstead in Henfield, near Brighton back to the country of his youth, still writing his books and always observing the world outside. He appears in the documentary film Last of the Scottish Wildcats (Coffee Films 2006) and becomes the patron for a new charity, the Scottish Wildcat Association in 2009, who names him an Honorary Member of the Association for life. He goes on travelling into the Scottish Highlands spending his 83rd birthday filming nesting eagles in Galloway with an RSPB team, and in 2014, having said his first fictional work, “Let Ape and Tiger Die”, would be his last novel, he releases a new wildlife book, “Running Wild“, through publishers Whittles, bringing his life experiences in the wild up to date.
    • He dies aged 88 on 6 October 2016… after collapsing on a nature reserve…  a “good death” for a man such as Mike Tomkies…

    To change as radically as he did his way of life, a “dream life” for many people, he must have had good reasons but rather than to speculate about them let us try to find .

    Mike Tomkies My Wicked First Life Backwoods Mates to Hollywood's Greats We can find a number of clues in his books :

    I had been living the fast globe-trotting life of a successful Fleet Street journalist, mixing life, drinks and copy with the elegant, the swift, the rich and the most famous of the day – Sophia Loren, Ava Gardner, Brigitte Bardot, Marilyn Monroe, John Wayne, Robert Mitchum, Steve McQueen and Elvis Presley among the celebrities I had known well. I had lived for periods in Rome, Paris, St Tropez, Vienna, Madrid, New York, Las Vegas and Hollywood. So long as I secured ‘The Story’, the world had been my oyster. Then, disillusioned with the high life, morose after a broken romance, I longed to return to the realities of the wild and my boyhood love of nature.

     (Between Earth and Paradise –  ‘Introduction’ – October 1990 – Mike Tomkies)

    All seems at peace at Wildernesse; forgotten yet again are the dark cold days of winter for now the whole world is aflame with light and warmth. Quite suddenly I feel almost overcome by the beauty around me, the sweet scents, the gently swaying trees, the murmurs of the humming of bees and tiny insects wings, the tinkling of the burn etching its way over clean washed stones. Over all there is a pervading harmony, a glimpse perhaps of a world of balanced beauty in which what we, in our varying ways, call God meant man and all wild creatures to dwell, a glimpse indeed of paradise on earth.

    (A Last Wild Place “Renewal”)

    In nature’s teeming world the animals and birds are working hard to fulfil their destinies. The feeling came strongly upon me that we, who evolved from original creation to become the dominant species, with unique gifts of intelligence, foresight and the ability to love spiritually beyond ourselves, have an inherent and inescapable duty to act as responsible custodians of the whole inspiring natural word. We are the late-comers, it can only be ours on trust.

    (A Last Wild Place “Renewal”)

    Thoreau quote near his cabin Walden pond site

    Thoreau quote near his cabin Walden pond site

    I give the final words to Iain and Margaret.  I could not say it better:

    Living alone in desert places, is it too much to say that a man develops his own
    understanding of what binds him to the natural world ?  A curious existence,
    but one certainly would have the time and space in which to think .. ..     Simply
    to visit those ‘desert places’, as a hillwalker does, can be deeply satisfying.

    Recently we came across something that Margaret’s father, a life-long hillwalker,
    wrote in ‘The Scotsman’.    “On the Scottish hills, one learns about one’s capacity,
    judgment, one’s physical and mental nature.  But some enlargement of the spirit
    also follows from being close to nature.”

    Of his friend Tom Weir (1914-2006) he wrote: “Tom does not pretend to be a philosopher
    or go into ecstasies about intimations of mortality, but he does believe that the outdoors
    life is about more than landscapes or animals or people.  ‘It’s a voyage into oneself,’ Tom
    said simply.”

    Seton Gordon (1886-1977), the naturalist and prolific writer, advised a young friend:
    “It is a fine thing for you to have a love of the hills, because on the hills you will find
    yourself near grand and beautiful things, and as you grow older you will love them
    more and more.”

    Iain, Margaret.

    I am very happy to share with you  the two videos I’ve found on You Tube. There is no better way to enter the world of Mike Tomkies and Moobli in such a remote and  beautiful place of Scotland.

    Enjoy !

    À bientôt.



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    Lerwick Post Office Staff Imprisoned, November 1914 .. ..



    Lerwick Harbour with the old Tolbooth on the left and the Post Office on the right © Iain McEwan 2014


    Bonjour Marie-Agnès, Bonjour Jean-Claude, Bonjour Janice,

    The other day I came across a letter I received some years ago from Maurice Fleming, then Editor of the Scots Magazine, telling me about an old newspaper report he had been reading.  It referred to the imprisonment of the staff of Lerwick Post Office in November 1914.  Mr Fleming asked if I would be interested in doing more research for a feature on what he called ‘this quite extraordinary incident.”

    The Scots Magazine montage four covers 1979-198


    I was certainly interested  – and flattered.  Maurice Fleming was a joy to work for  – encouraging to contributors and with a deep commitment to original research and accuracy.  (He was to complete 27 years working for the Scots Magazine before retirement gave him, happily, an outlet for his own creativity.)


    The Scots Magazine montage four covers 1984-1985-1986

    Glasgow The Mitchell Library © 2007 Scotiana

    Glasgow The Mitchell Library © 2007 Scotiana

    My first stop was the Mitchell Library in Glasgow, where I established that Shetland had been an important naval base in the First World War where all shipping bound for northern Europe was intercepted and searched.  Battleships of the 10th Cruiser Squadron lay off-shore in Swarbacks Minn, the deepest anchorage in Shetland.

    Old postcard featuring the açade of Glasgow Central

    I also discovered that Scotland at that time was in the grip of a sort of spy fever.  Only two years previously, one of the Kaiser’s spies, Dr Armgaar Karl Graves, a bogus medical researcher, had been unmasked living in the douce Edinburgh suburb of Morningside.  He fled to Glasgow and was apprehended in the Central Hotel with extensive coded information about Rosyth and the Clyde shipyards in his copy of Wellcome’s 1912 Medical Diary.

    Then, in a newspaper cuttings library, I came across these words from a leading article in the Shetland News, November 1914:

    “……not  even the outbreak of the First World War created such a profound sensation in Lerwick as did the arrest of the staff of the Lerwick Post Ofice who have been thrown into prison like a band of common felons……”


    Illustrated map of Shetland with Swarbacks Minn © 2016 Scotiana

    Illustrated map of Shetland with Swarbacks Minn © 2016 Scotiana

    Maurice Fleming knew that I had Shetland connections and, keen to find some oral testimony for him, I lost no time in contacting John Sked who had been one of eight teenagers detained in the sorry affair that became known as The Lerwick Postal Imprisonment.  Mr. Sked remembered my family (we had been neighbours  in Peebles when I was about six) and in particular my older sister who, he recalled, was “very fond of climbing trees”.  I had forgotten that.


    High Street Peebles Scotland old postcard

    John was 16 and living with his parents in Peebles when he applied for a post as sorting clerk and telegraphist at Lerwick Post Office.

    “I was  young and daft and on the look-out for adventure and new experiences.  My parents were not at all keen, but I talked them round.  I got the job, at a weekly wage of 16 shillings.  Even in those halcyon days of five Woodbine cigarettes for a penny, 16 shillings didn’t go all that far, but I managed, thanks to the opportunities for overtime and Sunday work at 6d an hour.


    Bank Lane Lerwick Shetland old postcard


    “The 1st of November 1914, the first Communion Sunday of the War in Lerwick, was exactly one year to the day since I first arrived in Shetland on the mail boat. It was going to be my first free Sunday for many weeks.

    The previous day I’d been on duty from 8am to 10pm with two breaks of half an hour for meals, then an overseer had called at my lodgings at 11pm to ask me to go back at midnight for another shift until 8am, and I’d have the rest of Sunday free as compensation.  I didn’t complain  – that sort of thing was all part of our War Effort.

    “After a couple of hours’ sleep, I was up again, so determined was I not to waste this rare day off.

    I was just on my way out when a messenger turned up at the door. He told me to report to the Post Office immediately.  I protested, but he just said he was sorry, they were sending for everyone.  No explanation.



    I must have been one of the first of the staff to be taken, because the streets of Lerwick were empty. When I reached the Post Office I got quite a shock to see an armed sentry at the familiar front door.

    A few hours passed before we were all rounded up and locked inside the Post Office, 40 of us in all  –  Mr James MacMaster, our Postmaster, supervisors, counter staff, sorters, telegraphists, linesmen, the cleaner, postmen, drivers of the mail gigs, everyone. They even took worshippers dressed in their Sunday suits out of church, interrupting the Communion service. Only two of the staff, serving  Territorials, escaped arrest.

    “By the time the roll call was finished, a bewildered crowd of onlookers had gathered in Commercial Street and there were rumours flying around that a firing squad had been ordered.”

    The assembled men were addressed by Lieutenant-Colonel Horace Carlyon Evans of HM Royal Marine Light Infantry, the officer in command of the Shetland Royal Naval Reserve.  Brandishing a revolver, he told them that they were under arrest. He quoted Sections 12 and 13 of the Defence of the Realm Act.  The locked front door was opened and the suspects were instructed to walk in single file along the main street.

    Only the Postmaster was left in the building and he was approached by the Rear-Admiral with an offer of accommodation for himself on board a naval ship in Lerwick harbour.  Still not knowing where his men had been taken, Mr MacMaster said he would prefer to go in search of them.   He started up Queen’s Lane on foot, escorted by an armed officer.  Guessing that the men might have been taken to the Town Hall, or perhaps Fort Charlotte, he headed in that direction, but was soon informed of their destination by members of the public. Calling briefly at his home, he proceeded to the prison and presented himself for arrest.

    Commercial Street Lerwick Shetland old postcard

    Commercial Street Lerwick Shetland old postcard

    John Sked continued his story:  “When we got out on to Commercial Street and I saw a double line of marines waiting for us, all with fixed bayonets, I realised we weren’t just playing at soldiers.  We were marched past hundreds of local people who knew us, up the hill and past the Town Hall, until our escorts stopped at the county jail. The door of the jail was open, as if they were waiting for us. We were directed to the prisoners’ exercise room on the top floor and there we remained for four hours”.

    A crowd of local people had followed the men and stood waiting outside the prison for news.  In an attempt to show their friends and neighbours that all was well, the prisoners began to sing from the hymn books of those who had been in church. They opened with the 121st Psalm,  ‘I to the Hills will Lift Mine Eyes’ to the tune French, followed by other Psalms to tunes well-known to the general public in those days  – Belmont and Ballerma and finally Crimond, the best-loved tune for the 23rd Psalm.  After each rendition there was warm applause from the street.



    In charge of the prison was a Lerwick man, John R.G.Morrison, who had trained in Barlinnie Prison, Glasgow, and was to become  governor of Saughton Prison in Edinburgh. He had been told to expect 40 men and had assumed they would be enemy prisoners-of-war landed from a ship. In fact, all the men arrested were known to him and some were former school-mates.  Two of the boy prisoners, William and Robert Stout, were sons of the Provost of Lerwick, also Robert Stout, himself a retired Postmaster.

    Fortunately Lieutenant-Colonel Evans’ instructions had come from higher up the chain of command, from Vice-Admiral Sir Stanley Colville himself, and Sir Stanley wished the postal staff to be treated  “not as prisoners but as persons under arrest”. This enabled Mr. Morrison to give the men some re-assurance.

    “As long as you are in my care”  he is recorded as saying  “not a key will be turned against you.  You will have freedom of movement throughout the prison during the day, but remember, should anyone betray the trust I am placing in you, I shall be the one to suffer.”

    Soon word got around that homes were being searched.  In the house belonging to a young telegraphist, George Manson, a list of local names was deemed suspicious and seized, until it was discovered that George was newly-married and these were recipients of a piece of wedding cake. (Three days later in the prison Mr.MacMaster presented the young husband with a wedding present from his colleagues, a marble clock).

    John Sked remembered that the news of the search caused great anxiety to one of the youngest prisoners.

    “He was a boy messenger, only 16, and was later to share a cell with Mr MacMaster and two overseers.  He realised he’d left a letter to a girl in a coat pocket and smuggled a note out to his landlady asking her to burn it. Unfortunately he was too late. He was called for an interview and suffered the embarrassment of explaining himself to the naval authorities”.


    Old photo of herring gutters in Shetland  © Ella Gordon 2015-07 img_5955

    Old photo of herring gutters in Shetland © Ella Gordon 2015-07 img_5955

    The prison had 16 cells, two of them occupied  –  one by four male civilian prisoners and another by a woman and her baby.  The mother, while pregnant, had  –  fraudulently according to the charge   –  taken arles from several fish curers recruiting female gutters, knowing that she would not be in a position to fulfil the contracts.

    Herring gutters in Scalloway CJ Williamson ©Shetland Museum and Archives

    Herring gutters in Scalloway CJ Williamson ©Shetland Museum and Archives

    For the 40 newcomers there were only 14 cells, which meant three or four men to a cell designed for single occupancy.  The men were allowed to choose their own room-mates and it soon became evident that their families would have to provide bedding and food  –  the price of being  ‘persons under arrest’  presumably.  Shetland’s prison was little-used and most of the cells were bare.

    Lerwick prison and police station - Wikimedia

    Lerwick prison and police station – Wikimedia

    John Sked recalled:  “Mattresses and blankets were the first to arrive, then a queue of wives, mothers – and in a few cases landladies  – handed in cooked food and home baking and thermos flasks of tea;   also tobacco, pipes, cigarettes and matches, for almost all men were smokers in those days.  It was then conveyed to the women that the authorities expected them to supply four meals daily”.

    “We were mystified, no-one came to explain to us what was going on  –  in fact, we were never to be interrogated and no charges were ever made against us.  Each of us had a clear conscience and not for a moment did any of us suspect a colleague of wrong-doing, so we decided to make the best of things and, though it may sound strange, have some fun to pass the time.

    “We were allowed to visit each other’s cells and we made the most of it, starting with impromptu story-telling competitions in the darkness  – the old fish-tail gas lights were useless, so we turned them off. We then graduated to the old music-hall songs of the day and when we’d sung ourselves hoarse we closed the session with a respectful rendering of God Save the King.”

    On the second day of the incarceration the post office cleaner was allowed to send for his gramophone and his collection of some 400  records, brought to the prison entrance in a hand-cart.  In the evenings he was what we would now call a disc jockey, playing special requests – providing he could locate the record.  He was a remarkable character with many stories to tell, having served with the Royal Horse Guards in his younger days.  He had a fine voice and liked to sing the old songs which he interspersed with an imitation of cathedral chimes. Most of the men played the fiddle or the flute or the mouth-organ and their instruments duly arrived. For those who favoured quieter pursuits, whist drives were organised, with prizes of cigarettes”.

    Freedom of movement was not granted to the other prisoners.  The four civilian male prisoners were ordered to clean all the cells and the postal workers showed their appreciation for a job well done by pushing cigarettes under their locked doors at night. They also took turns at carrying the baby around the prison yard.  The young mother seems to have been well treated, with a female warder to herself.

    The local Prison Committee arrived for an inspection and the only complaint registered was about the poor lighting in the cells. Soon afterwards a squad of tradesmen arrived and replaced the old gas fittings with more modern burners.

    “Looking back” John Sked told me “our circumstances had actually improved in some ways.  We were having regular meals and our full quota of sleep, which we hadn’t had for ages.  With all the increased traffic caused by the war, Lerwick Post Office had become one of the busiest in Britain. Staff regularly worked far into the night. Whenever a new ship came into harbour its manifest had to be taken ashore, copied without delay and a transcription, usually not far off 10,000 words, sent by telegraph to Whitehall”

    The Shetland Times title banne

    Important war business must have suffered while the Territorials struggled to provide a service at the Post Office.  The Shetland Times had to cancel its daily War News supplements which had been telegraphed from London. Postal deliveries were in chaos. One firm in town was said to have had twelve deliveries in one day –  most addresses had none. To prevent a total breakdown, the Postmaster and a member of staff were allowed out of the prison under escort for an hour or two each day, until the middle of the week when post office officials arrived from Aberdeen.

    At the jail the days passed tolerably in mirth and music, but underneath the all the joking and singing there were unexpressed feelings of humiliation and a deep anxiety concerning how long the imprisonment would last. Worst of all was the complete absence of information about the causes of the arrests and the likely outcome of the whole sorry business.

    Then,without warning and without any reasons being given, the affair was ended on the morning of Saturday 7th November.  John Morrison passed to the Postmaster a document stating that all detained were to be released  “immediately and unconditionally”.

    The illustrated header of an old issue of The Shetland News

    The illustrated header of an old issue of The Shetland News

    The Shetland News had something to say (the newspaper had hitherto been forbidden to refer to the post office affair, though it had been widely publicised outside the islands) :

    “The most ugly feature of this infamous act has been that in the South the loyalty of Shetlanders has been called into question.  Nothing less than a full inquiry will satisfy the whole outraged community of Shetland.”

    No inquiry ever took place.  Normal postal services were resumed on the Monday, though Mr. MacMaster would have preferred his staff to wait until some apology was made for the slur on their characters.  He had lost no time in sending a strong complaint to the Postmaster-General, but there was no reply..

    Four months after the arrest, each of the men received a letter from the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty confirming that  “relative to the alleged tampering with correspondence between the Admiralty and the Commander-in-Chief, Home Fleets, the innocence of the whole staff has been proved.  As compensation their Lordships desire to make a grant of two days’ pay to each member of staff in respect of each day spent under arrest, if the Postmaster-General sees no objection”. The offer was unanimously declined.

    Mr. MacMaster continued to press for an explanation, and suggested that his staff should be awarded promotion and special increments. For his pains, he was transferred to England, to a smaller post office at Wellingborough, Northamptonshire. Once there, he tried to enlist in the Army, but was refused.

    “We were very sad to see him go,” John Sked recalled.  “We organised a farewell party for him and his wife.  We all remembered the kindness of Mrs MacMaster, who would come down the lanes with her maid when we were working late, carrying a hamper of sandwiches and home-baking.  And we appreciated how valiantly Mr MacMaster was fighting the authorities on our behalf.”

    Three years later, John MacMaster was back in Scotland as Postmaster at Kilmarnock, subsequently working in Greenock and Perth, and finally Dundee.  Every year, until he died at the age of 92, a parcel would arrive at Lerwick Post Office, containing a large box of fine cigarettes, to be smoked by the staff on 1st November, the anniversary of the arrest.

    Still no-one in officialdom saw fit to cast light on the mystery.  What was the nature of the alleged tampering with mail, and how did it come about that the Lerwick postal staff were suspected ?

    An article in the Shetland News many years later gave some clues. It was contributed by one of the prisoners, George Manson, the newly-married telegraphist.  “When the staff resumed work at the Post Office,” he wrote, “there were a lot of sacks to be examined and turned inside out to make sure they were empty.  While some of our postmen were thus engaged, they found inside one sack returned from Swarback’s Minn and marked  ’empty’,  a small canvas mailbag.  It was addressed to the Commanding Officer and the seal was unbroken.


    Swarbacks Minn Busta Voe map Shetland Mainland © 2016 Scotiana

    Swarbacks Minn Busta Voe map Shetland Mainland © 2016 Scotiana


    “Mr.MacMaster passed on this information to the base and was asked to bring the small mailbag to Swarback’s Minn personally.  He was escorted aboard the flagship and handed it over to the Commanding Officer, telling him how it had been found.  The C.O. opened the bag and said the contents were not important.  He apologised for the trouble caused by the carelessness of his staff.”

    When John Sked was of an age for military service he was called up and served in the Army for the remainder of the First World War.

    General  Post Office and Waterloo Place - Edinburgh old postcard

    “After I was demobbed I got work in the Edinburgh G.P.O.,” he recalled.   ” I was surprised one day to get a letter from the Lords Commissioners, asking if I would now accept their compensation – the original offer, no improvements.  I refused, and that was the last I heard from their Lordships.

    “It may seem a strange thing to say, but I see the postal imprisonment as one of the great experiences of my life.  I had applied for the job in those far-away islands because I was looking for adventure. I was young and single and had no family in Shetland to worry about. It was only some years later, when I was a bit more mature, that I understood just how anxious the older men with wives and children must have been, under all their bravado.

    “I’ll never forget the camaraderie and good humour of my colleagues, and the kindness of Mr. MacMaster and Mr. Morrison.  Actually, I wouldn’t have missed those six days for all the world”.

    A bientôt et Bonne Lecture !


    ‘C : Copyright Margaret Henderson’

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