The Motor Bus In Caithness
Before the advent of the motor bus in Caithness the principal form of road passenger transport was the horse drawn wagonette. John Paterson of 27 Princes Street, Thurso owned a fleet of these wagonettes each drawn by two horses and seating fourteen passengers in knifeboard fashion. During the Great War, Paterson's wagonettes were heavily in demand for conveying naval personnel from Thurso railway station to Scrabster although they could be hired by the townsfolk for special excursions to Castletown and Wick. Motor cars were also offered for hire and every Monday and Thursday, Paterson ran his horse brake from Thurso to John o' Groats charging a return fare of four shillings for the journey.
The first motor buses in the County were used as mail-cars commencing in 1913 when R. S. Waters of Wick introduced a Scottish built Halley mail-car between Wick and John o' Groats. James Wilson proprietor of the Station Hotel, Thurso, began his mail-car service from Thurso to Skerray in 1915 using two 16 h.p. Albion vehicles which fitted two pneumatic tyres at the front and two solid tyres at the rear. These pioneering buses were the direct ancestors of the present Bedford mail bus, CD 13, of Highland Omnibuses, and like the present mainstay of the Tongue-Thurso mail route, they incorporated a special mail/cargo compartment at the rear.
The Great War stunted the growth of the motor bus and set its development back several years. This gave Continental and American manufacturers a golden opportunity to flood the British market with cheap, light and fast buses and it was with an American built Reo Speedwagon that the partnership of Messrs. Knox and Hunter first linked Thurso with Wick in 1928. Knox and Hunter had come from Fife and had brought some of their platform staff from that county to work in the North.
Other operators sprang up during this period of intense, cut-throat competition. Alex. Robertson & Son, Wick were agents for Chevrolet, predecessor of the famous Bedford, and used this make of bus on their Wick-Thurso via Castletown service. Most of these early pioneers were individuals who owned one or two buses and among their ranks were to be found Donald Allan & Son, Gillock, George S. Begg of Rattar, James Begg of Wick, Black of Watten, John Banks & Macrae of John o' Groats, David Henderson of Wick, and W. Johnston, Peter Gunn, Mr. J. & Mrs. W. B. Wares, all of Castletown.
Using the appropriate fleetname of the Pioneer Omnibus Service, Knox and Hunter's fleet rose to six buses by 1930 and although the official livery was blue, second hand purchases were put into service while in their original colours. However the partnership split up and they resorted to becoming intense rivals on the Thurso-Halkirk-Watten-Wick service undercutting each other's fares until the Thurso-Wick return fare levelled out at one shilling. Competition for passenger traffic was at its most intense on occasions such as the County Show when rival buses raced each other to pick up passengers along the route. T. Knox retained the fleetname "Pioneer" for his own business which he ran from Kirk Lane, Wick and his other services included; Wick and Thurso via Castletown and Lyth; Thurso and Wick via Castletown, Canisbay, John o' Groats, Freswick and Keiss; Thurso and Bettyhill via Reay, Melvich, Strathy and Armadale. On the latter route the last departure on a Saturday left Thurso at 10.45 p.m. arriving at Bettyhill at 12.55 a.m.
With no legal restraints on drivers' hours or vehicle standards, and virtually no restriction on routes, the resultant unrestrained cut-throat competition brought national problems for the bus industry. At a meeting of Caithness County Council in December 1928, considerable anxiety was expressed at the overcrowding and the excessive speeds at which the buses were driven. Speeding buses, some with a laden weight of six and a half tons, were tearing up the road surface particularly along the Halkirk and Watten roads. It was felt at the Council meeting that overloading could be regulated by the Railways Act and it was intimated that the Ministry of Transport was drafting legislation in order to regulate the bus industry.
The resulting Road Traffic Act of 1930 helped to eliminate much wasteful competition and protect the bus travelling public from unscrupulous operators. The Act had the effect of restricting entry to the road transport industry, and thereby entrenching existing operators, as well as introducing many safety regulations. The whole structure was controlled by area Traffic Commissioners which were independent of the local authorities. Another major change was the authority given to the railway companies to buy their way into bus operations. The London, Midland and Scottish Railway Co. Ltd. took a fifty per cent shareholding in the Highland Transport Company Limited which was formed in April 1930 to take over Inverness & District Motor Services Ltd. which dated from 1925.
Just three months after its formation, Highland Transport commenced a regular bus service between Thurso and Wick via Halkirk and Watten, and also via Castletown. The former service ran in opposition to Knox's "Pioneer" service although Knox's former partner had sold out to Highland. Hunter's twenty seat Albion, reg. no. SK1507, was renumbered 53 by H.T.C. and remained in use with its new owners until after the War. A representative of The Caithness Courier sampled a ride on one of the Highland's new Albion PKA 30 seat buses fitted with rear entrances, and reported most enthusiastically about the vehicle's passenger comforts which included a saloon heater, well padded seats and wind down windows. The low pressure tyres contributed to a jolt free ride, something which cannot be said for many of the present Highland buses in Caithness. These early Albions, which displayed the manufacturer's badge of a rising sun and the proud motto "As sure as the sun rises" on the radiator, were the first of many Albion buses to give uninterrupted service out of Thurso depot for the next fifty one years. With the departure of the last Albion Lowlanders and most of the Albion Vikings by February 1981, only one serviceable Albion Viking is left in Caithness to bear the name of the most famous Scottish manufacturer of commercial vehicles.
In spite of their inherent passenger comforts, starting these Albions was no easy matter and the two fitted with Dorman engines required two men to swing the starting handle while one sat in the cab to tickle the engine. In the event of assistance being unavailable, the Albions were parked outside the railway station and the downward roll of Lovers' Lane usually helped the bus to start.
Promoting their bus service with the slogan "Civility and Reliability", Highland Transport were intent upon providing an efficient and reliable service which they hoped would increase local trade. During week days, a total of fifteen return journeys were advertised, nine of them routed via Halkirk and Watten and the remaining six via Castletown. The journey time was a generous eighty minutes in comparison with the present fifty-five minutes; but one must take into consideration the low performance of the vehicles which were restricted to a maximum speed of thirty m.p.h. A restricted Sunday timetable operated with three journeys in either direction.
Highland Transport's application to build a garage in Janet Street, Thurso on ground owned by the L.M.S. Railway was met with objections from several of the residents in Janet Street including two former Provosts who feared that the erection of a garage would cause nothing but noise and air pollution. At a special meeting of Thurso Town Council in August 1930, the English general manager of the H.T.C., Mr. Wilmot H. Fowke, stated that his company's operations were bound to develop "provided no obstacles were put in the way. It would increase local trade enormously and property values would increase with the prosperity of the town." The objections were overruled and there was unanimous consent given to H.T.C. to proceed with construction of the garage. Originally built to accommodate three buses, the garage still exists today as the body repair shop of the present Highland Omnibuses depot.
A short while after commencing operations in Caithness, H.T.C. introduced two new services which are still operated by the present Highland company. The first was a Sunday afternoon excursion to John o' Groats for the price of 3s.6d. from Thurso and the introduction of an extra Saturdays only bus from Wick to Thurso via Castletown departing at 10.30 p.m. as it still does today.
With so many buses converging upon the restricted town centres of Thurso and Wick, there was inevitable congestion. At Wick it was recommended that a fair proportion of the traffic could be diverted off the narrow High Street to the Riverside Parking Stance although buses were allowed a maximum of ten minutes to uplift passengers in the town centre. In Thurso there were a number of terminal points used by the different operators: Highland Transport used the Town Hall; David Henderson and Walter Wares used Anderson's the ironmongers; Alex. Robertson and James Begg used D. Sutherland the bakers; Geo. S. Begg and Donald Allan used Shearer's the grocer; Wm. Johnstone used Budge the draper; Black of Watten used Lindsay the ironmonger. The very siting of these termini inevitably led to congestion especially around Sir John's Square and in 1932, Thurso Town Council ruled that all buses should use the Town Hall as the central bus terminus.
In the years leading up to 1939, Highland Transport consolidated its position in Caithness by steadily acquiring Knox's Pioneer bus service in 1931; Alex. Robertson in 1932; Donald Allan in 1933; Wm. Johnstone and Walter Wares in c. 1938; Geo. S. Begg in 1939.The slow, inconvenient and infrequent train service between Thurso and Wick persuaded many people to forsake the train for the bus. However the L.M.S. did try to encourage weekend travel by offering a special direct Saturday excursion between the towns, charging a shilling for the return fare. The L.M.S.'s substantial interest in Highland Transport made also the availability of interchangeable bus/train tickets although in November 1932 the L.M.S. made a vain objection to H.T.C. and W. Wares reducing the price of their season tickets from Thurso to Wick claiming that they were undercutting the railway company's fares. However much the buses may have eroded the railway's local revenue in Caithness, the recognised means of transport to the south was still the train. It was possible in the 1930s to travel to Inverness by bus but this required catching the 8.10 a.m. Wick-Helmsdale mail car changing at Helmsdale for Dornoch, and then making the third and final leg of the journey from Dornoch, arriving at Inverness at 4.17 p.m.
Corresponding to the low fares (e.g. Thurso-Wick 2s. single, 3s. return) were the low wages paid to the busmen. In 1938, a conductor's weekly remuneration was £1, while a driver could earn £3 after two years' service. During normal week days they were expected to work a twelve hour day with overtime pay being non-existent.
The movement of service personnel in connection with the R.A.F. stations at Wick and Castletown and from Thurso station to Scrabster pier brought extra traffic for Highland during the War years. The allocation of five Albions at Thurso was augmented by two wartime built buses: no. 1, the solitary Tilling Stevens with 26 seat Willowbrook body which was originally built for export in 1942 but was diverted to Highland and lasted in their service until 1955; and No. 2, a Leyland Tiger TS 11 seating 36 passengers and was the most mechanically advanced bus in the County at the time. For a period, Wick was the home of the solitary Gilford H.S.G. bus which had been modified to run on producer gas. The bus had been built in 1937 by High Speed Gas, (G.B.) Ltd., and the chassis was extensively tested in Scotland, and performed impressively enough to convince Highland Transport to buy it. The chassis was modified to run on peat, and a Cowieson body was fitted, being numbered 76.
The year 1946 saw the acquisition by Highland of James Wilson's Thurso-Mey mail-car service along with an 18 seat wartime built Bedford. Wilson's mail service to the West had passed to O'Brien of Bettyhill in 1939 and had latterly used two 2-ton Ford vehicles on this route. The long established Wick-John o' Groats service of R.S. Waters was also acquired in that year.
Highland needed extra capacity for the Thurso-Wick service with the result that Caithness's first double-deckers arrived in 1946. These were Guy Arab Mark IIs with Northern Counties utility bodies seating fifty-five passengers. Numbered 19 and 20, they were the first examples of this make which was soon to become well known in the County.
From 1946 until the advent of Dounreay in 1955, the pattern of bus services in Caithness barely changed and in the early 1950s, Highland Omnibuses, the new wholly nationalised company formed in 1952 to succeed Highland Transport, required only twenty-three buses including four double-deckers to serve the County.