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Jimmy Bullar’s Tea Hut

Jimmy Bullar's Tea Hut, 1947 Bedford

JIMMY BULLAR’S TEA HUT

This strange contraption is living out the remainder of its days in the middle of a peat bog on the Isle of Lewis. I stumbled across it (almost literally), in February 2011 during a full moon night photography trek to the shielings of Cuishader. When bad weather cut my outing short, depriving me of a decent shot of this weird vehicle, I knew I’d have to return to complete unfinished business. In the meantime I dug up a little of the history behind the bus that was parked in the middle of nowhere.

Several people contacted me after I posted my first batch of Cuishader photos in Feb 2011, sharing their knowledge and experiences of this vehicle while it was plying its trade around the roads of Lewis. Piecing together various snippets of info, I’ve compiled what amounts to an abbreviated history of Jimmy Bullar’s Tea Hut. There may be a few errors in my story and no doubt there are many gaps to fill but it’s entertaining nonetheless….

Jimmy Bullar’s Tea Hut started life in the Outer Hebrides as a British European Airways passenger bus, operating between the centre of Stornoway and the island’s airport. It was one of approximately 300 Commer Commando Observation Coaches – often referred to as ‘half-deckers’ – built in 1947. This particular model was supplied to British European Airways (BEA) and was used to transport air passengers from the BEA office in Stornoway town centre to the airport, a couple of miles out of town. Courtesy of the good folks on Sy Cove here’s a photo of the very same bus parked outside the BEA office on Cromwell Street (now the HS1 cafe bar) in the early 1950s.

BEA Bus, Stornoway

My neighbour remembers travelling on the bus between BEA’s Cromwell Street office and Stornoway airport in the 1950s and ’60s. The BEA office effectively served as a departure lounge, due to the airport itself consisting of nothing more than a runway and a few ramshackle RAF buildings dating from WW2.

Thanks again to the  people on Sy Cove for coming up with this photo from 1953. It shows the BEA half-decker at Stornoway airport. The two bi-planes had just returned from rescuing survivors of the sunken Hildena trawler.

BEA 1953

When the bus retired from airport duty, it was put into service as a mobile shop, operated by Kenny Maclennan. At some point in the 1960s it was acquired by Kenny’s brother, Jimmy ‘Bullar’ Maclennan, proprietor of Stornoway Builders Ltd. It was used as a mobile canteen and accommodation unit for the firm’s employees, hence the ‘Tea Hut’ designation. Either before or during this time, it appears the engine ceased to function. Shortly afterwards the vehicle was converted into a trailer by extending the bodywork over the original engine compartment. It was towed from one building site to another by one of Jimmy’s trucks, serving as a canteen and sleeping quarters for the firm’s labourers.

I was sent this picture of the converted bus by Murdo Morrison:

bullar_horgabost1

As a child he remembers spending a summer holiday in the early 1970s at Horgabost in Harris – his father worked for Jimmy at the time and was loaned the converted bus for the family holiday.

In addition to operating Stornoway Builders Ltd, entrepreneur Jimmy, owner of the island’s first Rolls Royce,  built ‘The Acres’ hotel (now the Caladh Inn) in Stornoway in 1968. He managed to infuriate local Free Presbyterian Ministers by selling alcohol on the Sabbath. The Wee Free powers that be, used their not inconsiderable influence to bring the enterprising businessman down.

acres_hotel1

The hooded crows had their day, with the hotel being put up for sale in 1972. Meanwhile Jimmy’s building firm called in the receivers. In a separate incident in 1976, his house in Smith Avenue, Stornoway, was completely destroyed in a gas explosion. Dramatic times!

bullar_blast

Following the collapse of Stornoway Builders Ltd, the ‘tea hut’ found a new owner and was ultimately transported to Cuishader, where it became a static home from home for some of the part-time peat cutters of Ness.

rafcommando_600

Above: recently restored  RAF 1947 Commer Commando.

Jimmy Bullar's Tea Hut, 1947 Commer Commando

Above: another pic of Jimmy Bullar’s tea hut from my visit in February 2012

If further proof were needed of my fascination with this bus, here’s an image I put together to show how the bus was transformed from BEA passenger vehicle into builders’ tea hut. The roof-line was extended forward of the door pillars, boxing off the entire engine compartment flush with the front of the vehicle. Quite a skilled piece of sheet  metal fabrication, apparently carried out by one of the vehicle workshops in Stornoway.

busx2_600

A perfect example of islander ingenuity… from airport passenger transporter, to mobile shop, to builders’ mobile accommodation and tea room. Sixty five years after it first left the Commer factory in Luton, this slice of Hebridean history is seeing out its final days in the middle of a peat bog in Lewis…. or is it? 😉

Thanks to Iain Macleod for his help with the background to this story and also to the many people on Sy Cove for sharing their memories and photos.

11 thoughts on “Jimmy Bullar’s Tea Hut”

  1. Fascinating read….I was born in 1976 and the gas explosion on Smith Avenue may be attributed for my partial deafness 😉 Apparently the noise from the explosion was incredible.

    I did not know the early story of The Acres Hotel, as far as I was concerned it was always The Seaforth and solely a Mackenzie owned business – who knew about the life before and the Sabbath row!

    Love all the photos of the bus; old, new and animated. Great pictorial of what initially appears quite innocuous. A disused bus stuck in a bog!

  2. John,
    Jimmy Bullar was a legend & quite a larger than life character who took a lot of chances & probably made a lot of dirty deals on the way, but he kicked the hornet’s nest & that effectively finished him off.
    Sad reflection of the day that the “Church” had so much influence on the people of Lewis & let’s not forget that many of those who brought him down were not so called “church goers” but guys like you & me who bowed down to the ultimate “peer pressure” living in a rural setting, probably too scared to speak their minds in case they all went T*ts up!!!
    Anyway, thanks again, i real enjoyed that & the Harris Tweed bus story as well, I used to work in the mill in Shawbost for 5 years in the 80″s.
    Regards,
    Donald (Inverness)….Ex-Bragar.

    • Cheers Donald, little did I know what stories I’d discover as a result of photographing that old bus. There must be a photo somewhere of JB with his famous Rolls Royce?

      Another Jimmy Bullar story, this time from 1969, when as head of the Western Isles Tourist Association he was battling with the Lord’s Day Observance Society at a public meeting held in Stornoway. The LDOS were recommending their members ask tourists to “observe the island way of life and not leave their houses on Sundays for purposes of pleasure”.

      Jimmy replied: “A great deal has been said about people going to the beaches on Sunday and going for car runs. I am one of them and I am not a tourist. I have no intention whatever of ceasing to go to beach on Sundays with my family if the weather is fine. I see absolutely nothing wrong with it”.

  3. It’s amazing how zealots of whatever creed all seem to assume they have the right to dictate how people should live their lives!! Hats off to JB for standing up to the Orwellian ‘Ministry of Truth’ (and for giving us his Tea Hut of course!)

  4. The last photo that you have used of the Commer Camando, green yellow & white.
    It lives in Victoria Australia.
    It is painted in BP colors & is driven to motorsport events up to 1500km round trip from home.

  5. Dear John, I realise this blog is about Commer Commandos but I also like the photograph for the two planes at Stornoway Aerodrome, with the hangar behind them, and the hefty fire tenders. The aircraft on the left, surrounded by people, is a de Havilland DH.89A Dragon Rapide. I can’t make out its registration, but it was almost certainly operated by British European Airways (BEA), which flew all internal Scottish services at the time. I think the airline’s name is painted under the line of windows. The aircraft on the right is a de Havilland DH.84 Dragon, pretty rare by 1953. I think I can see a “D” painted on the fuselage as part of the registration, and that would make it G-ADDI, which at the time was owned by Air Navigation and Trading, based at Blackpool. It may well have been chartered by BEA to help out on this mercy mission. The picture only needs a train in the background and it would just about cover all my transport interests!
    I remember the Rolls-Royce, you could not help noticing it.
    Thank you for all the photos, comments and history!

  6. Guy, thanks for the additional info! If you don’t have it already, you may be interested in this book: BEAline to the Islands – The Story of Air Services to Offshore Communities of the British Isles by British European Airways, Its Predecessors and Successors.
    Some interesting stuff about Stornoway in there.

  7. Just finished painting a model of one of those as it might have appeared if West Coast Motors of Campbeltown had operated one! Wish I’d found this site a week earlier. Great pics.

  8. remember the bus at Leverburgh school during rebuilding in the sixties.Incidentlly I’m dissappointed at you refering to the wee frees as hooded crows!!!

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