The British Isles have a rich heritage of folklore (in which most of the best bits are poor copies of earlier stories that originate on the Isle of Lewis). For thousands of years, amadans and the gullible have been enthralled by tales of folk heroes, mythical beasts, fantastically ornate landscapes and half believable tales of danger and adventure.
On Lewis one of the best loved folk heroes is Bobban Hood. As with all good folklore, no one quite knows if he really existed, and, if he was actually a real person, no one quite knows what era he existed in. But that’s the way with all good folklore, it all becomes a bit blurry.
The story goes that Bobban Hood was the son of a weaver and was originally known as Ropach of Lochseaforth. Like most male offspring of the time, he took himself off to the Cuireamsades in the Holy Land (Tolsta).
Whilst he was away, the evil Sheriff of Mawtingham (a local tweed mill magnate) stole his father’s loom and gave it to Sir Cove of Gislabourne. Mawtingham was a nasty piece of work and enforced a strict regime on the local weavers, only giving the best tweeds to his henchmen and paying pathetic rates to the remaining weavers.
On Bobban Hood’s return to Stornoway, he was shocked to find that his old man’s loom had been stolen, effectively leaving him dispossessed and without a livelihood. He remonstrated with Mawtingham and Sir Cove but they framed him for using an electric motor and he was forced to go into hiding.
Bobban Hood took refuge in an area of woodland on the edge of Stornoway; the coniferous plantation at the bottom of Smith Avenue. This forest was known locally as the Masheer-wood Forest, as it consisted of planted woods as opposed to the natural woodlands covering the island in the Middle Ages. (Before the Vikings went on the rampage and burned down all the trees).
(Ironically, this particular plantation was planted on the site of a church, a decision which caused no end of consternation and debate as many folk felt there was more than enough wood on the island and not enough Churches).
As Bobban made his way into the depths of Masheerwood Forest, skilfully managing to keep one step ahead of the Sheriff’s men, he discovered that many other weavers had taken up residence there. These poor souls had been forced to move from the weaving colonies at Kennedy Terrace and Seaforth Road and take refuge in the depths of Masheerwood. This band of Outmaws was leaderless but soon came to respect Bobban’s natural skills with the tweeds to (and his adept handling of his barrow) and soon offered him the top job.
The outlaws included Shonnie Beag, Allan a’Dell, Elder Tuck and Will Scarista. Bobban also had a blone called Maid Mawrion who did all the cooking.
Under Bobban’s leadership, the outlaw weavers were able to set up illegal looms beneath the boughs of the trees. And under cover of darkness they would waylay carts full of wool, bobbans and fuidheags that were bound for Mawtingham’s Mills, and make off with the cargoes.
Bobban Hood and his Mawry Men would then distribute the tweeds to the poor weavers of Stornoway, thus creating the legend of the cunning outmaw.
The story of Bobban Hood has as many strands as a double width tweed. One of the best know involves the Golden Barrow contest, set up by Mawtingham to try and capture Bobban.
Mawtingham knew that Bobban wouldn’t be able to resist getting his hands on a barrow made of gold. His henchmen put up signs about the Contest all over the town (and full page spreads in ‘Ye Stornoway Gazette’ and ‘Ye Eventes’). The signs proclaimed that whosoever could move a pile of fuidheags the fastest (with extra points for artistic merit) from one end of Willowglen to the other would win the coveted Golden Barrow.
Unbeknownst to Bobban, the Sheriff had hidden his men all over Willowglen with instructions to capture him and chuck him in the dungeon. But cunningly, Bobban went in disguise (wearing a bobban hat pulled down really tight) and was able to compete. Naturally Bobban won the contest, made off with the Golden Barrow, rescued Maid Mawrion from having to do all the dishes and disappeared into the dusk, leaving the Sheriff’s men scratching their heads (the midges had come out by then).
It is said that on his deathbed, Bobban told his men to bury him wherever his barrow landed. The dying Bobban took one last heave and flung his Golden Barrow as far as he could and was promptly buried three feet away.
It is also said that Bobban Hood will return once again when the Tweed Industry needs him most. (He had to come back in 1650, 1749, 1825,1898,1925,1954,1975, 1992,1999, 2005, 2010 and 2012).
Many folk will no doubt remember the long running BBC Alba series ‘The Adventures of Bobban Hood’ which ran for several years in the 1950’s.
“Bobban Hood, Bobban Hood
Riding through Willow Glen
Bobban Hood, Bobban Hood
He’s off to steal a hen
Cheered by the Bard
Loved by the good
Bobban Hood, Bobban Hood”
This was but one of many screen adaptations of the Bobban Hood story. Readers of a different vintage will recall the cheap ‘n’ nasty 80s adaptation on MacIver & Dart TV, starring Michael Prayed, who left to go in for the ministry and was replaced by Jason Canneryroad. In the 1970s, Jason’s old man, Shir Shorn Canneryroad, played an ageing Bobban opposite Mawdrey Hepburn’s Maid Mawrion.
Kevin Croftner’s big screen adaptation ”Bobban Hood : Prince of Weaves” was a huge hit in the 90s due mostly to Alan Fleekman’s portrayal of the dastardly Sheriff, and Bryan Adag’s schmaltzy power ballad of a theme song. “Everything I Do (I Do for Marag Dubh)” sat at the top of the Isles FM top 100 for 22 years.
Croftner’s adaptation was famous for playing fast and loose with local geography. Returning from the wars, Bobban gets off the ferry in Tarbert and walks back to Stornoway in 10 minutes via the White Cliffs of Soval, Port of Ness, Castlebay, the Callanish Stones and Ardroil beach.
A more recent big screen version featuring Russell Cromore attracted widespread ridicule, due to Cromore’s ruppish attempts at a Stornowegian accent – described by critics as “an unconvincing impersonation of a Welsh Pakistani Geordie from Transylvania, who’s been on his holidays in Belfast with D*ck V*n Dyke, Private Fraser and the Swedish Chef”.