Farewell oh Suilven

26 11 2015

Poor Suilven, worthy/infamous Stornoway ferry of yore.

Your demise reminds us of the words of Calum Ossian…..

Farewell Suilven, you’ve met your fate

After forty years of carrying freight

Cars and lorries, box and crate

Squeezed on the car deck by the Mate.
And passengers by the rope would wait

Until the gangway was lined up straight

Then single file they would locate

To the lounge or bar at a steady rate

And sprawled out sleepers then berate

For taking up the best real estate

Then queuing up with tray and plate

For the full cooked breakfast many ate

When you broke down we got irate

And we’d ring Calmac for an update

The weather often made you late

Cos when the Minch was rough it would undulate

But once those waves did dissipate

You took us over at a steady rate

For work or hols or further educate

And plenty folk who did migrate

But there were crossings you’d navigate

Like a summer evening that was sedate

When seeing the town would generate

An increase in your eyes lubricate

(You also plied across Cook Straight

That YouTube clip made us nauseate)

Stornoway and Liners

8 11 2015

Younger readers looking at the increasing number of cruise liners visiting Stornoway will no doubt think this is a great new thing, with the undoubted benefits it brings the harbour, the town, the Callanish stones and fans of thon Chudge Chudy cailleach off the telly.
And yet… Old SYs will allow themselves a quiet chuckle, knowing that the town has a long and illustrious connection with top-end ocean-going travel.
In the 1830s, Marybank metal recycling mogul Samuel Coo-ard was the first to spot the coming demand for a fast, reliable and luxurious steamship service across the Atlantic. Coo-ard established a shipyard on the banks of the Bayhead River, round about where the Bowling Club is today, and set about constructing a great vessel, the 207-ft long paddle steamer SS Branahuietania. In the days of wooden-hulled ships, the Branahuietania’s construction was both technologically daring and cost-saving; Coo-ard ordered that it be built entirely from the scrap metal of dubious provenance that he already had stashed round the back of his house. Unfortunately most of this was lead, nicked off the roof of Seaforth Lodge, so the SS Branahuietania sank without trace as soon as it was launched. 
Many years before the coveted Blue Riband transatlantic prize of making the crossing in the fastest time came into being, the Isle of Lewis was famous for having its own challenge called the Brue Ribbons prize. The many local passenger liners sailing out of Stornoway would compete to see who could make the lucrative Brue Communion weekend in the quickest time, and thus get the most trade for the next Communions. The liners would carry Communicants, Ministers and Elders (and enough home baking to keep the west side in scones for the better part of a year) over to the wee village of Brue on the Atlantic coast. The liner that completed the voyage in the fastest time would be bedecked in multicoloured tweed ribbons and would sail around Stornoway harbour showing off. Brue was also famous for being the home of shipping engineer and rubbish Gaelic songwriter I-is-a-Bard Kingcole Brue-neil, who built the ill-fated ships Great Eaststreet and Great Westview.
Stornoway’s connections to the doomed liner Titanic have been much explored by proper historians; a few years ago there was great debate in the Gazette about whether the Captain and/or 1st Officer and/or entire crew were from Laxdale or somewhere. Strangely none of the eminent historians participating in that discussion seemed to be aware that Port of Ness had been the Titanic’s last stop en route to its watery grave. Oh yus. Although not advertised on the vessel’s itinerary, she quietly drew up at the Port on a dark night in 1912 to pick up an illegal consignment of guga destined for the tables of top Niseach exiles in America, including John Wayne’s old man and Jim Morrison’s granny. Also taken aboard were three stowaways trying to get to Hollywood: failed local mod contestant Ceceder Dion from Skigersta, and 3rd rate Machair rejects Lionelmurdo DiCaprio and Ceit Winslet from Swainbost. Some say that it wasn’t the iceberg that did for the Titanic at all; the much more plausible theory is that Ceceder Dion got up to sing with the ship’s orchestra one evening, and her rendition of “My Barts Will Go On” drove so many passengers to the opposite side of the ship that she began to list. The cargo of guga in the hold shifted, causing the vessel to capsize, and as soon as the guga came into contact with water a massive explosion occurred, sending Titanic to the bottom, probably.
In the early 1970’s, Stornoway Town Council briefly acquired the Queen Elizabeth (the QE1) to use as their new HQ but had to sell it on to Hong Kong (where it caught fire and capsized) because the berth was needed for the new roll-on/roll-off ramp.
Other well known Stornowegian Shipping Lines
Another well known local shipping Line was Pee and O-hee (P&O). Originally established in 1855 as a cargo service in order to transport much needed buckets of urine from Stornoway (with its metropolis-like population) to the less densely populated rural districts (with fewer bladders), so that the vital fluid could be used in the tweed waulking process by cailleachs. This Line was prone to accidents hence the phrase ‘O-hee’ occurring in its name.
Mawrsk: A Stornowegian/Norwegian partnership set up to transport fish farm salmon from Lewis to Norway and bring chessmen back on the return voyage. Helped revolutionise shipping by using containers, although foolishly went for the wooden fishbox sized ones instead of the now better known ‘container’ sized ones seen across the world.

Shite Star: Set up to transport top grade todhar across the world, but sadly thought the idea of giving names like Shitanic to their vessels would endear them to all. 

Cilla Back and Val(tos) Donnicanneryroad RIP

9 08 2015

The world of Gaelic light entertainment has suffered a major blow in the last few weeks with the passing of two BBC Alba stalwarts, first Val(tos) Donnicanneryroad and Cilla Back.
Both stars had long running Saturday night entertainment shows on BBC Alba during the 60’s and 70’s. Theses types of show were very popular throughout the Gaeltacht and as well as showcasing Val and Cilla singing talents, also had a range of popular light entertainers on as guests. On a typical Saturday night on BBC Alba you could expect to see an accordion player, a Gaelic choir singing (miming) on a Lewis beach, a comedian telling jokes about whatever church denomination he wasn’t in, another accordion player and of course the trendy young dance act, The Young Congregation. 

Holding these shows together were Val and Cilla. Both had a powerful TV presence, coupled with a cove/blone next door vibe, and each show brought viewers in the droves. Both became big stars and couldn’t even walk along Cromwell St without fans asking them to come and help take their peats home.

Val(tos) came from Harris, so many people mistook his Hearroch lilt as been an Irish accent. He was famed for wearing bobban chumpers that his grannie knitted for him, and normally sat crooning on a rocking chair. 
His hits included Waulk Tall, Paddy McReids Shop, The Special Years (all about a massive carry out of Tennants Special which Val and his classmates scoffed whilst on a Gallows Hill bushwalk), 
Cilla rose to fame after been discovered singing in the Caverstadh Club (a seedy dive in Stornoways Docklands). She was discovered by Brian Epsteinish, who also manger The Peatles.
Cilla also wrote the fashion column for “Mushy Peat” magazine and hung out with all the hip and happening beat combos on the scene: Gerryvard and the Prayermakers, The Swinging Blue Boilersuits, The Big Free, The Wee Free, The Wee Free (Continuing), The Fourmaw-st and Farron’s Flafaoileags.
Cilla also chalked up a range of hits in the Maciver and Darts Top 10, including ‘Anyone Who Had A Cearc’, ‘Step Outside Cove’, and ‘Heb Alfie’
Cilla also hit the big time during the 80’s with a number of very popular BBC Alba show. These included;
“Blind Skate” – Cilla’s guests were presented with 3 fishboxes behind a screen at Cailean Neillie’s. Based on a few cheeky scripted questions and answers, they had to decide which one they’d take home and boil for the dinner. “Blind Skate” was immensely successful, with prime time Saturday night ratings in double figures, and spawned a number of lesser imitators on rival TV channels, such as “Deaf Sked” on Grampian.
“Blight Date” – A less successful spinoff from “Blind Skate”, in which the guests had to choose which bucket of potatoes they’d take home to have with their fish.  
 Surpraise Surpraise -Cilla takes a blindfolded guest to an Church and then surprises them when they realise they’ve been tricked into going to a denomination they left the previous year following a painful and antagonistic schism. 
Both Val(tos) and Cilla will be sadly missed.

U.S. Presidents: The SY Connection. (Part 1 of Some)

4 08 2015

Leodhasaich around the world are doubtless full of pride that Tong’s very own D*n*ld Tr*mp has thrown his hat (or at least his toupee) into the 2016 US Presidential race. But should Trump succeed, he won’t be the first incumbent of the White House with island connections. Detailed research by the Made Up History of Stornoway coves has recently shown that:
108.3% of US presidents since 17Oatcake have been of Outer Hebridean extraction.
This has not been common knowledge to date because 112.9% of them took great pains to conceal it.
The only one who didn’t was Orinsay man John F “A Better Singer Than His Brother, But He Neffer Let On” Kennedy, and look where it got him.
Indeed, if Trump secures the Republican nomination it’ll be a Lewis vs Lewis contest; Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton met her husband, former President Bill, when they were both in the islands in the 70s working in their relatives’ businesses.
Older SYs may remember Bill, the be-suited young American from Arkinsawmillband with the gift of the gab who used to come round the villages on a pushbike in the early 70s flogging Critall aluminium window frames. Unfortunately we don’t have the time to dwell upon the Mawnica Lewisinsky scandal). 
Meanwhile the young Hillary Bobban, fresh out of Yale Law School, had been lured across the pond by a relative’s promise of a big job in the Harris Tweed industry. Assuming this would involve loads of high-powered lawyering in a business famous for its court cases, Hillary bought a one-way ticket to Stornoway, only to find herself spending the summer filling iteagans in her uncle Murdo’s loomshed on Bulnacraig Street. Had a despondent Hillary not nipped out to Cathy Ghall’s for a quarter bottle of Trawler Rum one Friday affa, she’d never have bumped into Bill (himself was in to get a bottle of 4 Crown, 10 Woodbines and 6 Piper Export) and the rest wouldn’t have been history.
Whoever wins, the man they’ll be succeeding has his own Lewis connections. Back in the 1940s, Barack Obama’s old man ran a failing dockside offal butcher’s shop in the Kenyan port of Mombasa. To supplement the paltry income from the business, he kept an illegal gambling den round the back, which was popular with sailors from the many cargo ships that stopped off en route to the Far East. One day, a passing Stornoway seaman dropped in for a game of 2s and 8s, and before long had lost all his money. Desperate to stay in the game, he staked his granny’s recipe for Stornoway black pudding on the next hand, lost and fleeked off back to Plasterfield penniless.
Next day, despite his initial horror on reading the sailor’s ingredients list, Obama senior put on his WWII surplus gas mask and cautiously cooked up a batch. To his great surprise, they sold out instantly; before long Obama senior had made his fortune and retired to Hawaii on the proceeds. To celebrate, he named his first son after the product that had made his family rich., and thus was born Marag Ossian Obama Jr. As is often the case, however, American registrars couldn’t cope with exotic foreign monickers, so when he went to school poor Marag Ossian’s name was anglicised to the much more all-American Barack Hussain.

The Sked Barrows

21 06 2015

The visit to Stornoway of the RAF’s Red Arrows Display Team has reminded us of the long forgotten Sked Barrows Display Team which used to grace manys a Carnival and County Show in the 1920’s.

A ‘sked’ of course, is Stornowegian for ‘herring’. The herring industry in Stornoway was hard work. Although it made a name for the town, the work involved was difficult, labour intensive, back breaking, prone to accidents involving sharp gutting knives and very very smelly.

The working day was long and conditions were poor and so the workforce had to turn to various means of passing the time and taking their minds off the daily drudgery (except Sundays). Some of the Herring Gyurls would pass the time in song, the carters would recite scripture and the skiving bleigards would play cards under the pier.

One way of passing the time and making a long day more bearable was devised by the enterprising youths of Stornoway who were tasked to transport the fish guts in large wooden barrows from the pier to Tigh na Guts.

The young boys would shovel up fish heads and fish guts from the pier into large wooden barrows. They would then skilfully negotiate the rows of barrels and weave in and out of carts and wagons, and make their way to the Gut Factory.

To pass the time the boys would show off their skills with their barrows, dodging through tight spaces, running up and down ramps and criss-crossing each other as they did so. The blood from the various fish parts soon stained the barrows red and the sight of bright red barrows zooming around the pier soon became a common sight.

So much so, that at the 1910 Stornoway Carnival Procession, the boys were asked to join the parade as a mark of how appreciated their work was. The boys bedecked their barrows with bunting and decorative fish heads and dressed up in their finest bobban chumpers. They decided to call themselves The Sked Barrows for the Parade.

They formed up behind the Stornoway Guild of Fishbox Artificers (with their float ‘Kaiser Bill’s A Big Bleigard’) and just in front of the Honourable Association of Dawn Squaders (with their float ‘Pile of Empties’). Just before they set off, the Parade Marshall went round and told all the floats that smoking was strictly forbidden. The Sked Barrows hastily removed their Woodbines from their mouths and cunningly attached them, still lit, to the handles of their barrows.

And so the Carnival Parade set off along South Beach and towards Castle Street. Just past No2 Pier, a sudden gust of wind from the harbour flared up the smouldering fags and set fire to the trailing bunting on each of the barrows. The bunting, seeped in herring blood and guts, gave off a variety of colourful (and pungent) smoke.

Instead of causing alarm and consternation, the brightly coloured smoke added to the occasion and the appreciative applause and shouts of the crowd urged the Sked Barrows to start doing all sorts of twists, turns, leaps and lurches. This proved so popular that the Sked Barrows were asked to do an impromptu display of their dexterity on Cromwell St.

The Gazette featured them on the front page the following Thursday and this helped cement their place in Stornoway legend. The Sked Barrows appeared on many occasions over the next four years; at Carnivals, Village Fetes, Highland Games, Funerals and Orduighean. They came up with ever more exciting routines and were able to the best barrows money could buy.

But the shadow of war was lurking behind the fame and fortune they had found. Shortly after War was declared, a visiting Colonel spotted the boys doing a display outside the Clachan and immediately thought of a way they could help the British war effort. As well as helping shift dirt from the trenches at the Front Line, the Sked Barrows could also help boost the troops’ morale. The boys were of course full of patriotic enthusiasm and signed up right away. They were formed up in a special unit called The Ross Mountain Barrowy and were given armour plated khaki barrows.

Soon the gallant bravery of the Sked Barrows was known along the whole of the Western Front. Between them, the 20 coves from Stornoway and their barrows had dug out most of the trenches in France. Their fascinating displays had entertained thousands of troops and all the boys had their chests bedecked with medals.

However, the Germans had noticed them too. A fierce rivalry arose between the Germans’ crack Barrow Squad led by the infamous Red Barrow, Manfred Von Richthovansnahovano. His barrow of choice was a red Fleekker Triwheel and he had the reputation of having the most ‘digs’ of any German barrow operative.

The Sked Barrows’ ongoing struggle with the Red Barrow caught the imaginations of the troops and the British public. Many of the boys acquired nicknames reflecting their fishing backgrounds, including Big Gills, Algae and carrot-topped barrow-fixing expert The Bodach Ruadh. Local Stornoway butcher Willie E. Johns also wrote several books based around the exploits of the Sked Barrows, including:

Big Gills and the loose handle Big Gills at the Front (of the barrow) Big Gills Spills His guts Big Gills Cacs His Drarsh

The demise of the Herring fishery ended the Sked Barrows’ domination of the world of fish barrowbatics, and it was left to other nations to take up the baton. America’s Blue (Sea)Anglers team remain a force to be reckoned with today, as do Italy’s dashing Pesce Tricolori.

Sadly the once-mighty Russians have dropped off a bit since the days of the Cold War, when the crews of visiting Soviet klondykers would astound the crowds at Number 2 pier by performing 90-second vertical handle stands while barrowing 5 cran of mackerel at a time in their top secret MoG-29s.

A Return To Canals, Waterways and Uisgeducts

5 06 2015

Regular readers may recall our earlier article from March 2009 on the Stornoway Ship Canal. Shortly after it was published, we received a number of complaints pointing out that the piece contained a number of minor factual accuracies, so we’ve binned it and had another go….
Stornoway has traditionally lagged a bit behind other major European cities when it comes to promoting the magic and romance of its picturesque waterways, but for those in the know, the canals of Old SY are a hidden gem.

The earliest and perhaps the most ambitious canal in Stornoway was dug in around 2560 BC, during the ancient Egyptian occupation of Lewis, when construction of the Great Pyramid of Gisla was underway over in Uig. (See “The 7 Wonders of the Anchent Lewis World, Feb 2010). The thousands of slave labourers toiling on the pyramid’s construction required high-calorie sustenance, and their overseers soon discovered that the best diet for a day’s slave labouring was duff. A canal was therefore built linking Stornoway’s massive Ptolemy Terrace Duff Works to Little Loch Roag via Loch Langabhat and a chain of smaller lochs crossing the island. This massive waterway was known as the Suet Canal.

The Roman Period

The brief Stornowegian ‘Roman Period’ also saw the development of a spectacular array of waterways across the island. 

Under Emperor Calumigula, a network of Uisgeducts were built around Stordinium. These were used to transport the sparkling waters of Loch Mor An Stairr to the various bath houses dotted about the town. The Romans had hoped that the many bath houses would encourage the indigenous population to wash themselves more frequently, but as it turned out the main use of the Roman baths became the washing of sheeps fleeces, rinsing of wellies and the boiling of spuds (on Sunday’s). 

Thomas Telford in Stornoway

In 1820 the great civil engineer Thomas Telford came across the Minch for a wee break one weekend while working on the Caledonian Canal. The directors in the Canal consortium were in the middle of a major feud over the naming of a spectacular new series of locks being constructed near Fort William; each of the partners wanted to call it after themselves, their grannies or their dogs, and the arguments were getting increasingly heated. 

With all this pressure at work, Telford was determined to let off steam on his Stornoway break, and so he embarked on a tour of the town’s hostelries. In the course of his pub crawl, he is said to have over-imbibed and got involved in a scrap about sheep’s earmarks in an upper room of the building occupied today by Macneill’s bar.

Telford came off worst in the rammy and was hurled head first downstairs, rolling out into the street and colliding with “Confessions of a Justified Sinner” author James Hogg, who was staggering past with concussion after being caught in an unrelated stramash in the Star Inn. Lying among the discarded chip wrappers and Bacardi Breezer bottles in the Narrows, Telford was suddenly struck with an inspired solution to his problem back in Fort William. Which is why the Caledonian Canal’s most famous sequence of locks is known to this day as “The Neptune Staircase” (nearly).

20th Century – The Steinish Sheep Canal

Passing along the road between Plasterfield and Sandwick, one crosses a rush-clogged ditch stretching off down into the common grazings towards Broad Bay. This, sadly, is all that remains of one of the island’s more recent waterways, a monumental project which was to become a white elephant almost as soon as it was completed. 

In the immediate post-war years, with a newly-built aerodrome on their doorstep and old USAF surplus Dakota aircraft going cheap, the North Street Grazings Committee started a highly successful transglobal live sheep  export business, shipping fresh Sandwick mehhags by air to all corners of a hungry world. The envious neighbouring powers soon noticed, however, and armed forces from East Street, Parkend, Plasterfield and the Teedees’ farm blocked off the roads to the airport, each one demanding a sluyce of the action.

North Street told them all to fleek off, and sent G**rdie G*lidy down to the grazings with a spade one Saturday afternoon in 1956. Fired by the promise of a plate of chops for his tea, 10 Woodbines and a free nyoggan up the town afterwards, G*lidy dug a canal 20 feet deep and 30 feet wide all the way to Steinish dump, completing the project by 4pm. The canal gave North street a route to the airport that bypassed the territory of its enemies, and first thing the following Monday morning, enormous barges were transporting hundreds of North Street sheep direct to the airport to rendezvous with their flights. The Steinish Sheep Canal was open for business.   

Unfortunately nobody had consulted the Steinish Grazings Committee beforehand, and the canal had been dug right through the middle of their fank. On the Tuesday morning, enraged Steinish Committee Clerk Calum Abdul droch-Nadar nationalised the canal and blocked it with an old tractor and several rolls of  rusty Rylock. Droch-Nadar demanded that North Street pay a levy of 300 white marags per barge; North Street refused and invaded the Steinish fank instead, leading to a major diplomatic incident known as the Suet Crisis (yus, Suet again). All the surrounding Grazings committees sided with Steinish, and North Street was forced to withdraw ignominiously, ending its short-lived domination of the international sheep air freight business. Without the steady flow of sheep between North Street and the airport there was no economic justification for the Steinish Sheep Canal’s existence, and it was soon abandoned.

Sadly we must leave Canals for now, but readers will no doubt be aware of the famous ‘Panama Canal Palindrome’ , where the phrase ‘A man, a plan, a canal, Panama’ is the same backwards as well as forwards.   

Sadly Stornoway’s Panamandersonroad Canal didn’t quite work out as well in terms of palindromes (or indeed in terms of navigable waterways). 

‘A maw, a plank, a cart, ahh fleek it to all this digging’

Cac Neillidh RIP –  “Lewis Lewis” Singer Passes Away

3 05 2015
The recent passing of Jack Ely, lead vocalist of The Kings Men, was a great blow to fans of 60s garage rock. The Portland, Oregon band’s 1963 version of “Louie Louie” may have started as a minor hit in the Pacific Northwest, but it became the definitive benchmark for simplistic 3-chord garage punk, and has inspired countless cover versions to this day.

Jack Ely’s connections to the Isle of Lewis are little known, but in fact his musical career was inspired by the example of his cousin, Neil Mackay from Fivepenny Borve, who passed away the same day.  Mackay worked as a manure salesman by day, and never usually bothered to have a wash or get changed before going out to play gigs with his groovy beat combo at night. His look (and smell) soon became a trademark, and he became known to all and sundry as Cac Neillidh.

In the late 50s and early 60s Cac’s band The Kinlochsmen played hops and shindigs all over the Northwest, from Barvas as far up as Eoropie. 

 Cac wanted to increase his bands profile by making a hit record. One day whilst checking out the latest 45’s in Maciver and Dart’s bit of the shop set aside for records,  he heard “Lewis Lewis” by Niseach singer Rockin’ Rubha Robhanais and the Whalers. This catchy tune had been  originally been recorded in 1956 by Richard Berisay and the Faroesetrawlers on their “Exceedin’ the Sand Eel Quota” LP and had all the hallmarks of a big hit record. Cac immediately decided to record a cover version of the song..

The original song was about a pub crawl round Stornoway which ending up in the public bar of the Lewis Hotel.  It told the story of normal Stornoway Saturday night and the panic stricken rush to get home before midnight and the Sabbath. 

‘Oh Lewis, oh Lewis, ohh thighearna
We’ve got to go right nuw.

Cac was permanently strapped for cash, so he chose the cheapest possible recording studio to record the song, (and also utilised a collection of half broken accordions, ex primary school chanters and guitars with wool instead of proper guitar strings). The studio normally only recorded FP lay preachers’ sermons, so the microphones had been ruined with all the fire, brimstone and spittle they encountered during their normal course of life. This meant that Cac’s vocals ended up being distorted and indistinct and inadvertently led to a mini scandal. 

The songs first play on Isles AM was well received and MacIver and Darts, Woolies and DD Morrisons record shelves were soon emptied of all 10 copies as Stornoway’s trendy youths snapped it up. 

However, a Free Church Minister overheard the song on Isles AM and felt that Cac was singing about all sorts of naughty things which could corrupt the youth of Stornoway. This led to a report to the Church Session and ultimately all the way to the top. The Freechurch Bureau of Investigation, led by Chay Edgar Thighearna, lauched a probe to determine whether the lyrics were obscene. The probe was inconclusive but led indirectly to a schism 30 years later within the Free Church (some Ministers wanted to end the probe, but some wanted to Continue it). 

After a brief whirlwind with fame and fortune, the hits dried up and Neillidh fell out with the band and fleeked off to become a barman in the Lewis, and then a steward on the Isle of Lewis ferry. 

(Cac Neillidh should not be confused with his distant cousin Cailean. Cailean Neillidh and his band The Lingsmen had the unrelated hit “Liubh-y Liubh-y”)

Cac’s famous song will long live on. It was proposed as the national anthem of Stornoway but was narrowly beaten by Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Freebird. It is a constant staple in every Stornoway pub-bands sets, features as a prescribed song in the National Mod and is the ringtone for Lewis Builders.
Local cover versions down the years:
– Paul Reveerend and the Secaiders
– Otis Readingroominthelibrarynexttocoinneachgobh
– The Beach Bouys
– Iggy & the Spooges
– Mawtorhead 
– The Caise
– Innes the Postman
– The Dun Ringles (in 5/7 time with 3 symphonic movements and a 40-minute mellotron 


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