Go West Young Man!

29 10 2008

Back in the 1840’s, the people of Stornoway became aware of the rich resources lying far to the west, in the uncharted lands of Uig and Bernera. A few brave and hardy trappers had forged a route across the moors into the unknown ‘Wild West’, looking for adventure and trading opportunities with the natives (the Uigeochs). These hardy souls, bedecked in rabbit fur bonnets and sheepskin jackets,  had brought back tales of rich salmon rivers, wild deer and prime quality sheep. These ‘mountain men’ would risk life and limb for the rich pickings offered in this Promised Land, bringing peats, rabbit skins, Uig sheep fleeces and chess pieces to the town and finding a ready market for their spoils.

It wasn’t long until settlers from the town started to think about making the long trail across the moors to find a new life amongst the scenic beaches and rich mountains of the west. This was to become known far and wide as the Uig Trail. Promises of vast tracts of land and easy going Common Grazing’s Committee’s soon attracted eager settlers in their droves. Soon carters and wheel-rights throughout the town were working to capacity to build covered wagons in preparation for the great trail westwards.

The first wagon train set out from Stornoway in 1841, leaving from Mitchells Wagon Emporium on Cromwell Street, (where Mitchells Bus Station used to be) to the cheers of the populace. 20 wagons in total, with a trail of sheep, cows and hens behind them, left the safety of the town for far flung Uig. The journey was to be a long and arduous one, taking nearly two days, with an overnight stop off in Garrynahine. Eventually, Garrynahine would become a major node on the Trail to Uig and saw the establishment of an Inn (later to become Garynahine Lodge) for use by the pioneers.

The wagon trains encountered many difficulties on its way to Uig. There were rivers to ford, long sea-lochs to negotiate and narrow mountain passes. There was also the constant threat of the natives nicking hens under cover of darkness. Often the wagon trains would have to form a defensive circle as Bernera coves appeared on the skyline, waving their weapons (poaching nets and tarrisgeirs), until they could be calmed with the promise of beads and trinkets (and a few casts on the Creed). And of course Mac in s’ tronaich would appear every now and then and make off with a hen.

But eventually the wagon trains bringing their cargo of townie settlers would get through. New villages sprang up all over Uig and Bernera and soon Stornoway was awash with poached salmon sent home to grannie.

Gradually communications between the town and the far west improved. A new speedy mail service was soon started, where a trained ‘homing’ sheep had bags of letters attached to its back and sent on its way along the Uig Trail. The Sheep Express became famous throughout Lewis and became known for its slogan ‘The mail quite often gets through’.

And, as everyone knows, the coming of the railways to Lewis opened up the entire western seaboard and brought civilisation to the Uig Hills but this is another (true) story, for another day.

Interactive History. Help us choose a future topic for discussion

23 10 2008

Shakespeare In Stornoway

22 10 2008
Stornoway in Shakespeares Time

Stornoway in Shakespeares Time

Most of you, being an educated lot, will know that William Shakespeare has a ‘lost period’ just prior to when he wrote his first play (Henry VI part 1). For many years scholars have been uncertain as to his whereabouts, from roughly 1585 to 1592, and what he did to pass the time.

It turns out he lived in Stornoway during that period and actually worked in a kipper shed on the Newton seafront. It is most likely that his Grannie (a Chrissie MacAulay from Uig) invited the young Shakespeare up to Stornoway (then a busy and thriving trading port) to avoid getting mixed up with ‘bad sorts’ down Stratford-upon-Avon way, what with their outrageous ruffs and pointy shoes. It’s also very likely that young William did voluntary stagehand work (and possibly some acting) in the ‘Ye Orbe‘, Stornoway’s only theatre at the time. Local historians have estimated that Ye Orbe would have been situated more or less where present day An Lanntair is now. The theatre of Shakespeare’s day would have provided entertainment in the form of short plays, performed most likely by the Stornoway Thespians (yes, they’re still going to this day), in Gaelic, English and french (for the posh people of Bayhead). These plays would have opened the imagination of the young Bard and would have filled his mind with all sorts of intricate plot lines, characterisations and bawdy verse.

Inspired by the many tales of the Viking settlement of Lewis, the young William started work on his first play in 1586, known today as ‘The Stornoway Play’. The storyline involved the arrival of the first Vikings  on Lewis, a cunning plot to cut down all the trees and build thousands of windmills (the corn milling kind) across the Barvas Moor in order to provide a ready supply of porridge, and eventually a plan to tow the island back to Norway which results in the break up of the island chain.

The original manuscript was discovered recently in an old fish box (wrapped in a 1592 edition of the Stornoway Gazette) in the old stables behind the Lewis Hotel and is currently undergoing a modern day treatment by Theatre He-ho-ro.

Alongside the manuscript was a dusty and worn map of Stornoway dating from around that time. It is thought that the map was made by well known explorer and map-maker Murdo Mercator (one of the Mercators of Lemreway) who was famed for mapping much of the known world (at that time the known world consisted of the east coast of Lewis as places like Uig hadn’t been discovered).

We have attached a copy of the original map here to enable you to see what Stornoway would have looked like at the end of the 16th Century (if you click on the mappe it should enlarge). If you look closely you can see a number of the prominent buildings of the time. These included;

  • Ye Orbe Theatre, more or less at the present day Kenneth St/South Beach junction where An Lanntair now is.
  • the administrative hub of the town, the ‘Comhairle buildings’ situated roughly where the present day Health Board offices (and former County Building) are nowadays
  • the main church of the time, the Puritan Church (Continuing) up on Kenneth St. Used for many decades until one too many schisms led to a congregation of just two, resulting in this handful of ‘true believers’ sailing off to avoid religious persecution the new world (Scalpay) on a ship called the Mayfly.
  • Mitchells Wagons, the main transport hub for the town, situated near the present day Lifeboat Building, where Mitchells Bus Station used to be.

US Presidential Elections- Lewismen cast your vote!

20 10 2008

We’ve been hearing about these bleedin’ US elections for what seems like years and years (if not decades). It’s hard to believe that in just a few more days our American cousins will soon have a new President and we can go back to looking across the Atlantic for the important things in life, like tv programmes, films and music without been bored to tears by all this election carry on (was there something about a moose getting shot by a hockey stick?)

Many people will be unaware that the residents of the Isle of Lewis are all entitled to vote in the forthcoming US Presidential Elections. This has been the case since 1944, but so few people know about it that voting turnout is spectacularly low. So low in fact that the Presidential candidates have not actively campaigned on Lewis since the 1960’s (when Lyndon B Johnson held a rally in the Town Hall which unfortunately clashed with the Stornoway Communions and so no one turned up). Back in the fifties, Dwight D ‘Ike’ Eisenhower hired a Mitchells bus to tour round the island and many people remember him standing in the bus doorway with a megaphone, as the bus made its winding way through rural Lewis. However, most people thought he was just a local drunk on his way home with a carry-out and so didn’t pay much attention.

And the Lewis Primaries haven’t been called for many years either due to there not been enough balloons on Lewis. This used to be held on ‘Fleeking Hardy Tuesday’ , the week before Super Tuesday.

So how did this voting (and possibly citizenship) issue arise?

It goes back to the days of the Second World War, when several hundred US Airmen were stationed at RAF Stornoway. Stornoway was used, (amongst other things), as a transatlantic staging post, acting as the first landfall for thousands of aircraft heading to Europe to help with the Allied build up for D-Day. It is widely acknowledged that Lewis was chosen as this staging post, not because of its geographic location and suitable runways, but due to a minor map reading slip up, when a USAF Strategy Team mistakenly located Eoropie (in Ness) on an old map and thought it said Europe.

The many US servicemen posted to Stornoway were afforded as many of the ‘home comforts’ as possible to make then feel at home on the bleak and barren rock that was Lewis. US Servicemen’s cinema’s, clubs and sporting facilities (including a baseball park in Willow Glen) started to appear around Stornoway. Regular mail drops and imported ‘moms apple pie’ all helped make the Americans feel at home. The servicemen were also kept on the various lists maintained by the Government, including the Voters Roll, to provide a reassuring sense of American life.

This meant that the Post Office in Stornoway had to be allocated a zipcode to ensure that the mail got through. After the war, a slight slip of the finger on a typewriter meant that Stornoway, Lewis, was then added to the list of new towns springing up across America to house the returning servicemen. And quite simply, no-one noticed.

The first time an inhabitant of Stornoway realised something strange was going on was some time after the last serviceman had gone, when the Nicolson Institute was sent an application form for its ‘football’ team to enter the East Coast World Series All Schools Football Play-Off Finals in Boston. Shortly afterwards a lorry load of marching band uniforms turned up in the Rectors office (which rumour has it, he then promptly flogged to a passing Bulgarian klondyker in order to raise funds for a new piano).

So, come that important date in November, remember to use your vote wisely.

Me? I’m going to vote for that Barvas Obama cove.

Why Norman is such a popular name on Lewis

16 10 2008

Most of you will know someone called Norman. There was always at least one kid called Norman in your class. There was always a Norman in Cubs, Scouts or whatever youth group you were involved with. Every gang  had a Norman, or ‘Norrie’, or ‘Norm’. It’s a very popular name on Lewis, along with its Gaelic counterpart Tormod.

But why is this?

After much research, a team of eminent scholars from the History Dept of Lews Castle College (motto “We can’t call ourselves a Uni yet”) has uncovered the reason why.

It all stems back to events that took place south of the border around 1066. Yes, the Norman Conquest of England. Back in them days, William, Duke of Normandy, decided to pop across to Hastings with a huge fleet of ships full of men, horses and tapestry sewers and annexe most of England. It was all very complicated and we won’t go in to the politics behind it in any detail whatsoever.

After a decisive victory at Hastings, William and his coves didn’t take long to subjugate the Anglo-Saxons. All over the land Norman castles appeared- wooden ‘mote and bailey’ ( large mound of earth, wooden palisade’s round it, deep ditch encircling it) ones at first, until they got around to building stone ones (there was a shortage of builders even back then).  Norman nobles replaced the ‘old order’ and things like the Doomsday Book, an Exchequer and lots and lots of new laws appeared.

It took a long time for the whole of England to be fully conquered, as communications were fleeking awful. William sent a few of his nobles off in ships to try and reach the far north of England quicker, and it is one such noble who first made landfall in Stornoway. By mistake of course.

This was a fellow by the name of Jacques De Bleigard, a minor noble from Caen. (and this is where the old Stornoway game of ‘Kick The Can’ came from, as kids used to dare each other to kick Norman soldiers up the arse.)  Jacques took a wrong turning somewhere and thought he had reached the Isle of Man when he finally laid eyes on Lewis and landed his men on the sands at Broad Bay.

Very soon he had established a small colony on the foreshore of Stornoway Bay. He set about building a keep (by chance exactly on the spot of the present day Lews Castle) from which to subjugate the locals. He cut down loads of trees in order to do this, which was a great shame as the trees had just grown again after the Vikings had burnt them all down.

Eventually, Jacques began to feel quite settled in Stornoway and actually grew to like the locals. And the locals started to like Jacques and his Normans. The islanders began to refer to Jacques as ‘Norman’ (as they couldn’t speak French and so couldn’t say ‘Jacques’) , and eventually started calling him ‘Norrie’.

Jacques even took a local girl as his wife and started a family. Their first born was of course called Norman and so that’s where it all stemmed from. Within a generation, the Norman invaders were more or less assimilated into Lewis life and society and had cut all ties with the Duke of Normandy.

The only record of the invasion was a large tapestry that used to hang on the walls of Lews Castle. This depicted the arrival of the Normans in great detail and was known locally as the Broadbay-oh Tapestry.

Stornoway’s Victorian Pier

16 10 2008

Bought a groovy new book last week all about Stornoway’s Pier and Harbour Commission. It’s called ‘It Must Be Stornoway’ and is written by Catherine Mackay, who works for the Commission. It’s an interesting look at the history and development of Stornoway’s harbour over many years. Lots of good pictures and stuff, so I would heartily recommend that you all rush down to the Baltic, Loch Erisort or An Lanntair to buy it.

However, I found one thing wrong in the book, and that is the sad oversight of one of the towns long forgotten landmarks – yes indeed, Stornoway’s late lamented number three pier (as was) which was one of these Victorian pleasure piers. The Pleasure Pier, as it was known, was built in 1870 by Sir James Matheson. It was soundly constructed out of cast iron, wooden decking and lots and lots of rivets. Sir James felt that, in line with most other Victorian seaside resorts,  Stornoway should have its own pier. He imported the finest craftsmen money and drugs could buy and set about building the metal structure out into the bay. It was located more or less where the modern day no 3 pier is today. It had a large promenade along it, leading to a small theatre at the very end, passing whelk stalls, fortune tellers and ‘What The Elder Saw’ penny arcades. Cream teas were sold daily and pleasure cruises were available from dawn till dusk. The theatre  used to put on many shows by the great and the good of the Victorian music hall tradition and even saw the birth of the Stornoway Thespians first ever Xmas Pantomime (Mac In S’tronich and the Three Bears).

Sadly, as with all seaside piers, their time came and went all too quickly. Plus, the FP’s started complaining about folk been able to enjoy themselves too much. By the Second World War, the pier was falling to bits, and was used as a naval look-out station to make sure maws didn’t sneak in to the harbour to steal the sea-planes there. A brief resurgence in popularity during the 1950’s didn’t last long and by the late 60’s bits were hanging off the pier and it was becoming a health hazard. In early February 1971, a mysterious blaze started in the Jazz Club and before the Fire Brigade could reach, the whole pier had gone up in flames. The remains of the metal framework fell in to the harbour shortly afterwards.

The pier is probably best known for featuring in author John Buchan’s adventure story ‘The Thirty Nine Step We Gay-lees’, where his protagonist Richard Hannay gets caught up in a world of espionage and Lewis Weddings. Hannay, on a shooting holiday to Lewis in 1915, gets dragged into a murky mystery involving a ‘foreign power’, murder on the Barvas Express, a wedding cake with too much brandy in it, a chase across the Lewis Moors pursued by a sinister church elder and a climactic climax under the pier where the bride turns out to be a Russian spy and not a herring girl from Inaclete Road.

The book was later adapted by Alfred Hitchcock as a sequel to his big budget ’39 Steps’ and once again stared Robert Donat as Hannay. Donat, of course, took his stage name from all of the dough-nuts he used to buy from Johnny Oaks bakery whilst in the Stornoway Thespians.

The Beatles Play Stornoway

16 10 2008

This is a look at a slightly more recent part of Stornoway’s history. It involves the one and only (as far as we know) performance by the Beatles in Stornoway.

Back in early January 1963, just weeks before they hit the big time, the Beatles were engaged in a short four date tour of Scotland. Back in these days the Beatles toured constantly and played almost every run down dive in the land to try and build up an audience. On 4 January 1963 they played in the Town Hall in Dingwall and were then due to head south to play in Bridge of Allan.

However, whilst waiting at Dingwall railway station they mistakenly got the Kyle of Lochalsh train instead of the Inverness one. A couple of hours later they found themselves standing on Kyle Pier with nowhere to go and without a clue as to where they were. Luckily, as they stood forlornly on the pier, gazing over to the mist shrouded Isle of Skye, they met members of the Stornoway Dance Band who were returning from a three day New Year gig in Lochinver. The Stornoway band took pity on the four lost Beatles and invited them over to Lewis to support them in the Town Hall, where they had a YM  ‘Social’ to play at.

An impromptu gig took place in the bar of the Loch Seaforth half way across the Minch, when the Stornoway Dance Band encouraged the Beatles to play along to some of their own songs including ‘Love Me (Marag) Dubh’ , which went;

“Love mo marag dubh,
you know I love stew
But pleeeeeeaaaasssseeeee
Give us marag dubh

On reaching Stornoway, the Beatles and the Stornoway Dance Band had to rush across to the Town Hall where a large crowd waited. The Beatles went on first, and largely bemused the Town Hall audience, unused to such ‘poppy’ material. However, Murdo MacLeans shop noticed a sharp increase in young men buying black suits following the gig and it was widely reported that Johnny G’eepers barber shop noticed a corresponding drop in trade.

Unfortunately, there is no record of the Beatles set list form the Town Hall gig, but the Stornoway Dance Band played the following songs during their set.

  • “Ob-la-di, diggumda
  • ” I saw her gutting there”
  • ” I want to hold your cran
  • ” Ticket to ride (on a Mitchells bus)”
  • ” The long and winding road to Uig”
  • “Smaoinich”

That evening the Beatles got the Loch Seaforth over to Mallaig, the cattle-train to Glasgow and then departed into the night, never to play in Stornoway again (if you don’t count the time Paul McCartney played with Kenny Fags in the Carlton).