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).