Stornoway’s Safari Park

19 11 2008

In 1931, the Stornoway Trustees were concerned about the upkeep of the Castle Grounds. The cost of maintaining the woodlands was increasing each year, with very little income being generated by the Policies.

A number of cash generating schemes were considered by the Trustees such as charging for poaching the Creed, introducing a toll gate on the various bridges crossing into the Grounds and establishing a pram tax to prevent wear and tear on the Low Road.

However, after much debate, the Trust decided to turn a substantial part of the Castle Grounds into a Wildlife Safari Park. The idea was that this would provide a steady source of income from patrons, whilst providing a range of educational opportunities for the children of the town. It was also envisioned that substantial income would be realised from ‘big game hunters’ who would be willing to pay top shilling for the chance to shoot exotic animals, without the inconvenience of having to sail half way around the world to do so.

Plans were made, cash flows were estimated and the idea began to crystallise, spurred on by the thought of all these trophy heads adorning the Trust Offices. The Trustees voted unanimously in favour of the proposals and the Stornoway Gazette ran the idea as its headline in the first week of February 1931.

The Trust Factor hired a large cargo steamer, crewed it with deep sea veterans from the isles and filled the holds with empty cages. Its mission was to sail the world collecting spare animals that wouldn’t be missed.

The cargo steamer, bedecked in bunting and wee Stornoway Trust flags, sailed from Stornoway in April 1931 with much cheering, flag waving and confetti-flinging from the gathered throng. The Captain had strict orders not to return until all the cages were bulging with exotic animals of every shape and size. The Trustees recommended the ship made sail for Africa, the Indian sub-continent and South America, where they were confident the very finest in exotic beasts could be found.

As the ship sailed past Arnish on its voyage of discovery, the Trust Gardeners were already preparing the Castle Grounds for their new inhabitants.  A network of fences and ditches were erected round the perimeter and a new visitors centre was constructed roughly where the present day Woodlands Centre is. A team of Safari Guides were employed and adverts were placed in all the best Huntin’ Shootin’ and Fishin’ magazines.

Almost exactly a year to the day, the Trust cargo steamer sailed back into Stornoway, only much lower in the water and with strange growls and roars emanating from the holds.

Almost the whole town turned out to watch the procession of beasts make their way to the new Safari Park. Elephants, tigers, lions, penguins, antelope, giraffes and hippopotami made a stately way towards the Grounds in cages on the backs of various trucks and lorries. Each truck reversed up to the Marybank Lodge gates and a squad of Gardeners prodded and pushed the animals out into the woodlands.

A penguin colony was soon established at the Sheriff Pool on the River Creed. Monkeys took over the south slope of Gallows Hill. Elephants were soon seen plodding across the Castle Green and folk living on Willowglen Road could make out the heads of giraffes bobbing above the branches.

The first visitors were allowed entrance to the Safari Park on 1st May 1932, but a planned press conference was ruined when a herd of gazelle, being chased by a lioness, knocked over the ‘top table’ of dignitaries. However, only a few of the dignitaries were trampled to death and only one was eaten.

The Trust had arranged a number of special hunting parties for high paying clients for August of that year, but these plans were thrown into disarray when it was discovered that a gang of Ballalan coves had sneaked in to the Castle Grounds at night and had poached 90% of the animals.

The Trust and peoples of Stornoway were devastated at this loss and the Safari Park dream came to an abrupt end. The remaining animals avoided capture and are rumoured to still be in the Castle Grounds to this day. Occasionally a visitor to the Grounds may come across a rogue elephant knocking down trees (the Trust always claims that ‘it was a storm that did it’… ) or a lurking hippo in the Bayhead River playing amongst the shopping trolleys and traffic cones. Ostriches have been known to leap from the tops of the fir trees just beyond Lady Mathesons Monument and peck at passing joggers. And of course, nearly everyone knows about the giraffes that can be seen behind Mac An t-Stronaich Cave, climbing up through the rhododendron bushes in order to catch the best sunlight.

Mac An t-Stronaich’s Cave

16 11 2008

The walk around the River Creed in Stornoway’s Castle Grounds is surely one of the finest on the island. Of the many sights that can be found on a ‘cuairt’ around the Creed, the most intriguing is the mysterious cave lurking in the shadows at the mouth of the river.

One of Stornoway’s most infamous sons was the outlaw Mac An t-Stronaich.  For many years he terrorised the islands with his campaign of murder, extortion, sheep-rustling, salmon poaching and parking his horse on a double yellow line when he went in town for a dram.

Mac An t-Stronaich always managed to keep one step ahead of the law. No matter what cunning plans the local magistrates and militia put into practice, the devious outlaw always managed to slip through the net. (And it was invariably an old fishing net they used as the local law enforcers were not known for their imagination – and could get plenty of nets from the quay). 

Mac An t-Stronaich was helped by the fact that he used several remote locations as hideouts and so could always slip off into the night if he spotted that one sneak-hole was being watched. These hideouts ranged from dank caves high in the Uig hills, to run down airighs on the desolate Barvas Moors. In much the same way that Bonnie Prince Charlie is purported to have slept in every single cave in the Highlands and Islands (meaning he must have been on the run for 37 years if he had spent a night in each one), every area of Lewis is said to have had a Mac An t-Stronaich hideout.

The only one that could be said to have housed the outlaw with any degree of certainty is the cave at the mouth of the Creed. And the reason that we can be sure of this is from old historical records that show that Mac An t-Stronaich had applied to the Town Council for Planning Permission to extend the cave. 

His Planning Application set out proposals to extend the cave to include a guest bedroom (for members of his gang), a wooden terrace with patio, one of these new fangled outside toilets and double glazed skylights. It was the skylights which caused the Planning Application to be refused, as the Town Council Planning Committee felt that they would detract from the aesthetic lines of the cave. 

The members of the Planning Committee all met with mysterious accidents over the following weeks, some involving walking backwards onto large rusty knives or ending up underneath bales of wool which ‘accidently’ fell from the roof of the Town House.

The local militia eventually realised who the Planning Application was from and swiftly set about capturing the outlaw, catching him red handed as he was about to bump off a local builder who had provided a quotation not to Mac An t-Stronaich’s liking.

The cave was taken over by the Town Council and was used as a council house right up until 1898.


Mac In Stronich's original Planning Application for his cave

Mac In Stronich

Poll Results

13 11 2008

Thanks to everyone who took part in the recent poll. The winning topic, after a fiercely fought campaign, was the establishment of a network of cattle-grids around the town to keep the ‘maws’ out.

This will now become the focus of a forthcoming blog (mind you, all of the topics probably will) so watch this space.

Stornoway’s cattle-grid network will also be the subject of the inaugural Made Up History of Stornoway Annual Christmas Lecture. An eminent Stornoway worthy will be giving the lecture at an (as yet) undisclosed venue (possibly the Clachan Bar or Mac In Stronich’s cave). Be sure to book your tickets now.

Xmas Lights

9 11 2008

We’re fast approaching the time of year when towns and villages across the land will be turning their attention to switching on their Xmas lights. Stornoway is no different and has partaken in this festive ceremony for many, many years.

Usually, a local celebrity (and occasionally a national celebrity) is invited to switch on the lights in a short ceremony involving carols, speeches and fireworks.  There are normally street-stalls, fairground rides and collection tins for local charities.

The first recorded ‘switching on’ ceremony is recorded as having taken place in 1786. In early December of that year, well known outlaw, murderer and generally nasty person Mac In Stronich became the first celebrity to turn on the Xmas lights.

However, it wasn’t so much ‘a turning on the Xmas lights ceremony’ as more a sort of ‘torching the town as an act of revenge’ event, following a disagreement over the terms of a protection racket that Mac In Stronich was running. Still, the cheery glow of a row of Stornoway’s shops being set ablaze caught the imagination of the towns-folks and they decided it would be nice to have a similar event the next year, although preferably not involving so much murder and pillage.

Needless to say, Mac In Stronich was not invited, nor indeed told about, the ceremony. When he found out about the Xmas lights he took a massive huff and decided to decorate his secret hide-out in yon cave at the mouth of the Creed with his own Xmas lights. However, the bright lights were quickly spotted by the authorities and Mac In Stronich was swiftly apprehended.

From that year onwards, the Xmas Lights Ceremony has become an important part of Stornoway’s social and civic calender. Only twice more did the ceremony result in the accidental burning down of the town, once in 1812 when a holiday making (and incognito) Napoleon took a strop at losing at a hoopla stall and ordered a French Man-of-War in the harbour (disguised as ‘an east coast boat’ to confuse the locals) to fire into the cauldron of rum punch outside ‘Engies Horse-Fodder Shoppe’.

The second time was in 1875 when Albert, the Prince Consort (Queen Victoria’s cove) accidentally (allegedly) knocked over an oil lamp in the Star Inn during a game of domino’s, which set off the Xmas fireworks whilst they were still in their boxes under the bar.

Quantum of Solas

4 11 2008

As many of you will know, Iain Fleming the creator of Bond, had strong Lewis connections as his maternal grand-mother came from Scotland Street. The young Fleming used to spend his summer holidays on Lewis and this was where he first gained his love for living on islands, although his preferred islands in his later life came with slightly warmer climates. And Iain Fleming is of course immortalised in Stornoway, having Fleming Place (up at the old Lewis Hospital) named after him.

Just after the success of Dr No, the first Bond movie, the Hollywood film producer ‘Cuddy (Point) Broccoli, encouraged Fleming to come up with more film treatments of his Bond stories. Fleming was very keen to use Stornoway and the Isle of Lewis as the setting for a Bond film as he felt the island was every bit as exotic as Jamaica, Switzerland and the south of France.

Fleming produced a script for a film called Tweedfinger, with the action centering largely on devious deeds in the tweed mills of Stornoway. The Harris Tweed industry of the 1950’s and 60’s was of course synonymous with a rich and famous lifestyle, and so Fleming and the Harris Tweed Authority were keen to capitalise on this and to try and establish Stornoway as a St Tropez of the north west. The Town Council even went as far as planting a rubber plant in Cairn Gardens to try and encourage that image.

Flemings screenplay involved a ruthless tweed baron known as Tweedfinger who had an overwhelming desire for all things made of tweed. Tweedfinger was planning to destroy all of the worlds tweed patterns and to replace them with ones of his own.

This was where Bond and the British Government stepped in. Bond was to travel to Stornoway and infiltrate Tweedfingers mill as a carder and to try to find out when the evil deed was to take place.

The movie screenplay involved a number of set pieces, including;

  • a tractor chase around Sticky’s Mill, where Bonds MI5 souped up tractor was fitted with an ejector seat,
  • one of Bonds female conquests is found dead,  covered in a tweed dress which was of really heavy material resulting in her sweating to death,
  • a female LoganAir pilot (called Bobbans Galore) flies over all the rival mills and sprays nerve gas in all the pattern workshops,
  • Bond is strapped to a cutting table and one of Tweedfinger’sheavy’s‘ starts cutting a pattern under him with a big pair of scissors, getting dangerously close to ruining his suit trousers. This particular scene featured the famous dialogue…
BOND : ‘Do you expect me to waulk, Tweedfinger?’

TWEEDFINGER: ‘No, Mr Bond. I expect you to dye.’

Fleming’s Stornoway screenplay was unfortunately rejected by Broccoli and Hollywood as been far too unbelievable. Broccoli did of course use some of Flemings idea for Goldfinger, but that film didn’t turn out as good as it could have done, if only Stornoway had featured as the location. One final attempt was made to try and sneak Stornoway into a Bond film, when ‘For Your Eye Peninsula Only’ was mooted as a possible title for a later day Roger Moore film.