Stornoway’s Grand Prix

2 12 2008

Many citizens of Stornoway will be familiar with the sights and sounds of young (and not so young) people spinning round the town of an evening in a seemingly aimless fashion. On any given night of the week its common to find little convoys of cars following each other along the same routes, beeping at each other as they pass, stopping for a yarn in the car park, and generally making Stornoway seem much busier than it really is.

The reason for this behaviour can be traced back to the mid 1960’s, when Stornoway was fortunate enough to find itself hosting the 1966 Monaco Formula One Grand Prix.

In that year, the various racing and drivers associations responsible for arranging the years Grand Prix calendar had fallen out over a dispute as to what brand of champagne should be used on the Winners Podium. In the ensuing administrative chaos that followed, someone forgot to ask Prince Ranier if it would be okay to use the streets of Monaco for the usual Grand Prix. The date chosen happened to clash with Monaco’s annual street shampooing so the Prince told them to get raffled.

Despite a team of negotiators and administrators being dispatched to Monaco, the Prince couldn’t be swayed and Formula One was given its marching orders.

Just by chance, a delegation from the Stornoway Town Council happened to be in Monaco at the same time. They were on a ‘fact finding’ trip to check out just how sinful casinos actually were. Members of the delegation overheard a tearful administrator from the Formula One Association drowning his sorrows in an upmarket bar and had soon cheered him up by agreeing that Stornoway would host the Grand Prix instead.

Stornoway, they told the administrator, had lots of streets, some with corners and nearly all with bends. Stornoway had posh hotels too. Yes, these hotels were very similar to the ones in Monaco and yes, they catered for the same wealthy playboys and playgirls.

And although Stornoway didn’t have a ruling Royal family of its own, the British royal Prince Charles himself was a regular in the Crown Hotel and was very fond of a tipple of cherry brandy.

The Formula One Association were soon sold on the idea, encouraged by promises of marags, new tweed jackets and a few sly casts on the Creed ‘under cover of darkness’. Contracts were signed over glasses of champagne and the Town Council delegation departed for home with the good news.

The Town Council was at first sceptical about the idea and unsure of Stornoway’s ability to host the world’s media and top class drivers such as Graham Hill, John Surtees and Jackie Stewart. However, the promise that local people would be allowed to enter soon swayed the councillors.

The chosen route was agreed by the Council after much discussion. The main issue was the state of the roads so the chosen route had to include the streets with the least pot-holes.

The start line was on Cromwell Street, where the pedestrian crossing is now. The cars would head out of town along Cromwell Street, along Bayhead Street and then continue up MacAulay Road. A sharp turn right, past Alec Mairs shop, would take the race up Perceval Road past the fields of Goathill Farm. The race would then change direction and head up, and then down, Goathill Road, past the Lewis Hospital until the crossroads at Matheson Rd/Church St was reached. Then it was down Matheson Road to James Street, where a right turn would take the drivers along to South Beach Street. The closing stages of the lap would see the cars race round Castle Street and back on to the home straight and the chequered flag outside Murdo MacLeans (the clothes bit, not the furniture bit).

Come race day, there were quite a few people lining the streets, eager to see the famous drivers. The race was started by the Provost  with a skillful flourish of the town flag whilst standing on a wobbly podium built by the Town Council workers. (The podium eventually collapsed on lap 17 meaning that the cars had to drive along the pier to the old Lifeboat shed for 10 laps until the Town road-sweeper had managed to clear up all the rubbish).

Just seconds after the race started, the Race Director realised that there would be a number of unusual issues to contend with.  First of all, no one had told the residents of Manor Park that there was going to be a race taking place. Several of them took their lives in their hands crossing the road to get to the Porters Lodge, including a Mrs MacLennan with her Zimmer frame who inadvertently added a mobile chicane to the race for the six laps it took her to cross the road.

The local bus drivers were also unaware of the race taking place and continued to collect passengers all along the route. Goathill Farm also decided to move a herd of cows from one field to another about half way through the race and the cow pats proved to be even more of an obstacle than an oil spill. This particular incident put paid to Graham Hill’s race as he ended up in a ditch across from the new Columbia Place swing-park.

A funeral service from the High Church also delayed the race progress slightly, as the funeral procession meant a lengthy tailback and the drivers were reluctant to feel the wrath of Undertaker Al ‘Crea by trying to sneak past down Matheson Road.

Eventually, after 65 thrilling laps of the town, the eventual winner was the driver of the 3.15 Plasterfield bus, with Jackie Stewart in second. Third place went to a Donald M MacDonald from Ranish, driving a 1935 Massey Ferguson tractor, who was totally unaware that he had come third  let alone that he was in a Grand Prix.

Despite the success of the Grand Prix, Monaco won back the rights to host the race the next year and Stornoway’s Formula One history was forgotten about. Until now.