Stornoway Trust Elections

24 02 2009

As many readers will be aware, the elections for new Trustees of the Stornoway Trust Estate will soon be taking place. These elections take place every few years in order to choose the Trustees to run and manage the lands and policies around Stornoway.

The Stornoway Trust was set up in 1923 after Lord Leverhulme lost the Parish of Stornoway in a game of cards in the public bar of the Royal Hotel. Under the terms of the agreement, a number of Trustees had to be appointed to manage the affairs of the Estate. The original agreement failed to specify how the Trustees were to be elected, so the town fathers decided to pick the Trustees by having a race up to the top of Gallows Hill.

Gallows Hill overlooks the town and harbour, and is the highest point in the surrounding area. It was used variously in ancient times as a Neolithic burial chamber, Viking discothèque, lighthouse, gallows, Air Raid Precaution lookout and tourist spot.

It was decided that the race would start from Perceval Square and would proceed along Cromwell Street, onto Bayhead and across the bridge into the Castle Grounds. From there, the contestants could pick their own route, taking the Low Road, High Road or any combination of the two. Contestants were also free to go cross country, were allowed to climb trees and ford rivers and streams. The use of horses, carts, wagons and carriages was forbidden.

Alcoholic beverages and hot pies were available at several way-points and the citizens of the town were permitted to cheer on the runners from a number of vantage points.

The first 12 men to touch the cairn at the top would serve as Trustees for four years. A Church of Scotland Minister, along with a Police Constable from the Ross-shire Constabulary, would stand by the cairn to count in the winners and ensure no unsportsmanlike conduct.

The first attempt at the race ended in failure following a pre race drink in the Lewis Hotel. Each of the 52 contestants toasted each other and all partook in the toasts, so no-one including the race officials was able to start the race let along finish it.

The second attempt ended in similar failure, as all of the runners were found to have attempted to hide themselves in a tinkers cart at Bayhead in the hope that it would be heading in the general direction of Gallows Hill.

The third attempt worked perfectly, with 12 upstanding members of the community reaching the top in good order. In fact in remarkably neat order, considering they would have had to negotiate mud, streams, barking dogs and small children flinging sticks at them. All 12 runners emerged from the bushes in their Sunday best, complete with top hats, straw-boaters, fob-chains and spats. However, the following investigation found that nothing untoward had taken place and that all 12 runners could provide numerous witnesses to say they had run the course.

The controversy arising from the first election of Trustees led to the race been scrapped and a new method of choosing Trustees being introduced. For the second session of the Trust, the 12 Trustees were chosen following a game of ‘Hide and Seek’.

The next elections were decided by a game of Monopoly. After that the Trustees were selected on their skill shearing sheep, and then until the 1960’s the Trustees were elected on how much peat’s they could cut in a day.

Proper voting was introduced in the 1960’s, but all agreed that this method, albeit democratic, took all the fleekin’ fun out of it.

Street Names of Stornoway (Part One of Several)

20 02 2009

Cromwell Street: Named after Oliver Cromwell. Before he became Lord Protector of Britain, the Roundhead leader used to run a small bed and breakfast on what is now known as Cromwell Street. The B&B was located roughly where the Library is nowadays. Oliver was famed for cooking kippers for breakfast, but was often accused of preparing them in a   cavalier fashion.

Lewis Street: Not in actual fact named after the Isle of Lewis. This street was named in honour of King Louis XIV of France. King Louie was a regular visitor to Stornoway prior to having his head cut off, as he was a keen peat-cutter. Each May Bank Holiday, a French Man-of-War would appear in Stornoway Harbour and the King and his courtiers would row ashore, armed with taliskers, spades and peat creels. The French royal party would then make their way to Point and spend the day turfing. King Louis would return several times during the summer to do the cutting, lifting and finally taking home the peats in a French merchant vessel. The peat was used to heat the Palace of Versailles. The King was pleased by its unique aroma. The King’s wife, Marie Antoinette was famously heard to say ‘Let them heat peat’, on hearing that peasants couldn’t afford their fuel bills. King Louis stopped coming to Stornoway after he had his head cut off.

Frances Street: This street was not named after someone called ‘Frances’, as originally assumed, but was actually called ‘France’s Street’, after the large number of French peat cutters seen walking up it to get to Point. In later years, many Frenchmen could be seen walking up and down France’s Street with peat draped over the handlebars of their bikes.

More on (Led) zeppelins

9 02 2009

As we’re talking about zeppelins in Stornoway, it would be a good time to remind readers of another important visit to the town of a zeppelin of an entirely different variety. Led Zeppelin, and their long forgotten 1975 gig in Stornoway.

In 1975, at the height of their popularity, Led Zeppelin were about to start yet another chaos inducing tour of North America. The band, manager, groupies, road-crew and hanger-on’s all assembled at Heathrow Airport and embarked onto their very own Boeing 737 for the flight across the Atlantic.

Whilst en route to New York, the aircraft had to make a precautionary stop at Stornoway Airport due to a minor technical problem – the drinks trolley had run out of brandy.

On landing the jet taxied over to the Gaydon Hanger to try and keep prying eyes from seeing the huge Led Zep logo on the side of the fuselage. One of the flight attendants was dispatched to Henderson’s Off-license on Bayhead Street with a wallet full of £50.00 notes in order to buy up the entire stock of brandy.

The original plan was for the flight to be on the ground for no more than half an hour. However, the band members, all being the worse for wear, were totally oblivious that they were in Stornoway, far less than they were still on the wrong side of the Atlantic. They thought as the plane had stopped, that they must be at their destination and so demanded that ‘they be taken to the gig’.

In the absence of a fleet of stretch limos, a Mitchell’s bus was hastily arranged to take the band and their road crew in to town and a MacBrayne Haulage lorry was chartered to take the bands gear to the non existent gig. As the four band members descended the steps of the plane, the road crew got busy loading up the gear, enough to fill the backstage area at Madison Square Gardens, and set off, equally oblivious to the fact that they weren’t in New York.

The band and their manager, Peter Grant, piled onto the bus and asked the driver to take them ‘to the gig’. The bus driver knew there was a disco in the Scout Hall that night and so assumed that this must be the place to go. With the MacBrayne’s lorry in tow, Led Zeppelin made their stately way in to Stornoway. The bus pulled up outside the Scout Hall and the four members of the band staggered in, looking for the dressing rooms and muttering things about a ‘sound check’. They were ushered into the kitchen and plied with the newly arrived brandy. Meanwhile, the roadies set up Bonham’s drumkit at the back of the Scout Hall and plugged the guitars into the Disco Unit.

The bemused Cubs, Scouts, Brownies and Guides looked on in anticipation of hearing a ‘real pop band’ and put bets on which Mud, Bay City Rollers and Slade songs would get played (as this was what all Stornoway bands played). After a 2 hour delay, due to John Bonham sneaking out for a chicken supper at the Church Street chipshop, Led Zeppelin took the stage and let lose a frenzy of drink and drug infused rock music, complete with an hour long drum solo.

The band played a huge selection of their songs, all with a Stornowegian slant, including The Scouthall Remains the Same, Communion Service Breakdown, and Trampled Under Professor Foot. House’s Of The Holy went down really well with the Free Church element, as did Stairway to Heaven.

At 11.00, the Scout Leader pulled the plugs and the band was ushered out of the Hall and into the waiting bus. Ten minutes later they were on board their plane and taxing down the runway, oblivious to the fact that they had just played a gig in the Outer Hebrides.

Zeppelin over Stornoway

4 02 2009

Towards the summer of 1916, as the Great War trundled into its third year, both sides in the conflict had made huge strides in air warfare. Modern bi-planes, with forward firing machine-guns, long range bombers, that could fly far behind the enemy lines and of course the mighty Zeppelins, began to appear high above the Western Front.

The German’s fleet of Zeppelins also flew further afield and caused alarm and concern over many parts of the British Isles. These bombing and reconnaissance missions struck terror into the hearts of civilians up and down the land.

Even far Stornoway was not immune to this threat. In summer 1916, a German Zeppelin on a raid to Newcastle found itself blown way of course. Helpless in front of gale force winds and blown steadily north west, the crew of the airship soon found themselves crossing the Minch and en route to Lewis.

Dawn on a Friday morning saw the zeppelin appearing over Arnish Point, much to the confusion and consternation of the townsfolk. A few hardy souls rushed out with shotguns and blasted away at the airship, but the Germans were drifting too fast and so were carried safely over the town and out into the moors, to disappear into the clouds. Eventually, reports reached the military commanders in Stornoway that the zeppelin had disappeared into the Uig hills.

The Captain of the Zeppelin, Count Von Tooff-Reeh, despite being stranded over foreign territory, vowed to continue military action against the British Empire and attempted a number of audacious raids on prime military targets.

These included an attack on a sheep fank at Ardroil, where the Germans attempted to disrupt the supply of sheep fleeces to the Western Front. However, the German landing party were chased off by a boisterous sheepdog. The zeppelin also tried to attack the Breanish Communions, but the attack took place at night and so the crew couldn’t make out the church goers due to their black clothing.

The zeppelin also made a number of flights over Stornoway. Occasionally the zeppelin would fly low over the houses of Stornoway and try to steal the lead off the roofs. One of the Free Church elders, a gardener in the Castle called Murdo Dan ‘Plant’ Macdonald, was said to have influenced his grandson’s choice of name for his rock band, by telling him the tales of the day the zeppelin tried to steal the lead off the roof of the Free Church on Kenneth Street.

The zeppelin came to an unfortunate end in January 1918, after the crew had converted the engines to run on peat and inadvertently set fire to the gas after a Burns Supper. The remains of the zeppelin can be seen on the east slope of Mealisval.