Stornoway’s Area 51

30 03 2009

Old SYs will fondly remember the atomic paranoia and international tensions of the early 1950s. We’ve all heard the stories about monkeys in Broad Bay etc but this was only the tip of the iceberg as far as Stornoway’s thriving black projects industry was concerned. With the ever-present threat of Communism and the daily possibility of alien invasion from space, the War Ministry of the day offered very generous grants to any business developing novel and high-tech secret weapons.

Stornoway’s entrepreneurs were quick to spot the opportunity, and a number of covert research programs were launched by local businesses keen to exploit the offensive capabilities already inherent in the island’s products. Consequently, for most of the 1950s the industrial area bounded by Sandwick Road, Seaforth Road and Newton/Seaview Terrace was blanked out on all OS maps and was widely known as “Stornoway’s Area 51”. Tigh Nan Guts, the local herring byproducts plant, re-branded itself as the Toxins and Nerve Gas research establishment, and spent the next 30 years failing to derive an odourless poison gas from fish offal.Frequent experiments were conducted on the downwind populations of Seaforth Road, Oliver’s Brae and Sandwick, resulting in the hideous mutations common in these areas today.

Atomic Bomb Tests were an essential component of life in the 50s, and Stornoway was no exception. The government considered testing in Caithness at one point, and tried various locations in the Australian desert and the mid-Pacific, but these locations were eventually not considered to be sufficiently remote or desolate. Britain’s later atomic tests were therefore conducted in the bit between Engie’s and the gasworks. Several hundred devices from tactical nukes to full scale H-bombs were dropped on this area between 1952 and 1963 and, as predicted, nobody noticed.

Kenneth Mackenzie & Sons, meanwhile, had diversified into captured alien technology. One day in 1948, the young Harris Mackenzie encountered a strange herringbone-patterned spacecraft on the golf course,and single-handedly overcame the alien crew with a sand wedge. Under interrogation the aliens revealed that they came from a doomed planet whose supplies of Harris Tweed were running out. Their science officer explained how the Clo Mor, – and not dilithium crystals like everybody thought – was the fundamental substance in the physics of interstellar space travel (“it’s all to do with the warp, cove”, ars esan). Sticky’s immediately set about constructing their own tweed flying saucer, with assistance from their alien captives. In order to maintain secrecy, weavers in homes all over the island were commissioned to construct individual components of the craft and send them back to the mill, so that only those doing the “finishing” would know what was going on.

It took many years to perfect the technology, but it is believed that the facility was just about to deliver a fully operational trans-light spacecraft in double-width dress Macleod to NASA, when production was suddenly halted by a mysterious new owner. The aliens (who had gone native by this time and were mostly living in Steinish where they felt at home) were speedily given their P45s. Whether the new owner is a fellow alien seeking to control the entire universe by restricting the intergalactic tweed supply remains to be seen.

The Stornoway Ship Canal

22 03 2009

Many people of Stornoway will be aware of the narrow drainage channel that runs from near Engie’s Petrol Station (Vi selger bensin og sant!) on Sandwick Road, to the village of Steinish and out into Broad Bay. Most folk will not realise that this long narrow ditch was originally an impressive fully working canal- a spectacular feat of engineering able to take fishing vessels and puffers of considerable size. Nowadays, it’s sad to reflect on the Ship Canal’s lost greatness, as the only things that can use the clogged and muddy waterway today are ducks and canoeists in very small canoes.

The Stornoway Ship Canal was started by Lord Leverhulme in 1919 as part of his townscaping proposals for Stornoway. His original intention was to build a canal which enabled his fishing fleet to pass from the plentiful fishing grounds of Loch A Tuath direct to the Newton Basin and his cannery factories, without having to face the danger of circumnavigating Point. Leverhulme had lost many fishing vessels to the ‘wreckers’ of Point, who used to lure unsuspecting fishermen to their doom with the promise of a nice cup of tea.His canal would prevent this from happening but would also speed up the production process, by getting the fish from the sea to his Cannery Road factories and thus to the tea-tables of Britain much quicker.

A squad of Neissoch navvy’s was contracted to carry out the work, and they set to the business at hand with great skill and determination. Within 9 months the channel had been dug, the eight locks were in place and a team of Lock-keepers had been appointed. With great fanfare Lord Leverhulme himself conducted the opening ceremony and declared the Stornoway Ship Canal open for trade on 12 April 1920.

The first ship to sail through the canal was a Norwegian cargo boat called the SS Loch Engie. This was a coastal steamer carrying a cargo of guga from Ness to Stornoway. The Engie entered the lock at Steinish and made steady progress down the canal until she became stuck at the Sandwick Road Lock, where it was discovered that the engineers had made the canal wide enough, but not deep enough.

This was thought to have been due to complaints from local crofters that their sheep would not be able to cross the canal if it was too deep and so wouldn’t be able to to take advantage of the flowers and vegetables in Stornoway’s gardens.

It later turned out that the engineers had misheard Leverhulme and had thought he wanted a ‘Sheep Canal’ constructed.

The SS Loch Engie alas, couldn’t be moved. The canal was gradually filled in around the stranded boat, with the wheelhouse becoming the only part of the boat left visible. The wheelhouse was eventually turned into the original Engie’s Petrol Station. The diesel fuel you get from the pumps today is actually from the original oil tanks of the cargo boat, long since buried beneath Sandwick Road and the remains of the Stornoway Ship Canal.

Street Names of Stornoway (part 2 of many)

13 03 2009

Churchill Drive: Named, as you would expect, after Winston Churchill, Britain’s famous wartime Prime Minister. Churchill also had a strong connection with Stornoway and was a familiar face in the pubs of the town.

Shortly after Churchill retired from the army (where he served as a Cavalry officer), he moved to Stornoway to take up a job on a fishing boat. Churchill had his sights set firmly on becoming First Lord of the Admiralty and felt that a few years working on a Stornoway trawler would provide him with the necessary experience. His Cavalry officer training also came in very handy when he helped out in his spare time with Kenny Henderson (a local coach-hire) as a coachman and stable hand.

His famous wartime statement was also developed in Stornoway following a fracas outside the Star Inn, where the crew of his trawler fell out with the crew of a boat from Fraserburgh. ‘We will fight them on South Beach!’ he was said to have exclaimed, whilst running out of the Star with a pint glass.

Queensland Road: This street was given an Australian sounding name as it was originally a penal colony for wrong doers from the town.

Kennedy Terrace: Named after well known Gaelic singer Calum Kennedy, although many people think it was named after his first cousin, John F. Kennedy, one time President of the United States.

JFK used to come over to Lewis regularly to visit cousin Calum and, unknown to many, was a fluent Gaelic speaker. JFK even sang with the Lochs Gaelic Choir at the 1955 Mod. Rumours persist to this day that he was assassinated by members of the Point Gaelic Choir for criticising their winning ‘puirt a beal’ Calum Kennedy himself used to have a loom-shed at the weavers colony at Kennedy Terrace, where JFK would help fill the bobbans.

Readers will no doubt recall Calum Kennedy’s world famous song ‘Lovely Stornoway’. We are privileged to be able to bring you a translation of the long lost ‘final verse’ which may or may not have contributed to the JFK ‘Rudhach hitman’ conspiracy theory.

‘Make your way to Stornoway,but don’t go further than Broadbay, the Point Choir just cause dismay, in lovely Stornoway’