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.

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3 responses

23 03 2009
x333xxx

As ever, such a useful insight into Stornoway’s hidden history. I’ve often wondered about the canal, and now I know!

I’m rather hoping (ok, asking!) you might share with your audience the history of Lews Castle at some point. I’m curious to know whether it was built on the profits of eighteenth century black pudding trade. Architectural notes would be interesting too.

23 03 2009
stornowayhistory

Many thanks for your comments. And an insight to the Black Pudding Wars and the Pudding Trade of far China coming up and how these contributed towards the construction of Lews Castle.

Just discovered your own entertaining blog as well. Hadn’t realised how many Island Blogging sites existed!

30 03 2009
x333xxx

Fantastic, I can’t wait for the Black Pudding Wars &etc.

Why not bring your blog over to IB? Join the gang!!

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