The Story Behind Lews Castle (Part Two of a Few)

24 04 2009

With the success of his black puddings Jimmy Matheson found himself with money to burn. Every recipe he turned his hands too was received with rapture by the folk of Shanghai, and soon he was rich beyond his wildest dreams.

Jimmy decided to make good use of his fortune by purchasing the Isle of Lewis and building a Castle to live in. This would leave him close to the source of his marag blood and give him the option of starting up a Bed and Breakfast should the bottom fall out of the marag market.

The plans for the Castle were drawn up by Charles Wilson, a renowned architect from Glasgow, who had designed many stately homes across Scotland.

After Sir James had approved the design (which was early late mock Tudor with pre-Bauhaus styling), Uist Builders were commissioned to build the Castle.  Using the new fangled ‘kit castle’ approach, the Castle was speedily erected between 1847 and 1853, using the finest craftsmen the island had to offer.

On its completion Lews Castle was by far the biggest and grandest building on the island. The many acres of woodlands and ornamental gardens added to the majesty (and mystic) of the building.

The crème of Victorian society flocked to visit Lews Castle to take part in Shooting Parties, Tea Parties on the Lawns and nights out to the Galaxy Disco. Amongst the famous guests that Sir James entertained were Sherlock Homes, Disraeli Gears (the inventor of the bike) and Mary Shelly.

The Castle remained in Matheson ownership until 1918 when Lord Leverhulme bought the Isle of Lewis, including the Castle.  Leverhulme carried out various improvements such as putting glass in the window frames and fitting central heating. However, Leverhulme’s ownership of the Castle was only for a period of five years, when it was gifted to the town of Stornoway.

Many of the Lews Castles fixtures and fittings were sold off at auction. The Castle’s fine glass conservatory was sold to become Anderson Road Nurseries, the Vomitorium was sold to a local publican and can still be seen in the Clachan Bar and the swimming pool went to Valtos School, where it remained until 1985 until some Venture Scouts nicked it.

Much of the furniture was sold to local Stornoway folk and to this day various bookcases, cabinets and tables can be seen in the town’s posher houses. All of the solid silver cutlery is now in use in the Nicolson School Canteen. The floor of the Ballroom was put in storage until it was used in the Seaforth Hotel’s Galaxy Disco (now the restaurant Eleven) in the 1980’s. If you look closely at the floorboards under table 17 you can see the inscription ‘Jimmy Was Here 1853’ which is widely regarded as been the work of Sir James himself.

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