A Dickensian Stornoway at Christmas Time

23 11 2009

Christmas is just around the corner (unless you’re an FP). If you watch a lot of telly you’ll have noticed the quaint Dickensian themes of winter pervading every single bleedin’ advert; snowy cobblestones, candle lit shop windows with frosted glass, roast chestnuts and barefoot urchins. Much of this imagery is associated with A Christmas Carol, one of Dickens best known works. Many people believe that this imagery came from London, but it actually stemmed from Dickens fond memories of Stornoway.

Charles Dickens spent many Christmas’s in Stornoway when he was a young man. His auntie came from Bayhead Street and the young Dickens used to go on his holidays there.  His auntie ran a Religious Bookshop known locally as ‘The Old ‘Coorie’ Gossipy Shop’. This was the place to catch up on all the latest Church gossip and scandal.  It was in snowy Stornoway, with its quaint little bay-windowed Cromwell St shops with the frosted panes of glass, that he got the idea for writing A Christmas Carol. Back then, for two months of winter, the snow was always deep (and crisp and even) because the Gulf Stream had yet to locate the Hebrides.

Often, in the snowy streets of the town, the Young Dickens would watch the rich gentlemen in their top hats and fine winter clothing browsing the goods in the windows of  ‘Murdo MacLean’s Gifte Shoppe’ and ‘Ye Olde Events At Christmas’.  With the help of his mate Artair ‘Dodger’ MacAulay (from Carishader) , Dickens soon learned to pick the pockets of the rich Goathill Road gents and make off with the ill-gotten gains. Often the two boys would sell their stolen goods on to a local Wagon Contractor who had a yard on Perceval Road.

These childhood memories stood Dickens in good stead when he started writing. It’s easy to see where the inspiration for many of his first drafts came from. If it wasn’t for his publisher trying to widen his appeal, we may have seen titles such as ‘The Adventures of Olivers Brae’ (where the young protagonist memorably goes to the cattleshed at Knockgarry Farm and asks  ‘Can I have some todhar?’,  for his fathers roses) and ‘David Plasterfield’ (about the young David helping the destitute Mr MicKinnon, who runs the Plasterfield bakery). Another well-known book ‘Great Expectations’ was also originally going to be about the struggle of a poor resident of Garrabost trying to order new bits for his fireplace from Lewis Crofters. Each morning the man would waken early and stand at the end of his croft looking for the deliveryman, so he could light his fire. The original title was of course going to be ‘Grate Expectations’.

The Fall of the Braigh Wall

15 11 2009

It’s hard to believe that 20 years have passed since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of Communism in the Eastern Europe. Many events have taken place to commemorate this occasion and the worlds media have focused on the various concerts, speeches and Coffee Mornings taking place throughout the former Soviet territories.

It’s sad that a little known local event connected with the fall of communism has been overlooked by the worlds media. Even Isles FM has hardly commented on it and Bono never mentioned it once in his 10 hour-long ‘in between song’ speech in Berlin.

Very few people remember about the ‘Fall of the Braigh Wall’ , which took place in 1975, and set the scene for the reunification of Point with the rest of Lewis.

Following the cessation of hostilities at the end of the Second World War, the whole of Europe was divided up between the  Allies. Russia was quick to stake a claim on the majority of Eastern Europe and to set up a series of puppet states . However, due to a bureaucratic oversight in the Allied Headquarters, the Point district of Lewis was unexpectedly allocated to the Eastern Bloc.

It was thought this was due to the traditional high levels of socialist Rudhachs voting Labour in General Elections and the in-bred ‘Bolshie’ tendencies displayed by most inhabitants of the Eye Peninsula.

So it came to pass that late in 1945, under secret orders from the Kremlin, the Peoples Democratic Republic of Point (PDRP) was established and all diplomatic ties with the rest of Lewis were cut off. A Soviet style political structure was created and a communist way of life was imposed on everyone, even the sheep. Huge collective crofts were established across the district and bronze Stalinist statues started to appear in every village. People were forbidden to go into Stornoway for the messages and songs by Calum Kennedy were outlawed. (The Lochies were still permissible).

To reinforce this new Soviet ideal, and to keep Communism pure in Point, a huge wall was constructed across the Braigh isthmus,  effectively leaving Point isolated and alone. (A situation which suited most people in Stornoway and the rest of Lewis).

The imposing Braigh Wall was located more or less where the car park and toilets are now located and if you look closely enough you can see the last remaining piece of the wall just behind where the toilet portacabin is.

The Wall was patrolled 24/7 (except on Sundays) by armed guards, supported by a series of watch towers with search lights and machine guns. There was only one ‘official’ crossing place on the Wall, called ‘Check Point Chrissie’, where it was occasionally possible to cross over into the Eastern Bloc – if you had the correct permits or were doing a delivery from Hughie Matheson’s Bakery.

It was Check Point Chrissy which came to symbolise the conflict between East and West. The barriers and barbed wire, coupled with the spy scandals and intrigue,  lent an air of mystery to the border post and the secretive Soviet state of Point.

The power of this Soviet style state was reinforced by the infamous Secret Police. Based on the East German ‘Staszi’, the Secret Police was chosen from the membership of the various Grazing’s Committees  (the most secretive and terrifying organisations known in Point) and were known as the ‘Grazzi’. The Grazzi were all-powerful and kept files on almost everybody. Nothing was overlooked and no-one was above suspicion of being a ‘Capitalist Spy’. Annual sheep subsidy claims were recorded in great detail and even how much people put in the Church collection plate.

A number of imposing Soviet style buildings were constructed in Point including Bayble School and the Point Orthodox Free Church building in Garrabost.

All of the villages were renamed to reflect the new regime, such as  Garrabostograd, Shulistalin and Chernknockle. All tractors had to be Trabant Tractors imported by visiting Klondikers from East Germany, and all school children had to learn Russian (however, Point Gaelic is so hard to decipher, visiting officials from the USSR were none the wiser that it wasn’t Russian being spoken).

Every year, on the first of May, the Point Politburo declared that there had to be a May Day Parade, going through the streets of Garrabostograd, to show off the might of the Point military. However, as this was traditionally the day everyone in Point took the peats home, these parades were usually sparsely attended. Many people recall the year Leonid Brezhnev was invited to Point to take the salute of the Rudhach Guard and ended up helping load a trailer of peats instead.  This was marginally better than the previous year, when the Point Politburo had mistakenly invited Leonard Nimoy from Star Trek.

It was only in 1975 when Local Government reorganisation was taking place that the British Government realised that Point was part of the Eastern Bloc and a member of the Warsaw Pact. As this could have caused immense embarrassment to NATO, it was thought prudent to try and resolve the situation as quickly and quietly as possibly. Local Government reorganisation in Scotland was chosen as the most effective way to save face all round.

As the new Comhairle Nan Eilean took control of the islands, representations were made to the Russian Embassy in Garrabostograd (which still exists to this day) to release Point from the shackles of Communism. The Russians were only too glad to get shot of the truculent Rudhachs and gave orders for the Point Politburo to stand down.

As the news spread of the collapse of Communism, and as the dreaded Grazzi disappeared into the night, the people of Point made their way to the Braigh and amidst scenes of rejoicing started tearing down the Wall. Many of the bricks in the wall were snaffled by Rudhachs eager to build new houses, as they now had access to the Crofter Housing Grant Scheme.

Within days, no trace was left of the Wall. Statues of Stalin and Grazings Committee Chairmen were swiftly toppled over and sign posts were hastily altered. Soviet ID cards were torn up and Grazzi surveillance records were soon going up in smoke at a big bonfire on Bayble Hill.

The event that came to symbolise the fall of Point Communism was the image of the first Point bus to leave Stornoway at 11.30pm on  Saturday night for almost 30 years, making its way unhindered across the Braigh, carrying a cargo of drunk Rudhachs, chicken suppers and half bottles.

The Goat Island Centre

10 11 2009

The fuss and controversy about where the St Kilda Centre should be located has seen the normally polite diplomatic relations between Uig, Harris and Uist tested to breaking point. (And the Faroes putting in a bid hasn’t helped things very much either).

It brings to mind a similar situation which arose in the late 1930’s when the Stornoway Town Council decided to build an interpretive centre to honour the last residents of Goat Island*. Goat Island had been evacuated in 1930 following a particularly bad goat harvest the year before. The destitute islanders who lived on this remote Stornowegian outpost gathered together for a meeting of the Goat Island Parliament and weighed up the options. There were no longer any young folk on the island, all of them having left for the bright light of Stornoway; the islands only source of income was a goat – plus the goat kept escaping the island and swimming away to the ‘mainland’.

The islanders had no option but to write to Stornoway Town Council asking to be evacuated. The Goat Island ‘Mail Boat’ , a hollowed out plank of wood (just big enough for a letter or the football pools) with an old sheep’s bladder for buoyancy, was solemnly launched from the Goat Island foreshore. As the Mailboat drifted away on the evening tide, the inhabitants climbed to the highest point on Goat Island to watch for rescue and to gaze into the distance where the street lights of Stornoway glimmered tantalizingly.

The ‘Mailboat’ was carried on the tide across the Newton Basin and under Number Two Pier. Some wee coves on the King Steps of Number One Pier chucked some ollacs at it as it drifted past and almost sank it. However, the swell of a passing fishing boat caught it and it was sent further up the Inner Harbour, eventually coming to rest on the muddy bit beside the YM Bridge.

As chance would have it, the Mailboat was discovered by one of the Goat Island residents who happened to be on the ‘mainland’ to try and catch the goat, (who had jumped off the side of the island and was now heading towards Goathill Farm to visit its relations).

The resourceful Goat Islander, (only stopping for a dram in the Lewis), immediately took the message and popped it in the letter box of the Provost, before continuing his hunt for the goat.

The Stornoway Town Council sprang into action almost at once and arranged for a rowing boat to go out to Goat Island at the weekend to assist the Goat Islanders.

It was a sad sight to see, as the rowing boat tied up at Number Two Pier, and the four Goat Islanders disembarked with their few worldly possessions (the goat already having jumped overboard and swum up the Bayhead River). The Town Council gave the islanders a council flat on Seaforth Road and thus ended another chapter in the annals of Goat Island.

Goat Island was to lie uninhabited for many years. The National Trust for Scotland took over the island, because of its rare goat droppings and the local Territorial Army built a wee target on it so they could practice their shooting.

In 1937 the Town Council decided to honour the island and its hardy islanders by building an Interpretive Visitors Centre. A firm of consultants was hired to find the best location for the Centre and a number of places submitted bids to host the Centre. Newton Street had a very strong bid as it was but a stones throw from the island. Goathill Road also submitted a bid because of the strong historical ties with the islands goats. But in the end Mangersta won.

*Goat Island is a small island located in Stornoway Harbour