Revolutionary Stornoway – 1789 and the storming of the Barvastille

30 08 2010

Local government in the Outer Hebrides can be a contentious business nowadays, but the upheavals of the late 18th century make today’s ho-ro-dheallaighs in the Comhairle seem quite tame, really.

The Provosts of Stornoway in the 17th and 18th centuries were notorious for the opulence and decadence of their courts. A common misconception is that the Lewis Castle Grounds were laid out in the 1800s by Sir James Matheson, but in fact they date from 1682 and the reign of

the flamboyant Provost Leodhas XIV. Leodhas’s “Palace of Vershayayes” was on a much grander scale than the Castle of today, and the highly manicured ornamental gardens surrounding it reached as far as Grimshader to the South and the Pentland Road to the West.

Leodhas and his successors believed in the Divine Right of Provosts – the doctrine that the Provost

is not subject to any earthly authority and can do what the fleek he likes. When asked about his duty to the state, Provost Leodhasach XIV reputedly answered “L’Etat?, Sud mise, cove”.

This was a great idea if you happened to occupy the top chob, but fleekeen rubbish for everybody else; by the late 1700s the town was broke from having to subsidise the extravagant lifestyles of successive Provosts. Revenues from the kelp industry, the tweed, the fishing and the gut factory were all sucked into the Palace to pay for the latest whim – be it a giant piece of topiary in the shape of a guga or an extravagant ball for the courtiers featuring Europe’s finest classical musicians of the period – Mozart, Beethoven, Tommy Darkie or even Costello.

Matters came to a head in 1789 during the reign of Provost Leodhas XVI and his Lady Provost Mairi-Anna Towniette. All the town’s fish had been flogged off to passing Romanian factory ship to pay for a gi-normous wig that Mairi-Anna was having made specially by Salon nan Eilean, and

a mob of starving townies approached the Palace to complain that there were no herring in Cailean Neillie’s. When Leodhas explained this to Mairi-Anna Towniette, she is said to have retorted: “Let them eat ceann cropaig”

This insensitive riposte inflamed the mob; the town prison (known as the Barvastille) was stormed and its inmates (mostly people from Barvas who’d been locked up for stealing – hence the name) released. The townies proclaimed a republic and decided to set up a guillotine in Bayhead (then known as Be-head) so they could execute the Provost, Mairi-Anna Towniette and anyone else associated with the previous regime.

Construction of the guillotine took longer than planned, however, due to problems with competitive tendering and poor quality workmanship from the construction firm eventually employed on the job. When the guillotine was finally completed, an argument erupted over whether it should be open on Sundays, leading to several splits in the revolutionary government, the associated revolutionary government and the revolutionary government (continuing). The keys to the guillotine were lost in the subsequent fracas, and it rusted unused for several years before finally blowing away in a gale in 1794.

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Some Stornoway Rhyming Slang

18 08 2010

Many years ago, the residents of the East End of Stornoway (commonly known as ‘the Battery’ after the former Royal Naval Reserve base located there) started using a type of rhyming slang to communicate with each other. The ‘secret’ language was thought to have been developed to enable the Battery Gang to discuss where their Bonfire Night tyres were hidden without the Manor Gang finding out. The slang became popular throughout Stornoway and was eventually adopted by the workers in the many Tweed Mills down the Battery and became known as ‘Clothney’ Rhyming Slang.

As an aside, a person was called an Eastender if they were born within earshot of ‘The Bow Bells’ (which was the noise of C*lan Bow’s clinking bottle of Bells Whiskey as he staggered along Inaclete Road from Cathy Dhall’s Shop).
The slang gradually died out as it became very confusing for the poor townies what with having to cope with English and Gaelic as well.
Some of the last remaining examples of Clothney Rhyming Slang are shown below.
Arnish Welder= Church Elder (as in ‘My old man’s an Arnish Welder.’ : ‘Oh, he must be very holy’)
Church Elder=Arnish Welder (As in ‘My old man’s a Church Elder.’ ‘Oh he must be off and on the Dole-y’. This particular use of slang led to much confusion as on several occasions actual Welders ended up officiating at Funerals in Arnish Boots and orange boiler suits.
Dawn Squad=local Mod (As in ‘Will you look at that, there’s the Local Mod outside the Porters Lodge again.’)- The use of slang here led to some small amount of confusion which saw the Dawn Squad winning the ‘Best Waulking Song’ category at the 1972 Local Mod.
Callanish Stone=cheeky blone (As in ‘That nurse is a right Callanish.’)
Marag Dubh=poo (As in ‘I’m bursting for a marag but there’s no bog roll left in Perceval Square Toilet’)
Barvas Show=Cheerio (As in ‘ Do you know where the funeral is tomorrow?’ ‘It’s in Tolsta. Barvas.’  ‘Eh??’)
Tarbert Ferry=pint of sherry (As in two ladies just in from Church asking what they’d like to drink before dinner- ‘Would you like a Cream Soda dear?’ ‘No thanks, that sermon was a bit on the long side so I think I’ll need a Tarbert.’
Mitchells Bus=Al Crae’s Hearse (as in ‘I’m waiting for Al Crae’s Hearse to take me to Sandwick’)
Arnish Light=Load of Sh*te (As in ‘Good morning Minister, you were right, yon new Elder talks a lot of Arnish’)