The Olympic Torch

30 05 2011

The Olympic Torch will be making its way through the Outer Hebrides in summer 2012 as part of its global journey to London.

It’s by no means the first time the Olympic Flame has burned bright over Lewis.

At the height of the Cold War, a major global incident centred on Stornoway was narrowly averted in the months leading up to the 1980 Moscow Olympics. The Olympic Torch was supposed to make its way from Montreal (where the 1976 Games had been held) to Moscow. The Russian authorities tried to smuggle the Torch across the Atlantic so that it would reach its destination ahead of schedule, so as to make the USSR look more efficient and mightier than the West. A secret KGB ship, disguised as a rusty Klondiker, was dispatched to take it across the Atlantic, prior to a fake Torch leaving Montreal.

Unfortunately, the Captain of the Klondiker received the wrong instructions and the vessel instead went to Loch Broom to join the East European fishing fleet already at anchor there. The Olympic Torch remained in the engine room of the Klondiker for a month. Eventually the Russian crew were banned from Ullapool for riotous behaviour and so had to up anchor and make for Stornoway instead so that they could buy the messages (vodka and marag dubh). Shortly after docking in Stornoway, the Point Politburo received an urgent telegram from the Russian authorities (who had only that day managed to track down the missing ship) asking them to send the Klondiker back to Russia.

The Second Engineer was told to guard the Torch and not let it out of his sight. However, the orders from Moscow did not specify that he wasn’t allowed to go anywhere, so, as it was a Saturday night, he thought it would be ok to go on a pub crawl with the rest of the crew – as long as he took the Torch with him for safe keeping.

The Klondiker’s visited the Star Inn, but after only a few pints a major altercation took place following a discussion with locals over potatoes. In the ensuing riot, the Olympic Torch was left unnoticed in the gents toilet.

The Russian crew were carted off to the Police Station and spent the night in the cells before being escorted back to the harbour. Of the Torch there was no sign.

By this time, Moscow, the KGB, SMERSH, the Russian Ambassador in London and the whole of Point were in a panic. A replacement Torch was hastily acquired by the Russian Consul in the Lewis Crofters shop on Cromwell Street. The Klondiker was dispatched from Stornoway and a massive cover up took place, with all mention of Stornoway being removed from official records.

A fortnight later the missing Olympic Torch was found in the Star Inn. As it was still burning brightly, the Pier and Harbour Commission (who had just finished their AGM in the Star Inn Conference Suite) decided to put the Torch to some use and fit it into the Beacon at the end of Number One Pier. The Olympic Torch still burns brightly to this day, guiding boats into the Harbour (until as such time when the Muirneag runs into it).

It’s also a little know fact that the Olympic Torch was for many decades powered by paraffin. Stornoway Merchant Charlie Morrison won the contract to supply the oil back in 1928 and continued to do so up until the business ceased trading. If you look closely at any old film footage of the Olympic Torch making its way around the world, you’ll see a Charlie Morrison’s van driving along behind it.

Another local link with the Olympics is the ‘Olympic Todhar’. Each summer at the Tong Games, there is a competition to see who can fling a cow pat the furthest. 

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