The Classical Instrument Makers of Lewis

17 09 2012

It’s a widespread misconception that the Disruption of 1843 and the rise of the Free Church in Lewis led to the suppression of musical instruments in all walks of life. The common fallacy is that everything was put to the torch except the melodeons (which were permitted because the elders quite rightly saw them as an effective means of putting people off music altogether).

In fact, Lewis was and continued to be the centre of the classical instrument world well into the 20th century.

As early as the 1600s, master joiner and violin maker Angustonio Tolstradivari had a workshop on Bell’s Road, where Macleod and Buchanan’s is now. Angustonio’s main – and highly lucrative – business was boarding up broken windows in town after closing time on Friday and Saturday nights. Consequently he only ever built a few violins, and their very rarity makes them highly sought after to this day. The Tolstradivarius has been the instrument of choice for top virtuosi such as Peatztak Perlman, Msitislav Crossbostopovitch and Yo Yo Maw.

While the secrets of the Tolstradivarious violin’s manufacture died with the master himself, most experts agree that its qualities are something to do with the materials used in its construction – bits of 4 by 2 and low grade plywood reclaimed after being used to board up Woolies, the Macs or Murdo Maclean’s. And also, perhaps, with the ‘seasoning’ these materials received from rough weather, seagulls, passing dogs and incontinent Cromwell Street revellers.

But Stornoway was not famous only for violins. In 1853, the town’s famous Piano Works was established at Mossend, by Heinrich Macleod of Stornoway and Engelhard Macdonald of Steinish.
The pianos turned out by the Mossend works were judged to be the finest in the world, but Macleod and Macdonald – both fiercely proud of their respective origins – could not agree on what to call them. Macdonald demanded that they should be known as “Steinish” pianos, while Macleod insisted on “Stornoway”. After several years of argument they compromised on “Steinway”.

This got them into immediate legal difficulties, not only with their South Lochs rivals the Steimreway Piano Company, but also with a bunch of bleigeards in America who’d craftily copyrighted the “Steinway” name while Macleod and Macdonald were fighting over it.

Eventually the American upstarts got to keep the name and all the associations of quality that went with it. They went on to dominate the global posh piano market, while Macleod and Macdonald, now trading as the “Stornish Piano Company” limped on with much more limited success.

Like the rest of the island’s classical instrument manufacturers, the Stornish Piano Company finally perished during the herring boom in the early 20th century. The fishing industry’s demand for wood to make shavings, kipper boxes and barrels drove prices beyond the means of local instrument makers. Desperate experiments to develop wood-free instruments using wet peat, rylock and bobban failed. The firms’ highly skilled luthiers, cabinetmakers and other craftsmen finally fleeked off round the corner to Inaclete Road to make fishboxes for a living, and that was that.

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