A Return To Canals, Waterways and Uisgeducts

5 06 2015

Regular readers may recall our earlier article from March 2009 on the Stornoway Ship Canal. Shortly after it was published, we received a number of complaints pointing out that the piece contained a number of minor factual accuracies, so we’ve binned it and had another go….
Stornoway has traditionally lagged a bit behind other major European cities when it comes to promoting the magic and romance of its picturesque waterways, but for those in the know, the canals of Old SY are a hidden gem.

The earliest and perhaps the most ambitious canal in Stornoway was dug in around 2560 BC, during the ancient Egyptian occupation of Lewis, when construction of the Great Pyramid of Gisla was underway over in Uig. (See “The 7 Wonders of the Anchent Lewis World, Feb 2010). The thousands of slave labourers toiling on the pyramid’s construction required high-calorie sustenance, and their overseers soon discovered that the best diet for a day’s slave labouring was duff. A canal was therefore built linking Stornoway’s massive Ptolemy Terrace Duff Works to Little Loch Roag via Loch Langabhat and a chain of smaller lochs crossing the island. This massive waterway was known as the Suet Canal.

The Roman Period

The brief Stornowegian ‘Roman Period’ also saw the development of a spectacular array of waterways across the island. 

Under Emperor Calumigula, a network of Uisgeducts were built around Stordinium. These were used to transport the sparkling waters of Loch Mor An Stairr to the various bath houses dotted about the town. The Romans had hoped that the many bath houses would encourage the indigenous population to wash themselves more frequently, but as it turned out the main use of the Roman baths became the washing of sheeps fleeces, rinsing of wellies and the boiling of spuds (on Sunday’s). 

Thomas Telford in Stornoway

In 1820 the great civil engineer Thomas Telford came across the Minch for a wee break one weekend while working on the Caledonian Canal. The directors in the Canal consortium were in the middle of a major feud over the naming of a spectacular new series of locks being constructed near Fort William; each of the partners wanted to call it after themselves, their grannies or their dogs, and the arguments were getting increasingly heated. 

With all this pressure at work, Telford was determined to let off steam on his Stornoway break, and so he embarked on a tour of the town’s hostelries. In the course of his pub crawl, he is said to have over-imbibed and got involved in a scrap about sheep’s earmarks in an upper room of the building occupied today by Macneill’s bar.

Telford came off worst in the rammy and was hurled head first downstairs, rolling out into the street and colliding with “Confessions of a Justified Sinner” author James Hogg, who was staggering past with concussion after being caught in an unrelated stramash in the Star Inn. Lying among the discarded chip wrappers and Bacardi Breezer bottles in the Narrows, Telford was suddenly struck with an inspired solution to his problem back in Fort William. Which is why the Caledonian Canal’s most famous sequence of locks is known to this day as “The Neptune Staircase” (nearly).

20th Century – The Steinish Sheep Canal

Passing along the road between Plasterfield and Sandwick, one crosses a rush-clogged ditch stretching off down into the common grazings towards Broad Bay. This, sadly, is all that remains of one of the island’s more recent waterways, a monumental project which was to become a white elephant almost as soon as it was completed. 

In the immediate post-war years, with a newly-built aerodrome on their doorstep and old USAF surplus Dakota aircraft going cheap, the North Street Grazings Committee started a highly successful transglobal live sheep  export business, shipping fresh Sandwick mehhags by air to all corners of a hungry world. The envious neighbouring powers soon noticed, however, and armed forces from East Street, Parkend, Plasterfield and the Teedees’ farm blocked off the roads to the airport, each one demanding a sluyce of the action.

North Street told them all to fleek off, and sent G**rdie G*lidy down to the grazings with a spade one Saturday afternoon in 1956. Fired by the promise of a plate of chops for his tea, 10 Woodbines and a free nyoggan up the town afterwards, G*lidy dug a canal 20 feet deep and 30 feet wide all the way to Steinish dump, completing the project by 4pm. The canal gave North street a route to the airport that bypassed the territory of its enemies, and first thing the following Monday morning, enormous barges were transporting hundreds of North Street sheep direct to the airport to rendezvous with their flights. The Steinish Sheep Canal was open for business.   

Unfortunately nobody had consulted the Steinish Grazings Committee beforehand, and the canal had been dug right through the middle of their fank. On the Tuesday morning, enraged Steinish Committee Clerk Calum Abdul droch-Nadar nationalised the canal and blocked it with an old tractor and several rolls of  rusty Rylock. Droch-Nadar demanded that North Street pay a levy of 300 white marags per barge; North Street refused and invaded the Steinish fank instead, leading to a major diplomatic incident known as the Suet Crisis (yus, Suet again). All the surrounding Grazings committees sided with Steinish, and North Street was forced to withdraw ignominiously, ending its short-lived domination of the international sheep air freight business. Without the steady flow of sheep between North Street and the airport there was no economic justification for the Steinish Sheep Canal’s existence, and it was soon abandoned.

Sadly we must leave Canals for now, but readers will no doubt be aware of the famous ‘Panama Canal Palindrome’ , where the phrase ‘A man, a plan, a canal, Panama’ is the same backwards as well as forwards.   

Sadly Stornoway’s Panamandersonroad Canal didn’t quite work out as well in terms of palindromes (or indeed in terms of navigable waterways). 

‘A maw, a plank, a cart, ahh fleek it to all this digging’

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