Forgotten Leodhasach Explorers -Part 1 of Some

28 04 2018

The town of Stornoway has produced more than its share of people who went away to discover stuff, but not all of them have received the recognition they deserve. While we all know about Alexander Mackenzie’s travels in Canada, and Colin Mackenzie’s great works in India, it’s about time we looked at some of the Island’s lesser known but equally significant explorers.

Here’s the first of several..

Christopher Columbiaplace

The career of Stornoway’s Christopher Columbiaplace was uncannily close to that of his more successful cousin from Genoa. They were born but a year apart, and their birthplaces were uncannily similar; Genoa was a thriving cosmopolitan seaport with a pleasant climate, trade links to all corners of the known world and a vibrant renaissance culture, and Stornoway was beside the sea as well.

At that time Stornoway was experiencing great difficulties in its trade with the East, due to rampant piracy, the capture of Constantinullapool by the Dòtaman Empire under Sultan Donnie II, and the Caliphate-Mac ferries being full of camper oxcarts all summer.

In 1487, after hearing some amadan in the Star Inn claiming the world was round, Christopher Columbiaplace approached the Stornoway Trust and proposed an expedition to find a Westerly passage to Kyle of Lochalsh (and maybe Mallaig), by sailing across the Atlantic.

The Trust turned down Columbiaplace’s proposal, as they’d already sold Kyle of Lochalsh, Mallaig (and the Atlantic) to some cove who said he was the King of Nigeria, for 10 Woodbines and a hen supper.

Frustrated, Columbiaplace took his idea to the rulers of the emerging Catholic superpower in the region – King Ferdinand of Castilebay and Queen Ishabellag of Ardnamoine. Having just expelled the Moors from Barra (and consequently being short of peats) Ferdinand and Ishabellag were keen to expand their territories and get a few trailerloads home so they could get a good gelly going in time for the Inquisition.

The King and Queen had a whip round and bought Columbiaplace three ships: a second hand sgoth from Ness called the Pintaheavy, an ex-Fishery Cruiser called the NormaNina and the pride (and flagship) of the fleet – the Sandwick Mawria, an ex Caliphate-Mac ferry.

A crew consisting of press-ganged hard coves from the Columbia, Manor and Springfield gangs was assembled on No 1 pier and told that ‘there’s going to be fleeking loads of cartwheels for the gelly to be found in the West’. They were swiftly allocated to one of Columbiaplace’s fleet and, fortified with a cargo of salt sgadan, set sail on the morning tide.

Columbiaplace and his fleet sailed straight into trouble, mistaking Arnish for the Flannan Isles light and unknowingly returning to Stornoway. It was only when they reached the Porter’s Lodge that Columbiaplace realised he was navigating up the Glen River.

Undeterred, he continued up the Glen to Loch Airidh Na Lice where they dropped anchor. Here, Columbiaplace declared he had discovered the New (Valley) World.

This of course caused some controversy in more recent times, as it is now widely accepted that Stornowegian Viking Leac Erikson was first to discover the New Valley (hence the name of the Loch).

Fortunately for Columbiaplace, his navigational error worked out well, as the area turned out to be full of peats. Columbiaplace and his crew went ashore and traded some worthless trinkets with the natives – some glass beads, a half bottle of trawler rum, a quarter ounce of black twist, a couple of crates of gold bars, 3 or 4 chests of dubloons and all their credit card details – for as much in the way of fàds, caorans and smùir as the three ships could carry back to Ferdinand and Ishabellag’s court. The King and Queen were most pleased when Columbiaplace returned, as by this time they had a queue of heretics round the block complaining about how long they had to wait to get burned.

After his adventures in the New (Valley) World, Columbiaplace retired to relative obscurity as the caretaker of a swingpark.

But his story lives on. Generations of townie school kids will remember the poem celebrating Columbiaplace’s epic voyage of discovery….

“In fourteen hundred and ninety two

Columbiaplace sailed with a half-canned crew

He had three ships (one ex MacBrayne)

He sailed through the Glen, passed Coulregrein

He sailed by night, he sailed by day

He used the lighthouses to find his way

A compass alas he didn’t pick

That’s why he ended up in Airidh Na Lice

Ninety sailors were onboard

And they discovered peats in a huge big hoard

They brought them back to Ferdinand and Ishabellag

Who burnt the heretics and sent them to Hellag”

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