Jeff Stornowayne’s War of the Wools

1 02 2019

‘The chances of any sheep coming from Maws are a million to one they said’.

Many townies of a certain age will be delighted to know that a stage production of “War of the Worlds” is due to take place in An Lanntair in March this year. This musical interpretation of HG Wells’ famous book about a Martian invasion was originally created as a concept album  in the late 70’s by composer Jeff Wayne, and sold in its millions.

In more recent years Wayne transformed his album into a big-budget epic musical, and the Stornoway stage show will feature a host of local musicians, singers and actorrrs, who will recreate Wayne’s original 2006 theatrical spectacular.

But few folk today remember that Jeff Wayne was heavily influenced by his cousin Jeff Stornowayne, who had written a popular album (4 copies sold in Maciver and Darts) based on a similar book – “War of the Wools” by renowned Victorian SY-fi (Stornoway Fiction) writer HG Ironwells.

Ironwells was a big pal of Lord Leverhulme, and used to come up for his holidays every summer to lurk among the rhododendrons in the Castle Grounds. Inspired by his surroundings, he wrote several successful Stornoway-based novels including “The Invisible Ram”, “The Tuyme Machinn” (in which a steam-motorised Hattersley loom connected to Stornoway’’s famous ‘Suyme’s Clock’ enabled the protagonist to travel to the future), and of course, “The Island of Doctor Murdeau”.

But Ironwells’ best selling book by a long chalk (7 copies sold in Loch Erisort Bookshoppe) was “The War of the Wools” – a chilling tale about the maws eyeing up the fertile gardens of Stornoway and thinking that their sheep could benefit from a diet change of marigolds and petunias, instead of raw heather.

However, the cunning townies had built an almost impenetrable barrier of cattle grids around the town, preventing such wooly incursions. So, how could the maws get their sheep into Stornoway? By using fleekeen big spaceships and death rays, that’s how!

After much blood, gore, destruction and general excitement, the maws are eventually defeated, not by the townies’ efforts, but when they succumb to the fumes from the Gut Factory.

The book caught the attention of the masses (the aforementioned 7 people who could read in Stornoway at that time) and firmly established the SY-fi genre.

In the 1930’s, “The War of the Wools” became infamous following a live radio adaptation on Isles FM by Orduighean Wellies. The good people of Stornoway thought the Maws were actually invading the town and had crossed the cattle grids with their sheeps. This resulted in mass panic leading to rioting and looting in the streets. The rioting has continued to this day in some parts of the town.  

In the 1970s, Stornowayne had been looking for an opportunity to bring a local book to life as a musical concept.  He took “War of the Wools” and turned it into an epic, double concept album musical extravaganza featuring the very finest Leodhsach musicians and thespians of the period. Many of the leading parts were voiced by top celebrities of the day.

“The Parson” was played by Phil Lional from hard rockers Thin Leodhasach (who had a string of hits including ‘The Boys From Back Are In Town’, ‘Dancing in The Moor Light’ and ‘Bard Reputation’.

Meanwhile “The Artilleryman”  was voiced by David Nessex (the 70s chart hearthrob behind such hits as “Rubhach On, “Amaraga”, “Gonna Make You A Star (Inn)”, and “Silver D.R.’s Machine”).  

And “Obh-ita” star Julie Covingtownie contributed her dulcet tones as “The voice of Bethesda”.

But the one voice everyone remembers from “War of the Wools” is that of “The Narrator” – legendary Stornoway Thespian Richard Burnt-toine, the star of such classic films as ‘Where Eagleton Dares’, ‘An Townie and Cleobattery’ and ‘Who’s Afraid of Virgin Wool?’  

Who could forget Burnt-toine’s momentous delivery of the album’s opening words….

‘In the late 19th century, few townies had even considered the possible existence of extra-town-estial life, and yet Stornoway had in fact long been enviously observed by advanced beings’

….as he ominously set the scene for Mawsian Invaders, sci-fi sheep and deathrays, all delivered over a bombastic soundtrack of monstrously overproduced orchestral prog rock,  puirt-a-beul and dodgy disco.

Top musicians on the album included Jeff Stornowayne himself, guitarist Chris Spreadingmanure, Ken Freepresbyteriman on melodeon, and ace session bassist B*lly Flower, who’d famously played with classical rock maestros Skye, and done the slidy double bass on former Bobban Underground singer P*ddy Reed’s solo hit “Walk on the West Side”.

As well as the massive success of the album itself, Stornowayne and his band scored a huge hit single (3 plays on “Caithris na h-Oidche”) with Side B Track 2 – Chustin Heycove from the Moody Brues singing ‘Forever (D)autumn(an)’.

Several stage productions of “War of the Wools” have gone on tour over the years, with the original parts being played by new actors. Burnt-toin’s Narrator role has often been reprised by Liam Niseach (“Schuilven’s List”, “Rob Robhanais”, “The Communions”, “Siar Wars I – The Phantom Mehhh-Ness” and “II – Attack of the Blones”).

Niseach was hired to after the failure of several costly attempts by the production team to replicate the deceased Burnt-toine onstage using complex special effects and animatronics. These involved a copy of the original album on cassette from Woolies, a photo of Burnt-toine’s face cut out of the Gazette, some sellotape and (variously) the statue nicked from Lady Matheson’s monument, a tailor’s dummy stolen from Murdo Maclean’s, and a scarecrow obtained under cover of darkness from Goathill farm.

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