The Trans-Island Pop Festival: The Counter Culture Comes To Lewis.

2 11 2013

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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.

Dallas: The BBC Alba Version

5 09 2012

So Dallas returns to the TV screens after a long hiatus.
But who can forgot the long running BBC Alba series ‘Dell-as’ which ran from the late 70’s to the mid 80’s?
Many critics unfairly claimed that it was a blatant rip off of Dallas, but to anyone who watched the popular Gaelic tv series, there is no doubt that it bore no resemblance what so ever to the glossy Texas soap opera.
Dell-as was set on Lewis and was all about a wealthy family from Ness who had made their fortune from the lucrative Guga-Oil industry. The company had been set up by famed guga-hunter Euan Morrison. Just after the Second World War, Euan had noticed a gap in the domestic heating oil market and found that guga oil worked really well (albeit a lot smellier) as a paraffin replacement. Euan set up a company to sell the guga-oil which he called it ‘Euan Oil’.
Houses across the Hebrides started using supplies of Euan Oil to light their domestic chores, and soon money was pouring in to Euan’s pockets. The TV series was all about Euan Oil and his disfunctional family, plus the intrigues, dalliances and shenanigans that went on in the lifestyles of the rich & famous.
The series was centred on the goings-on in a huge, whitewashed, ‘Department’ house in the village of Dell that Euan had built with the proceeds from his guga-oil. The house was called South Graap. Unusually for the time, this house had three bedrooms and was shown furnished with the finest stuff from Murdo MacLeans and the JD Williams Catalogue.
The cast were always shown wearing the latest fashions from Nazirs & Smiths Shoe Shop, and the female members of the cast were always sporting the latest perm from Salon Nan Eilean.
In the story, Euan had two sons. The eldest was called Johnny Robbie, or JR for short, and he helped Euan run the business. The youngest son, (who worked part time driving the Councils septic tank lorry and was called Chobby Euan) also had an involvement in the Company, but didn’t really get on with JR.
JR was married to a posh blone from Stornoway called Siuthad-Ellen whilst Chobby was married to a woman of crofting & sheepherding stock called Ramella. Other regular characters included Clibhe Barnes, Ray Velvet-Crabs and Lewisy Euan (also known as the Poison Scorp).
The storylines began to get weirder and weirder as the series went on and included alien abduction, dream sequences and countless divorces. However, the series is best remembered for the cliff-hanger ending of the 1980’s, when JR Euan was found face down at the bottom of South Graap’s septic tank, prompting the speculation on everyone’s lips (and also on t-shirts, posters, badges, songs etc) ‘Who Shat JR?’

The Mod and Stornoway

16 10 2011

It’s Royal National Mod time in Stornoway.

Massed gangs of Gaelic Choirs from all over the world are descending on the Hebridean capital to fight it out to see who will be the last choir standing. Although the requirement for bloodshed is greatly reduced from previous years, the sense of competition is still high and civilians are reminded not to venture out after sunset, less they end up in the cross fire.

The Mod has come to Stornoway on many occasions over the centuries and so a brief recap of some of the more memorable visits is given here.

In 1989, the Mod was tarnished by the undignified spat that developed when Kylie Minogue and Jason Donovan were disqualified from the Mixed Doubles Competition. Although riding high in the Pop Charts at the time, the Aussie pair failed to impress the Judges with their version of ‘Ibhi Ada’ and a Gaelic version of the theme from Neighbours (‘Tha Neighbours, a h-uile duine neeeds math Neighbours’ ).  Kylie and Jason stormed out of the Town Hall after receiving only 5 votes  and headed straight to the Clachan. After a few swift half’s, the pair started to smash up the toilets and were only removed after a barman convinced them that a passing collie was in fact Bouncer, and they sped off in hot pursuit.

In 1979, another unexpected pairing in the Mixed Doubles led to unsightly scenes on the stage in the Garry Room. Newly elected Prime Minister Maggie Thatcher surprised political pundits by agreeing to sing ‘Oran Calum Sgaire’ with Labour Leader Micheal Foot.  Despite Foot getting lessons from his cousin, a local Professor, Thatcher’s  constant drive for perfection meant poor Foot was constantly slagged off by the Iron Lady. Foot made several attempts to get the song in the right key, but as Thatcher famously said ‘The Lady’s Not For Tuning.’  It’s also a little known fact that Thatcher joined Runrig on stage to play the chanter at their career defining performance in the Seaforth Hotel.

In the early 60’s, a spot of confusion led to gangs of parka wearing/scooter riding Mods arriving on the Loch Seaforth expecting to cause trouble in the town, only to find that it was music of a totally different sort that was on offer. In the spirit of helping out, the local Dockers agreed to take on the Mods in a fight down on the Braighe Beach. Afterwards Roger Daltrey of The Who almost won the Gold Medal with his version of  ‘Canan Nan Gaidheal’ but was disqualified for hitting the Judges as he spun his microphone around his head. The Who’s award winning rock opera ‘Tommy’ was inspired by the band watching Tommy Darkie playing the box at the after Mod ceilidh in The Crit.

In 1580, Sir Walter Raleigh stumbled upon the Mod by accident when he sailed into Stornoway Harbour thinking it was El Dorado. Instead of gold doubloons he found Gold Medals instead. Walter was a dab hand at the fiddle and impressed An Comunn Gaidhealach enough to let him play in several competitions which he won easily. To this day the Fiddlers Raleigh is held in honour of the brave explorer.

Zombie Herring Explosion: Stornoway’s B-Movie Industry in the 1950s

16 02 2011

BBC Alba is soon to appear on Freeview, (not to be confused with FreePew- the new digital channel for the Free Church). Gaelic TV has transformed Stornoway into a media powerhouse with cameras on every street corner – and not just the CCTV ones, and these days it seems the town is awash with people shouting “Acsean” and “Cùt” all over the place.

Younger readers might think this is a new phenomenon, but older SYs smile to themselves and think back to the 1950s, when the islands were home to a thriving B-Movie industry. Back then you couldn’t walk 20 yards through downtown Stornoway without bumping into monsters, zombies and aliens. Especially outside the Macs.

In the early 1950s, hardline Carloway councillor Leodhasach Rayburn Macarthur waged an aggressive campaign against perceived Rubhach influence in government and the media. Macarthur was convinced that the local Holywood studio system had been infiltrated by agents of the Garrabost politburo, intent on spreading their subversive Point propaganda to the West side of the Braighe. During the 30’s Holywood (so called as the studio, on Riggs Road, was built from the old timbers from St Lennan’s Church) had indeed been home to a number of left-leaning figures, many of whom had openly expressed admiration for the Peninsula’s ruthless dictator Josef StarInn and his big gulags. Among them were the directors Ossian Wellies and John Uibhisteach, the radical Sgitheanach dramatist Bertolt Breakish and the actors Humphrey Boke-Ceard and Lauren Bac-Coll

Macarthur and his supporters in the council’s House Un-Stoarnowaywegian Activities Committee decided that the only way to prevent a Rubhach takeover of the entire Outer Hebrides was to keep Holywood’s ideologically suspicious movies out, and in 1952, they succeeded in passing a local bye-law that banned the import and screening of all films from Away.

Stornoway’s Playhouse cinema found itself forced to repeat the only locally-made film in its possession, every night – a 3-minute silent reel of Cailleach Dhomhaill Aonghais Iain’s peats being taken home from Loch Sanndabhat in 1932. When audiences inevitably began to decline, the Playhouse’s desperate management put an advert in the Gazette seeking other home-made movies to screen.

Local entrepreneurs were quick to exploit the opportunity, and a number of film studios sprang up overnight. Without exception, the new studios catered to the taste for poor-quality monster and horror flicks that characterised the paranoia of the Macarthurite era.

Airidhbhruach International Pictures operated from a decrepit bus at the side of the Stornoway-Tarbert road; Eel Ling Studios established itself round the back of Cailean Neillie’s fish shop, and Stornoway’s (H)Amadan House of Horror grew so rapidly that it soon established subsidiary studios in different parts of the islands – Hamnaway House of Horror in Uig, Habost House of Horror in South Lochs and – south of the border – the legendary Harris House of Horgabost.

Other local businesses grew rapidly to service the industry; DD Morrison’s and Maciver & Dart made a fortune renting out cine cameras and flogging batteries, while Kenny Froggan’s expanded their film development labs to run 24-6.

Top directors of the day included Roger Croman, Russ Meyerybank, George A Rodelmero and Herschel Gordon Leodhasach.

Members of the Stornoway Thespians soon became well known film stars, including Belle-Anne Lugosi, Christopher Lackalee, Boris Carlowayov and even Rev Peat R MacCuishing. These stars soon moved into luxurious Holy Wood mansions (the new Town Council houses on Springfield Road) and their every move featured in glossy pull out supplements in the Gazette.

In 1959, Belle-Anne Lugosi was billed as the star of notorious transvestite director Edward D Woodlandcentre Jr’s “Plan 9 From Outend Coll”. In fact she’d got the cuiream just before filming started, and was replaced at the last minute by a young R*ddy L*nnt**r with a cailleach’s headscarf over his face. 20 years later, as a member of short lived proto-goth megastars the Dram Boys (also featuring Rev F*rg*s*n and Father C*p*ldi), R*ddy used the experience as material for the hit single “Belle-Anne Lugosi’s Beannag”(1980).

Forgotten cult classics from Stornoway’s B-Movie heyday included:

Zombie Herring Explosion (1956, Dir Roger Croman)

In a secret military bunker on Bells Road lies a vast cache of salt herring, intended to feed allied troops should WWIII break out. When an atomic bomb test is carried out nearby, the bunker and its contents are accidentally exposed to an intense burst of gamma rays. A mysterious reaction between the fish salt and the radiation re-animates the herring and – in a horrifying undead state – they go on a shocking rampage through the streets of Stornoway. Their leader, Dr Spealtrag, plans to wreak a terrible vengeance on Stornowegian humanity for its part in the fishing industry, by pickling everybody in barrels and exporting them to the Baltic. Nothing stands between the zombie herring and world domination except heroic scientist Bo Iledinmilk, his lovely assistant Friedi Noatmeal and a giant pan of mashed buntata. And also a ruppish plan to lure the undead fish into a big mincing machine in the Gut Factory and then hit the “on” button.

I Was a Teenage Hearach (1957, Dir Gene Foulurgha Jr)

Delinquent townie teenager Seonaidh “Bayhead” Rivers is treated by a mad scientist who injects him with the dangerous drug sgorpamine, believing that he has to be regressed to a primal state of total maw-ness in order to be cured of being a wee bleigeard. But the experiment goes too far; Seonaidh regresses right over the Clisham and becomes a Hearach from Grosebay, with terrifying and tragic results.

Creature from the Black House (1954, Dir Jack Arnol)

This movie was billed as“3D” but sadly this was based entirely on a Gazette review that described it as “Dire, Desperate and Downright ruppish”. A party of archaeologists on an expedition to the remote West Side of Lewis are forced to spend the night in a dark and sinister native dwelling. During the night, one of them goes to the byre to answer a call of nature and disturbs a monstrous prehistoric creature lurking there, with terrifying and tragic results. Starring Arnoltonio Moreno, Julie Arnoldams and Dolag the Cow.

Vatisker Pussycat, Kill Kill! (1964, Dir Russ Meyerybank)

There wasn’t much of a plot in this one, to be honest. Three thrill-seeking Niseach guga dancers – Murdag, Peigi-Barabal and Angusina – are out racing their sports tractors on the moor between Skigersta and Tolsta. They run over a bodach at the peats, nick his ceann cropaig sandwiches and flee South, rampaging through Tolsta and Gress in a gratuitous display of violence, beannags and floral aprons. Then they hatch a plan to rob Back filling station, with terrifying and tragic results.

Plan Nine from Outend Coll (1959 Dir Ed Woodlandcentre Jr)

This ill-fated film is now best remembered for being one of the worst films ever made. Critics have made much of the wooden acting, wobbly sets and incoherent plot, but it should be remembered that this was a feature of all of Lewis’ B-Movies of this era.

This film involved aliens, zombies, space craft and was largely filmed in Sandwick Cemetery and in the Coll bus. It was not helped by the fact that its star Belle Anne Lugosi had got the cuiream and resigned two days into filming and her on screen presence was relegated to a large poster of her appearing in every shot, with terrifying and tragic results.

Other well known Hebridean B-movies from this era were;

It Came from Outend Coll

I Married a Minister from Outend Coll

Urgha vs the Flying Saucers

Attack of the 5 Foot Cailleach

God Zilla vs the Ministers

The Wild Women of Waltos

Tolstaglen or Tolstaglenda

Enid Blyton: Clippie

31 07 2010

Many readers will recall that Enid Blyton lived in Stornoway for part of the 1950’s (she worked as a clippie on Mitchell’s Buses and lived on Bayhead St) where she got the inspiration to write her well loved ‘Fleekin’ Hardy Five’ series. This long running series of 10 books set in Lewis, took the idea of the Secret Seven and Famous Five and transposed the events and participants into a Stornowegian setting. Although very popular at the time of publishing, subsequent changes in the social order of the country saw the books and the author coming under fierce criticism for the books portrayal of the outdated class system.

Whilst in Stornoway Blyton also wrote a number of ‘Sacred Seven’ stories about the adventures of seven Free Church Elders. These included ‘Seven Go To The Communions’, ‘Seven Buy a New Funeral Hat’, ‘Seven Have a Differing View of The Interpretation of the Scriptures’, ‘Seven Have a Schism’ and, last in the series, ‘Four Go To The Continuing’.

In her Fleekin’ Hardy Five books Blyton portrayed the characters as upper-middle class, (the four Maclennan siblings and their collie dog, Lassie), when in reality, at that time everyone in Stornoway was as common as fleek.

In the books the MacLennan’s had well-off parents; in this case the father was a Manager in Sticky’s Mill, the Mother was a stay at home mum, who shopped in Murdo MacLeans but relied on Mrs Morrison, the cook, to hold the domestic life of the house together; and a range of supporting characters to provide adventure and excitement.

The supporting characters were undoubtedly all seen as either nasty ‘maws’ from ‘beyond the cattle grid’, who spent their time poaching, smuggling or sheep rustling. Other citizens of the town were seen as little more than working class supporting characters, purely in the story to drive it forward. Blyton portrayed areas of the town, such as the Battery, as dodgy no-go areas, with bullies, nasty chaps and unwashed fishwives aplenty.

The books were withdrawn from usage in the 1970’s and soon disappeared from memory, apart from a few copies turning up in Town Hall Sales of Work.

Enid herself left Stornoway in the late 1950’s, unhappy at being made to do the West Side Circle bus route.

We are fortunate to be able to bring you an extract from one of Blyton’s best loved books ‘Five Go Fleekin’ Mental At Arnish Point’.


The Fleekin Hardy Five, whilst out for a trek to Manor Farm to collect some milk (lashings and lashings of it) for Mrs Morrison to enable her to make scones for a yummy afternoon snack, come upon some bad boys from the Battery who are up to no good. The leader of the gang, a nasty crewcut fellow with a scar and tackitty boots, calls them nasty names ( ‘You’re a fleekin’ fleeker!’ most likely).

Forced to run away, the Fleekin’ Hardy Five come upon a dead end on Sand Street. Just as the Battery Boys get closer to their hiding place in a gorse bush, Lassie chases a rabbit and finds a ventilation shaft for Stornoway’s underground railway (see previous entry). They decide to climb down.

Chapter Seven

‘Gosh’ said Calum Murdo, as he peered through the jaggy gorse bush, ‘that’s a simply splendid idea.’

‘Ohhh yes,’ added Kirsty Peigi, ‘you are awfully clever Angus. We’d never have thought of that!’

‘It wasn’t all me,’ blushed Angus, patting Lassie’s head. ‘If Lassie hadn’t sniffed out that rabbit, I’d never have spotted the secret entrance.’

‘Are you sure the tunnel will be safe?’ asked Chrissie Mairi, peering down the hatchway into the gloom. ‘I don’t like dark places.’

‘It will. Don’t you worry!’ said Calum Murdo. ‘If we stay here, those terrible children from the Battery will catch us.’

Kirsty Peigi nodded her head in agreement with Calum Murdo. ‘Yes, don’t you worry, Chrissie Mairi. As soon as we climb down into the tunnel, we’ll be safe from those nasty oiks.’

‘Well…. right then,’ said Chrissie Mairi, bravely trying her hardest not to let the side down by sobbing like a soppy girlie. ‘Oh I do wish Mummy was here.’

‘Shhhh, you silly sausage!’ said Calum Murdo. ‘They’ll hear us!’

At that very moment, the biggest of the Battery Boys turned and looked over in their direction. All four of Fleekin’ Hardy Five ducked for cover behind the bush and watched in horror as he pulled a large catapult from out of his torn and second hand Harris Tweed jacket. The boy bent to pick up a stone, and the children ducked lower, even Kirsty Peigi whimpering just a little bit. But just then Calum Murdo felt something under his hand. He looked down at it and a clever idea came to him.

‘Quickly now! Lets climb down the ladder!’ he yelled, as he threw the old potato, for that’s what it was, towards the villains.

As quick as a flash, the children raced to the hatch and climbed down the ladder. Angus looked back and saw the potato hit the bully square on the nose. The bully fell to the ground and his gang ran off, fearful for the terrible beating they would surely get once kindly PC Macpherson found about their nasty scheme.

Meanwhile, Chrissie Mairi had reached the bottom of the ladder. It was terribly dark in the tunnel, but she could make out faint shapes around her. Soon she was joined by the others.

‘Are all you chaps fine?’ asked Calum Murdo. ‘Just let me take a roll call to make sure!’

As the children lined up across the railway line, Kirsy Peigi said, ‘Gosh Calum Murdo! You were so brave up there. I bet that nasty bully regrets starting all that now!’

‘I say,’ said Angus, ‘lets have three cheers for Calum Murdo!!’

‘Oh, lets, do!’ said Chrissie Mairi. ‘Hip Hip!’ she yelled at the top of her voice.

Just then, the 3.15 from Goathill Farm to Manor Farm hit the Fleekin’ Hardy Five and splattered their remains across the side of the tunnel with lashings and lashings of blood.

The Street Names Of Stornoway (Part 4 of many)

23 10 2009

Cannery Road

There is a much misguided view that Stornoway’s Cannery Road was named after the large factory built by Lord Leverhulme to process and ‘can’ the fish caught for his ‘MacFisheries’ empire.

The name of this street actually comes from much further back in time and was coined in honour of the old Burlesque theatre that used to stand there. Cannery Road was originally known as ‘Can-Can’ Road, after the popular dance featuring blones in frilly dresses doing high kicks and flashing their drarsh.

The theatre, known as ‘Maw-lin Ruadach’ was build in 1885 by a consortium of local businessmen keen on introducing the cultural elite of Stornoway to the latest dances and fashions from Paris. But because of the risqué nature of the acts who performed there, the businessmen had a great deal of trouble finding a suitable plot of ground in the town centre on which to build the theatre and had to resort instead to a barren strip of land in what was then the outskirts of Stornoway. Because of the vast amount of naked flesh on display in the theatre, this areas of town was nicknamed ‘The Butt-ery’ and was off-limits for all decent and upstanding citizens.

Many of Stornoway’s most famous artists (including “Two Ewes” Lautrec, well-known colourist and shepard with a very small flock) made the burlesque house their ‘local’ and could be seen there most nights drinking Absinthe, being poor and insulting each others ‘inferior’ work (much like any normal evening in present-day An Lanntair).

The Maw-lin Ruadhach survived until well in to the 1930’s, until an unfortunate incident involving the entire Church Session of a local FP Church on a ‘fact finding’ visit came to light in the Stornoway Gazette.

Newton Street

Originally named in honour of Sir Issac Newton the famous scientist, whose granny came from Stornoway. Young Newton used to come to Stornoway on his holidays and it was here that he first described his ‘three laws of motion sickness’, following an impressively bad bout of vomiting on the ferry. Newton also discovered his Law of Gravir-tation whilst visiting an auntie in South Lochs. Newton fell asleep under the only tree in the village and was awoken by a guga (which had been hung out to dry) falling on his head. And the rest was history, apart from an unfortunate Gazette sub-editors mistake of swapping ‘guga’ for ‘apple’, as he had run out of the letter ‘u’.