The Town Hall Clock Of Stornoway

29 01 2010

We’ve mentioned the Town Hall on several occasions, but have never really gone in to any great detail about the fine late-Egyptian style clock tower and its Norse style water powered clock. Keen eyed readers of the previous blog entry about John Buchan’s rip-roaring novel ‘The 39 Step We Gaylee’s’, may have wondered why the clock was chiming the tune ‘Lovely Stornoway’. Hopefully this explains why.

When the Town Hall was under construction in 1905, the residents of the town decided that the clock should play a cheery melody as it struck the hour. After much debate it was agreed that the popular song Lovely Stornoway should be the song of choice.  The town fathers were sure this would instil civic pride in the citizens as they went about their daily business.

(Readers will recall how Calum Kennedy made ‘Lovely Stornoway’ famous when he won the Eurovision Song Contest in 1960. Readers may also be interested in new version of the song as performed by yon Iain Shaw cove which can be found at this weblink here).

Lovely Stornoway remained the chiming tune until the outbreak of the First World War. Caught up in patriotic fervour, the townies agreed that a new, uplifting and encouraging tune should be composed. After a competition to select the best tune, a song by local band ‘Island Steam Train’ (a forerunner of popular 1970/80’s band Island Express) was chosen. Their song, ‘Fleek Off You Bosche Bleggards’ then blasted out every day, on the hour, as the War progressed. The song also became popular in the trenches with the Seaforth Highlanders and the Ross Battery, where it was sung with great gusto along with other popular war songs such as ‘We’ll Hang Out Our Bobbans On The Siegfried Line’ and ‘Keep The Home Fires Burning Underneath the Illegal Whiskey Still’.

Sadly the Town Hall burnt down in 1918 after an unfortunate double booking of the Hall by the Stornoway Candle Makers Guild and the Society of Paraffin Lamp Collectors. Sadly, the poor townies were without an hourly chime for nearly a decade.

On the official reopening of the Town Hall in 1919, ‘Lovely Stornoway’ once again became the official clock chime. This remained the case for the interwar years.

On the outbreak of the Second World War the tune was once again changed to ‘Fleek Off You Bosche Bleggards (1940 Glen Millar Remix)’ and remained so until VE Day. Lovely Stornoway then resumed its duties for several more years.

In the mid 1950’s, following the birth of rock’n’roll, the tune was (very appropriately) changed to Bill Holy and His Curam’s Rock Around The Clock’. This tune lasted for several years until Lovely Stornoway once again got voted in by the Town Council.

In 1973 the Town Hall tune became ‘Freebird’ by US rock band Lynyrd Skynyrd. This song had become the unofficial Stornoway national anthem following its release on the album ‘Pronounced…’ in 1972. A Bye-Law passed in 1975 made it compulsory for ‘Freebird’ to be played as the last song at every disco/school social, and at least twice at every Wedding Dance held within the Burgh limits.

Public outrage occurred in 1977 when some local punks (B*mber and M*lcy Sm*th from local band The Rong) climbed the clock tower and replaced Freebird with the Sex Pistol’s ‘Anarchy In The UK’ to coincide with the Queens birthday. It was a whole week before the Comhairle electricians could remove the punk anthem. The letters page in the Gazette was 2 pages long in the following weeks, full of indignant letters. (Not from outraged citizens or Ministers, but from Lynyrd Skynyrd fans). It was suggested that this stunt led to all sorts of anarchy breaking out amoungst the youth of the town and ultimately led to the collapse of society when the swing parks were no longer locked up on Sundays.

But eventually, Freebird had to be replaced. The tune was 14 minutes long and so it was nearly quarter past the hour before it stopped chiming. This meant Council meetings kept getting interrupted or motions being passed without councillors hearing the details. This of course led to a number of interesting policy decisions in the late 70’s including the erection of the new Comhairle offices on a bog, and introducing peat as legal tender.

In the 1980’s, as the Town Hall fell into decline, the chime alternated between the ‘Big Ben’ chimes and ‘broken/not working’. This remains the case to this day, but perhaps the current proposals to ‘do up’ the Town Hall will see a new tune emerge for the new decade.

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’.

Stornoway’s Opera House

7 09 2009

Even among old SYs who should know better, there is a common misconception that the town’s Opera House on South Beach was named ironically, and that it was actually a decrepit and malodorous public toilet frequented by local worthies seeking a sheltered spot in which to drink 4-Crown and Eldorado and murder a few Gaelic songs.

In fact, the magnificent harbourside venue enjoyed an international reputation in its day, rivalling Milan’s La Scala, drawing top divas and divos from across the world and – ultimately – providing the model for Sydney’s less successful copy.

The Opera House was opened in 1774 by the powerful Habostburg Emperor Calum Dan III. Calum Dan was keen to showcase the talents of his protégé, the young Parkend composer Wolfgang Amadaneus Murdozart, and in the early years, Murdozart’s productions such as Don Giovannsahovano and The Marriage of Fidigarry established the Opera House’s prestige worldwide.

Through the 19th and early 20th centuries, the leading lights of grand were drawn to the building’s unique acoustics. It is said that Wagner was inspired to write “Ride of the Valkyries” by the terrifying reverberations of an irate Ch*rsty Al*n* outside, shouting for B*gie to bring out a bottle of QC in which she had a half share. In the mid 20th century, top performers such as Maria Callanish, Enrico Carishaderuso and the great Mario Lacasaidh would arrive on the Loch Seaforth, be wuyined and duyined in the Lido café, smoke a couple of woodbines and then play to capacity audiences of 4 and sometimes 5.

In the late 1960s slim Rubhach opera star Luciano Paibleotti first visited Stornoway to deliver a bravura season of Puccini’s La Blonehemme. During his residency he developed a fondness for white marags and duff, leading to an enormous weight gain and the figure for which he subsequently became famous.

In the 1980s the Opera House staged a highly avante-garde improvised production of Amadan & Guga’s “Nixon in (Vitreous) China”, lasting 8 years and featuring a “found” cast – B*gie as Nixon and D*ggum Da as Chairman Mao – with a quarter bottle of Trawler Rum representing Taiwan and a row of Piper Export cans as the Great Wall. It was the challenging realism of this production – 3 years into Act 2 – that led the Opera House to be mistakenly identified as a failed public toilet and demolished by the Comhairle.

Subsequent abortive attempts to stage operas in the Superloos failed because cast, orchestra and audience kept getting flushed out automatically every 15 minutes. Thus ended Stornoway’s days as a world centre for the operatic arts.

Historical Note: Students of theatrical architecture will be aware that the designer of Sydney Opera House fell out with the project managers part way through construction and never saw his vision completed as he would have wanted it. True experts in the field will also know that what the cove had specified was an exact copy of Stornoway’s harbourside masterpiece – but scaled up. The Aussies would have gone along with too, had the plans not required 400-foot high urinals, A bag of empty 40-foot long Piper Export cans blocking a 200-foot high lavvy pan, and 600-foot tall animatronic B*gie, Sn**lie and D*gg*m Das singing “An Teid Thu Leam a’ Mhairi” on loop.

The Story Behind Lews Castle (Part Two of a Few)

24 04 2009

With the success of his black puddings Jimmy Matheson found himself with money to burn. Every recipe he turned his hands too was received with rapture by the folk of Shanghai, and soon he was rich beyond his wildest dreams.

Jimmy decided to make good use of his fortune by purchasing the Isle of Lewis and building a Castle to live in. This would leave him close to the source of his marag blood and give him the option of starting up a Bed and Breakfast should the bottom fall out of the marag market.

The plans for the Castle were drawn up by Charles Wilson, a renowned architect from Glasgow, who had designed many stately homes across Scotland.

After Sir James had approved the design (which was early late mock Tudor with pre-Bauhaus styling), Uist Builders were commissioned to build the Castle.  Using the new fangled ‘kit castle’ approach, the Castle was speedily erected between 1847 and 1853, using the finest craftsmen the island had to offer.

On its completion Lews Castle was by far the biggest and grandest building on the island. The many acres of woodlands and ornamental gardens added to the majesty (and mystic) of the building.

The crème of Victorian society flocked to visit Lews Castle to take part in Shooting Parties, Tea Parties on the Lawns and nights out to the Galaxy Disco. Amongst the famous guests that Sir James entertained were Sherlock Homes, Disraeli Gears (the inventor of the bike) and Mary Shelly.

The Castle remained in Matheson ownership until 1918 when Lord Leverhulme bought the Isle of Lewis, including the Castle.  Leverhulme carried out various improvements such as putting glass in the window frames and fitting central heating. However, Leverhulme’s ownership of the Castle was only for a period of five years, when it was gifted to the town of Stornoway.

Many of the Lews Castles fixtures and fittings were sold off at auction. The Castle’s fine glass conservatory was sold to become Anderson Road Nurseries, the Vomitorium was sold to a local publican and can still be seen in the Clachan Bar and the swimming pool went to Valtos School, where it remained until 1985 until some Venture Scouts nicked it.

Much of the furniture was sold to local Stornoway folk and to this day various bookcases, cabinets and tables can be seen in the town’s posher houses. All of the solid silver cutlery is now in use in the Nicolson School Canteen. The floor of the Ballroom was put in storage until it was used in the Seaforth Hotel’s Galaxy Disco (now the restaurant Eleven) in the 1980’s. If you look closely at the floorboards under table 17 you can see the inscription ‘Jimmy Was Here 1853’ which is widely regarded as been the work of Sir James himself.

Stornoway’s Ill-fated Winter Olympic Bid

7 01 2009

In the 1960’s the Highlands and Islands Development Board (HIDB) decided to invest loads of money in the Highlands and Islands to try and stimulate the tourist trade and bring more prosperity to the area. Aviemore was a prime example, where a run down Highland village was transformed in to a winter sports playground, with ski-slopes, ice-rinks and Santa’s Grotto.

 The town fathers of Stornoway, not to be outdone and seeing the success of Aviemore, decided that Winter Sports was the way forward and that the town should be getting a piece of the action.  

Loads of feasibility studies were carried out by the Town Council and Stornoway Trust and after much debate the slope of the hill Ranol (on the Golf Course) that overlooks the town was chosen as an ideal ski run. It was long enough and just steep enough to be suitable for beginers, and would provide nice views over Stornoway and the harbour. And, each winter for countless generations, the kids of the town had used it to sledge down, so it was known to work.

Work started in 1964, with the construction of a ski-lift and cable car going from the Porters Lodge to the top of Ranol (where the gun emplacements are today). A large revolving restaurant was built on the crest of the hill, that provided spectacular views of the town, War Memorial and Barvas Hills (when it wasn’t raining), so that skiers could enjoy the apres-ski lifestyle of the rich and famous after they stopped falling over and breaking their legs.

The cable cars also gained a degree of fame as they were the actual cable cars used in the epic war film ‘Where Eagles Dare’, the tale of ‘derring do’  staring Richard Burton and Clint Eastwood. You’ll remember the epic fight atop the cable car roof, the explosion of the cable car containing the badies and the daring leap to safety into the river below (which of course was the River Glen). Many film fans will be surprised to know that the film wasn’t shot in the Bavarian Alps, but in Stornoway, thanks to the cunning use of fake snow and cardboard cut-outs of mountains.

In addition, the Winter Olympics were fast approaching and various world famous winter sport locations were vying for the prize of hosting the Games. Why shouldn’t Stornoway try its luck? Plans were put underway to see if Stornoway could host the Winter Olympics, but these plans failed at the very final hurdle when members of the Olympic Committee visited Stornoway and discovered that Stornoway doesn’t actually get any snow at all apart from one or two days a year. 

It turned out that the HIDB feasibility study had forgotten to ask one important question –  “Uhm, does Stornoway actually get any snow?” – before work started on the ski development.  However, it was all passed off as an ‘administrative error’ so everything worked out okay in the end.

The ski slopes, plus the cable car and ski-lift, slowly fell into disuse, gradually rusting away until nothing remained of the bold venture.

By the late 60’s, there was no trace of the ambitious plan apart from an old fence in the Castle Gardens made out of broken ski’s.

Why Norman is such a popular name on Lewis

16 10 2008

Most of you will know someone called Norman. There was always at least one kid called Norman in your class. There was always a Norman in Cubs, Scouts or whatever youth group you were involved with. Every gang  had a Norman, or ‘Norrie’, or ‘Norm’. It’s a very popular name on Lewis, along with its Gaelic counterpart Tormod.

But why is this?

After much research, a team of eminent scholars from the History Dept of Lews Castle College (motto “We can’t call ourselves a Uni yet”) has uncovered the reason why.

It all stems back to events that took place south of the border around 1066. Yes, the Norman Conquest of England. Back in them days, William, Duke of Normandy, decided to pop across to Hastings with a huge fleet of ships full of men, horses and tapestry sewers and annexe most of England. It was all very complicated and we won’t go in to the politics behind it in any detail whatsoever.

After a decisive victory at Hastings, William and his coves didn’t take long to subjugate the Anglo-Saxons. All over the land Norman castles appeared- wooden ‘mote and bailey’ ( large mound of earth, wooden palisade’s round it, deep ditch encircling it) ones at first, until they got around to building stone ones (there was a shortage of builders even back then).  Norman nobles replaced the ‘old order’ and things like the Doomsday Book, an Exchequer and lots and lots of new laws appeared.

It took a long time for the whole of England to be fully conquered, as communications were fleeking awful. William sent a few of his nobles off in ships to try and reach the far north of England quicker, and it is one such noble who first made landfall in Stornoway. By mistake of course.

This was a fellow by the name of Jacques De Bleigard, a minor noble from Caen. (and this is where the old Stornoway game of ‘Kick The Can’ came from, as kids used to dare each other to kick Norman soldiers up the arse.)  Jacques took a wrong turning somewhere and thought he had reached the Isle of Man when he finally laid eyes on Lewis and landed his men on the sands at Broad Bay.

Very soon he had established a small colony on the foreshore of Stornoway Bay. He set about building a keep (by chance exactly on the spot of the present day Lews Castle) from which to subjugate the locals. He cut down loads of trees in order to do this, which was a great shame as the trees had just grown again after the Vikings had burnt them all down.

Eventually, Jacques began to feel quite settled in Stornoway and actually grew to like the locals. And the locals started to like Jacques and his Normans. The islanders began to refer to Jacques as ‘Norman’ (as they couldn’t speak French and so couldn’t say ‘Jacques’) , and eventually started calling him ‘Norrie’.

Jacques even took a local girl as his wife and started a family. Their first born was of course called Norman and so that’s where it all stemmed from. Within a generation, the Norman invaders were more or less assimilated into Lewis life and society and had cut all ties with the Duke of Normandy.

The only record of the invasion was a large tapestry that used to hang on the walls of Lews Castle. This depicted the arrival of the Normans in great detail and was known locally as the Broadbay-oh Tapestry.

Stornoway’s Victorian Pier

16 10 2008

Bought a groovy new book last week all about Stornoway’s Pier and Harbour Commission. It’s called ‘It Must Be Stornoway’ and is written by Catherine Mackay, who works for the Commission. It’s an interesting look at the history and development of Stornoway’s harbour over many years. Lots of good pictures and stuff, so I would heartily recommend that you all rush down to the Baltic, Loch Erisort or An Lanntair to buy it.

However, I found one thing wrong in the book, and that is the sad oversight of one of the towns long forgotten landmarks – yes indeed, Stornoway’s late lamented number three pier (as was) which was one of these Victorian pleasure piers. The Pleasure Pier, as it was known, was built in 1870 by Sir James Matheson. It was soundly constructed out of cast iron, wooden decking and lots and lots of rivets. Sir James felt that, in line with most other Victorian seaside resorts,  Stornoway should have its own pier. He imported the finest craftsmen money and drugs could buy and set about building the metal structure out into the bay. It was located more or less where the modern day no 3 pier is today. It had a large promenade along it, leading to a small theatre at the very end, passing whelk stalls, fortune tellers and ‘What The Elder Saw’ penny arcades. Cream teas were sold daily and pleasure cruises were available from dawn till dusk. The theatre  used to put on many shows by the great and the good of the Victorian music hall tradition and even saw the birth of the Stornoway Thespians first ever Xmas Pantomime (Mac In S’tronich and the Three Bears).

Sadly, as with all seaside piers, their time came and went all too quickly. Plus, the FP’s started complaining about folk been able to enjoy themselves too much. By the Second World War, the pier was falling to bits, and was used as a naval look-out station to make sure maws didn’t sneak in to the harbour to steal the sea-planes there. A brief resurgence in popularity during the 1950’s didn’t last long and by the late 60’s bits were hanging off the pier and it was becoming a health hazard. In early February 1971, a mysterious blaze started in the Jazz Club and before the Fire Brigade could reach, the whole pier had gone up in flames. The remains of the metal framework fell in to the harbour shortly afterwards.

The pier is probably best known for featuring in author John Buchan’s adventure story ‘The Thirty Nine Step We Gay-lees’, where his protagonist Richard Hannay gets caught up in a world of espionage and Lewis Weddings. Hannay, on a shooting holiday to Lewis in 1915, gets dragged into a murky mystery involving a ‘foreign power’, murder on the Barvas Express, a wedding cake with too much brandy in it, a chase across the Lewis Moors pursued by a sinister church elder and a climactic climax under the pier where the bride turns out to be a Russian spy and not a herring girl from Inaclete Road.

The book was later adapted by Alfred Hitchcock as a sequel to his big budget ’39 Steps’ and once again stared Robert Donat as Hannay. Donat, of course, took his stage name from all of the dough-nuts he used to buy from Johnny Oaks bakery whilst in the Stornoway Thespians.