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.





Revolutionary Stornoway – 1789 and the storming of the Barvastille

30 08 2010

Local government in the Outer Hebrides can be a contentious business nowadays, but the upheavals of the late 18th century make today’s ho-ro-dheallaighs in the Comhairle seem quite tame, really.

The Provosts of Stornoway in the 17th and 18th centuries were notorious for the opulence and decadence of their courts. A common misconception is that the Lewis Castle Grounds were laid out in the 1800s by Sir James Matheson, but in fact they date from 1682 and the reign of

the flamboyant Provost Leodhas XIV. Leodhas’s “Palace of Vershayayes” was on a much grander scale than the Castle of today, and the highly manicured ornamental gardens surrounding it reached as far as Grimshader to the South and the Pentland Road to the West.

Leodhas and his successors believed in the Divine Right of Provosts – the doctrine that the Provost

is not subject to any earthly authority and can do what the fleek he likes. When asked about his duty to the state, Provost Leodhasach XIV reputedly answered “L’Etat?, Sud mise, cove”.

This was a great idea if you happened to occupy the top chob, but fleekeen rubbish for everybody else; by the late 1700s the town was broke from having to subsidise the extravagant lifestyles of successive Provosts. Revenues from the kelp industry, the tweed, the fishing and the gut factory were all sucked into the Palace to pay for the latest whim – be it a giant piece of topiary in the shape of a guga or an extravagant ball for the courtiers featuring Europe’s finest classical musicians of the period – Mozart, Beethoven, Tommy Darkie or even Costello.

Matters came to a head in 1789 during the reign of Provost Leodhas XVI and his Lady Provost Mairi-Anna Towniette. All the town’s fish had been flogged off to passing Romanian factory ship to pay for a gi-normous wig that Mairi-Anna was having made specially by Salon nan Eilean, and

a mob of starving townies approached the Palace to complain that there were no herring in Cailean Neillie’s. When Leodhas explained this to Mairi-Anna Towniette, she is said to have retorted: “Let them eat ceann cropaig”

This insensitive riposte inflamed the mob; the town prison (known as the Barvastille) was stormed and its inmates (mostly people from Barvas who’d been locked up for stealing – hence the name) released. The townies proclaimed a republic and decided to set up a guillotine in Bayhead (then known as Be-head) so they could execute the Provost, Mairi-Anna Towniette and anyone else associated with the previous regime.

Construction of the guillotine took longer than planned, however, due to problems with competitive tendering and poor quality workmanship from the construction firm eventually employed on the job. When the guillotine was finally completed, an argument erupted over whether it should be open on Sundays, leading to several splits in the revolutionary government, the associated revolutionary government and the revolutionary government (continuing). The keys to the guillotine were lost in the subsequent fracas, and it rusted unused for several years before finally blowing away in a gale in 1794.





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’.

Preamble

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 Fall of the Braigh Wall

15 11 2009

It’s hard to believe that 20 years have passed since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of Communism in the Eastern Europe. Many events have taken place to commemorate this occasion and the worlds media have focused on the various concerts, speeches and Coffee Mornings taking place throughout the former Soviet territories.

It’s sad that a little known local event connected with the fall of communism has been overlooked by the worlds media. Even Isles FM has hardly commented on it and Bono never mentioned it once in his 10 hour-long ‘in between song’ speech in Berlin.

Very few people remember about the ‘Fall of the Braigh Wall’ , which took place in 1975, and set the scene for the reunification of Point with the rest of Lewis.

Following the cessation of hostilities at the end of the Second World War, the whole of Europe was divided up between the  Allies. Russia was quick to stake a claim on the majority of Eastern Europe and to set up a series of puppet states . However, due to a bureaucratic oversight in the Allied Headquarters, the Point district of Lewis was unexpectedly allocated to the Eastern Bloc.

It was thought this was due to the traditional high levels of socialist Rudhachs voting Labour in General Elections and the in-bred ‘Bolshie’ tendencies displayed by most inhabitants of the Eye Peninsula.

So it came to pass that late in 1945, under secret orders from the Kremlin, the Peoples Democratic Republic of Point (PDRP) was established and all diplomatic ties with the rest of Lewis were cut off. A Soviet style political structure was created and a communist way of life was imposed on everyone, even the sheep. Huge collective crofts were established across the district and bronze Stalinist statues started to appear in every village. People were forbidden to go into Stornoway for the messages and songs by Calum Kennedy were outlawed. (The Lochies were still permissible).

To reinforce this new Soviet ideal, and to keep Communism pure in Point, a huge wall was constructed across the Braigh isthmus,  effectively leaving Point isolated and alone. (A situation which suited most people in Stornoway and the rest of Lewis).

The imposing Braigh Wall was located more or less where the car park and toilets are now located and if you look closely enough you can see the last remaining piece of the wall just behind where the toilet portacabin is.

The Wall was patrolled 24/7 (except on Sundays) by armed guards, supported by a series of watch towers with search lights and machine guns. There was only one ‘official’ crossing place on the Wall, called ‘Check Point Chrissie’, where it was occasionally possible to cross over into the Eastern Bloc – if you had the correct permits or were doing a delivery from Hughie Matheson’s Bakery.

It was Check Point Chrissy which came to symbolise the conflict between East and West. The barriers and barbed wire, coupled with the spy scandals and intrigue,  lent an air of mystery to the border post and the secretive Soviet state of Point.

The power of this Soviet style state was reinforced by the infamous Secret Police. Based on the East German ‘Staszi’, the Secret Police was chosen from the membership of the various Grazing’s Committees  (the most secretive and terrifying organisations known in Point) and were known as the ‘Grazzi’. The Grazzi were all-powerful and kept files on almost everybody. Nothing was overlooked and no-one was above suspicion of being a ‘Capitalist Spy’. Annual sheep subsidy claims were recorded in great detail and even how much people put in the Church collection plate.

A number of imposing Soviet style buildings were constructed in Point including Bayble School and the Point Orthodox Free Church building in Garrabost.

All of the villages were renamed to reflect the new regime, such as  Garrabostograd, Shulistalin and Chernknockle. All tractors had to be Trabant Tractors imported by visiting Klondikers from East Germany, and all school children had to learn Russian (however, Point Gaelic is so hard to decipher, visiting officials from the USSR were none the wiser that it wasn’t Russian being spoken).

Every year, on the first of May, the Point Politburo declared that there had to be a May Day Parade, going through the streets of Garrabostograd, to show off the might of the Point military. However, as this was traditionally the day everyone in Point took the peats home, these parades were usually sparsely attended. Many people recall the year Leonid Brezhnev was invited to Point to take the salute of the Rudhach Guard and ended up helping load a trailer of peats instead.  This was marginally better than the previous year, when the Point Politburo had mistakenly invited Leonard Nimoy from Star Trek.

It was only in 1975 when Local Government reorganisation was taking place that the British Government realised that Point was part of the Eastern Bloc and a member of the Warsaw Pact. As this could have caused immense embarrassment to NATO, it was thought prudent to try and resolve the situation as quickly and quietly as possibly. Local Government reorganisation in Scotland was chosen as the most effective way to save face all round.

As the new Comhairle Nan Eilean took control of the islands, representations were made to the Russian Embassy in Garrabostograd (which still exists to this day) to release Point from the shackles of Communism. The Russians were only too glad to get shot of the truculent Rudhachs and gave orders for the Point Politburo to stand down.

As the news spread of the collapse of Communism, and as the dreaded Grazzi disappeared into the night, the people of Point made their way to the Braigh and amidst scenes of rejoicing started tearing down the Wall. Many of the bricks in the wall were snaffled by Rudhachs eager to build new houses, as they now had access to the Crofter Housing Grant Scheme.

Within days, no trace was left of the Wall. Statues of Stalin and Grazings Committee Chairmen were swiftly toppled over and sign posts were hastily altered. Soviet ID cards were torn up and Grazzi surveillance records were soon going up in smoke at a big bonfire on Bayble Hill.

The event that came to symbolise the fall of Point Communism was the image of the first Point bus to leave Stornoway at 11.30pm on  Saturday night for almost 30 years, making its way unhindered across the Braigh, carrying a cargo of drunk Rudhachs, chicken suppers and half bottles.