Zeppelin over Stornoway

4 02 2009

Towards the summer of 1916, as the Great War trundled into its third year, both sides in the conflict had made huge strides in air warfare. Modern bi-planes, with forward firing machine-guns, long range bombers, that could fly far behind the enemy lines and of course the mighty Zeppelins, began to appear high above the Western Front.

The German’s fleet of Zeppelins also flew further afield and caused alarm and concern over many parts of the British Isles. These bombing and reconnaissance missions struck terror into the hearts of civilians up and down the land.

Even far Stornoway was not immune to this threat. In summer 1916, a German Zeppelin on a raid to Newcastle found itself blown way of course. Helpless in front of gale force winds and blown steadily north west, the crew of the airship soon found themselves crossing the Minch and en route to Lewis.

Dawn on a Friday morning saw the zeppelin appearing over Arnish Point, much to the confusion and consternation of the townsfolk. A few hardy souls rushed out with shotguns and blasted away at the airship, but the Germans were drifting too fast and so were carried safely over the town and out into the moors, to disappear into the clouds. Eventually, reports reached the military commanders in Stornoway that the zeppelin had disappeared into the Uig hills.

The Captain of the Zeppelin, Count Von Tooff-Reeh, despite being stranded over foreign territory, vowed to continue military action against the British Empire and attempted a number of audacious raids on prime military targets.

These included an attack on a sheep fank at Ardroil, where the Germans attempted to disrupt the supply of sheep fleeces to the Western Front. However, the German landing party were chased off by a boisterous sheepdog. The zeppelin also tried to attack the Breanish Communions, but the attack took place at night and so the crew couldn’t make out the church goers due to their black clothing.

The zeppelin also made a number of flights over Stornoway. Occasionally the zeppelin would fly low over the houses of Stornoway and try to steal the lead off the roofs. One of the Free Church elders, a gardener in the Castle called Murdo Dan ‘Plant’ Macdonald, was said to have influenced his grandson’s choice of name for his rock band, by telling him the tales of the day the zeppelin tried to steal the lead off the roof of the Free Church on Kenneth Street.

The zeppelin came to an unfortunate end in January 1918, after the crew had converted the engines to run on peat and inadvertently set fire to the gas after a Burns Supper. The remains of the zeppelin can be seen on the east slope of Mealisval.

Why is Goat Island reputed to be Spanish Territory?

23 12 2008

The story goes back to the autumn of 1588, when the remnants of the Spanish Armada
were heading home the long way. Most of them went round the West Side
and got wrecked in Tolsta Chaolais, but the flagship Las Maracas Negras,
commanded by El Gran Admiral Carlos Menendez de Barli, lost its way and
was blown into Stornoway.

As the Spaniards dropped anchor just off Newton, the Admiral’s eye was
drawn to the Prawn Factory on Goat Island.

“Fleek’s sake, amigos”, ars esan “Gambas por todo el mundo!”. For the Spanish,
whose worldwide empire depended on a secure supply of paella and crustacean-based
tapas, this was a prize greater than all the treasures of Mexico and Peru. They
had gold coming out their ears, but as everyone knows, they hadn’t yet invented
temperature controlled seafood processing plants.

de Barli immediately put a boat ashore at Newton and inquired of the savages
where their chieftain might be found. He was directed to a nearby hut,
distinguished by an ornate totem pole or “lamp post” at the door. A deal was
rapidly concluded, whereby the native chief gifted the Prawn Factory and the
island beneath it to Spain in perpetuity, in return for a gift of coloured
glass beads. (Plus 10000000 used gold ducats, to be deposited in a numbered account
in a discreet Harris bank). A charter was quickly drawn up on the back of an
old Health Board expenses form and the chief affixed his mark, throwing in
the Town Hall, the Callanish Stones and the airport as a goodwill gesture.

de Barli planted a Spanish flag on Goat Island and sailed home,
confident that some good had come of the whole Aramada burach after all.
However, when he returned some months later to load up the first of his empty
prawn galleons, the manager of the Prawn factory denied all knowledge of the
arrangement and told him to fleek off.

Needless to say, the chief and the gold ducats were nowhere to be found, and
on closer inspection, the signature on the charter was found to read
“Domhnall an Tonnag”.

On hearing of the deception, an outraged Philip II of Spain declared war on Newton,
a conflict which has gone unresolved to this day. While the EU keeps a lid on
things these days, older readers may recall the heavily armed Guardia Civil
checkpoint that General Franco stationed at the end of the causeway for most of
the 1960s.

Poor de Barli, meanwhile, gave up all interest in the seafood business and went
off to Argentina to farm sheep and cattle. The rest is history.

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.