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.





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 Goat Island Centre

10 11 2009

The fuss and controversy about where the St Kilda Centre should be located has seen the normally polite diplomatic relations between Uig, Harris and Uist tested to breaking point. (And the Faroes putting in a bid hasn’t helped things very much either).

It brings to mind a similar situation which arose in the late 1930’s when the Stornoway Town Council decided to build an interpretive centre to honour the last residents of Goat Island*. Goat Island had been evacuated in 1930 following a particularly bad goat harvest the year before. The destitute islanders who lived on this remote Stornowegian outpost gathered together for a meeting of the Goat Island Parliament and weighed up the options. There were no longer any young folk on the island, all of them having left for the bright light of Stornoway; the islands only source of income was a goat – plus the goat kept escaping the island and swimming away to the ‘mainland’.

The islanders had no option but to write to Stornoway Town Council asking to be evacuated. The Goat Island ‘Mail Boat’ , a hollowed out plank of wood (just big enough for a letter or the football pools) with an old sheep’s bladder for buoyancy, was solemnly launched from the Goat Island foreshore. As the Mailboat drifted away on the evening tide, the inhabitants climbed to the highest point on Goat Island to watch for rescue and to gaze into the distance where the street lights of Stornoway glimmered tantalizingly.

The ‘Mailboat’ was carried on the tide across the Newton Basin and under Number Two Pier. Some wee coves on the King Steps of Number One Pier chucked some ollacs at it as it drifted past and almost sank it. However, the swell of a passing fishing boat caught it and it was sent further up the Inner Harbour, eventually coming to rest on the muddy bit beside the YM Bridge.

As chance would have it, the Mailboat was discovered by one of the Goat Island residents who happened to be on the ‘mainland’ to try and catch the goat, (who had jumped off the side of the island and was now heading towards Goathill Farm to visit its relations).

The resourceful Goat Islander, (only stopping for a dram in the Lewis), immediately took the message and popped it in the letter box of the Provost, before continuing his hunt for the goat.

The Stornoway Town Council sprang into action almost at once and arranged for a rowing boat to go out to Goat Island at the weekend to assist the Goat Islanders.

It was a sad sight to see, as the rowing boat tied up at Number Two Pier, and the four Goat Islanders disembarked with their few worldly possessions (the goat already having jumped overboard and swum up the Bayhead River). The Town Council gave the islanders a council flat on Seaforth Road and thus ended another chapter in the annals of Goat Island.

Goat Island was to lie uninhabited for many years. The National Trust for Scotland took over the island, because of its rare goat droppings and the local Territorial Army built a wee target on it so they could practice their shooting.

In 1937 the Town Council decided to honour the island and its hardy islanders by building an Interpretive Visitors Centre. A firm of consultants was hired to find the best location for the Centre and a number of places submitted bids to host the Centre. Newton Street had a very strong bid as it was but a stones throw from the island. Goathill Road also submitted a bid because of the strong historical ties with the islands goats. But in the end Mangersta won.

*Goat Island is a small island located in Stornoway Harbour





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’.





Rabbie Burns in Storn o’way

13 08 2009

Rabbie Burns

As many of you will be aware, Rabbie Burns worked as a Customs and Excise Man for several years before finding fame and fortune as a National Bard.

As part of his training for the Customs job, he was dispatched to various parts of Scotland, to gain experience of the varied and many types of smuggler he may come across.

The young Burns found himself posted to Stornoway in 1779 for a six month period, armed with only his quill and inkpot. He worked from the old Custom House on the pier (where the present day Custom House now stands) as part of a counter-smuggling squad. The squad would spend the day sailing up and down the Minch catching guga smugglers and ensuring that the excise Duty on Uig chessmen sets was being paid.

During his time off, Burns explored the island of Lewis and must have gained inspiration from the Hebrides (and from its womenfolk) for many of his most famous poems and songs. It is understood that Burns composed many of his early drafts whilst living in his digs on Kenneth Street, where his mews drew on the many characters and events that the town of Stornoway had to offer. These first drafts formed the basis for Burns more famous poems and songs which gradually saw the light of day as his fame grew.

His early drafts included:,

Address to a Marag

Tam O’Shader

A Coves a cove for a’that

The Rigs o’ Charlie Barley

The Twa Sheep Dogs

Tam O’Shader (Barvas)

When all the Siarochs leave the street
And go to Charlie Barleys for some meat
As all the shops are closing down
And maws begin to leave the town
While we sit boozing in the Star
And getting drunk after many’s a jar
We think not on the long Barvas Road
The moor and bog with heavy load
That lies between us and our home
Where sits our grumpy, frumpy, blone
Gathering her wool from her flocks
Busy knitting bobban socks





Roman Stornoway – Part Two of Many

16 07 2009

(Hadrian’s Bridge)


One of the most notable features of Roman Stornoway (or Stordinium) was the bridge crossing the Bayhead River allowing access to Governor Calumigula’s mansion in what are now known as the Castle Grounds.


A natural crossing point, where the Bayhead River enters the harbour, the site was perfect for the erection of a small wooden bridge. The work was commissioned by the Roman Emperor Hadrian, who at this point (AD 120) was attempting greater and greater engineering projects to demonstrate Roman superiority and strength. He started small. ‘Hadrian’s Ditch’ had been completed in the fortified town of Tolstachaoalus in AD 117 along with ‘Hadrian’s Crazy Paving’, and these were followed in quick succession by ‘Hadrian’s Hanging Basket’ (AD 118), ‘Hadrian’s Wooden Decking’ (AD 119) and, near Stordinium, ‘Hadrian’s Well’ (AD 120) – which can still be seen out near Craggan’s Corner.


Desperate to break out of the domestic garden project rut, he attempted his grandest vision yet: A wooden bridge spanning all 25 feet of the width of the Bayhead River. The work was undertaken by a team of young men who congregated regularly at a nearby sports & recreation area- the Sarcalogos Congressus Pubes, a modern incarnation of which has recently been reconstructed on the same site.


The work took several months. It could easily have been done in a weekend if the work team hadn’t spent most of their time skiving off drinking quattuor flos from Cathus Dhallus’ shop and eating gallina suppers from local hostelries and daring each other to walk along the nearby pipework. However, the bridge was finally finished. A local beat combo even composed a song entitled “Sarcalogos Congressus Pubes” in memory of the young men’s efforts. The song was incredibly successful, sparking a dance craze where revelers would form the letters S.C.P. above their heads with their arms and it remains the best known of classical latin poems by Villa Populus.





Roman Stornoway- Part One of Many

26 06 2009

(Aye Aye Claudius)

According to present day historians, most of Scotland (or Caledonia as was) escaped the might of the Roman Empire. This was achieved through impressive military skill, great cunning, but mostly through the Roman’s great dislike for midges. The great walls of Hadrian and Antoinine mapped out the northern boundary of the Roman Empire and it was only very rarely that the Roman Legions ventured beyond this frontier into the mists of the Highlands. As a consequence, there are very few traces remaining of Roman presence in the Highlands and Islands.

However, the Outer Hebrides proved the exception to this rule and this article intends to examine the long forgotten Roman outpost that once dominated Stornoway and its surrounding area for many decades. Although the mountains of the Highlands made communications difficult, the seaways of the Hebrides lent themselves to an extremely efficient communication network, and so the Romans and other traders soon took full advantage of this.

The Roman sailors and traders bravely ventured north and westwards exploring the inner isles as they went and soon encountered the far Outer Hebrides (or Hebudes as Pliny the Elder* named them) with all the natural treasures they contained.

One of the first things these traders noticed was that Lewisian peat, when burnt, gave off a rich and fragrant odour .The traders realised that  this fragrance would be keenly sought after by patrons of Roman baths, as a form of early aromatherapy, and so began to ship creels of peat back to the Mediterranean.  Soon, demand for peat was so great that the Emperor Hadrian ordered that an expedition should make haste to Lewis and establish an permanent outpost, from which to exploit the supplies of peat.

Other delicacies such as guga, black pudding and ceann cropaig soon became popular at Roman orgies and before long Roman galleys and triremes became a regular sight in the Minch, carrying the exotic Hebridean wares to the households of the rich and famous.

The Romans started to develop the town as a trading post in 120 AD. They named it Stordinium and set about transforming the small fishing village into a sizeable Roman settlement with all the modern features of Roman life.

The first Roman Governor of Stornoway was called Calumigula, and he was tasked with ensuring that Roman law was upheld in this far province and ensuring that regular supplies of  peat and guga made their way to Rome, without interference from the natives.

Calumigula oversaw the construction of a Roman fortress on the foreshore across from the town, with a Governor’s Mansion built beside it. This was more or less where the present day Lews Castle stands. From here Calumigula watched the town grow from a humble hotch pot of fishing shacks to a resplendent Roman town full of all the right kinds of civic buildings.

An impressive Roman Bathhouse was built in the town, more or less on the site of the present day Sports Centre Pool. The Forum was laid out near present day Cromwell Street, virtually where the Town Hall stands today, and it was here that the influential citizens of Stordinium debated laws and policies.

An Arena was laid out close to the present day Smith Avenue sports track and chariot races were held here on midge free nights. Boy charioteers could also be seen driving through the paved streets of the town on a nightly basis, picking up Temple Maidens and listening to the latest hits  played on lutes. The most famous charioteer came from just outside Stordinium and was know as ‘Bennadrove’ Hur.

Calumigula was keen to make a quick sestertius or two and so very soon had set his sights on the lucrative convoys of goods sailing back to Rome.   He got in tow with a local ‘business man’, called Macinstronius who specialised in black market dealings (and worse), and together the two of them established a Business Plan for their shipping company. The ‘Business Plan’ consisted largely of knifing the other merchants in the back, thus ensuring that no-one else was willing to undertake the work.

This shipping company took the names of its two founders and became known far and wide as Cal-Mac.

* we’re not quite sure what church he was an Elder in but we think it was the Temple of Mars (Continuing)





The Stornoway Ship Canal

22 03 2009

Many people of Stornoway will be aware of the narrow drainage channel that runs from near Engie’s Petrol Station (Vi selger bensin og sant!) on Sandwick Road, to the village of Steinish and out into Broad Bay. Most folk will not realise that this long narrow ditch was originally an impressive fully working canal- a spectacular feat of engineering able to take fishing vessels and puffers of considerable size. Nowadays, it’s sad to reflect on the Ship Canal’s lost greatness, as the only things that can use the clogged and muddy waterway today are ducks and canoeists in very small canoes.

The Stornoway Ship Canal was started by Lord Leverhulme in 1919 as part of his townscaping proposals for Stornoway. His original intention was to build a canal which enabled his fishing fleet to pass from the plentiful fishing grounds of Loch A Tuath direct to the Newton Basin and his cannery factories, without having to face the danger of circumnavigating Point. Leverhulme had lost many fishing vessels to the ‘wreckers’ of Point, who used to lure unsuspecting fishermen to their doom with the promise of a nice cup of tea.His canal would prevent this from happening but would also speed up the production process, by getting the fish from the sea to his Cannery Road factories and thus to the tea-tables of Britain much quicker.

A squad of Neissoch navvy’s was contracted to carry out the work, and they set to the business at hand with great skill and determination. Within 9 months the channel had been dug, the eight locks were in place and a team of Lock-keepers had been appointed. With great fanfare Lord Leverhulme himself conducted the opening ceremony and declared the Stornoway Ship Canal open for trade on 12 April 1920.

The first ship to sail through the canal was a Norwegian cargo boat called the SS Loch Engie. This was a coastal steamer carrying a cargo of guga from Ness to Stornoway. The Engie entered the lock at Steinish and made steady progress down the canal until she became stuck at the Sandwick Road Lock, where it was discovered that the engineers had made the canal wide enough, but not deep enough.

This was thought to have been due to complaints from local crofters that their sheep would not be able to cross the canal if it was too deep and so wouldn’t be able to to take advantage of the flowers and vegetables in Stornoway’s gardens.

It later turned out that the engineers had misheard Leverhulme and had thought he wanted a ‘Sheep Canal’ constructed.

The SS Loch Engie alas, couldn’t be moved. The canal was gradually filled in around the stranded boat, with the wheelhouse becoming the only part of the boat left visible. The wheelhouse was eventually turned into the original Engie’s Petrol Station. The diesel fuel you get from the pumps today is actually from the original oil tanks of the cargo boat, long since buried beneath Sandwick Road and the remains of the Stornoway Ship Canal.





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.