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

2 11 2013

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The Discovery of the New (and Old) World

21 07 2009

It’s well known that the Vikings have a cast iron claim to have discovered the New World around 1000AD- a good few hundred years before yon Christopher Columbus cove. But it’s a little known fact that Leif Erikson actually set off for the far side of the Atlantic from Lewis. Eric the Red, Leif’s father had been banished from his Sandwick homelands for over claiming his sheep subsidy and had already fled west to discover Greenland in 985AD (mistakenly thinking that it was Ullapool- he was always getting port and starboard mixed up). Some years later, Leif was sent back to Lewis by his old man to stock up on blackpuddings.  However, on his return journey with a longship full of marags, Leif decided to keep on rowing as far west as he could to see where he would end up.

At the same time as Leif was heading west, an intrepid party of Mi’kmaq Indians were setting sail from their homelands in present day Nova Scotia. They were aiming to see how far east they could get before falling off the edge of the world. Under the leadership of their chief Padd’ehh-W’aq, the Native Americans set out in a large raft made out of dug-out Spruce trees.

With friendly waves, the two bands of explorers took their leaves and set out for their respective destinations, buoyed with the knowledge that there was dry land waiting them at either side of the Atlantic and not sudden drops into space.

As fortune would have it, at exactly the same time, some two weeks later, Leif set foot in Newfoundland and Padd’ehh-W’aq set foot in Uig on the Isle of Lewis.The Lewis Vikings made the Mi’kmaq very welcome after hearing that they had passed Leif in mid Atlantic. The Native Americans were showered with gifts of marags and chess pieces by the Vikings and in return the Mi’kmaq gave presents of tweed patterns and a really good recipe for guga.

Before leaving to return to the America’s, the Mi’kmaq chief presented the local Church of Odin with an ornate carved bone amulet depicting the two Atlantic crossings. This notable occasion passed into common folklore as ‘Mi’kmaq Padd’ehh-W’aq Gave A God A Bone’





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.





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.





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.





Go West Young Man!

29 10 2008

Back in the 1840’s, the people of Stornoway became aware of the rich resources lying far to the west, in the uncharted lands of Uig and Bernera. A few brave and hardy trappers had forged a route across the moors into the unknown ‘Wild West’, looking for adventure and trading opportunities with the natives (the Uigeochs). These hardy souls, bedecked in rabbit fur bonnets and sheepskin jackets,  had brought back tales of rich salmon rivers, wild deer and prime quality sheep. These ‘mountain men’ would risk life and limb for the rich pickings offered in this Promised Land, bringing peats, rabbit skins, Uig sheep fleeces and chess pieces to the town and finding a ready market for their spoils.

It wasn’t long until settlers from the town started to think about making the long trail across the moors to find a new life amongst the scenic beaches and rich mountains of the west. This was to become known far and wide as the Uig Trail. Promises of vast tracts of land and easy going Common Grazing’s Committee’s soon attracted eager settlers in their droves. Soon carters and wheel-rights throughout the town were working to capacity to build covered wagons in preparation for the great trail westwards.

The first wagon train set out from Stornoway in 1841, leaving from Mitchells Wagon Emporium on Cromwell Street, (where Mitchells Bus Station used to be) to the cheers of the populace. 20 wagons in total, with a trail of sheep, cows and hens behind them, left the safety of the town for far flung Uig. The journey was to be a long and arduous one, taking nearly two days, with an overnight stop off in Garrynahine. Eventually, Garrynahine would become a major node on the Trail to Uig and saw the establishment of an Inn (later to become Garynahine Lodge) for use by the pioneers.

The wagon trains encountered many difficulties on its way to Uig. There were rivers to ford, long sea-lochs to negotiate and narrow mountain passes. There was also the constant threat of the natives nicking hens under cover of darkness. Often the wagon trains would have to form a defensive circle as Bernera coves appeared on the skyline, waving their weapons (poaching nets and tarrisgeirs), until they could be calmed with the promise of beads and trinkets (and a few casts on the Creed). And of course Mac in s’ tronaich would appear every now and then and make off with a hen.

But eventually the wagon trains bringing their cargo of townie settlers would get through. New villages sprang up all over Uig and Bernera and soon Stornoway was awash with poached salmon sent home to grannie.

Gradually communications between the town and the far west improved. A new speedy mail service was soon started, where a trained ‘homing’ sheep had bags of letters attached to its back and sent on its way along the Uig Trail. The Sheep Express became famous throughout Lewis and became known for its slogan ‘The mail quite often gets through’.

And, as everyone knows, the coming of the railways to Lewis opened up the entire western seaboard and brought civilisation to the Uig Hills but this is another (true) story, for another day.





Stornoway’s Underground Railway System

15 10 2008

Many people in Stornoway will have forgotten about (or be unaware of) the old underground railway which used to serve the town. Began in 1920 by Lord Leverhulme, the underground railway, or underground railway as it was known, provided a cheap and convenient method of getting the messages home, going visiting your grannie or simply taking a wee spin round the town.

The underground system was part of Lord Leverhulmes grand designs to turn Stornoway into the Athens of the north west. He spent a goodly part of his vast fortune on the long tunnels, ornate stations and rolling stock. He even invested heavily in new technology to provide the town with special peat-fired engines, which provided a pleasant aroma to commuters as well as been economic.

An earlier attempt at an underground railway by Sir James Matheson failed when it became aparent that he only wanted the underground, (which ran from the harbour, up James St, up Matheson Rd and into the Castle Grounds),  to convey huge truckloads of his drugs to his Castle.

The first trial tunnel was dug in January 1920 and work progressed at a great rate of knots until the whole system was completed in August 1922. The underground was officially opened by Lord Leverhulme on 23 August in a moving ceremomy which marked not only the opening of the underground, but Leverhulmes farewell to the island. In a move seen as customary of his philanthropic tendancies, Leverhulme gifted the underground to the Stornoway Town Council at the same time as he gifted the land to the Stornoway Trust.

The underground consisted of a ‘circle line’, reaching out from the town centre to all parts of Stornoway. Six engines operated at the same time, (starting at different nodes on the network obviously) ensuring a frequent and timeous method of communication to the inhabitants of the town (and those maws permitted to travel on it on special occasions). Each engine pulled two carriages, capable of carrying twenty passengers each. There were even freight wagons available for taking goods to the mail boat and for taking sheep to the slaughterhouse. The subway trains all went in an anti-clockwise direction. Apart from the times when the drivers were confused by the darkness in the tunnels or were ‘overenthused with alcohol’. Luckily, these head on crashes were all minor in nature and didn’t result in any fatalities. (of humans at least, in 1952 over 50 sheep were killed when the 3.15 from Manor Farm hit a flock being driven down the tunnel as the crofter didn’t want to get his sheep getting wet en route to the Barvas show.)

The underground network was served by 13 stations, located at prominent locations throughout the town. A full circle of the town would take an hour. The underground operated from 6.00am until 12.00 midnight. A Church Service special train was available on Sundays, from 10.00am until 1.00pm and from 6.00pm until 9.00pm, but had to be driven by Church Elders only. The various denominations, schisms and splinter groups were separated by carriages. In March 1930, an unfortunate incident occured at Mossend station when a new porter mistakingly let a crowd of FP’s onto the Free Church carriage, resulting in three days of rioting and the station platform in need of repainting.

The underground operated successfully until the mid 1960’s when the rising price of peat put the trains out of business. Many of the tunnels still exist, deep under the ground, but unfortunately many of the stations no longer exist, having succumbed to the march of progress and cheap workmanship.

The underground stations were;

Townhall: This was directly underneath the present day Town Hall, and was accessed by steps where the Registrars Office is today. It featured a wooden escalator, encrusted with jewels, to be in keeping with the Town Councillors high opinions of themselves. The various jewels were nicked after one particulary boisterous Town Council meeting to set the Rates.

Newton: Next station was Newton, situated where Isles FM now have their studio. This station was popular for the workers at the various kippersheds, boat builders and gas-works.

Battery: The next stop after Newton took you to the Battery. This was a handy station for Mill workers, plus the Naval Reserve and was also a favourite for underagers due to the close proximity to Cathy Dhalls off-license.

Mossend: Named after the farm and fields nearby, Mossend was often used by the good folk of Sandwick and was also a terminus for the Point Buses.

Clock Tower: After Mossend, the underground made its way underneath Sandwick Road down to the Clock Tower School. The entrance to the station was inside the tower itself. Due to the narrowness of the tower, passengers had to descend some 30 feet by a long ladder made out of old kipper boxes, until they reached the station platform. This station was a popular one with school teachers and also saw the ‘school special’ train dropping off the kids at 9.00am and collecting them at 4.00pm.

Goathill Cross:After leaving the school, the underground headed north up Matheson Rd to Goathill Cross. This station was unofficially known as the ‘Church stop’ as it was convenient for many churches in and around the Goathill/Church St intersection. Because of its proximity to Matheson Rd it was also the poshest of all the stations, having lino on the platform. The station itself was where Radio Na Gaidheal now resides. The old station is still in existence and is used by the BBC as a bunker in the event of nuclear war, so that Coinneach Mor can still broadcast to the nation (or gaelic mafia).

Goathill Farm:After the cross roads, the underground trains headed up Goathill itself, stopping at the Goathill Farm. This station was famed for its milk urns lined up on the platform, ready for Tee-dee’s cows to fill up, as the station also doubled as the dairy.The milk train left from here every morining to deliver the milk to the town centre and suburbs. Passengers were also advised to wear wellies when alighting at this stop because of the over-abundance of cow droppings on the platfrom. This was also a popular station for sunbathers heading for the ‘Cockle-ebb’ beach at the foot of Goathill Farm. (on the two sunny days per year)

Coulregrein:A short ride down to Coulregrein followed. This station was located in the basement of Coulregrein House (also known as the Poor House) and could only be found after negotiating a maze of tight passages, dank cellars and catacombs. There are rumoured to be parties of tourists still wondering around down there.

Manor Farm: From the back of the sun the tube made its way to Manor Farm. The station was located just about Joe Blacks dairy used to be and was handy for Alec Mairs shop. Again, this station was a terminus for the country buses, and a major area for sheep and cattle pens, awaiting the short trip to the mail boat or slaughter-house.

Porters Lodge: From the farm it was a short ride to the Porters Lodge. This is one of the few underground station buildings still standing, although you can no longer get down to the platform, due to the entrance been full of 40 years worth of the remains of carry outs.

Bayhead: From the Porters Lodge, the tube made its way down to Bayhead, where it stopped at the foot of New Street, roughly where the YM car park used to be. As the YM was the scene of many’s a dance and social, this station was always filled with youngsters, causing all sorts of bother like speaking loudly and wearing disgraceful clothing.

Perceval Square:Second last stop was in the town centre itself, at Perceval Square. This was the busiest stop of the line, as townsfolk went to get their messages, buy Sunday hats and queue for the Gazette.

Mailboat: Final stop was the station down on the pier. This station thronged most evenings when the mailboat came in. I say most evenings, as a design fault meant that it could only be used at low tides, the rest of the time it been submerged under water. It was here that the newspapers were taken to Nicolsons and Roddy Smiths, sheep were shipped to Dingwall and students came home at Xmas.