A Return To Canals, Waterways and Uisgeducts

5 06 2015

Regular readers may recall our earlier article from March 2009 on the Stornoway Ship Canal. Shortly after it was published, we received a number of complaints pointing out that the piece contained a number of minor factual accuracies, so we’ve binned it and had another go….
Stornoway has traditionally lagged a bit behind other major European cities when it comes to promoting the magic and romance of its picturesque waterways, but for those in the know, the canals of Old SY are a hidden gem.

The earliest and perhaps the most ambitious canal in Stornoway was dug in around 2560 BC, during the ancient Egyptian occupation of Lewis, when construction of the Great Pyramid of Gisla was underway over in Uig. (See “The 7 Wonders of the Anchent Lewis World, Feb 2010). The thousands of slave labourers toiling on the pyramid’s construction required high-calorie sustenance, and their overseers soon discovered that the best diet for a day’s slave labouring was duff. A canal was therefore built linking Stornoway’s massive Ptolemy Terrace Duff Works to Little Loch Roag via Loch Langabhat and a chain of smaller lochs crossing the island. This massive waterway was known as the Suet Canal.

The Roman Period

The brief Stornowegian ‘Roman Period’ also saw the development of a spectacular array of waterways across the island. 

Under Emperor Calumigula, a network of Uisgeducts were built around Stordinium. These were used to transport the sparkling waters of Loch Mor An Stairr to the various bath houses dotted about the town. The Romans had hoped that the many bath houses would encourage the indigenous population to wash themselves more frequently, but as it turned out the main use of the Roman baths became the washing of sheeps fleeces, rinsing of wellies and the boiling of spuds (on Sunday’s). 

Thomas Telford in Stornoway

In 1820 the great civil engineer Thomas Telford came across the Minch for a wee break one weekend while working on the Caledonian Canal. The directors in the Canal consortium were in the middle of a major feud over the naming of a spectacular new series of locks being constructed near Fort William; each of the partners wanted to call it after themselves, their grannies or their dogs, and the arguments were getting increasingly heated. 

With all this pressure at work, Telford was determined to let off steam on his Stornoway break, and so he embarked on a tour of the town’s hostelries. In the course of his pub crawl, he is said to have over-imbibed and got involved in a scrap about sheep’s earmarks in an upper room of the building occupied today by Macneill’s bar.

Telford came off worst in the rammy and was hurled head first downstairs, rolling out into the street and colliding with “Confessions of a Justified Sinner” author James Hogg, who was staggering past with concussion after being caught in an unrelated stramash in the Star Inn. Lying among the discarded chip wrappers and Bacardi Breezer bottles in the Narrows, Telford was suddenly struck with an inspired solution to his problem back in Fort William. Which is why the Caledonian Canal’s most famous sequence of locks is known to this day as “The Neptune Staircase” (nearly).

20th Century – The Steinish Sheep Canal

Passing along the road between Plasterfield and Sandwick, one crosses a rush-clogged ditch stretching off down into the common grazings towards Broad Bay. This, sadly, is all that remains of one of the island’s more recent waterways, a monumental project which was to become a white elephant almost as soon as it was completed. 

In the immediate post-war years, with a newly-built aerodrome on their doorstep and old USAF surplus Dakota aircraft going cheap, the North Street Grazings Committee started a highly successful transglobal live sheep  export business, shipping fresh Sandwick mehhags by air to all corners of a hungry world. The envious neighbouring powers soon noticed, however, and armed forces from East Street, Parkend, Plasterfield and the Teedees’ farm blocked off the roads to the airport, each one demanding a sluyce of the action.

North Street told them all to fleek off, and sent G**rdie G*lidy down to the grazings with a spade one Saturday afternoon in 1956. Fired by the promise of a plate of chops for his tea, 10 Woodbines and a free nyoggan up the town afterwards, G*lidy dug a canal 20 feet deep and 30 feet wide all the way to Steinish dump, completing the project by 4pm. The canal gave North street a route to the airport that bypassed the territory of its enemies, and first thing the following Monday morning, enormous barges were transporting hundreds of North Street sheep direct to the airport to rendezvous with their flights. The Steinish Sheep Canal was open for business.   

Unfortunately nobody had consulted the Steinish Grazings Committee beforehand, and the canal had been dug right through the middle of their fank. On the Tuesday morning, enraged Steinish Committee Clerk Calum Abdul droch-Nadar nationalised the canal and blocked it with an old tractor and several rolls of  rusty Rylock. Droch-Nadar demanded that North Street pay a levy of 300 white marags per barge; North Street refused and invaded the Steinish fank instead, leading to a major diplomatic incident known as the Suet Crisis (yus, Suet again). All the surrounding Grazings committees sided with Steinish, and North Street was forced to withdraw ignominiously, ending its short-lived domination of the international sheep air freight business. Without the steady flow of sheep between North Street and the airport there was no economic justification for the Steinish Sheep Canal’s existence, and it was soon abandoned.

Sadly we must leave Canals for now, but readers will no doubt be aware of the famous ‘Panama Canal Palindrome’ , where the phrase ‘A man, a plan, a canal, Panama’ is the same backwards as well as forwards.   

Sadly Stornoway’s Panamandersonroad Canal didn’t quite work out as well in terms of palindromes (or indeed in terms of navigable waterways). 

‘A maw, a plank, a cart, ahh fleek it to all this digging’

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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.