The Story Behind Lews Castle (Part One of A Few)

23 04 2009

Long before he became Sir James Matheson, Bart, Jimmy Matheson was an apprentice butcher with Charlie Barley. He learned his trade with Stornoway’s Master Butcher and after serving his apprenticeship decided to make his mark (and fortune) in the Far East.

Young Jimmy hitched a lift on a passing sailing ship en route for the China Seas and reached Shanghai in 1840, with nothing but a meat cleaver, a white butcher’s apron and an idea in his head to bring black puddings to the masses of China.

Working from a small backstreet shop in downtown Shanghai, Jimmy spent several years trying to perfect the ideal black pudding for the Chinese market. He experimented with blood from local animals, including Chinese dragons, Peking Ducks and goats, but none of the blood he found had the correct characteristics required to make a perfect marrag.

In despair, Jimmy sent a message back to Stornoway asking if Charlie Barley could send him a few Crobeg sheep to see if the ‘Lewis factor’ would improve the taste of his black puddings.

Unsure of how to get a flock of 20 sheep to the other side of the world, Charlie Barely took a wonder down to the harbour and chanced upon a Stornoway sea Captain home on a few weeks leave. The Captain listened to the butcher’s problem and suggested that the newly developing Tea Trade might offer a solution. Hundreds of sailing ships were now plying the trade routes between Britain and the Far East, carrying cargoes of tea to the middle classes. These boats were returning to China with empty holds, so the Captain was convinced that the Tea Barons would be happy to generate extra income from a profitable sideline.

That same week, the first of the tall ships arrived in Stornoway and loaded up with 200 of the islands finest blackface sheep. Within the space of two short months, Jimmy Matheson and his sheep dog were guiding the flock through the streets of Shanghai to the local slaughterhouse.

As expected, the addition of Lewis sheep blood transformed the Chinese Black Puddings. Within days, Jimmy had sold out of all his marags and had to request another ship full. In the time taken for the second cargo to arrive, a thriving marag black pudding black market developed, as local shops tried desperately to get their hands on Jimmy’s puddings.

The arrival of the second ship caused riots at the docks and the flock had to be escorted to the slaughterhouse by the local militia. This second batch of marags sold out almost right away making Jimmy a very wealthy man.

Soon, the local Captains were jumping at the chance to carry a lucrative cargo of Lewis sheep and within months hundreds of ships were criss-crossing the oceans.  Fierce competition broke out as to who could do the crossing in the quickest time and who could carry the most sheep. In order to make their ships faster, the Captains came up with the idea of shearing the sheep to remove their fleeces and lighten the load. Each ship soon added expert shepherds to the crew and shearing clippers became as important as compasses and sextants. The use of shearing clippers also gave rise to the name these merchant vessels came to be known as, the Clippers.

Within a year of cracking the right formula for the perfect Far Eastern marag, Jimmy Matheson was well on his way to becoming a very wealthy man. Now all he had to do was find something to spend his money on.