A Flock of Stornoway Pandas

11 12 2011

Plenty in the news just now about yon pair of Giant Pandas who have immigrated to Scotland.

A good news story for the country and in particular for Edinburgh Zoo, but it’s not the first time Giant Pandas have lived in Scotland.

 In 1850, Sir James Matheson was busy developing Lews Castle as a home for his family, but also as a focal point for his business empire. He had big plans for the Castle Grounds. As well as wanting to see the development of an extensive area of woodland surrounding his mock Tudor Castle, he wanted to see the finest exotic plants from around the globe growing there to add to the elegant splendour.

 Collections of colourful wild birds and myriad strange creatures were shipped in by boat and set free to roam around the Castle Grounds.

 But as a businessman, Sir James always kept one eye open for increasing his wealth. In 1870, just as Harris Tweed was becoming established, Sir James thought there might be some pound signs attached to the humble Giant Panda. Not as a tourist attraction like the two Pandas now in Edinburgh Zoo, but as a way of contributing towards the Tweed industry.

 Sir James had seen Pandas many times through his business dealings in China. Their thick fur had always impressed him and he wondered if this fur could be used to good advantage.

 He ordered a flock of Giant Pandas to be delivered to Lewis and late in 1870 twenty of the cuddly creatures arrived in Stornoway. The Pandas were set loose close to Marybank Lodge under the care of a Pandherd. The Pandas took to Lewis life straight away. There had been plans to plant a bamboo plantation at Marybank to feed the Pandas, but it was soon discovered that the Pandas lived quite happily off rhododendron bushes and marags. It was discovered that the blood in the marags added not only a glossy sheen to the Panda fur, but provided a useful layer of water proofing to help the Pandas cope with the Lewis weather. Up until that point, all marags were grey in colour and it was only as butchers experimented in finding the best Panda waterproofing that the two varieties of Black and White marags became common, as each colour brought different qualities to the black and white Panda fur.

 The experiment with Panda fur ultimately proved to be unsuccessful. Sir James’ original plan was to blend the Panda fur with sheep wool to provided an ultra-weatherproof tweed. Each year, the Pandas would be rounded up and brought to the village fank, where they would be dipped. And once a year, the same round up would occur, this time with the Pandas being sheered of their fur. Sadly the Panda fur turned out to be too thick and ended up clogging up the looms of the weavers.

 Despite the Tweed failure, a number of attempts were made to find a more practical use for the Pandas. It was discovered (at the Creed Chemical Works) that the fur from the Giant Pandas could be distilled to get various essences for cooking purposes. The most successful output of these experiments was to produce a unique flavouring for boiled sweets by adding several drops of Panda essence (providing a sort of minty flavour) to the mixture. These boiled sweets were originally called Panda Drops and proved to be extremely successful amongst church-goers, especially those of the Free Church persuasion.

 The Panda Drops were very successful but had to change their name to Pandrops in the 1920’s following an outcry by a group of local animal rights/environmental campaigners called Coulregrein-Peace.

The bottom fell out of the church sweet market in recent years following the various church schisms that took place in the 1990’s and 2000’s, as none of the denominations could agree on the custody of sweet eating.

The flock of Giant Pandas still lives in the Castle Grounds, although they are very shy and keep well hidden from humans. Unless you happen to be a human with a marag sandwich, in which case beware.


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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.