The Sked Barrows

21 06 2015

The visit to Stornoway of the RAF’s Red Arrows Display Team has reminded us of the long forgotten Sked Barrows Display Team which used to grace manys a Carnival and County Show in the 1920’s.

A ‘sked’ of course, is Stornowegian for ‘herring’. The herring industry in Stornoway was hard work. Although it made a name for the town, the work involved was difficult, labour intensive, back breaking, prone to accidents involving sharp gutting knives and very very smelly.

The working day was long and conditions were poor and so the workforce had to turn to various means of passing the time and taking their minds off the daily drudgery (except Sundays). Some of the Herring Gyurls would pass the time in song, the carters would recite scripture and the skiving bleigards would play cards under the pier.

One way of passing the time and making a long day more bearable was devised by the enterprising youths of Stornoway who were tasked to transport the fish guts in large wooden barrows from the pier to Tigh na Guts.

The young boys would shovel up fish heads and fish guts from the pier into large wooden barrows. They would then skilfully negotiate the rows of barrels and weave in and out of carts and wagons, and make their way to the Gut Factory.

To pass the time the boys would show off their skills with their barrows, dodging through tight spaces, running up and down ramps and criss-crossing each other as they did so. The blood from the various fish parts soon stained the barrows red and the sight of bright red barrows zooming around the pier soon became a common sight.

So much so, that at the 1910 Stornoway Carnival Procession, the boys were asked to join the parade as a mark of how appreciated their work was. The boys bedecked their barrows with bunting and decorative fish heads and dressed up in their finest bobban chumpers. They decided to call themselves The Sked Barrows for the Parade.

They formed up behind the Stornoway Guild of Fishbox Artificers (with their float ‘Kaiser Bill’s A Big Bleigard’) and just in front of the Honourable Association of Dawn Squaders (with their float ‘Pile of Empties’). Just before they set off, the Parade Marshall went round and told all the floats that smoking was strictly forbidden. The Sked Barrows hastily removed their Woodbines from their mouths and cunningly attached them, still lit, to the handles of their barrows.

And so the Carnival Parade set off along South Beach and towards Castle Street. Just past No2 Pier, a sudden gust of wind from the harbour flared up the smouldering fags and set fire to the trailing bunting on each of the barrows. The bunting, seeped in herring blood and guts, gave off a variety of colourful (and pungent) smoke.

Instead of causing alarm and consternation, the brightly coloured smoke added to the occasion and the appreciative applause and shouts of the crowd urged the Sked Barrows to start doing all sorts of twists, turns, leaps and lurches. This proved so popular that the Sked Barrows were asked to do an impromptu display of their dexterity on Cromwell St.

The Gazette featured them on the front page the following Thursday and this helped cement their place in Stornoway legend. The Sked Barrows appeared on many occasions over the next four years; at Carnivals, Village Fetes, Highland Games, Funerals and Orduighean. They came up with ever more exciting routines and were able to the best barrows money could buy.

But the shadow of war was lurking behind the fame and fortune they had found. Shortly after War was declared, a visiting Colonel spotted the boys doing a display outside the Clachan and immediately thought of a way they could help the British war effort. As well as helping shift dirt from the trenches at the Front Line, the Sked Barrows could also help boost the troops’ morale. The boys were of course full of patriotic enthusiasm and signed up right away. They were formed up in a special unit called The Ross Mountain Barrowy and were given armour plated khaki barrows.

Soon the gallant bravery of the Sked Barrows was known along the whole of the Western Front. Between them, the 20 coves from Stornoway and their barrows had dug out most of the trenches in France. Their fascinating displays had entertained thousands of troops and all the boys had their chests bedecked with medals.

However, the Germans had noticed them too. A fierce rivalry arose between the Germans’ crack Barrow Squad led by the infamous Red Barrow, Manfred Von Richthovansnahovano. His barrow of choice was a red Fleekker Triwheel and he had the reputation of having the most ‘digs’ of any German barrow operative.

The Sked Barrows’ ongoing struggle with the Red Barrow caught the imaginations of the troops and the British public. Many of the boys acquired nicknames reflecting their fishing backgrounds, including Big Gills, Algae and carrot-topped barrow-fixing expert The Bodach Ruadh. Local Stornoway butcher Willie E. Johns also wrote several books based around the exploits of the Sked Barrows, including:

Big Gills and the loose handle Big Gills at the Front (of the barrow) Big Gills Spills His guts Big Gills Cacs His Drarsh

The demise of the Herring fishery ended the Sked Barrows’ domination of the world of fish barrowbatics, and it was left to other nations to take up the baton. America’s Blue (Sea)Anglers team remain a force to be reckoned with today, as do Italy’s dashing Pesce Tricolori.

Sadly the once-mighty Russians have dropped off a bit since the days of the Cold War, when the crews of visiting Soviet klondykers would astound the crowds at Number 2 pier by performing 90-second vertical handle stands while barrowing 5 cran of mackerel at a time in their top secret MoG-29s.

The Hebridaneans

2 04 2013

The forthcoming Independence Referendum in 2014 won’t be the first time the Outer Hebrides has had to decide what country it pretends to belongs to.

In late 1955, a similar Referendum (now sadly long forgotten) was held to decide if the people of the Outer Hebrides wished to become a Protectorate of Denmark. This situation came about due to the neglect shown to the islands by Westminster over many years, and the post war economic downturn, but mainly from a chance encounter with the crew of a passing Faroese trawler.

There had always been strong cultural and economic connections between the Hebrides and Denmark, going back as far as Viking Times. The herring industry helped strengthen these connections in the late 19th and early 20th century, and up until the 1950’s, the weekly ‘mailboat’ to the Faroes used to call in at Stornoway to pick up the Gazette.

During a darts match in the Legion (the Stornoway and District Church Elders Annual Darts Competition), the Faroese crew happened to mention how good life was as part of Denmark. This caught the attention of those watching the darts and someone jokingly suggested that the Danes should come back and take charge of the islands.  Very soon this piece of gossip had travelled from pub to pub, and then from church to church, until it eventually reached the Council Chamber via Charlie Barleys. However, by the time the gossip reached the Chamber it was a fully fledged proposal and a motion was passed to make representations to Denmark.

A delegation from the Stornoway Town Council visited the Danish capital Copenhagen the next day. The delegates brought all sorts of presents – exotic foodstuffs like guga & marags, and indigenous crafts like Arnish Boots & church hats – to show the Danes what they could be getting their hands on. However, it was the promise of getting a go of the Callanish Stones that really swung the deal.

After intense bargaining, the Danes agreed to take on the Outer Hebrides, if the majority of inhabitants voted in favour of the proposal. After a short campaign the ‘Heng Aye’ side emerged victorious with 92% of the vote. The ‘Fleek Off’ campaign were suitably disappointed, but gracious in defeat.

Much of the success of the campaign was due to the strong cultural links which already existed between Denmark and Stornoway. As previously mentioned, the Viking influence had set the scene and various cultural exchanges over the years helped strengthen the bonds.
Hans Christian Anderson, the famous Danish writer, used to come on his holidays to Stornoway in the 1840’s. Back then, he was just known as Hans Anderson, but after prolonged exposure to Free Church services, he took Communion and became a fervent member of the faith. He was so staunch a church-goer that he campaigned widely to get not only the swings padlocked on Sundays, but the whole town. In Stornoway, due to this fervor, he was known as Hans ‘Curam’ Anderson. This translated into Hans ‘Christian’ Anderson when he moved back to Denmark.

Hans Christian Anderson was best known for his story The Little Maw Maid. This story has touched the hearts of millions and has been turned into film adaptations on many occasions.

A short synopsis is provided below.

The Little Maw Maid is the daughter of the King of the Maws.  She lives ‘beyond the cattle grid’ with her family in Ranish and dreams of becoming a townie. She loves to visit the hills over looking Stornoway and watching the townies, with their posh and refined accents. She ignores the concerns of her father King Tractor and spends all her time watching the town with her friend Sgudal the Seagull.

One day she notices a handsome townie Prince, called Prince Derek, on a bike going through Marybank. The bike bursts a tyre and the Prince is thrown to the ground & knocked unconscious. The Little Maw Maid runs to help and drags him to the cattle grid at the County Hospital. A passing nurse finds the Prince and takes him in to the hospital.

The Little Maw Maid watches the Prince as he recovers and falls in love with him. She visits a witch in Tolsta and asked how she could become a Townie. The witch gave her a magic potion that would transform her accent into a posh townie one, but there was a catch- her new accent would only work in Church.

The Little Maw Maid drank the potion and walked into town the next Sunday, being careful not to speak to anyone until she reached the Church.

There she met the handsome townie prince and fascinated him with the way she pronounced ‘j’ as ‘ch’ and ended every sentence with ‘fleekin’ right man’.

However, it turned out the handsome townie prince was only Church of Scotland & was just there for a christening, so the Little Maw Maid ran off with a Free Church Elder instead.

A famous musical about Anderson’s life was also made in the 1950’s staring Danny Cromwell-St-Quay. This film featured musical adaptations of many of his fairy tales including The Ugly Guga.

The Ugly Guga
There once was an ugly guga
With feathers all singed and a mess
And the other birds said in so many words
Haoidh! Get out of Ness!

The famous statue of the Little Mermaid in Copenhagen Harbour is also a lasting symbol of.the links between Denmark and Stornoway, in particular the herring industry. Originally the sculptor was told to make a statue of a ‘herring girl’, but he thought that meant a girl who was half herring/half blone. By the time the mistake was noticed it was too late -the statue was in place and had become one of the cities most popular landmarks.

The Danish control of the Hebrides ended in 1959 when Copenhagen decided that the Stornoway Gazette wasn’t covering Danish events in enough detail, or indeed in any detail. A passing Faroese trawler dropped off the Title Deeds and so ended the era of the Hebridaneans.

(Thanks to Ange for her research into Hebridanea).

Stornoway Nuclear Power Station

21 03 2013

In this age of rogue windmills springing up on our moors causing havoc in their wake, it’s reassuring to see a tether to our environmentally sensitive past in the form of the Battery Point power station. Capable of churning out a respectable 23.5 megawatts of electrical power by harnessing the natural energy of carbon, this scientific marvel doesn’t even require the wind to be blowing in order to generate the juice you need to power your hi-tech Nissan Leaf, and even generates thick clouds of black diesel smoke to shield us all from the ravaging effects of potentially damaging solar rays.

The station began its active life in 1950 but few are aware that a few years prior to this, the station was tightly wrapped in fuigheags of wartime tension and subterfuge.

On the 10th May 1940 at the Université de Toulouse’s Science department, eminent physics professor Dr Karcsi DeTerisse made an astonishing breakthrough. While attempting to find a way to prevent his morning croissant from disintegrating and festooning his beard with crumbs, Dr DeTerisse accidentally discovered a completely safe and clean way of splitting the atom and creating vast amounts of power, only with no harmful byproducts. Upon running into the street stark naked (save for his croissant) in celebration, his joy was tempered as he spotted newspaper headlines declaring that the Germans had crossed the border and were advancing across the nation. Realising that his monumental discovery (and his croissant) were likely to fall into Nazi hands, he immediately fled for England.

Upon his arrival in England and after drying himself off, he made his way to Cambridge where he met up with his old friend and fellow ex-pat Frenchman Dr Olivier Auguste Spreille, with whom he had previously worked after both had received their doctorates. Over the following weeks, the two friends studied the war situation with alarm as the German army pushed ever further West until they were threatening to cross the Channel. (There was only one Channel in those days, as ITV hadn’t started broadcasting yet.)

By this time, the Allied Forces were in dire need of ready access to electrical power for the manufacture of munitions as the transport of coal by land and sea was becoming increasingly difficult due to German bombing raids. DeTerisse had a brainwave. He and Dr Spreille would decamp to the furthest area of land from the Germans that they could manage and, there, would set up the world’s first ever Nuclear Power Station, and thus would revolutionise the war effort. A cursory glance at the map led the two physicists to the Isle of Lewis.

An uncomfortable week in a fishing boat later, the pair set foot in Stornoway where they set about finding a suitable location, as well as some clothing for Dr DeTerisse who had been stark naked since the day he left France. Now with his modesty concealed by a blue boiler suit and Arnish boots, DeTerisse chose Battery Point as the location for his endeavour. His reasoning was two-fold. a) It was accessible by sea, and b) it was handy for the bus stop and Cathy Ghall’s shop was just round the corner. At this time, he also began to go by the name “Kenny” partly in honour of his favourite local chain-smoking guitar player and partly because nobody in Lewis could pronounce “Karcsi” properly anyway. Olivier followed suit and dropped the pretentious and unnecessary second ‘i’ from his name. Now fully integrated into Lewis society, the project began to take shape.

Construction of the Stornoway Nuclear Station began in 1943. Construction was restarted again in 1944 when it was discovered that the Irish building firm that had been subcontracted by the town council had got their orders mixed up and thought they were meant to be knocking it down. (Meanwhile, the rest of the Irish crew had rebuilt the Nicolson Institute). The work progressed well and a huge stockpile of old herring barrels were collected on site since, as the interconnector had not been invented yet, they needed some sort of way to ship the electricity out to the waiting world.

However, just as the project was nearing completion, disaster struck. The War ended. Well, alright, that wasn’t such a bad thing, but for DeTerisse and Spreille’s Nuclear Power Station it was a catastrophe. Without the Nazi threat, the need for vast amounts of energy had dwindled and aside from this, government officials were wary of a bearded physicist
smothered in croissant flakes who wore Arnish boots on his hands. The project was mothballed before a single atom was split, or even dented. The glory of having the world’s first functional Nuclear Power Station fell instead to the Russkies, albeit a few years later and using a more primitive and dangerous system than DeTerisse’s., which never did see the light of day.

DeTerisse and Spreille left the island in 1950, just as their former building was fitted with diesel generators and chugged into service providing the town and its environs with electricity of a more low-tech sort. Prior to their departure, the Town Council decided to honour the French professors for their heroic and visionary work and, to this day, the legacies of Kenny DeTerisse and Oliver Spreille live on in the Stornoway streets which bear their names.