Stornoway’s Safari Park

19 11 2008

In 1931, the Stornoway Trustees were concerned about the upkeep of the Castle Grounds. The cost of maintaining the woodlands was increasing each year, with very little income being generated by the Policies.

A number of cash generating schemes were considered by the Trustees such as charging for poaching the Creed, introducing a toll gate on the various bridges crossing into the Grounds and establishing a pram tax to prevent wear and tear on the Low Road.

However, after much debate, the Trust decided to turn a substantial part of the Castle Grounds into a Wildlife Safari Park. The idea was that this would provide a steady source of income from patrons, whilst providing a range of educational opportunities for the children of the town. It was also envisioned that substantial income would be realised from ‘big game hunters’ who would be willing to pay top shilling for the chance to shoot exotic animals, without the inconvenience of having to sail half way around the world to do so.

Plans were made, cash flows were estimated and the idea began to crystallise, spurred on by the thought of all these trophy heads adorning the Trust Offices. The Trustees voted unanimously in favour of the proposals and the Stornoway Gazette ran the idea as its headline in the first week of February 1931.

The Trust Factor hired a large cargo steamer, crewed it with deep sea veterans from the isles and filled the holds with empty cages. Its mission was to sail the world collecting spare animals that wouldn’t be missed.

The cargo steamer, bedecked in bunting and wee Stornoway Trust flags, sailed from Stornoway in April 1931 with much cheering, flag waving and confetti-flinging from the gathered throng. The Captain had strict orders not to return until all the cages were bulging with exotic animals of every shape and size. The Trustees recommended the ship made sail for Africa, the Indian sub-continent and South America, where they were confident the very finest in exotic beasts could be found.

As the ship sailed past Arnish on its voyage of discovery, the Trust Gardeners were already preparing the Castle Grounds for their new inhabitants.  A network of fences and ditches were erected round the perimeter and a new visitors centre was constructed roughly where the present day Woodlands Centre is. A team of Safari Guides were employed and adverts were placed in all the best Huntin’ Shootin’ and Fishin’ magazines.

Almost exactly a year to the day, the Trust cargo steamer sailed back into Stornoway, only much lower in the water and with strange growls and roars emanating from the holds.

Almost the whole town turned out to watch the procession of beasts make their way to the new Safari Park. Elephants, tigers, lions, penguins, antelope, giraffes and hippopotami made a stately way towards the Grounds in cages on the backs of various trucks and lorries. Each truck reversed up to the Marybank Lodge gates and a squad of Gardeners prodded and pushed the animals out into the woodlands.

A penguin colony was soon established at the Sheriff Pool on the River Creed. Monkeys took over the south slope of Gallows Hill. Elephants were soon seen plodding across the Castle Green and folk living on Willowglen Road could make out the heads of giraffes bobbing above the branches.

The first visitors were allowed entrance to the Safari Park on 1st May 1932, but a planned press conference was ruined when a herd of gazelle, being chased by a lioness, knocked over the ‘top table’ of dignitaries. However, only a few of the dignitaries were trampled to death and only one was eaten.

The Trust had arranged a number of special hunting parties for high paying clients for August of that year, but these plans were thrown into disarray when it was discovered that a gang of Ballalan coves had sneaked in to the Castle Grounds at night and had poached 90% of the animals.

The Trust and peoples of Stornoway were devastated at this loss and the Safari Park dream came to an abrupt end. The remaining animals avoided capture and are rumoured to still be in the Castle Grounds to this day. Occasionally a visitor to the Grounds may come across a rogue elephant knocking down trees (the Trust always claims that ‘it was a storm that did it’… ) or a lurking hippo in the Bayhead River playing amongst the shopping trolleys and traffic cones. Ostriches have been known to leap from the tops of the fir trees just beyond Lady Mathesons Monument and peck at passing joggers. And of course, nearly everyone knows about the giraffes that can be seen behind Mac An t-Stronaich Cave, climbing up through the rhododendron bushes in order to catch the best sunlight.

Mac An t-Stronaich’s Cave

16 11 2008

The walk around the River Creed in Stornoway’s Castle Grounds is surely one of the finest on the island. Of the many sights that can be found on a ‘cuairt’ around the Creed, the most intriguing is the mysterious cave lurking in the shadows at the mouth of the river.

One of Stornoway’s most infamous sons was the outlaw Mac An t-Stronaich.  For many years he terrorised the islands with his campaign of murder, extortion, sheep-rustling, salmon poaching and parking his horse on a double yellow line when he went in town for a dram.

Mac An t-Stronaich always managed to keep one step ahead of the law. No matter what cunning plans the local magistrates and militia put into practice, the devious outlaw always managed to slip through the net. (And it was invariably an old fishing net they used as the local law enforcers were not known for their imagination – and could get plenty of nets from the quay). 

Mac An t-Stronaich was helped by the fact that he used several remote locations as hideouts and so could always slip off into the night if he spotted that one sneak-hole was being watched. These hideouts ranged from dank caves high in the Uig hills, to run down airighs on the desolate Barvas Moors. In much the same way that Bonnie Prince Charlie is purported to have slept in every single cave in the Highlands and Islands (meaning he must have been on the run for 37 years if he had spent a night in each one), every area of Lewis is said to have had a Mac An t-Stronaich hideout.

The only one that could be said to have housed the outlaw with any degree of certainty is the cave at the mouth of the Creed. And the reason that we can be sure of this is from old historical records that show that Mac An t-Stronaich had applied to the Town Council for Planning Permission to extend the cave. 

His Planning Application set out proposals to extend the cave to include a guest bedroom (for members of his gang), a wooden terrace with patio, one of these new fangled outside toilets and double glazed skylights. It was the skylights which caused the Planning Application to be refused, as the Town Council Planning Committee felt that they would detract from the aesthetic lines of the cave. 

The members of the Planning Committee all met with mysterious accidents over the following weeks, some involving walking backwards onto large rusty knives or ending up underneath bales of wool which ‘accidently’ fell from the roof of the Town House.

The local militia eventually realised who the Planning Application was from and swiftly set about capturing the outlaw, catching him red handed as he was about to bump off a local builder who had provided a quotation not to Mac An t-Stronaich’s liking.

The cave was taken over by the Town Council and was used as a council house right up until 1898.


Mac In Stronich's original Planning Application for his cave

Mac In Stronich