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.

ABBA: Thank You For The Marags

18 10 2010

Despite first hitting the headlines nearly 40 years ago, Swedish group ABBA are still very much a marketable commodity and remain as hugely popular now as they did during the 1970’s and early 80’s. The runaway success of both the Mama Mia stage show and the blockbuster film of the same name has ensured that the name ABBA, and their music, will remain to the fore for many years to come.
People will have heard of their humble beginnings and their early struggles for musical acceptance, but most people will be surprised to learn the true story of ABBA and their little known Stornoway connection.

In the early 1970’s four friends from Stornoway got together to form a musical group. The two coves and two blones had no ambition beyond playing in the Seaforth Hotel at wedding dances and perhaps maybe the odd Mod ceilidh. The two coves played the guitar and the accordion whilst the two blones sang waulking songs in gaelic.

The foursome tried out various names such as the ‘Covehood Of Man’ and ‘Fishboney M’ but didn’t come up with one that suited until they appointed a manager.

The person who took on the responsibility was called ‘Stink’ Anderson (so named as he drove the Ross & Cromarty County Councils septic tank lorry) and it was he who suggested that they took the initials of their names to create an unusual moniker.
And so it was that Annchris, Bingo, Bogey and Anni-Mary became ABBA.

Stink drove the group hard, making them play the Clachan every Friday night and the Cabar Public bar on Saturdays. It was here that the band perfected their dance routine of the two blone singers turning sideways, turning away from each other and then looking the other way. This was in order to avoid the various missiles being flung in their direction from Gaelic music purists who preferred to hear ‘The Kiora’ rather than ‘this fleeking deesco ruppish’. Eventually, it became a common feature of an ABBA gig to have an assortment of rotting vegetables flung stagewards in an attempt to get the group to sing ‘proper’ songs. By far the most common vegetable was the turnip, which resulted in the group getting nicknamed ‘The Swedes’.

However, in 1974, Stink managed to get the group a slot on the Calum Kennedy Show (after threatening to drive through Orinsay with all the taps open on his septic tank lorry). In order to make a big splash on the telly, ABBA invested in platform ‘Arnish’ Boots, Harris Tweed flared jump suits (from Mackenzie & MacSweens) and a bag of spangly seggs from Charlie Morrison’s to sew on instead of sequins.
Tickets were purchased for the ferry, bus and train and off ABBA went to the big mainland. Unfortunately, the group got slightly inebriated on the ferry and fell asleep in the back of the bus. When they awoke, the bus had reached Glasgow and on disembarking they became hopelessly lost.
In their confusion, they thought an advert in the paper said Europie Song Contest and so they set off to try their luck, unbeknownst that it was the actual  Eurovison Song Contest they were heading too.

On eventually reaching the Eurovision venue, Stink and the band wandered around getting hopelessly lost until at last they bumped in to Terry Wogan, who was desperately trying to co-ordinate each act and make sure each country went on in the right order.

‘Are you’se the Swedes?’ asked a clearly stressed out Wogan.

‘Yus, we’re The Swedes’ replied Stink, not realising his innocent mistake. No sooner than he’d opened his mouth, ABBA were ushered by Mr Wogan on to the stage and a worldwide tv audience of millions.

The four members of ABBA stood staring at the audience and tv cameras for several seconds until they eventually plucked up the courage to sing one of their favourite songs. This song was written by Bingo and Bogey and celebrated the coming of mains water to Marybank and the ability of the residents of this village to be able to flush the toilet for the first time. The song was of course Water Loo.

Of course, the global audience had no idea what ABBA were singing about in their broad Stornowegian lilt. However, the catchy tune and the repetitive chorus seemed to go down well with the whole of Europe. Once they finished the song, ABBA thought they’d make a hasty retreat from the stage, but were instead ushered into the green room by Terry Wogan where they had to sit there and wait for the results to be announced. Stink had whispered to them to try and grab a few bottles of champagne and make for the exits when no one was looking, so they were unprepared when the final result came in and Water Loo had swept the boards.

Taken totally by surprise, the four members of ABBA were swamped in flowers, praise and applause.  When Terry Wogan thrust a microphone in Bingo’s face, the awestruck singer could only mumble a few words in Gaelic and nod politely. For most of Europe, this strange language sounded Swedish enough. And as for the Swedish nation, they were delighted to have actually won something and so the whole population were happy to go along with the ploy that a wee band from Stornoway were instead from Stockholm.

ABBA had many hit records over the following years and if you listen closely you can hear the Stornoway influence in them all.

Dannsa Queen

Knawing Meat, Knawing Ewe

Ma, My Mini’s (got a flat battery can you give me a push?)

The Winner Ali’s Take Away (about the annual Stornoway curry championship)

Money, Money, Money (originally ‘Crofter Grant, Crofter Grant, Crofter Grant’)

Dè tha thu ag iarraidh (renamed Voulez Vous to sound posher & more cultured)

Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man Of The Cloth After Midnight Cos Its Monday Then)

Does Your Mother Know a Cove called Alec Dan from Cromore?

The Name of the Game Soup

Thank You for the Marags

Water Loo

A Christmas Marag

18 12 2009

Further to our last entry concerning Mr Charles Dickens, we were fortunate to come upon a copy of the first draft of one of his most loved novels, ‘A Christmas Carol’. This faded manuscript was found by chance in the Stornoway Public Library, misfiled in the Sheep Husbandry Section.

The first draft of this famous story was called ‘A Christmas Marag’, and was probably written by Dickens whilst on his holidays in Stornoway. It is likely that this early version was written in the back pews of St Columba’s Church during a particularly long sermon on why the townsfolk of Stornoway should really stop worshiping Norse Gods, as the Vikings had left years ago.

This first draft explored the general themes later to appear in ‘A Christmas Carol’, but was heavily influenced by young Dickens experience of Stornoway life. It told the tale of Earshader Scrooge, a well-known skinflint and maker of marags. Scrooge had set up a butcher’s shop with his business partner Jacob Barley, and had soon built a reputation for producing marags of the highest quality. Both men shared the details of the unique recipe and guarded the secret very closely.

However, Scrooge soon developed the reputation for not putting very much in the Church collection plate. His fortune was hoarded under the bed and he became cruel and heartless. His poor butchers were treated with utter contempt and had to survive on a mere pittance, especially the Head Butcher, poor Borve Cratchit who struggled to feed his family.

The death of his partner Jacob Barley made the situation even worse, with Scrooge descending into a world of miserly misery.

One Christmas Eve, as Scrooge lay in bed in his cold dark house, the ghost of Jacob Barley appeared to him. Barley gives Scrooge a dire warning that unless he changes his ways, he would forget the secret recipe for the marags. He also warns Scrooge that three other spectral beings would appear as the Eve progresses.

The first apparition, the Ghost of Marags Past takes Scrooge back to his younger, more carefree days. In this vision, Scrooge watches himself and Barley develop the secret recipe for marags. The Ghost shows him the queues outside the butcher’s shop with townsfolk clamouring to buy their marags. Soon, the vision disappears along with the first Ghost, and Scrooge is left in his room with a flickering candle.

Next, The Ghost of Marags Present appears. This Ghost takes Scrooge to see people happily buying marags, and shows him the importance marags bring to everyone’s quality of life. This vision ends with a visit to Borve to see Borve Cratchit’s family gathering to enjoy their Xmas Marag (turkeys didn’t become standard Xmas fare on Lewis until after the wreck of a turkey carrying ship in Loch Seaforth resulted in 100’s of the beasts escaping and forming colonies on the sea-cliffs of Pairc) and having a great time despite being near poverty. Scrooge is quite taken with Cratchit’s disabled son Tiny Timsgarry.

Next, ‘The Ghost of Marags Yet To Come’ appears. This ghost shows Scrooge a future where mainland marag makers can claim that their marags are ‘Stornoway Black Puddings’, and sell them with impunity to Hotels and Guest Houses for their ‘Full Scottish Breakfast’. Worse still, Scrooge was shown a vision of Tiny Timsgarry dying because of an allergic reaction to inferior mainland marags.

Scrooge awakens the next day vowing to become a reformed character. He brings Borve Cratchit a huge Xmas Marag with extra suet and increases his wages. And they all live happily ever after.

Until, that is, Jacob Barley’s family stage a hostile takeover bid for the firm.

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.