The Classical Instrument Makers of Lewis

17 09 2012

It’s a widespread misconception that the Disruption of 1843 and the rise of the Free Church in Lewis led to the suppression of musical instruments in all walks of life. The common fallacy is that everything was put to the torch except the melodeons (which were permitted because the elders quite rightly saw them as an effective means of putting people off music altogether).

In fact, Lewis was and continued to be the centre of the classical instrument world well into the 20th century.

As early as the 1600s, master joiner and violin maker Angustonio Tolstradivari had a workshop on Bell’s Road, where Macleod and Buchanan’s is now. Angustonio’s main – and highly lucrative – business was boarding up broken windows in town after closing time on Friday and Saturday nights. Consequently he only ever built a few violins, and their very rarity makes them highly sought after to this day. The Tolstradivarius has been the instrument of choice for top virtuosi such as Peatztak Perlman, Msitislav Crossbostopovitch and Yo Yo Maw.

While the secrets of the Tolstradivarious violin’s manufacture died with the master himself, most experts agree that its qualities are something to do with the materials used in its construction – bits of 4 by 2 and low grade plywood reclaimed after being used to board up Woolies, the Macs or Murdo Maclean’s. And also, perhaps, with the ‘seasoning’ these materials received from rough weather, seagulls, passing dogs and incontinent Cromwell Street revellers.

But Stornoway was not famous only for violins. In 1853, the town’s famous Piano Works was established at Mossend, by Heinrich Macleod of Stornoway and Engelhard Macdonald of Steinish.
The pianos turned out by the Mossend works were judged to be the finest in the world, but Macleod and Macdonald – both fiercely proud of their respective origins – could not agree on what to call them. Macdonald demanded that they should be known as “Steinish” pianos, while Macleod insisted on “Stornoway”. After several years of argument they compromised on “Steinway”.

This got them into immediate legal difficulties, not only with their South Lochs rivals the Steimreway Piano Company, but also with a bunch of bleigeards in America who’d craftily copyrighted the “Steinway” name while Macleod and Macdonald were fighting over it.

Eventually the American upstarts got to keep the name and all the associations of quality that went with it. They went on to dominate the global posh piano market, while Macleod and Macdonald, now trading as the “Stornish Piano Company” limped on with much more limited success.

Like the rest of the island’s classical instrument manufacturers, the Stornish Piano Company finally perished during the herring boom in the early 20th century. The fishing industry’s demand for wood to make shavings, kipper boxes and barrels drove prices beyond the means of local instrument makers. Desperate experiments to develop wood-free instruments using wet peat, rylock and bobban failed. The firms’ highly skilled luthiers, cabinetmakers and other craftsmen finally fleeked off round the corner to Inaclete Road to make fishboxes for a living, and that was that.

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Ye Zounds In Ye Groundes

31 08 2009

The ‘Sounds in the Grounds’ Festival in Stornoway has a long and distinguished history and has been responsible for bringing the finest musical talents to island audiences for centuries.


The first recorded evidence of Sounds In The Grounds dates back to Viking times, when the Stjornoway Gazette, the local news parchment, carried an article on the performance of local Norse minstrels ‘Our Longship Activities’ who had headlined the very first Festival.


The Norse influenced period of Sounds in the Grounds continued for several years until the organisers had to give up due to the huge expense involved in replacing burnt and pillaged tents each year. This followed the tradition of the headline act setting fire to the stage and setting it adrift in the harbour. The organiser, a shaggy Viking named Ijnnes The Tent Post, was however, instrumental in starting the movement to bring popular musical culture to the Hebrides.


Fast forwarding to the Georgian period saw an attempt by Lord Seaforth, the owner of Lewis, to try and raise the cultural profile of his subjects, by bringing a number of famous classical composers to play at ‘Ye Foundf in the Groundf’.


Johan Sebastian Bach was invited to headline in 1725 where he premiered his famous ‘Buntatta and Fugue in D minor’. His performance went down so well with the crowds that Lord Seaforth declared that the village of Boke, down in Broadbay, would be renamed Bach in his honour, Unfortunately, the Comhairle workmen took the name down wrong and the sign that went up was spelt ‘Back’ by mistake.


Ludwig van Beethoven was asked to perform at the 1800 festival, but unfortunately it was here that the famous composer went deaf after having his ear pecked by an angry guga.


In 1940 Glenn Millar was the main draw to the festival. To an audience made up of locals and servicemen, Millar and his jazz band performed his favourites ‘In The Moor’ and ‘Little Brown Trout’.


Another notable Sounds in the Grounds took place in 1968 during the heyday of ‘Hippydom’, when Jefferson Tractor and The Graap-full Dead (featuring Jerry Garsiarach) held a four day ‘Piece Festival’ where everyone exchanged recipes for sandwiches. (marag dubh and marmalade was a firm favourite with the festival crowds).





The Beatles Play Stornoway

16 10 2008

This is a look at a slightly more recent part of Stornoway’s history. It involves the one and only (as far as we know) performance by the Beatles in Stornoway.

Back in early January 1963, just weeks before they hit the big time, the Beatles were engaged in a short four date tour of Scotland. Back in these days the Beatles toured constantly and played almost every run down dive in the land to try and build up an audience. On 4 January 1963 they played in the Town Hall in Dingwall and were then due to head south to play in Bridge of Allan.

However, whilst waiting at Dingwall railway station they mistakenly got the Kyle of Lochalsh train instead of the Inverness one. A couple of hours later they found themselves standing on Kyle Pier with nowhere to go and without a clue as to where they were. Luckily, as they stood forlornly on the pier, gazing over to the mist shrouded Isle of Skye, they met members of the Stornoway Dance Band who were returning from a three day New Year gig in Lochinver. The Stornoway band took pity on the four lost Beatles and invited them over to Lewis to support them in the Town Hall, where they had a YM  ‘Social’ to play at.

An impromptu gig took place in the bar of the Loch Seaforth half way across the Minch, when the Stornoway Dance Band encouraged the Beatles to play along to some of their own songs including ‘Love Me (Marag) Dubh’ , which went;

“Love mo marag dubh,
you know I love stew
But pleeeeeeaaaasssseeeee
Give us marag dubh

On reaching Stornoway, the Beatles and the Stornoway Dance Band had to rush across to the Town Hall where a large crowd waited. The Beatles went on first, and largely bemused the Town Hall audience, unused to such ‘poppy’ material. However, Murdo MacLeans shop noticed a sharp increase in young men buying black suits following the gig and it was widely reported that Johnny G’eepers barber shop noticed a corresponding drop in trade.

Unfortunately, there is no record of the Beatles set list form the Town Hall gig, but the Stornoway Dance Band played the following songs during their set.

  • “Ob-la-di, diggumda
  • ” I saw her gutting there”
  • ” I want to hold your cran
  • ” Ticket to ride (on a Mitchells bus)”
  • ” The long and winding road to Uig”
  • “Smaoinich”

That evening the Beatles got the Loch Seaforth over to Mallaig, the cattle-train to Glasgow and then departed into the night, never to play in Stornoway again (if you don’t count the time Paul McCartney played with Kenny Fags in the Carlton).