A Dickensian Stornoway at Christmas Time

23 11 2009

Christmas is just around the corner (unless you’re an FP). If you watch a lot of telly you’ll have noticed the quaint Dickensian themes of winter pervading every single bleedin’ advert; snowy cobblestones, candle lit shop windows with frosted glass, roast chestnuts and barefoot urchins. Much of this imagery is associated with A Christmas Carol, one of Dickens best known works. Many people believe that this imagery came from London, but it actually stemmed from Dickens fond memories of Stornoway.

Charles Dickens spent many Christmas’s in Stornoway when he was a young man. His auntie came from Bayhead Street and the young Dickens used to go on his holidays there.  His auntie ran a Religious Bookshop known locally as ‘The Old ‘Coorie’ Gossipy Shop’. This was the place to catch up on all the latest Church gossip and scandal.  It was in snowy Stornoway, with its quaint little bay-windowed Cromwell St shops with the frosted panes of glass, that he got the idea for writing A Christmas Carol. Back then, for two months of winter, the snow was always deep (and crisp and even) because the Gulf Stream had yet to locate the Hebrides.

Often, in the snowy streets of the town, the Young Dickens would watch the rich gentlemen in their top hats and fine winter clothing browsing the goods in the windows of  ‘Murdo MacLean’s Gifte Shoppe’ and ‘Ye Olde Events At Christmas’.  With the help of his mate Artair ‘Dodger’ MacAulay (from Carishader) , Dickens soon learned to pick the pockets of the rich Goathill Road gents and make off with the ill-gotten gains. Often the two boys would sell their stolen goods on to a local Wagon Contractor who had a yard on Perceval Road.

These childhood memories stood Dickens in good stead when he started writing. It’s easy to see where the inspiration for many of his first drafts came from. If it wasn’t for his publisher trying to widen his appeal, we may have seen titles such as ‘The Adventures of Olivers Brae’ (where the young protagonist memorably goes to the cattleshed at Knockgarry Farm and asks  ‘Can I have some todhar?’,  for his fathers roses) and ‘David Plasterfield’ (about the young David helping the destitute Mr MicKinnon, who runs the Plasterfield bakery). Another well-known book ‘Great Expectations’ was also originally going to be about the struggle of a poor resident of Garrabost trying to order new bits for his fireplace from Lewis Crofters. Each morning the man would waken early and stand at the end of his croft looking for the deliveryman, so he could light his fire. The original title was of course going to be ‘Grate Expectations’.