Revolutionary Stornoway – 1789 and the storming of the Barvastille

30 08 2010

Local government in the Outer Hebrides can be a contentious business nowadays, but the upheavals of the late 18th century make today’s ho-ro-dheallaighs in the Comhairle seem quite tame, really.

The Provosts of Stornoway in the 17th and 18th centuries were notorious for the opulence and decadence of their courts. A common misconception is that the Lewis Castle Grounds were laid out in the 1800s by Sir James Matheson, but in fact they date from 1682 and the reign of

the flamboyant Provost Leodhas XIV. Leodhas’s “Palace of Vershayayes” was on a much grander scale than the Castle of today, and the highly manicured ornamental gardens surrounding it reached as far as Grimshader to the South and the Pentland Road to the West.

Leodhas and his successors believed in the Divine Right of Provosts – the doctrine that the Provost

is not subject to any earthly authority and can do what the fleek he likes. When asked about his duty to the state, Provost Leodhasach XIV reputedly answered “L’Etat?, Sud mise, cove”.

This was a great idea if you happened to occupy the top chob, but fleekeen rubbish for everybody else; by the late 1700s the town was broke from having to subsidise the extravagant lifestyles of successive Provosts. Revenues from the kelp industry, the tweed, the fishing and the gut factory were all sucked into the Palace to pay for the latest whim – be it a giant piece of topiary in the shape of a guga or an extravagant ball for the courtiers featuring Europe’s finest classical musicians of the period – Mozart, Beethoven, Tommy Darkie or even Costello.

Matters came to a head in 1789 during the reign of Provost Leodhas XVI and his Lady Provost Mairi-Anna Towniette. All the town’s fish had been flogged off to passing Romanian factory ship to pay for a gi-normous wig that Mairi-Anna was having made specially by Salon nan Eilean, and

a mob of starving townies approached the Palace to complain that there were no herring in Cailean Neillie’s. When Leodhas explained this to Mairi-Anna Towniette, she is said to have retorted: “Let them eat ceann cropaig”

This insensitive riposte inflamed the mob; the town prison (known as the Barvastille) was stormed and its inmates (mostly people from Barvas who’d been locked up for stealing – hence the name) released. The townies proclaimed a republic and decided to set up a guillotine in Bayhead (then known as Be-head) so they could execute the Provost, Mairi-Anna Towniette and anyone else associated with the previous regime.

Construction of the guillotine took longer than planned, however, due to problems with competitive tendering and poor quality workmanship from the construction firm eventually employed on the job. When the guillotine was finally completed, an argument erupted over whether it should be open on Sundays, leading to several splits in the revolutionary government, the associated revolutionary government and the revolutionary government (continuing). The keys to the guillotine were lost in the subsequent fracas, and it rusted unused for several years before finally blowing away in a gale in 1794.