The Story Behind Lews Castle (Part Two of a Few)

24 04 2009

With the success of his black puddings Jimmy Matheson found himself with money to burn. Every recipe he turned his hands too was received with rapture by the folk of Shanghai, and soon he was rich beyond his wildest dreams.

Jimmy decided to make good use of his fortune by purchasing the Isle of Lewis and building a Castle to live in. This would leave him close to the source of his marag blood and give him the option of starting up a Bed and Breakfast should the bottom fall out of the marag market.

The plans for the Castle were drawn up by Charles Wilson, a renowned architect from Glasgow, who had designed many stately homes across Scotland.

After Sir James had approved the design (which was early late mock Tudor with pre-Bauhaus styling), Uist Builders were commissioned to build the Castle.  Using the new fangled ‘kit castle’ approach, the Castle was speedily erected between 1847 and 1853, using the finest craftsmen the island had to offer.

On its completion Lews Castle was by far the biggest and grandest building on the island. The many acres of woodlands and ornamental gardens added to the majesty (and mystic) of the building.

The crème of Victorian society flocked to visit Lews Castle to take part in Shooting Parties, Tea Parties on the Lawns and nights out to the Galaxy Disco. Amongst the famous guests that Sir James entertained were Sherlock Homes, Disraeli Gears (the inventor of the bike) and Mary Shelly.

The Castle remained in Matheson ownership until 1918 when Lord Leverhulme bought the Isle of Lewis, including the Castle.  Leverhulme carried out various improvements such as putting glass in the window frames and fitting central heating. However, Leverhulme’s ownership of the Castle was only for a period of five years, when it was gifted to the town of Stornoway.

Many of the Lews Castles fixtures and fittings were sold off at auction. The Castle’s fine glass conservatory was sold to become Anderson Road Nurseries, the Vomitorium was sold to a local publican and can still be seen in the Clachan Bar and the swimming pool went to Valtos School, where it remained until 1985 until some Venture Scouts nicked it.

Much of the furniture was sold to local Stornoway folk and to this day various bookcases, cabinets and tables can be seen in the town’s posher houses. All of the solid silver cutlery is now in use in the Nicolson School Canteen. The floor of the Ballroom was put in storage until it was used in the Seaforth Hotel’s Galaxy Disco (now the restaurant Eleven) in the 1980’s. If you look closely at the floorboards under table 17 you can see the inscription ‘Jimmy Was Here 1853’ which is widely regarded as been the work of Sir James himself.

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.