Stornoway Trust Elections

24 02 2009

As many readers will be aware, the elections for new Trustees of the Stornoway Trust Estate will soon be taking place. These elections take place every few years in order to choose the Trustees to run and manage the lands and policies around Stornoway.

The Stornoway Trust was set up in 1923 after Lord Leverhulme lost the Parish of Stornoway in a game of cards in the public bar of the Royal Hotel. Under the terms of the agreement, a number of Trustees had to be appointed to manage the affairs of the Estate. The original agreement failed to specify how the Trustees were to be elected, so the town fathers decided to pick the Trustees by having a race up to the top of Gallows Hill.

Gallows Hill overlooks the town and harbour, and is the highest point in the surrounding area. It was used variously in ancient times as a Neolithic burial chamber, Viking discothèque, lighthouse, gallows, Air Raid Precaution lookout and tourist spot.

It was decided that the race would start from Perceval Square and would proceed along Cromwell Street, onto Bayhead and across the bridge into the Castle Grounds. From there, the contestants could pick their own route, taking the Low Road, High Road or any combination of the two. Contestants were also free to go cross country, were allowed to climb trees and ford rivers and streams. The use of horses, carts, wagons and carriages was forbidden.

Alcoholic beverages and hot pies were available at several way-points and the citizens of the town were permitted to cheer on the runners from a number of vantage points.

The first 12 men to touch the cairn at the top would serve as Trustees for four years. A Church of Scotland Minister, along with a Police Constable from the Ross-shire Constabulary, would stand by the cairn to count in the winners and ensure no unsportsmanlike conduct.

The first attempt at the race ended in failure following a pre race drink in the Lewis Hotel. Each of the 52 contestants toasted each other and all partook in the toasts, so no-one including the race officials was able to start the race let along finish it.

The second attempt ended in similar failure, as all of the runners were found to have attempted to hide themselves in a tinkers cart at Bayhead in the hope that it would be heading in the general direction of Gallows Hill.

The third attempt worked perfectly, with 12 upstanding members of the community reaching the top in good order. In fact in remarkably neat order, considering they would have had to negotiate mud, streams, barking dogs and small children flinging sticks at them. All 12 runners emerged from the bushes in their Sunday best, complete with top hats, straw-boaters, fob-chains and spats. However, the following investigation found that nothing untoward had taken place and that all 12 runners could provide numerous witnesses to say they had run the course.

The controversy arising from the first election of Trustees led to the race been scrapped and a new method of choosing Trustees being introduced. For the second session of the Trust, the 12 Trustees were chosen following a game of ‘Hide and Seek’.

The next elections were decided by a game of Monopoly. After that the Trustees were selected on their skill shearing sheep, and then until the 1960’s the Trustees were elected on how much peat’s they could cut in a day.

Proper voting was introduced in the 1960’s, but all agreed that this method, albeit democratic, took all the fleekin’ fun out of it.

Stornoway’s Ill-fated Winter Olympic Bid

7 01 2009

In the 1960’s the Highlands and Islands Development Board (HIDB) decided to invest loads of money in the Highlands and Islands to try and stimulate the tourist trade and bring more prosperity to the area. Aviemore was a prime example, where a run down Highland village was transformed in to a winter sports playground, with ski-slopes, ice-rinks and Santa’s Grotto.

 The town fathers of Stornoway, not to be outdone and seeing the success of Aviemore, decided that Winter Sports was the way forward and that the town should be getting a piece of the action.  

Loads of feasibility studies were carried out by the Town Council and Stornoway Trust and after much debate the slope of the hill Ranol (on the Golf Course) that overlooks the town was chosen as an ideal ski run. It was long enough and just steep enough to be suitable for beginers, and would provide nice views over Stornoway and the harbour. And, each winter for countless generations, the kids of the town had used it to sledge down, so it was known to work.

Work started in 1964, with the construction of a ski-lift and cable car going from the Porters Lodge to the top of Ranol (where the gun emplacements are today). A large revolving restaurant was built on the crest of the hill, that provided spectacular views of the town, War Memorial and Barvas Hills (when it wasn’t raining), so that skiers could enjoy the apres-ski lifestyle of the rich and famous after they stopped falling over and breaking their legs.

The cable cars also gained a degree of fame as they were the actual cable cars used in the epic war film ‘Where Eagles Dare’, the tale of ‘derring do’  staring Richard Burton and Clint Eastwood. You’ll remember the epic fight atop the cable car roof, the explosion of the cable car containing the badies and the daring leap to safety into the river below (which of course was the River Glen). Many film fans will be surprised to know that the film wasn’t shot in the Bavarian Alps, but in Stornoway, thanks to the cunning use of fake snow and cardboard cut-outs of mountains.

In addition, the Winter Olympics were fast approaching and various world famous winter sport locations were vying for the prize of hosting the Games. Why shouldn’t Stornoway try its luck? Plans were put underway to see if Stornoway could host the Winter Olympics, but these plans failed at the very final hurdle when members of the Olympic Committee visited Stornoway and discovered that Stornoway doesn’t actually get any snow at all apart from one or two days a year. 

It turned out that the HIDB feasibility study had forgotten to ask one important question –  “Uhm, does Stornoway actually get any snow?” – before work started on the ski development.  However, it was all passed off as an ‘administrative error’ so everything worked out okay in the end.

The ski slopes, plus the cable car and ski-lift, slowly fell into disuse, gradually rusting away until nothing remained of the bold venture.

By the late 60’s, there was no trace of the ambitious plan apart from an old fence in the Castle Gardens made out of broken ski’s.

Stornoway’s Safari Park

19 11 2008

In 1931, the Stornoway Trustees were concerned about the upkeep of the Castle Grounds. The cost of maintaining the woodlands was increasing each year, with very little income being generated by the Policies.

A number of cash generating schemes were considered by the Trustees such as charging for poaching the Creed, introducing a toll gate on the various bridges crossing into the Grounds and establishing a pram tax to prevent wear and tear on the Low Road.

However, after much debate, the Trust decided to turn a substantial part of the Castle Grounds into a Wildlife Safari Park. The idea was that this would provide a steady source of income from patrons, whilst providing a range of educational opportunities for the children of the town. It was also envisioned that substantial income would be realised from ‘big game hunters’ who would be willing to pay top shilling for the chance to shoot exotic animals, without the inconvenience of having to sail half way around the world to do so.

Plans were made, cash flows were estimated and the idea began to crystallise, spurred on by the thought of all these trophy heads adorning the Trust Offices. The Trustees voted unanimously in favour of the proposals and the Stornoway Gazette ran the idea as its headline in the first week of February 1931.

The Trust Factor hired a large cargo steamer, crewed it with deep sea veterans from the isles and filled the holds with empty cages. Its mission was to sail the world collecting spare animals that wouldn’t be missed.

The cargo steamer, bedecked in bunting and wee Stornoway Trust flags, sailed from Stornoway in April 1931 with much cheering, flag waving and confetti-flinging from the gathered throng. The Captain had strict orders not to return until all the cages were bulging with exotic animals of every shape and size. The Trustees recommended the ship made sail for Africa, the Indian sub-continent and South America, where they were confident the very finest in exotic beasts could be found.

As the ship sailed past Arnish on its voyage of discovery, the Trust Gardeners were already preparing the Castle Grounds for their new inhabitants.  A network of fences and ditches were erected round the perimeter and a new visitors centre was constructed roughly where the present day Woodlands Centre is. A team of Safari Guides were employed and adverts were placed in all the best Huntin’ Shootin’ and Fishin’ magazines.

Almost exactly a year to the day, the Trust cargo steamer sailed back into Stornoway, only much lower in the water and with strange growls and roars emanating from the holds.

Almost the whole town turned out to watch the procession of beasts make their way to the new Safari Park. Elephants, tigers, lions, penguins, antelope, giraffes and hippopotami made a stately way towards the Grounds in cages on the backs of various trucks and lorries. Each truck reversed up to the Marybank Lodge gates and a squad of Gardeners prodded and pushed the animals out into the woodlands.

A penguin colony was soon established at the Sheriff Pool on the River Creed. Monkeys took over the south slope of Gallows Hill. Elephants were soon seen plodding across the Castle Green and folk living on Willowglen Road could make out the heads of giraffes bobbing above the branches.

The first visitors were allowed entrance to the Safari Park on 1st May 1932, but a planned press conference was ruined when a herd of gazelle, being chased by a lioness, knocked over the ‘top table’ of dignitaries. However, only a few of the dignitaries were trampled to death and only one was eaten.

The Trust had arranged a number of special hunting parties for high paying clients for August of that year, but these plans were thrown into disarray when it was discovered that a gang of Ballalan coves had sneaked in to the Castle Grounds at night and had poached 90% of the animals.

The Trust and peoples of Stornoway were devastated at this loss and the Safari Park dream came to an abrupt end. The remaining animals avoided capture and are rumoured to still be in the Castle Grounds to this day. Occasionally a visitor to the Grounds may come across a rogue elephant knocking down trees (the Trust always claims that ‘it was a storm that did it’… ) or a lurking hippo in the Bayhead River playing amongst the shopping trolleys and traffic cones. Ostriches have been known to leap from the tops of the fir trees just beyond Lady Mathesons Monument and peck at passing joggers. And of course, nearly everyone knows about the giraffes that can be seen behind Mac An t-Stronaich Cave, climbing up through the rhododendron bushes in order to catch the best sunlight.