Farewell oh Suilven

26 11 2015

Poor Suilven, worthy/infamous Stornoway ferry of yore.

Your demise reminds us of the words of Calum Ossian…..

Farewell Suilven, you’ve met your fate

After forty years of carrying freight

Cars and lorries, box and crate

Squeezed on the car deck by the Mate.
And passengers by the rope would wait

Until the gangway was lined up straight

Then single file they would locate

To the lounge or bar at a steady rate

And sprawled out sleepers then berate

For taking up the best real estate

Then queuing up with tray and plate

For the full cooked breakfast many ate

When you broke down we got irate

And we’d ring Calmac for an update

The weather often made you late

Cos when the Minch was rough it would undulate

But once those waves did dissipate

You took us over at a steady rate

For work or hols or further educate

And plenty folk who did migrate

But there were crossings you’d navigate

Like a summer evening that was sedate

When seeing the town would generate

An increase in your eyes lubricate

(You also plied across Cook Straight

That YouTube clip made us nauseate)

The Sked Barrows

21 06 2015

The visit to Stornoway of the RAF’s Red Arrows Display Team has reminded us of the long forgotten Sked Barrows Display Team which used to grace manys a Carnival and County Show in the 1920’s.

A ‘sked’ of course, is Stornowegian for ‘herring’. The herring industry in Stornoway was hard work. Although it made a name for the town, the work involved was difficult, labour intensive, back breaking, prone to accidents involving sharp gutting knives and very very smelly.

The working day was long and conditions were poor and so the workforce had to turn to various means of passing the time and taking their minds off the daily drudgery (except Sundays). Some of the Herring Gyurls would pass the time in song, the carters would recite scripture and the skiving bleigards would play cards under the pier.

One way of passing the time and making a long day more bearable was devised by the enterprising youths of Stornoway who were tasked to transport the fish guts in large wooden barrows from the pier to Tigh na Guts.

The young boys would shovel up fish heads and fish guts from the pier into large wooden barrows. They would then skilfully negotiate the rows of barrels and weave in and out of carts and wagons, and make their way to the Gut Factory.

To pass the time the boys would show off their skills with their barrows, dodging through tight spaces, running up and down ramps and criss-crossing each other as they did so. The blood from the various fish parts soon stained the barrows red and the sight of bright red barrows zooming around the pier soon became a common sight.

So much so, that at the 1910 Stornoway Carnival Procession, the boys were asked to join the parade as a mark of how appreciated their work was. The boys bedecked their barrows with bunting and decorative fish heads and dressed up in their finest bobban chumpers. They decided to call themselves The Sked Barrows for the Parade.

They formed up behind the Stornoway Guild of Fishbox Artificers (with their float ‘Kaiser Bill’s A Big Bleigard’) and just in front of the Honourable Association of Dawn Squaders (with their float ‘Pile of Empties’). Just before they set off, the Parade Marshall went round and told all the floats that smoking was strictly forbidden. The Sked Barrows hastily removed their Woodbines from their mouths and cunningly attached them, still lit, to the handles of their barrows.

And so the Carnival Parade set off along South Beach and towards Castle Street. Just past No2 Pier, a sudden gust of wind from the harbour flared up the smouldering fags and set fire to the trailing bunting on each of the barrows. The bunting, seeped in herring blood and guts, gave off a variety of colourful (and pungent) smoke.

Instead of causing alarm and consternation, the brightly coloured smoke added to the occasion and the appreciative applause and shouts of the crowd urged the Sked Barrows to start doing all sorts of twists, turns, leaps and lurches. This proved so popular that the Sked Barrows were asked to do an impromptu display of their dexterity on Cromwell St.

The Gazette featured them on the front page the following Thursday and this helped cement their place in Stornoway legend. The Sked Barrows appeared on many occasions over the next four years; at Carnivals, Village Fetes, Highland Games, Funerals and Orduighean. They came up with ever more exciting routines and were able to the best barrows money could buy.

But the shadow of war was lurking behind the fame and fortune they had found. Shortly after War was declared, a visiting Colonel spotted the boys doing a display outside the Clachan and immediately thought of a way they could help the British war effort. As well as helping shift dirt from the trenches at the Front Line, the Sked Barrows could also help boost the troops’ morale. The boys were of course full of patriotic enthusiasm and signed up right away. They were formed up in a special unit called The Ross Mountain Barrowy and were given armour plated khaki barrows.

Soon the gallant bravery of the Sked Barrows was known along the whole of the Western Front. Between them, the 20 coves from Stornoway and their barrows had dug out most of the trenches in France. Their fascinating displays had entertained thousands of troops and all the boys had their chests bedecked with medals.

However, the Germans had noticed them too. A fierce rivalry arose between the Germans’ crack Barrow Squad led by the infamous Red Barrow, Manfred Von Richthovansnahovano. His barrow of choice was a red Fleekker Triwheel and he had the reputation of having the most ‘digs’ of any German barrow operative.

The Sked Barrows’ ongoing struggle with the Red Barrow caught the imaginations of the troops and the British public. Many of the boys acquired nicknames reflecting their fishing backgrounds, including Big Gills, Algae and carrot-topped barrow-fixing expert The Bodach Ruadh. Local Stornoway butcher Willie E. Johns also wrote several books based around the exploits of the Sked Barrows, including:

Big Gills and the loose handle Big Gills at the Front (of the barrow) Big Gills Spills His guts Big Gills Cacs His Drarsh

The demise of the Herring fishery ended the Sked Barrows’ domination of the world of fish barrowbatics, and it was left to other nations to take up the baton. America’s Blue (Sea)Anglers team remain a force to be reckoned with today, as do Italy’s dashing Pesce Tricolori.

Sadly the once-mighty Russians have dropped off a bit since the days of the Cold War, when the crews of visiting Soviet klondykers would astound the crowds at Number 2 pier by performing 90-second vertical handle stands while barrowing 5 cran of mackerel at a time in their top secret MoG-29s.

A Return To Canals, Waterways and Uisgeducts

5 06 2015

Regular readers may recall our earlier article from March 2009 on the Stornoway Ship Canal. Shortly after it was published, we received a number of complaints pointing out that the piece contained a number of minor factual accuracies, so we’ve binned it and had another go….
Stornoway has traditionally lagged a bit behind other major European cities when it comes to promoting the magic and romance of its picturesque waterways, but for those in the know, the canals of Old SY are a hidden gem.

The earliest and perhaps the most ambitious canal in Stornoway was dug in around 2560 BC, during the ancient Egyptian occupation of Lewis, when construction of the Great Pyramid of Gisla was underway over in Uig. (See “The 7 Wonders of the Anchent Lewis World, Feb 2010). The thousands of slave labourers toiling on the pyramid’s construction required high-calorie sustenance, and their overseers soon discovered that the best diet for a day’s slave labouring was duff. A canal was therefore built linking Stornoway’s massive Ptolemy Terrace Duff Works to Little Loch Roag via Loch Langabhat and a chain of smaller lochs crossing the island. This massive waterway was known as the Suet Canal.

The Roman Period

The brief Stornowegian ‘Roman Period’ also saw the development of a spectacular array of waterways across the island. 

Under Emperor Calumigula, a network of Uisgeducts were built around Stordinium. These were used to transport the sparkling waters of Loch Mor An Stairr to the various bath houses dotted about the town. The Romans had hoped that the many bath houses would encourage the indigenous population to wash themselves more frequently, but as it turned out the main use of the Roman baths became the washing of sheeps fleeces, rinsing of wellies and the boiling of spuds (on Sunday’s). 

Thomas Telford in Stornoway

In 1820 the great civil engineer Thomas Telford came across the Minch for a wee break one weekend while working on the Caledonian Canal. The directors in the Canal consortium were in the middle of a major feud over the naming of a spectacular new series of locks being constructed near Fort William; each of the partners wanted to call it after themselves, their grannies or their dogs, and the arguments were getting increasingly heated. 

With all this pressure at work, Telford was determined to let off steam on his Stornoway break, and so he embarked on a tour of the town’s hostelries. In the course of his pub crawl, he is said to have over-imbibed and got involved in a scrap about sheep’s earmarks in an upper room of the building occupied today by Macneill’s bar.

Telford came off worst in the rammy and was hurled head first downstairs, rolling out into the street and colliding with “Confessions of a Justified Sinner” author James Hogg, who was staggering past with concussion after being caught in an unrelated stramash in the Star Inn. Lying among the discarded chip wrappers and Bacardi Breezer bottles in the Narrows, Telford was suddenly struck with an inspired solution to his problem back in Fort William. Which is why the Caledonian Canal’s most famous sequence of locks is known to this day as “The Neptune Staircase” (nearly).

20th Century – The Steinish Sheep Canal

Passing along the road between Plasterfield and Sandwick, one crosses a rush-clogged ditch stretching off down into the common grazings towards Broad Bay. This, sadly, is all that remains of one of the island’s more recent waterways, a monumental project which was to become a white elephant almost as soon as it was completed. 

In the immediate post-war years, with a newly-built aerodrome on their doorstep and old USAF surplus Dakota aircraft going cheap, the North Street Grazings Committee started a highly successful transglobal live sheep  export business, shipping fresh Sandwick mehhags by air to all corners of a hungry world. The envious neighbouring powers soon noticed, however, and armed forces from East Street, Parkend, Plasterfield and the Teedees’ farm blocked off the roads to the airport, each one demanding a sluyce of the action.

North Street told them all to fleek off, and sent G**rdie G*lidy down to the grazings with a spade one Saturday afternoon in 1956. Fired by the promise of a plate of chops for his tea, 10 Woodbines and a free nyoggan up the town afterwards, G*lidy dug a canal 20 feet deep and 30 feet wide all the way to Steinish dump, completing the project by 4pm. The canal gave North street a route to the airport that bypassed the territory of its enemies, and first thing the following Monday morning, enormous barges were transporting hundreds of North Street sheep direct to the airport to rendezvous with their flights. The Steinish Sheep Canal was open for business.   

Unfortunately nobody had consulted the Steinish Grazings Committee beforehand, and the canal had been dug right through the middle of their fank. On the Tuesday morning, enraged Steinish Committee Clerk Calum Abdul droch-Nadar nationalised the canal and blocked it with an old tractor and several rolls of  rusty Rylock. Droch-Nadar demanded that North Street pay a levy of 300 white marags per barge; North Street refused and invaded the Steinish fank instead, leading to a major diplomatic incident known as the Suet Crisis (yus, Suet again). All the surrounding Grazings committees sided with Steinish, and North Street was forced to withdraw ignominiously, ending its short-lived domination of the international sheep air freight business. Without the steady flow of sheep between North Street and the airport there was no economic justification for the Steinish Sheep Canal’s existence, and it was soon abandoned.

Sadly we must leave Canals for now, but readers will no doubt be aware of the famous ‘Panama Canal Palindrome’ , where the phrase ‘A man, a plan, a canal, Panama’ is the same backwards as well as forwards.   

Sadly Stornoway’s Panamandersonroad Canal didn’t quite work out as well in terms of palindromes (or indeed in terms of navigable waterways). 

‘A maw, a plank, a cart, ahh fleek it to all this digging’

The Eoropievision Song Contest

17 05 2013

In a previous article we saw how, back in 1974, 2 blones and 2 coves from Stornoway went off and won the Eurovision Song Contest for Sweden. (https://stornowayhistory.wordpress.com/tag/abba/)

But with all the fuss over in Malmo next weekend, it’s easy to forget that it’s not just continental Europe that can stage ridiculous overblown tackfests characterised by abysmal music, constant cultural and linguistic misunderstandings, and a voting system that serves to highlight rather than conceal the old enmities that have driven most of the participants to war against each other for centuries.

Oh no – indeed, many years before Johnny Foreigner came along and pinched the idea, the warring villages of Ness had set up a similar event in an effort to distract their citizens from knocking lumps out of each other in disputes about sheep’s earmarks, bothans, fences and the finer points of the Doctrine of Predestination. This was, of course, the Eoropievision Song Contest.

The village of Eoropie has long been known as “The Switzerland of Ness” due to its tendency to remain neutral during disputes between other townships in the area (and kindly offer to look after their money while they fight each other). It doesn’t have a chocolate industry to speak of, but it is well known for the manufacture of Guga Clocks.

Marcel Beistealachd, head of the Eoropie Broadcasting Union, conceived the idea of the Eoropievision Song contest in 1948. Beistealachd decided that –since one of the causes of intervillage warfare was the unending argument about whose Gaelic was ‘right’, the whole contest would be organised and run in French. Unfortunately none of the original judging panel knew any French numbers, and so in the first contest in 1949, everybody was awarded ‘Nul Point’ and came last.

Beistealachd was not deterred by this, nor by the complete absence in these days of electricity or televisions in the district. Over the next few years, several villages from outside Ness began to compete, and by the mid 60s, Eoropievision was a large scale affair involving most of the villages from the Butt to Barra. The exception was Point, whose hardline communist rulers refused to have anything to do with such decadent capitalist frivolity until the fall of the Braigh Wall in 1989. From 1989 onwards the Contest saw an increase in entries, as previously unheard of former ‘Rubhach Pact’ villages (such as Broker and Portvoller) submitted entries. As most of the Point villages had been cut off from modern culture for so long, these entries tended to be at least 40 years behind the rest of Lewis and Harris in terms of songwriting, and most entries tended to be all about the dream of catching a really big fish.

The Contest also had it fair share of controversy. In 1974 the Port Nis entry was a signal to the village’s populace to rise up in the ‘Damnation Revolution’ that overthrew their insufficiently hard-line minister, the Rev Marcelo Mackayetano. Uig cove Clibhe Richards still claims to this day that his song ‘Congregations’ was kept off the winning position by the revolutionaries.

In the late 1990’s the Inaclete entry from Dana Interdenominational caused consternation when it was discovered that she was not all she appeared to be, and was not really a Free Churcher but a Seceder!

Voting patterns are often dominated by politics. Castlebay, Arnol, Lochboisdale and Bragar always vote tactically against each other. Grimshader and Tolsta always give each other maximum points and nobody else gives ever them any. And despite the breakup of the old communist regime in Point, Garrabost sends its tanks out on “exercises” each year a week or so before the contest and then routinely receives “Douze Points” from all its former Rubhach Pact client villages in the area.

But the most common occurrence is the maws all ganging up and giving ‘Nul Point’ to the Stornoway entries. This was certainly the case when Engebret Fillingstation got fleek all votes last year (2012).

Winners and Notable Entries

  • ·Few Europievision winners went on to achieve lasting success, but H*bba, who won the 1974 contest, was a notable exception, topping the charts for years afterwards with hits such as  “Psalma Mia”, “Gimme Gimme Gimme (A Plank And a Hammer”) and “Knowing Me, I Know Who It Was, Was it You?”.
  • ·In 1967, Sandie Shaw  – a supergroup composed of hard-gigging Plasterfield rawk chick  Sandie Mackinnon and quiet acoustic Newton thrash metal axeman Iain Shaw – won with “(Collie) Puppy on a String”
  • ·Bugsy Fizz – a supergroup composed of Bugsy and Cally Fizzags  – nearly won the 1981 contest with “Making Your Mind Up” (song about deciding on which Free Church splinter group to join). But the bit where they pulled off their skirts caused so much outrage that they were disqualified and exiled. This is how it went:


Making Your Mind Up (which breakaway church to join)

You gotta Secede it up

And then you gotta schism it down

Cos if you believe that a church can hit the top

You gotta pray around

And soon you will find at Communion Time

You’re making your mind up.

You gotta stand for prayers

And for psalms sit down

You gotta be sure that it’s something

Every elders gonna talk about

On Sunday Night

Before you decide the tithe is right

For making your mind up.

Don’t let your inner schism

Take you from behind

Trust your sinner vision

Don’t let FPs change your mind


  • ·Second rate Hearach H*bba wannabees the Brotherhood of Manish  won in 1976 with “Save All Your Fishes For Me”
  • ·In 1980 Johnny ‘Local’ – A white settler pretending to be a maw – sang the Lemreway entry and won. ‘Local’ was to become a fixture of the contest as a performer, writer and arranger for many years to come. But he’s still fleekeen ruppish.
  • ·Ciorstaidh-Anna and the Wakes won in 1997 with “Mamma Weer Al-Crae-zee Now”. Oh no it wasn’t – it was “A Hearse With No Name”. Or maybe “Going Down To Ullapool”. Or something.
  • ·And of course who can forget Finsbay’s unexpected 2006 winner : Grotesque cuireamach metal merchants Lord-i with “Hard Rock Thighearnabheannaichte”?


This year’s final takes place on Saturday night in Marvig.

Fleek knows who’s going to win  Probably not Bonnie Tyler – She was going to come and sing the Marybank entry “Total Eclipse of the Ceard” – but it turns out she’s got an other job on that night.

Our money’s on a Rubhach – probably thon Murdina Garrabostova. If you know what’s good for you, you’ll vote for her as well.


The Hebridaneans

2 04 2013

The forthcoming Independence Referendum in 2014 won’t be the first time the Outer Hebrides has had to decide what country it pretends to belongs to.

In late 1955, a similar Referendum (now sadly long forgotten) was held to decide if the people of the Outer Hebrides wished to become a Protectorate of Denmark. This situation came about due to the neglect shown to the islands by Westminster over many years, and the post war economic downturn, but mainly from a chance encounter with the crew of a passing Faroese trawler.

There had always been strong cultural and economic connections between the Hebrides and Denmark, going back as far as Viking Times. The herring industry helped strengthen these connections in the late 19th and early 20th century, and up until the 1950’s, the weekly ‘mailboat’ to the Faroes used to call in at Stornoway to pick up the Gazette.

During a darts match in the Legion (the Stornoway and District Church Elders Annual Darts Competition), the Faroese crew happened to mention how good life was as part of Denmark. This caught the attention of those watching the darts and someone jokingly suggested that the Danes should come back and take charge of the islands.  Very soon this piece of gossip had travelled from pub to pub, and then from church to church, until it eventually reached the Council Chamber via Charlie Barleys. However, by the time the gossip reached the Chamber it was a fully fledged proposal and a motion was passed to make representations to Denmark.

A delegation from the Stornoway Town Council visited the Danish capital Copenhagen the next day. The delegates brought all sorts of presents – exotic foodstuffs like guga & marags, and indigenous crafts like Arnish Boots & church hats – to show the Danes what they could be getting their hands on. However, it was the promise of getting a go of the Callanish Stones that really swung the deal.

After intense bargaining, the Danes agreed to take on the Outer Hebrides, if the majority of inhabitants voted in favour of the proposal. After a short campaign the ‘Heng Aye’ side emerged victorious with 92% of the vote. The ‘Fleek Off’ campaign were suitably disappointed, but gracious in defeat.

Much of the success of the campaign was due to the strong cultural links which already existed between Denmark and Stornoway. As previously mentioned, the Viking influence had set the scene and various cultural exchanges over the years helped strengthen the bonds.
Hans Christian Anderson, the famous Danish writer, used to come on his holidays to Stornoway in the 1840’s. Back then, he was just known as Hans Anderson, but after prolonged exposure to Free Church services, he took Communion and became a fervent member of the faith. He was so staunch a church-goer that he campaigned widely to get not only the swings padlocked on Sundays, but the whole town. In Stornoway, due to this fervor, he was known as Hans ‘Curam’ Anderson. This translated into Hans ‘Christian’ Anderson when he moved back to Denmark.

Hans Christian Anderson was best known for his story The Little Maw Maid. This story has touched the hearts of millions and has been turned into film adaptations on many occasions.

A short synopsis is provided below.

The Little Maw Maid is the daughter of the King of the Maws.  She lives ‘beyond the cattle grid’ with her family in Ranish and dreams of becoming a townie. She loves to visit the hills over looking Stornoway and watching the townies, with their posh and refined accents. She ignores the concerns of her father King Tractor and spends all her time watching the town with her friend Sgudal the Seagull.

One day she notices a handsome townie Prince, called Prince Derek, on a bike going through Marybank. The bike bursts a tyre and the Prince is thrown to the ground & knocked unconscious. The Little Maw Maid runs to help and drags him to the cattle grid at the County Hospital. A passing nurse finds the Prince and takes him in to the hospital.

The Little Maw Maid watches the Prince as he recovers and falls in love with him. She visits a witch in Tolsta and asked how she could become a Townie. The witch gave her a magic potion that would transform her accent into a posh townie one, but there was a catch- her new accent would only work in Church.

The Little Maw Maid drank the potion and walked into town the next Sunday, being careful not to speak to anyone until she reached the Church.

There she met the handsome townie prince and fascinated him with the way she pronounced ‘j’ as ‘ch’ and ended every sentence with ‘fleekin’ right man’.

However, it turned out the handsome townie prince was only Church of Scotland & was just there for a christening, so the Little Maw Maid ran off with a Free Church Elder instead.

A famous musical about Anderson’s life was also made in the 1950’s staring Danny Cromwell-St-Quay. This film featured musical adaptations of many of his fairy tales including The Ugly Guga.

The Ugly Guga
There once was an ugly guga
With feathers all singed and a mess
And the other birds said in so many words
Haoidh! Get out of Ness!

The famous statue of the Little Mermaid in Copenhagen Harbour is also a lasting symbol of.the links between Denmark and Stornoway, in particular the herring industry. Originally the sculptor was told to make a statue of a ‘herring girl’, but he thought that meant a girl who was half herring/half blone. By the time the mistake was noticed it was too late -the statue was in place and had become one of the cities most popular landmarks.

The Danish control of the Hebrides ended in 1959 when Copenhagen decided that the Stornoway Gazette wasn’t covering Danish events in enough detail, or indeed in any detail. A passing Faroese trawler dropped off the Title Deeds and so ended the era of the Hebridaneans.

(Thanks to Ange for her research into Hebridanea).

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.

A Flock of Stornoway Pandas

11 12 2011

Plenty in the news just now about yon pair of Giant Pandas who have immigrated to Scotland.

A good news story for the country and in particular for Edinburgh Zoo, but it’s not the first time Giant Pandas have lived in Scotland.

 In 1850, Sir James Matheson was busy developing Lews Castle as a home for his family, but also as a focal point for his business empire. He had big plans for the Castle Grounds. As well as wanting to see the development of an extensive area of woodland surrounding his mock Tudor Castle, he wanted to see the finest exotic plants from around the globe growing there to add to the elegant splendour.

 Collections of colourful wild birds and myriad strange creatures were shipped in by boat and set free to roam around the Castle Grounds.

 But as a businessman, Sir James always kept one eye open for increasing his wealth. In 1870, just as Harris Tweed was becoming established, Sir James thought there might be some pound signs attached to the humble Giant Panda. Not as a tourist attraction like the two Pandas now in Edinburgh Zoo, but as a way of contributing towards the Tweed industry.

 Sir James had seen Pandas many times through his business dealings in China. Their thick fur had always impressed him and he wondered if this fur could be used to good advantage.

 He ordered a flock of Giant Pandas to be delivered to Lewis and late in 1870 twenty of the cuddly creatures arrived in Stornoway. The Pandas were set loose close to Marybank Lodge under the care of a Pandherd. The Pandas took to Lewis life straight away. There had been plans to plant a bamboo plantation at Marybank to feed the Pandas, but it was soon discovered that the Pandas lived quite happily off rhododendron bushes and marags. It was discovered that the blood in the marags added not only a glossy sheen to the Panda fur, but provided a useful layer of water proofing to help the Pandas cope with the Lewis weather. Up until that point, all marags were grey in colour and it was only as butchers experimented in finding the best Panda waterproofing that the two varieties of Black and White marags became common, as each colour brought different qualities to the black and white Panda fur.

 The experiment with Panda fur ultimately proved to be unsuccessful. Sir James’ original plan was to blend the Panda fur with sheep wool to provided an ultra-weatherproof tweed. Each year, the Pandas would be rounded up and brought to the village fank, where they would be dipped. And once a year, the same round up would occur, this time with the Pandas being sheered of their fur. Sadly the Panda fur turned out to be too thick and ended up clogging up the looms of the weavers.

 Despite the Tweed failure, a number of attempts were made to find a more practical use for the Pandas. It was discovered (at the Creed Chemical Works) that the fur from the Giant Pandas could be distilled to get various essences for cooking purposes. The most successful output of these experiments was to produce a unique flavouring for boiled sweets by adding several drops of Panda essence (providing a sort of minty flavour) to the mixture. These boiled sweets were originally called Panda Drops and proved to be extremely successful amongst church-goers, especially those of the Free Church persuasion.

 The Panda Drops were very successful but had to change their name to Pandrops in the 1920’s following an outcry by a group of local animal rights/environmental campaigners called Coulregrein-Peace.

The bottom fell out of the church sweet market in recent years following the various church schisms that took place in the 1990’s and 2000’s, as none of the denominations could agree on the custody of sweet eating.

The flock of Giant Pandas still lives in the Castle Grounds, although they are very shy and keep well hidden from humans. Unless you happen to be a human with a marag sandwich, in which case beware.

The Mod and Stornoway

16 10 2011

It’s Royal National Mod time in Stornoway.

Massed gangs of Gaelic Choirs from all over the world are descending on the Hebridean capital to fight it out to see who will be the last choir standing. Although the requirement for bloodshed is greatly reduced from previous years, the sense of competition is still high and civilians are reminded not to venture out after sunset, less they end up in the cross fire.

The Mod has come to Stornoway on many occasions over the centuries and so a brief recap of some of the more memorable visits is given here.

In 1989, the Mod was tarnished by the undignified spat that developed when Kylie Minogue and Jason Donovan were disqualified from the Mixed Doubles Competition. Although riding high in the Pop Charts at the time, the Aussie pair failed to impress the Judges with their version of ‘Ibhi Ada’ and a Gaelic version of the theme from Neighbours (‘Tha Neighbours, a h-uile duine neeeds math Neighbours’ ).  Kylie and Jason stormed out of the Town Hall after receiving only 5 votes  and headed straight to the Clachan. After a few swift half’s, the pair started to smash up the toilets and were only removed after a barman convinced them that a passing collie was in fact Bouncer, and they sped off in hot pursuit.

In 1979, another unexpected pairing in the Mixed Doubles led to unsightly scenes on the stage in the Garry Room. Newly elected Prime Minister Maggie Thatcher surprised political pundits by agreeing to sing ‘Oran Calum Sgaire’ with Labour Leader Micheal Foot.  Despite Foot getting lessons from his cousin, a local Professor, Thatcher’s  constant drive for perfection meant poor Foot was constantly slagged off by the Iron Lady. Foot made several attempts to get the song in the right key, but as Thatcher famously said ‘The Lady’s Not For Tuning.’  It’s also a little known fact that Thatcher joined Runrig on stage to play the chanter at their career defining performance in the Seaforth Hotel.

In the early 60’s, a spot of confusion led to gangs of parka wearing/scooter riding Mods arriving on the Loch Seaforth expecting to cause trouble in the town, only to find that it was music of a totally different sort that was on offer. In the spirit of helping out, the local Dockers agreed to take on the Mods in a fight down on the Braighe Beach. Afterwards Roger Daltrey of The Who almost won the Gold Medal with his version of  ‘Canan Nan Gaidheal’ but was disqualified for hitting the Judges as he spun his microphone around his head. The Who’s award winning rock opera ‘Tommy’ was inspired by the band watching Tommy Darkie playing the box at the after Mod ceilidh in The Crit.

In 1580, Sir Walter Raleigh stumbled upon the Mod by accident when he sailed into Stornoway Harbour thinking it was El Dorado. Instead of gold doubloons he found Gold Medals instead. Walter was a dab hand at the fiddle and impressed An Comunn Gaidhealach enough to let him play in several competitions which he won easily. To this day the Fiddlers Raleigh is held in honour of the brave explorer.

ABBA: Thank You For The Marags

18 10 2010

Despite first hitting the headlines nearly 40 years ago, Swedish group ABBA are still very much a marketable commodity and remain as hugely popular now as they did during the 1970’s and early 80’s. The runaway success of both the Mama Mia stage show and the blockbuster film of the same name has ensured that the name ABBA, and their music, will remain to the fore for many years to come.
People will have heard of their humble beginnings and their early struggles for musical acceptance, but most people will be surprised to learn the true story of ABBA and their little known Stornoway connection.

In the early 1970’s four friends from Stornoway got together to form a musical group. The two coves and two blones had no ambition beyond playing in the Seaforth Hotel at wedding dances and perhaps maybe the odd Mod ceilidh. The two coves played the guitar and the accordion whilst the two blones sang waulking songs in gaelic.

The foursome tried out various names such as the ‘Covehood Of Man’ and ‘Fishboney M’ but didn’t come up with one that suited until they appointed a manager.

The person who took on the responsibility was called ‘Stink’ Anderson (so named as he drove the Ross & Cromarty County Councils septic tank lorry) and it was he who suggested that they took the initials of their names to create an unusual moniker.
And so it was that Annchris, Bingo, Bogey and Anni-Mary became ABBA.

Stink drove the group hard, making them play the Clachan every Friday night and the Cabar Public bar on Saturdays. It was here that the band perfected their dance routine of the two blone singers turning sideways, turning away from each other and then looking the other way. This was in order to avoid the various missiles being flung in their direction from Gaelic music purists who preferred to hear ‘The Kiora’ rather than ‘this fleeking deesco ruppish’. Eventually, it became a common feature of an ABBA gig to have an assortment of rotting vegetables flung stagewards in an attempt to get the group to sing ‘proper’ songs. By far the most common vegetable was the turnip, which resulted in the group getting nicknamed ‘The Swedes’.

However, in 1974, Stink managed to get the group a slot on the Calum Kennedy Show (after threatening to drive through Orinsay with all the taps open on his septic tank lorry). In order to make a big splash on the telly, ABBA invested in platform ‘Arnish’ Boots, Harris Tweed flared jump suits (from Mackenzie & MacSweens) and a bag of spangly seggs from Charlie Morrison’s to sew on instead of sequins.
Tickets were purchased for the ferry, bus and train and off ABBA went to the big mainland. Unfortunately, the group got slightly inebriated on the ferry and fell asleep in the back of the bus. When they awoke, the bus had reached Glasgow and on disembarking they became hopelessly lost.
In their confusion, they thought an advert in the paper said Europie Song Contest and so they set off to try their luck, unbeknownst that it was the actual  Eurovison Song Contest they were heading too.

On eventually reaching the Eurovision venue, Stink and the band wandered around getting hopelessly lost until at last they bumped in to Terry Wogan, who was desperately trying to co-ordinate each act and make sure each country went on in the right order.

‘Are you’se the Swedes?’ asked a clearly stressed out Wogan.

‘Yus, we’re The Swedes’ replied Stink, not realising his innocent mistake. No sooner than he’d opened his mouth, ABBA were ushered by Mr Wogan on to the stage and a worldwide tv audience of millions.

The four members of ABBA stood staring at the audience and tv cameras for several seconds until they eventually plucked up the courage to sing one of their favourite songs. This song was written by Bingo and Bogey and celebrated the coming of mains water to Marybank and the ability of the residents of this village to be able to flush the toilet for the first time. The song was of course Water Loo.

Of course, the global audience had no idea what ABBA were singing about in their broad Stornowegian lilt. However, the catchy tune and the repetitive chorus seemed to go down well with the whole of Europe. Once they finished the song, ABBA thought they’d make a hasty retreat from the stage, but were instead ushered into the green room by Terry Wogan where they had to sit there and wait for the results to be announced. Stink had whispered to them to try and grab a few bottles of champagne and make for the exits when no one was looking, so they were unprepared when the final result came in and Water Loo had swept the boards.

Taken totally by surprise, the four members of ABBA were swamped in flowers, praise and applause.  When Terry Wogan thrust a microphone in Bingo’s face, the awestruck singer could only mumble a few words in Gaelic and nod politely. For most of Europe, this strange language sounded Swedish enough. And as for the Swedish nation, they were delighted to have actually won something and so the whole population were happy to go along with the ploy that a wee band from Stornoway were instead from Stockholm.

ABBA had many hit records over the following years and if you listen closely you can hear the Stornoway influence in them all.

Dannsa Queen

Knawing Meat, Knawing Ewe

Ma, My Mini’s (got a flat battery can you give me a push?)

The Winner Ali’s Take Away (about the annual Stornoway curry championship)

Money, Money, Money (originally ‘Crofter Grant, Crofter Grant, Crofter Grant’)

Dè tha thu ag iarraidh (renamed Voulez Vous to sound posher & more cultured)

Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man Of The Cloth After Midnight Cos Its Monday Then)

Does Your Mother Know a Cove called Alec Dan from Cromore?

The Name of the Game Soup

Thank You for the Marags

Water Loo

Franz Kafka In Stornoway

5 10 2010

One day, when Kafka and his Hebrew teacher, Friedrich Thieberger were looking out over Old Town Square from a window of Oppelt House, Kafka pointed out his secondary school in Kinsky Palace; what they could see of the university where he had studied law; and, a little farther away, the location of his office. The writer twice gestured in a small circumference, condensing his entire existential space. “This small circle contains my whole life,” he told Thieberger. Prague had become both cage and refuge, a place that protected him from the natural world, but also a place that the writer changed in his dreams. We see how Kafka slowly creates the mesh, weaves the web, lays the foundations of his mysterious literary architecture.”

– Memories of Kafka

Franz Kafka was not being entirely truthful with his Hebrew teacher when he credited the “small circle” of central Prague with defining the essence of his life and work.

In fact, the pointy-faced Czech gloom merchant was haunted all his life by a crucial interlude he spent in Stornoway in 1911. The landscape that truly shaped Kafka’s weltenschaung and whose bleakness suffused every aspect of his oeuvre was not that of Staromeste Namesti, Wenceslas Square or the Charles Bridge, but the Star Inn, Perceval Square and Charlie Morrison’s. Oh yus.

As any raincoat-wearing indie poseur from the early 80s could tell you, Kafka was employed in Prague as an assessor for the Workers’ Accident Insurance company. What is less well known is that in October 1911 he was despatched to Stornoway to investigate a particularly intractable case; Tolsta Chaolais fish smoker and Free Church precentor John Angus “Psalmsa” Macgregor had woken up one morning to find himself transformed into a giant kipper. Unable to work, and finding it increasingly difficult to avoid being eaten by people at breakfast time, Psalmsa had submitted a large insurance claim to Kafka’s company.

In the assessment interview, Psalmsa produced an extremely ripe guga and offered it to Kafka as an “incentive” to write a favourable report. Kafka was overcome by the fumes, collapsed and had to be sent to the old sanatorium on Oliver’s Brae for several weeks to recuperate. The poor cove was never the same after that and his early death in Austria in 1924 – long ascribed to tuberculosis – is now believed to be the result of long term lung damage sustained in this incident.

Even after his release from the sanatorium, Kafka was unfit to travel and had to hang about Stornoway for the rest of the Winter. On the meagre accommodation allowance provided by his employers, he took lodgings in a disused fish offal boiler in a back yard off Inaclete road. His landlady did not permit lodgers to remain in their rooms during the day, and so Franz Kafka was forced to wander the streets of Stornoway daily from 5am to 11pm.

In the depths of Winter, this  meant an atmosphere of continual darkness, howling gales and driving rain, with the sinister shadow of the Castle looming in the low cloud over the town. The monstrous towers of the gasworks and the fish mart dwarfed Kafka as he traversed the desolate streets, closing in on him and creating a sense of insignificance and alienation such as he’d never experienced in Prague.

The Lanntair wasn’t invented yet, so the only refuge a sensitive soul could take from the weather was in church services, prayer meetings and wakes. With several religious denominations to choose from, Kafka attached himself to the Seceders. His reasons for doing so were initially prosaic; they had longer services than everybody else, and their emphasis on the burning torments of Hell made him feel a bit warmer on a cold night.

Immersed in Stornoway’s harsh meteorological and spiritual mileu it was inevitable that Kafka’s work would take a darker turn. Before arriving on the island, the author had been on the verge of completing his debut magnum opus; “My Lovely Book of Sunny Stories”, featuring Mr Chuckles, an irrepressibly cheery teddy bear who skips around dispensing flowers to all the happy animals in Giggleland. But one freezing night, after a particularly long tigh adhradh in Steinish at which the 4-hour improvised prayer had been uninspired, the scones mouldy, and the tea weak as fleek, Kafka returned to Inaclete road and consigned the manuscript for “My Lovely Book of Sunny Stories” to the fire.

Seating himself at the old fishbox he used for a writing desk, by the light of a foul-smelling cruisgean, Kafka set about developing the seminal works for which he is now remembered. The drafts he produced while in Stornoway included:

Mehhagmorphosis – in which some cove wakes up in the morning to find that he has turned into a giant sheep. (Kafka did not want to use Psalmsa’s kipper experience directly in his fiction for fear of legal action, and so considered turning his protagonist into a number of other things. Titles considered and rejected included “Midgiemorphosis”, “Maragmorphosis” and “Murdomorphosis”. The last of these was very nearly chosen, but dropped when it turned out it was already the nickname of a cove who hung about the Crit all day asking for change).

The (Sheepdog) Trial – in which Dileas K, an unassuming Border collie, finds himself facing disqualification from the Barvas Agricultural Show for an unspecified contravention of ISDS rules at the shed. Nobody will explain the nature of  his alleged crime to him, probably because he’s a dog.

The Castle – in which a stranger arrives in town, having been summoned by a mysterious bureaucracy known only as “The Amenity Trust” to survey Lewis Castle. He looks at it and tells them it’s falling down, then spends the rest of the novel trying to collect a massive feasibility study fee off them.

When Kafka returned to Prague in the spring of 1912, his suitcase was full of marags, duff, sgadan sailte and and bobban socks. With no room for his manuscripts, he left them in the care of his friend and literary executor, Macs Brodbay.

“My dear Macs”, wrote Kafka to Brodbay at his literary salon/croft in Vatisker, “I’ve carried out a retrospective analysis of my work and tried to weigh its literary merit as objectively as possible. My conclusion is that if I leave the manuscipts with you I’ll be able to squeeze in a geansaidh for the old man, 3 beannags for the cailleach and an extra bag of Craggan’s biscuits. So you hang onto the books and if the peats is damp this year you can chuck them in the Rayburn to get the fire goeen. They’re fleekeen rubbish anyway. This writeen carry on is no for me an am goeen back to the insurance when a get home. Chearaidh, cove. Franz (cough).”

Luckily Macs Brodbay had an excellent peat bank with a good supply of dry caorans, and never got around to burning Kafka’s manuscripts. They sat in his byre for many years, getting a bit mouldy and being chewed by the odd cow until, in 1926, Brodbay attended a Skoda Tractors Open Day at the Gress fank. There, he persuaded a gullible Czech sales rep to swap him a brand new 4-cylinder  HT-30 for a rotting feed bag containing the semi-masticated remains of Kafka’s works.

And so Franz Kafka’s manuscripts finally made their way back to Prague. Some amadan there decided to publish them, but discovered that Kafka’s language in the manuscripts was an incomprehensible melange of German, Czech, biblical Gaelic and extremely profane Stornowegian. To make the works accessible to a Central European readership, the publisher had to translate them back into proper German  and excise all identifiable Outer Hebridean references, otherwise nobody would have known what the fleek was going on.

That – and not the fact that we made it all up chust now –  is why few are aware of Kafka’s Stornoway connections today. But rumour has it that the translator missed a few SY words and references here and there. So who knows? Read the cove’s books very carefully and you might still spot the odd one that got through…