The Town Hall Clock Of Stornoway

29 01 2010

We’ve mentioned the Town Hall on several occasions, but have never really gone in to any great detail about the fine late-Egyptian style clock tower and its Norse style water powered clock. Keen eyed readers of the previous blog entry about John Buchan’s rip-roaring novel ‘The 39 Step We Gaylee’s’, may have wondered why the clock was chiming the tune ‘Lovely Stornoway’. Hopefully this explains why.

When the Town Hall was under construction in 1905, the residents of the town decided that the clock should play a cheery melody as it struck the hour. After much debate it was agreed that the popular song Lovely Stornoway should be the song of choice.  The town fathers were sure this would instil civic pride in the citizens as they went about their daily business.

(Readers will recall how Calum Kennedy made ‘Lovely Stornoway’ famous when he won the Eurovision Song Contest in 1960. Readers may also be interested in new version of the song as performed by yon Iain Shaw cove which can be found at this weblink here).

Lovely Stornoway remained the chiming tune until the outbreak of the First World War. Caught up in patriotic fervour, the townies agreed that a new, uplifting and encouraging tune should be composed. After a competition to select the best tune, a song by local band ‘Island Steam Train’ (a forerunner of popular 1970/80’s band Island Express) was chosen. Their song, ‘Fleek Off You Bosche Bleggards’ then blasted out every day, on the hour, as the War progressed. The song also became popular in the trenches with the Seaforth Highlanders and the Ross Battery, where it was sung with great gusto along with other popular war songs such as ‘We’ll Hang Out Our Bobbans On The Siegfried Line’ and ‘Keep The Home Fires Burning Underneath the Illegal Whiskey Still’.

Sadly the Town Hall burnt down in 1918 after an unfortunate double booking of the Hall by the Stornoway Candle Makers Guild and the Society of Paraffin Lamp Collectors. Sadly, the poor townies were without an hourly chime for nearly a decade.

On the official reopening of the Town Hall in 1919, ‘Lovely Stornoway’ once again became the official clock chime. This remained the case for the interwar years.

On the outbreak of the Second World War the tune was once again changed to ‘Fleek Off You Bosche Bleggards (1940 Glen Millar Remix)’ and remained so until VE Day. Lovely Stornoway then resumed its duties for several more years.

In the mid 1950’s, following the birth of rock’n’roll, the tune was (very appropriately) changed to Bill Holy and His Curam’s Rock Around The Clock’. This tune lasted for several years until Lovely Stornoway once again got voted in by the Town Council.

In 1973 the Town Hall tune became ‘Freebird’ by US rock band Lynyrd Skynyrd. This song had become the unofficial Stornoway national anthem following its release on the album ‘Pronounced…’ in 1972. A Bye-Law passed in 1975 made it compulsory for ‘Freebird’ to be played as the last song at every disco/school social, and at least twice at every Wedding Dance held within the Burgh limits.

Public outrage occurred in 1977 when some local punks (B*mber and M*lcy Sm*th from local band The Rong) climbed the clock tower and replaced Freebird with the Sex Pistol’s ‘Anarchy In The UK’ to coincide with the Queens birthday. It was a whole week before the Comhairle electricians could remove the punk anthem. The letters page in the Gazette was 2 pages long in the following weeks, full of indignant letters. (Not from outraged citizens or Ministers, but from Lynyrd Skynyrd fans). It was suggested that this stunt led to all sorts of anarchy breaking out amoungst the youth of the town and ultimately led to the collapse of society when the swing parks were no longer locked up on Sundays.

But eventually, Freebird had to be replaced. The tune was 14 minutes long and so it was nearly quarter past the hour before it stopped chiming. This meant Council meetings kept getting interrupted or motions being passed without councillors hearing the details. This of course led to a number of interesting policy decisions in the late 70’s including the erection of the new Comhairle offices on a bog, and introducing peat as legal tender.

In the 1980’s, as the Town Hall fell into decline, the chime alternated between the ‘Big Ben’ chimes and ‘broken/not working’. This remains the case to this day, but perhaps the current proposals to ‘do up’ the Town Hall will see a new tune emerge for the new decade.

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The Beatles Play Stornoway

16 10 2008

This is a look at a slightly more recent part of Stornoway’s history. It involves the one and only (as far as we know) performance by the Beatles in Stornoway.

Back in early January 1963, just weeks before they hit the big time, the Beatles were engaged in a short four date tour of Scotland. Back in these days the Beatles toured constantly and played almost every run down dive in the land to try and build up an audience. On 4 January 1963 they played in the Town Hall in Dingwall and were then due to head south to play in Bridge of Allan.

However, whilst waiting at Dingwall railway station they mistakenly got the Kyle of Lochalsh train instead of the Inverness one. A couple of hours later they found themselves standing on Kyle Pier with nowhere to go and without a clue as to where they were. Luckily, as they stood forlornly on the pier, gazing over to the mist shrouded Isle of Skye, they met members of the Stornoway Dance Band who were returning from a three day New Year gig in Lochinver. The Stornoway band took pity on the four lost Beatles and invited them over to Lewis to support them in the Town Hall, where they had a YM  ‘Social’ to play at.

An impromptu gig took place in the bar of the Loch Seaforth half way across the Minch, when the Stornoway Dance Band encouraged the Beatles to play along to some of their own songs including ‘Love Me (Marag) Dubh’ , which went;

“Love mo marag dubh,
you know I love stew
But pleeeeeeaaaasssseeeee
Give us marag dubh

On reaching Stornoway, the Beatles and the Stornoway Dance Band had to rush across to the Town Hall where a large crowd waited. The Beatles went on first, and largely bemused the Town Hall audience, unused to such ‘poppy’ material. However, Murdo MacLeans shop noticed a sharp increase in young men buying black suits following the gig and it was widely reported that Johnny G’eepers barber shop noticed a corresponding drop in trade.

Unfortunately, there is no record of the Beatles set list form the Town Hall gig, but the Stornoway Dance Band played the following songs during their set.

  • “Ob-la-di, diggumda
  • ” I saw her gutting there”
  • ” I want to hold your cran
  • ” Ticket to ride (on a Mitchells bus)”
  • ” The long and winding road to Uig”
  • “Smaoinich”

That evening the Beatles got the Loch Seaforth over to Mallaig, the cattle-train to Glasgow and then departed into the night, never to play in Stornoway again (if you don’t count the time Paul McCartney played with Kenny Fags in the Carlton).