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.

Stornoway’s Area 51

30 03 2009

Old SYs will fondly remember the atomic paranoia and international tensions of the early 1950s. We’ve all heard the stories about monkeys in Broad Bay etc but this was only the tip of the iceberg as far as Stornoway’s thriving black projects industry was concerned. With the ever-present threat of Communism and the daily possibility of alien invasion from space, the War Ministry of the day offered very generous grants to any business developing novel and high-tech secret weapons.

Stornoway’s entrepreneurs were quick to spot the opportunity, and a number of covert research programs were launched by local businesses keen to exploit the offensive capabilities already inherent in the island’s products. Consequently, for most of the 1950s the industrial area bounded by Sandwick Road, Seaforth Road and Newton/Seaview Terrace was blanked out on all OS maps and was widely known as “Stornoway’s Area 51”. Tigh Nan Guts, the local herring byproducts plant, re-branded itself as the Toxins and Nerve Gas research establishment, and spent the next 30 years failing to derive an odourless poison gas from fish offal.Frequent experiments were conducted on the downwind populations of Seaforth Road, Oliver’s Brae and Sandwick, resulting in the hideous mutations common in these areas today.

Atomic Bomb Tests were an essential component of life in the 50s, and Stornoway was no exception. The government considered testing in Caithness at one point, and tried various locations in the Australian desert and the mid-Pacific, but these locations were eventually not considered to be sufficiently remote or desolate. Britain’s later atomic tests were therefore conducted in the bit between Engie’s and the gasworks. Several hundred devices from tactical nukes to full scale H-bombs were dropped on this area between 1952 and 1963 and, as predicted, nobody noticed.

Kenneth Mackenzie & Sons, meanwhile, had diversified into captured alien technology. One day in 1948, the young Harris Mackenzie encountered a strange herringbone-patterned spacecraft on the golf course,and single-handedly overcame the alien crew with a sand wedge. Under interrogation the aliens revealed that they came from a doomed planet whose supplies of Harris Tweed were running out. Their science officer explained how the Clo Mor, – and not dilithium crystals like everybody thought – was the fundamental substance in the physics of interstellar space travel (“it’s all to do with the warp, cove”, ars esan). Sticky’s immediately set about constructing their own tweed flying saucer, with assistance from their alien captives. In order to maintain secrecy, weavers in homes all over the island were commissioned to construct individual components of the craft and send them back to the mill, so that only those doing the “finishing” would know what was going on.

It took many years to perfect the technology, but it is believed that the facility was just about to deliver a fully operational trans-light spacecraft in double-width dress Macleod to NASA, when production was suddenly halted by a mysterious new owner. The aliens (who had gone native by this time and were mostly living in Steinish where they felt at home) were speedily given their P45s. Whether the new owner is a fellow alien seeking to control the entire universe by restricting the intergalactic tweed supply remains to be seen.

Quantum of Solas

4 11 2008

As many of you will know, Iain Fleming the creator of Bond, had strong Lewis connections as his maternal grand-mother came from Scotland Street. The young Fleming used to spend his summer holidays on Lewis and this was where he first gained his love for living on islands, although his preferred islands in his later life came with slightly warmer climates. And Iain Fleming is of course immortalised in Stornoway, having Fleming Place (up at the old Lewis Hospital) named after him.

Just after the success of Dr No, the first Bond movie, the Hollywood film producer ‘Cuddy (Point) Broccoli, encouraged Fleming to come up with more film treatments of his Bond stories. Fleming was very keen to use Stornoway and the Isle of Lewis as the setting for a Bond film as he felt the island was every bit as exotic as Jamaica, Switzerland and the south of France.

Fleming produced a script for a film called Tweedfinger, with the action centering largely on devious deeds in the tweed mills of Stornoway. The Harris Tweed industry of the 1950’s and 60’s was of course synonymous with a rich and famous lifestyle, and so Fleming and the Harris Tweed Authority were keen to capitalise on this and to try and establish Stornoway as a St Tropez of the north west. The Town Council even went as far as planting a rubber plant in Cairn Gardens to try and encourage that image.

Flemings screenplay involved a ruthless tweed baron known as Tweedfinger who had an overwhelming desire for all things made of tweed. Tweedfinger was planning to destroy all of the worlds tweed patterns and to replace them with ones of his own.

This was where Bond and the British Government stepped in. Bond was to travel to Stornoway and infiltrate Tweedfingers mill as a carder and to try to find out when the evil deed was to take place.

The movie screenplay involved a number of set pieces, including;

  • a tractor chase around Sticky’s Mill, where Bonds MI5 souped up tractor was fitted with an ejector seat,
  • one of Bonds female conquests is found dead,  covered in a tweed dress which was of really heavy material resulting in her sweating to death,
  • a female LoganAir pilot (called Bobbans Galore) flies over all the rival mills and sprays nerve gas in all the pattern workshops,
  • Bond is strapped to a cutting table and one of Tweedfinger’sheavy’s‘ starts cutting a pattern under him with a big pair of scissors, getting dangerously close to ruining his suit trousers. This particular scene featured the famous dialogue…
BOND : ‘Do you expect me to waulk, Tweedfinger?’

TWEEDFINGER: ‘No, Mr Bond. I expect you to dye.’

Fleming’s Stornoway screenplay was unfortunately rejected by Broccoli and Hollywood as been far too unbelievable. Broccoli did of course use some of Flemings idea for Goldfinger, but that film didn’t turn out as good as it could have done, if only Stornoway had featured as the location. One final attempt was made to try and sneak Stornoway into a Bond film, when ‘For Your Eye Peninsula Only’ was mooted as a possible title for a later day Roger Moore film.