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Behold the Hebrides
Stornoway
Its men and memories


Steornabhagh Mhor a' Chaisteil,
Bail' is modha th'air an t-saoghal:

THUS commences an old, familiar rune in praise of Stornoway. We are all agreed that Stornoway possesses a castle which, though we cannot ascribe to it either the tradition or the romance of the old sea-fort that it replaced, is at all events as palatial within as it is imposing and commanding without; but it would never be affirmed, except by loyal and ardent Lewismen (of which it is always a comfort to be able to say that there are many!) that Stornoway is the greatest town on earth. Unquestionably, however, the writer of the ancient rune considered his native town worthy of more than ordinary mention; and, after all, Stornoway has a history behind it that might well justify a harmless exaggeration of this nature.

The general tendency is to assign to historic ruins an age, which is as difficult to prove as to deny. Though in its earliest stages tradition may have been founded on a substructure of truth, it must often be taken with a grain or two of salt. And, so, in the absence of reliable historical data we are obliged, before coming to any definite chronological conclusion, to examine in an unbiassed way the modifications as well as the exaggerations that leave their impression as the centuries creep on, for it is as human to magnify unduly and to underestimate as it is to err.

But, when exactly the foundations were laid of the Old Castle in ‘Anchor Bay,’ we have no definite means of ascertaining. It is almost certain, however, that the oldest stronghold there was built by the Nicolsons, who were of Norse origin, and who, in order to repel the subsequent attacks of their very own kinsmen, selected a site in Stornoway harbour that they thought would lend itself most conveniently to defence and fortification. The period at which the Nicolsons settled in Lewis is also wrapped in the mists of obscurity; but there seems to be little doubt that at one time they held a position not inferior to that of the MacLeods, by whom they were superseded about the twelfth or thirteenth century.

Though not even the approximate date of the building of the Old Castle has ever been arrived at with any degree of accuracy, there was certainly a stronghold in existence at Stornoway at the beginning of the sixteenth century, for in 1506 it was taken by the Earl of Huntly. In earlier extant records pertaining to Lewis, references to the Castle are generally conspicuous by their absence, though this fact need not necessarily be regarded as final proof that there was no fortress in Stornoway prior to the year 1506. We are informed that, about half a century later (1554), the Old Castle was again the scene of contest, when the Earl of Argyll, after a fruitless attempt to capture it with artillery, was forced to abandon his siege.

Then, we are referred by W. C. MacKenzie to an interesting document, which, though undated, would appear to have been drafted early in the seventeenth century. From it we learn that ‘the House of Stornowa in the Lewis is fallen albeit it had bidden (defiance to) the canon be the Erle of Argyle of auld, and be the gentilmen ventourares of lait.’ Of the exploits and misfortunes of the Fife Adventurers I have told you something in a previous chapter. Here it need only be said in passing that, during the brief occupations of Lewis by these enterprising Lowlanders, the Old Castle must have sustained many a severe blow, until at last it fell into the hands of the MacKenzies, who, having acted under the instructions of the Privy Council, eventually dislodged the intrepid Neil MacLeod, and forced him to seek refuge on the rocky islet of Berisay, in Loch Roag.

The Old Castle of Stornoway again figured prominently in the time of Charles I., during whose reign an English Fishing Company sought powers to establish itself at the port of Stornoway with a view to seizing the fishing trade by eliminating the Scottish fishermen, who hitherto had maintained a prior claim to the fishings around the Western Isles.

Probably the last assault, which the Old Castle witnessed, was during the time of the Commonwealth, when the Earl of Seaforth reluctantly realised that its walls were too ancient to have withstood the onslaught of the artillery of Colonel Cobbet, who without encountering much resistance garrisoned Stornoway with three or four companies of English troops. This contingent was accommodated in a fortress which it constructed for itself; and it was commanded by one, Major Crispe.

The last vestiges of the Old Castle were removed in 1882; and nothing now marks the historic and romantic site on which it once, stood but a flag pole.

It is interesting to note that most of the principal streets in Stornoway were called after well-known personages in the history of the Long Island. In memory of the Mathesons we have James Street and Matheson Road; while to remind us of the suzerainty over Lewis of the MacKenzies, who preceded them, we find the names of Francis Street, Keith Street, and Kenneth Street. These names, therefore, are readily explained. But the stranger to Stornoway must wonder why the name of the busiest thoroughfare—the ‘High Street’ of the town—was altered from Dempster Street to Cromwell Street, the title by which it is now designated with a certain amount of pride. Especially puzzling is this when we recollect that the Protector is associated with Lewis in his effort to reduce opposition to the Commonwealth by disarming Royalist sympathy there.

Let us for a moment examine briefly the considerations that compelled Cromwell to give some attention to Stornoway. To commence with, public opinion in Lewis was hostile to the Commonwealth. Although George, the second Earl of Seaforth, swithered for many years, at one time supporting the Royalist cause, at another defending the Covenanters, he died a rabid Royalist. He was succeeded in 1651 by his youthful son, Kenneth Mor MacKenzie, who, as the Chief of the powerful Seaforth family, had the sworn allegiance of many trusty Highland claymores, and who avowedly declared himself to be out of sympathy with the Interregnum. But there was a very much more important consideration, which Cromwell could not afford to neglect. The harbour of Stornoway was well known to the Dutch, who had been accustomed to visiting it during their fishing exploits in the west of Scotland; and, since a state of war intervened between Holland and the Commonwealth in 1652, owing to the passing by the Rump in the previous year of the Navigation Act, it was only natural that Cromwell should be eager to prevent Lewis from falling into the hands of his enemies, who, on account of the peculiar geographical position of Stornoway, would not be loath to use it in the Royalist cause as a base of operations. Indeed, negotiations in this direction had made some progress, because Lord Balcarres suggested to the banished King (Charles II.) that he ought seriously to consider the advisability of ceding some of the Western Isles to the Dutch. Special representation in furtherance of this proposal was made in the case of Stornoway because of its excellent harbour.

Now, in 1653 an unfortunate episode occurred. The Earl of Seaforth had been asking for trouble for some time, and at last it came his way, for his hot-headedness was the real cause that induced the Protector to subdue Lewis, to fortify it, and to garrison it with English troops. In the early summer of that year the Fortune, a small privateer in the service of the Commonwealth, sailed into Stornoway bay with a view to replenishing its stores. Well did Seaforth know that the vessel belonged to his enemies; and, when its boat was sent ashore at Stornoway, he ordered the detention of its officer and crew. In vain the Captain of the privateer remonstrated by letter with Seaforth for the release of his men; and the threat that he would resort to violence, were they not immediately handed over, only made the latter all the more determined to hold on to them. In fact, Seaforth went one better, because he made preparations to capture the privateer, with the result that its Captain thought it wise to skedaddle out of Stornoway as quickly as the wind would take him, even though many of his crew remained fast in MacKenzie’s hands.

The next move was one of retaliation: Captain Brassie, the owner of the vessel, reported the matter to Colonel Lilburne, who by this time had succeeded General Monk as officer commanding the Commonwealth troops in Scotland. That the military prestige of the Protectorate was in serious danger in the north of Scotland was patent; and Cromwell and Lilburne were unanimous that Seaforth should be severely dealt with. ‘I doubt nott,’ said Lilburne to Cromwell, ‘but what wee may be able to doe uppon that island, will soe startle the whole Highlands and islands that wee shall nott bee much troubled with them in such like cases hereafter. Undoubtedly to make Lord Seaford and his island (called the Lewes) exemplary will bee a very great advantage to the peace of this nation.’ And, so, a punitive expedition, accompanied by ships of war and ships carrying provisions and ammunition, was sent from Leith in charge of Colonel Cobbet. Without much difficulty Lewis was subdued; and with the. defeat of the Dutch fleet off the coast of Holland, and the death of Admiral Tromp, its ablest commander, there seemed little possibility of the Hollanders ever seizing Lewis. So far as Stornoway was concerned, the success of the Commonwealth was finally achieved when in 1654 peace between England and Holland was declared. This unexpected denouement shattered any hopes Seaforth might have entertained of driving the English out of Lewis, and of regaining by force his lost patrimony. In the end, however, he did actually come to terms with his old foes; and, though we possess no contemporary account of what went on in the Long Island during the period immediately preceding the Restoration, we may safely surmise that times in old Stornoway were less turbulent than they were in the days when the town was first garrisoned by alien troops.

We see now why the main thoroughfare in Stornoway is called Cromwell Street, for, as W. C. MacKenzie has pointed out, ‘the City Fathers. . . were able to consider the propriety of their memorial philosophically, without national bias, and without the feeling that they were perpetuating the memory of a shameful subjection. Pride in the association of Stornoway with the name of the greatest Englishman of. his time swallowed up resentment of the nature of the association.’

No account of Stornoway would be complete without a brief, historical sketch of the fishings, from which the people has earned a livelihood from very early times. We know that the herring fisheries of the Western Isles attracted the attention of adventurous Spanish and Breton crews; but it was not until towards the end of the sixteenth century that the fishings of Lewis began to assume an important place in commercial enterprise.

Stornoway was one of three royal burghs created by James VI. ‘with the design of introducing civilisation into the Highlands’; and in the year, 1594, the Dutch, to whom James had granted extensive fishing privileges, paid their first official visit to Stornoway. You will recall that a few years later the Fife Adventurers were likewise tempted by the glittering prospects of rich harvests from the sea.

Charles I. also had his eye on Stornoway; and the next important stage in the history of the fishings was the establishment, under royal patronage, of an English Corporation, to which such comprehensive privileges were given that, a year or two after the scheme was launched, the native fishermen were obliged to declare themselves openly hostile to the exploitation of their means of livelihood by English interlopers.

Charles II. had designs on the fishings of Lewis not unlike those of his father. In fact, he was partially successful in persuading a number of Dutch fishermen to settle in Lewis with their families, so that, among other things, they might advise the inhabitants in improved methods of fishing, just in the same way as the Flemish weavers, whom Edward III. imported into England, were expected to instruct the native weavers in the more up-to-date processes of making cloth. But the outbreak of war with Holland in 1665 soon put an end to Charles’s project; and the Dutchmen returned with their families to the Netherlands.

At this time there was a wide market for the disposal of the many kinds of fish that were caught around the Hebridean coasts. We are informed that dried skate could be sold anywhere in the United Kingdom; dried dogfish was easily saleable in Spain; salmon and salted codling were greatly in demand for the victualling of ships, and could command a good price; Russia and the Baltic ports offered a market for the disposal of dried mackerel, turbot, and flounders. Then, barrelled herrings could find an outlet ‘in all naciones whatsumewer’; while dried haddocks and barrelled cod were in demand in most countries, ‘and greatt geane gottin thaireby.’

During recent decades the fishing industry of Stornoway has undergone many changes, and has survived many ups and downs. The uneconomic system of disposing of the catches by bounties has been superseded by the auctioning of fish: the poetry and romance, which the schooners and wherries lent to the harbour in bygone days, have tended to disappear to some extent through the ever-increasing numbers of motor-driven boats, and of steam-drifters and trawlers. Yet, a large proportion of the herring fleet engaged each season still consists of the old-world sailing boats with their great, brown lugsails. And, in common with all seaports, old Stornoway possesses an air of cosmopolitanism, for there you may meet the fishing crews from Argyllshire, Wick, Inverness, Banff, Buckie, Aberdeen, and even Montrose. Indeed, as you stroll leisurely along the quays during the week-ends, when the fishermen rest from their labours, you can recognise their provinces by their accents.

Even yet, I am sure, the putting out to sea from Stornoway of the great, fishing fleet on a sunny and almost windless afternoon is a picture that for beauty and inspiration is unrivalled in our Kingdom. Just as impressive is the coming in of the fleet, for ere most of us are conscious of the dawning of another day, innumerable sailing vessels and drifters have begun to creep silently into the bay after a night’s absence; and before long the harbour is besieged with countless masts. And you will hear the fizzing of capstans as the huge sails are being lowered, and the plop of a rope or of an anchor that dives deeply into the cool, glittering water, and the lapping of the wavelets that lick the timbers, and the plashing of the oars of those who toil while others slumber.

There is something old-world about Stornoway, is there not?

In the olden days Stornoway was renowned for its ministers and its sea captains. So the grandson of 'Mairi Laghach' has oft-times told me; and, if anyone ought to know, he ought! Stornoway has also produced historians and archaologists and authors of no mean repute; and, incidentally, Morrison, the inventor of the clearinghouse system, was a native of Lewis.

Then, it is only fitting to mention that Stornoway has long been associated with its men of valour by land and by sea. The Isle of Lewis voluntarily contributed in proportion to its population more men to the Great War than any other part of the Empire. Its military and naval record is one of which Lewis, and everyone connected with it, has every reason to be proud. Prominent in recent years among its long military list was Colonel David MacLeod, D.S.O., of the Gordon Highlanders—a fearless man who, like so many of his kinsmen, made the supreme sacrifice during the late war. The last time I saw MacLeod was shortly before the attack on Cambrai, when our brigade was holding the line near Arras. He was a typical Lewisman, and a splendid specimen of a Highland soldier. And it may not be amiss to mention here that my own platoon in the Seaforths was chiefly composed of Lewismen, and that it was reputed the bravest and most reliable unit in the battalion. In the last test Lewis certainly lived up to its old military traditions; and, while drawing attention to its unique patriotism, one cannot help being reminded of the tragedy of the Zolaire, when two hundred men, who were returning home after the cessation of hostilities, were drowned within a stone-throw of their native heath.

No more heart-rending catastrophe has ever occurred in the wild and arduous history of the Long Island; and no catastrophe could serve to bring home more emphatically to the minds of thinking men and women that there must be an end of war, and that, instead of devoting our energy to the musty system of competitive armaments, we should walk warily, and remember the appalling devastation, spiritual and material, that visited our generation a few years ago.

Born in Stornoway about 1753 was Colonel Cohn MacKenzie of the East India Company. MacKenzie was an engineer and topographer of some significance; and he is to be remembered on account of his eminent researches into Indian antiquities, on which he wrote extensively. MacKenzie surveyed the whole of Mysore, and eventually became Surveyor-General of India.

That Stornoway is the birthplace of Sir Alexander MacKenzie (1755-1820) is now proved beyond doubt; and Stornowegians owe a debt of gratitude to ex-Provost Anderson, who has done so much to establish this fact, and to whom we are obliged for most of the reliable information we possess regarding this famous explorer. MacKenzie first saw the light of day on the site of Luskintyre House, which stood at the corner of Francis Street and Kenneth Street, just where the United Free Church now stands. In 1792 he set out from Fort Chipewyan on his memorable adventure across the Rockies in an endeavour to reach the Pacific coast; and in the following year he discovered one of the world’s greatest rivers, and gave his name to it.

As a result of recent correspondence that has passed between ex-Provost Anderson and the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada, we learn that the Canadian Government has decided to erect in honour of Sir Alexander MacKenzie a monumental tablet at Fort George, the place on the Fraser River which he passed on his journey to the Pacific, and to mark in a similar manner the rock at Cape Menza, which faces the Pacific, and on which he made his famous inscription:

Alexander MacKenzie from Canada, 52 deg.,
26 min., 48 sec., North Latitude; 128 deg.,
2 mins., West Longitude, coming by land the
22nd July, 1793, and returning eastwards.

It is gratifying to find that at long last the erection on the site, where MacKenzie was born, of a suitable memorial is also contemplated.

For a long time much confusion was caused by some travellers stating that the Peace River, a tributary of the MacKenzie River, flows into Lake Athabasca, and by others affirming that Lake Athabasca flows into the Peace River. MacKenzie observed both facts to be true. During high water the channel followed by the river, that now bears his name, runs from the river into the lake, but as a rule the lake flows into the river.

Is it not a strange coincidence that exactly a hundred years later, and at the other end of the world, another explorer from Stornoway, in the person of the writer’s father, was recording in Through the Buffer State the identical phenomenon in the case of the Mekong River and Telé-Sap, the largest lake in Indo-China?

But Stornoway has sent its emissaries to the uttermost ends of the earth.

In conclusion, some passing comment ought to be made of the late Lord Leverhulme, who in 1918 purchased the Lewis Long Island from Colonel Duncan Matheson, with entry at Whit-sunday of that year. In 1844 Sir James Matheson, who had amassed an immense fortune in the east, bought the island from the trustees of the MacKenzies of Seaforth for £190,000, and is said to have spent in addition something like £350,000 in schemes for the improvement of Lewis.

When Lord Leverhulme purchased Lewis, he explained that his object in so doing was that he might ‘find some place away from business, where he should be able to take life a little easier.’ Unfortunately things did not turn out as he had anticipated; and, after having expended an enormous sum of money with a view to developing the natural resources of the island, he found that, as a Utopia, Lewis did not come up to his expectations. Accordingly, he abandoned the gigantic programme he had arranged for Stornoway, and directed his attention to Obbe (Leverburgh) in Harris, where until recently his schemes were making great headway.

When the Island of Lewis was put up for sale last year, only the estate of Galson, comprising just over 56,000 acres, found a market—and then at the ridiculous figure of £500, which was at the rate of less than 24d. per acre.

The Lewis venture was a regrettable fiasco, and must have given Leverhulme a great deal of anxiety. It was an unfortunate example of how precarious is the success of even ‘the best-laid schemes o’ mice and men.’ And to this day the very delicate economic problem of Lewis remains unsolved.


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