Although it was a continuation of the same trip, it would be misleading to continue with the ‘Poolewe Diaries’ as a title. The sailing from Ullapool to the Hebridean main island of Lewis marked the second week of our Scottish adventure, so a change of title is appropriate…
Arriving on the island of Lewis, you get a strong sense of the remoteness of the place. Our departure port of Ullapool was remote enough, but then adding a three-hour ferry crossing just emphasised how separated this community is from the main population areas of Scotland.
The largest town on Lewis is the port of Stornoway, famous for its appearance as the second item in the BBC’s maritime ‘shipping forecast’. The Shipping Forecast is a BBC Radio broadcast of weather reports and forecasts for the seas around the far coasts of the British Isles. It is produced by the Met Office and broadcast by BBC Radio 4 on behalf of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency.
Stornoway is the main town of the Western Islands (the local name for the Outer Hebrides). It was founded by Vikings in the early 9th century, with the old Norse name Stjórnavágr. The settlement grew up around a sheltered natural harbour and became a trading hub for people from all over the island. Local travel to Stornoway was either by family boat, or (more slowly), by horse-drawn coach. The town of Stjórnavágr was the main base for trade with the rest of Scotland and further afield.
In the 15th century the local castle, the ancestral base of the MacLeod clan, was breached by the cannons of the Duke of Argyle, and local taxes were imposed on trade. This was hated by the islanders, who rebelled against such shipping rights being imposed. Continued resistance succeeded against King James VI, who, in 1598, tried to establish his own trading company on Lewis: the ‘Fife Adventurers’.
It failed. Declaring it ‘ungovernable’, James transferred Lewis to the MacKenzies of Seaforth in 1610. Stornoway Castle was later demolished to expand the harbour. A few remnants of the old stonework are to be found beneath the sea, alongside the pier foundations.
I have a personal connection with the island of Lewis – one that’s cultural rather than genetic…
I was born in Bolton, Lancashire. As a boy I used to walk the moors above the town of Horwich, marvelling at the ‘lost city’ nature of the ruins of the old ornamental gardens – long abandoned after the house that used to be there was burned down by the Suffragettes.
Later, I found out the mysterious gardens were the creation of William Hesketh Lever and built as a summer retreat on the site of where he and his wife did their courting. For many years, I looked into his life and built up a collection of facts and images. In a sense, his personal industry and success inspired me.
William Hesketh Lever, a man born to a working-class family in the centre of Bolton, built up a local soap business and became increasingly successful and prosperous, eventually creating Port Sunlight on the Wirral Peninsula, an entire ‘model town’ where the workers in his vast factories were guaranteed quality homes in the pleasant village. Until this trip, I had not realised that there was a link between William Lever and the island of Lewis.
In 1918, Matheson sold the island of Lewis to the soap millionaire – who had now become William Lever, 1st Viscount Leverhulme. Lord Leverhulme owned the island for only a short time. His economic plans for the Lewis (together with various business setbacks) overstretched his finances.
Faced with failure in Lewis, and unlike his predecessors, he gave Stornoway parish to the people of the town. The Stornoway Trust was formed and continues to administer the town for the people.
The Lever Brothers soap empire eventually became part of Unilever, the modern multi-national corporation whose cleaning products grace most supermarkets.
If was the Friday afternoon. We needed to stock up on essential supplies from a local supermarket, as Stornoway had the only sizable shops and we were staying many miles away. The following day was Saturday, which would allow us to get our bearings in the Uist Region of the island – before the almost total closure that is Sunday on Lewis.
We had been warned that there was a strong and specific religious presence on Harris; one that pervades many aspects of life on the island. In Lewis’ case, it was the ‘Wee-Frees’. The entry in Wikipedia refers:
The Wee Free in modern usage is used, usually in a pejorative way, of any small group who because of their, arguably obscure, religious principles choose to remain outside or separate from a larger body. A Wee Free attitude might show as a preference for being part of a smaller but ideologically sound group rather than a larger compromised one.[
The term ‘Wee Free’ was an epithet commonly used to distinguish between two Scottish Presbyterian Churches after the union of 1900: The Free Kirk and The United Free Kirk – the latter being some 25 times larger in its congregation. The rhyming Scottish diminutive became the adopted familiar name of the smaller entity.
The Island of Lewis is dominated by the Wee Free Presbyterian Church. It has its presence in every aspect of the island’s life. The church is energetically anti-Catholic and regards the Pope as having been artificially ‘inserted’ by dogma between mankind and God. One of the tenets of the Wee Free community is that you protect the Sabbath.
Holidaymakers are welcome to attend the churches or simply enjoy their time on the island. But nothing is open on Sundays… well, almost nothing, as we were to discover…
This is the continuation of our adventure, now on the Hebridean Island of Lewis, and is Part One of ‘A Hebridean Diary’.
©Stephen Tanham 2022
Stephen Tanham is a Director of the Silent Eye, a journey through the forest of personality to the dawn of Being.