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Issue 66 - Hebridean Her itage

Scotland Magazine Issue 66
December 2012


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Hebridean Her itage

Roddy looks at philanthropy in the Highland and Islands

One of the most fascinating aspects of the Highlands and Islands during the Victorian era, is the number of mega-rich eccentrics who, in an age before motor transport and flight, were inspired to create their personal fiefdoms in a virtual wilderness. Examples on mainland Scotland are legion, but can also be found throughout the Hebrides.

The island of Lewis, bought in its entirety in 1844 by the millionaire Sir James Matheson, provides yet another classic example. Purchased from the Mackenzies of Kintail, who had acquired the grant of its ownership from James VI & I in 1610, there was an existing lodge at Stornoway, but it was not nearly grand enough for the co-founder of the Jardine Matheson trading empire based in Hong Kong.

Sir James, therefore, commissioned the architect Charles Wilson to build him Lews Castle at a cost of £60,000, a massive fortune at the time. Large conservatories were added in 1875, and a further £49,000 was spent to transform the surrounding 600 acres of pastureland into wooded policies and private gardens.

Altruistic by nature, Sir James went on to spend more than £400,000 on social and economic projects for the community, an example continued by his widow after his death in 1878. On her death, the island was inherited first by their nephew, then grand nephew, Lt Colonel Duncan Matheson, who in 1918 sold it to the soap manufacturer, Lord Leverhulme, for the sum of £143,000.

Philanthropy was integral to a Victorian tycoon's persona, and Leverhulme, the embodiment of such sentiments, had already founded the model industrial village of Port Sunlight near Liverpool.

During the following five years he spent around £2 million in an attempt to transform the island's subsistence economy, but the men of Lewis, returning from soldiering in the First World War, were unimpressed. Leverhulme's enterprises on Lewis ended in failure and frustration.

He did, nevertheless, continued to use Lews Castle until 1922, sleeping in a room with an asphalt floor, no glazing, and guttering to carry off the rainwater. Every morning, it is said, he would rise from his bed at 5am to take a cold bath.

Eventually, it all became too much for him and in 1923, in an ultimate gesture of generosity, having sold off the island's remaining estates, he gifted Lews Castle to the local community.

Leverhulme specified that Lews Castle be used for civic purposes and as the residence of the Provost of Stornoway. However, in the economic slump of the 1920s and 1930s, the upkeep led to the Deed being amended and among other uses, the Castle was let with the 'home shootings and fishings' to Lord and Lady Portarlington.

From 1939, it was used as a barracks and naval hospital, and an aerodrome was built on the golf course. In 1948, it was leased to Ross and Cromarty County Council as a residential technical college – Lews Castle College – which continues to this day as part of the University of the Highlands and Islands. The university retains its principle Stornoway campus in the grounds but since 1997, the A-Listed Castle has remained empty.

The home of Harris Tweed, the Standing Stones of Callanish, and the annual Hebridean Celtic Festival, Stornoway is surely the perfect location for a 21st century museum and archive to celebrate the collective heritage of the Outer Hebrides, and it is for such a purpose that a partnership led by Comhairle nan Eilean Sar (the local authority) is well on the way towards a £13.5m refurbishment and development of the Lews Castle.

With National Lottery and Historic Scotland funding, and in partnership with the British Museum, the new Museum and Archive, designed by the inspirational Malcom Fraser Architects, and the complementary restoration of the castle for hospitality use, is envisaged as a catalyst for the the regeneration of Stornoway and the entirety of the Outer Hebrides. The Stornoway Trust is also leading the restoration of the magnificent landscape of the castle and the first stage of a £5 million Heritage Lottery Funded project has already been successfully negotiated.

I suspect that Lord Leverhulme would most certainly approve.

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