Stornoway, Unilever, and a German frigate

We had the morning to look around Stornoway before leaving Lewis and Harris to take the ferry back to the Scottish mainland.

We started at Lews Castle. It was built by James Matheson in 1847 and then bought by William Lever (Lord Leverhulme). These two Victorians had a noteworthy influence on the island.

In 1844, Matheson bought the island, having grown rich from the Chinese opium trade. In having the castle built, he removed many tenants from the land. He arranged for some families to emigrate to Canada. This was controversial but his legacy is complicated because he also invested considerable sums on the island, which created jobs. He also funded famine relief, and many other social and economic projects for the benefit of the island community.

In 1918, Lord Leverhulme bought the island from Matheson’s descendants. He arrived to set up home in Lews Castle, with the intention of revolutionising the island and the lives of its residents.

Born in 1851 in Bolton, Lancashire, Lever established the soap company Lever Brothers with his brother James in 1885. It’s now known as Unilever.

After 1888, Lever adopted philanthropic ideals. He set up Port Sunlight on Merseyside, a model community aimed at providing housing and support to workers with generous wages and benefits. In 1918, Leverhulme’s proposals for Stornoway mirrored the concept of Port Sunlight but adapted to an island setting.

Leverhulme had ambitious plans for transforming the island, and particularly Stornoway. He saw how little the island had changed from the ‘primitive’ crofting (farming) culture he’d experienced on his first visit 33 years earlier. He envisioned new fishing fleets, ports, processing centres, chemical plants, and power stations connected by rail and road. And with the building of avenues, garden suburbs and an art gallery, there would be a cultural revolution too.

Despite local support, there was resistance, particularly from crofters returning from World War I who believed Leverhulme’s vision threatened their traditional way of life. Skirmishes ensued, with “land raiders” occupying Leverhulme’s farms. The government eventually intervened in 1922, taking over the farms and dividing them into new crofts. Leverhulme’s social experiment faced challenges, and due to poor business fortunes and conflicts, he abandoned it in 1923. His final grand gesture was gifting Lews Castle and estates to the people of Lewis.

Our ferry being delayed gave us an extra hour. We walked around Stornoway’s town centre, which was quite small, then returned to the port for our departure to Ullapool.

The ferry crossing was rough. At one point, having eaten some snacks and drank some coffee, I went to the deck. I was tossed about so much that I quickly returned to my seat and felt nauseous until my stomach settled.

Whilst up on deck, I did see several German frigates. Puzzled by their presence in the Outer Hebrides, I later learnt that they were taking part in a UK NATO exercise, which had started from King George V dock, Glasgow.

When we reached Ullapool, it was getting dark. The clocks had changed to GMT from BST. We drove in the dark to Fort William, for our final night in Scotland.

Leave a Reply