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The History of Stornoway

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The land on which Stornoway on the Hebridean Isle of Lewis stands has been settled since perhaps 6000BC, various monuments and sites bearing witness to prehistoric man’s presence there – most notably the Neolithic burial cairn at Gallows Hill. Evidence of a Bronze Age or perhaps earlier crannog (artificial island) has been found on a loch there too.
It is thought that Christianity arrived on Lewis in the 6th century, taking root strongly enough to survive the arrival in the early 9th century of the Vikings : indeed the Vikings who seized control of Lewis seem to have converted to Christianity soon after their arrival. Stornoway itself was founded by the Vikings, its name derived from the Old Norse Stjornavagr, meaning ‘steering bay.’
The Vikings remained in power in Stornoway, their wealth and contact with their homeland demonstrated by the modern find of a coin and jewellery hoard buried in the grounds of Lewis Castle about 1000AD. The Nicolson family (or MacNicols), Lords of Lewis in the early medieval era, were of Viking descent. They built the original Lewis Castle in the early 12th century overlooking Anchor Bay: ironically this was to defend their holdings against a new wave of Scandinavian raiders.
Fishing provided Stornoway and the rest of Lewis with a living even in the early medieval period, as it continued to do so until well into the 20th century and even to a reduced extent today, though it was more subsistence than commercial until the 16th century.
The MacLeods succeeded the Nicolsons as controllers of Lewis in roughly the second half of the 12th century. They and those who followed them maintained the Old Castle built by the Nicolsons for centuries. In 1506 it was however captured by the Earl of Huntly; in 1554 it repelled a siege by the Earl of Argyll .
Control from Edinburgh even in the 16th century was limited as far as Stornoway and Lewis were concerned. James VI regarded the island controlled by the MacLeods as semi-civilised. He made Stornoway a royal borough; in 1594 he granted Dutch fishermen rights there, getting some to settle. Their homes and those of English settlers also attracted by James, and later by Charles I , added to the town that was extended in the early part of the 17th century by the Fife Adventurers.
Charles I sold rights to Lewis’s fishing to English interests, making paupers of many of its native fishermen. In spite of that intervention, the 2nd and 3rd Earls of Seaforth came out for the crown in the Civil Wars and the Commonwealth. An intriguing idea was mooted during the interregnum, when Charles II in exile was urged by some to cede Lewis and other isles to the Dutch, with whom England was at war by 1652. The following year the seizure of crewmembers of the English privateer Fortune in Stornoway precipitated action by Cromwell : Stornoway was taken by Parliamentary forces, and to this day the main street in the town is called Cromwell Street. The castle was damaged by Parliamentary soldiers to render it militarily useless in future.
Though Charles II did not give Lewis to the Dutch, he like his father brought Dutch fishermen there to introduce fishing technology advances.
The name of Mackenzie is synonymous with Stornoway: they controlled it after Cromwell’s intervention; and they produced several famous sons including two great travellers: Cohn Mackenzie, born about 1753, eventual surveyor-general of India; and Sir Alexander Mackenzie who explored the West of Canada. Mackenzie control of the island ended in 1844 when Sir James Matheson purchased it from the family trustees. It was Sir James who built the current Lews Castle .
In WWI Stornoway and Lewis provided in percentage terms more of its population to the conflict than anywhere else in the British Empire. How ironic that having fought for freedom their native island was sold again to another outsider, Lord Leverhulme, in 1918. Leverhulme had great plans for Stornoway, but failed to implement them; in 1923 he gifted his rights to the town to the Stornoway Trust.
During WWII Stornoway was the site of an RAF base for anti-submarine planes; after America’s entry into the war the USAAF used it as a refuelling base for aircraft ferried across the Atlantic. When the conflict ended Stornoway resumed its quiet life, the town and its island most famed perhaps for a determination to keep the Sabbath.

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