When people now come to visit the renovated Castle in Stornoway, and admire both it and the extensive woodland that surrounds it, they will no doubt not be aware of where Sir James Matheson really wanted to build his Lewis home and base. Obviously he was struck by the superior views he found elsewhere!
Apparently local Church records show that when Sir James bought the island of Lewis at the end of 1843, he had a very strong desire to build his castle on the Keose Glebe.
The church authorities however, and indeed the local community were at ‘war’ at the time, following the disruption of the church earlier that year, with the creation of the ‘Free Church’, and the departure of the Rev. Robert Finlayson and the congregation from the church at Keose. So the church authorities would not agree to sell, and Sir James settled on the ‘Gearraidh Cruaidh’ in Stornoway instead.
Despite being turned down in this way, the local area still contributed significantly to the building of Matheson’s new castle and town. Apparently much of the stone used in its construction came from the Loch Erisort area, where ships would sail down from Stornoway and pick up the most convenient rock they could find. Seumas Cleit at the mouth of the Loch was a primary source.
The ordnance survey records that:
“There are on it [Seumas Cleit] a hut and two quarries. A considerable portion of stone used in the building of Lewis castle has been taken from this island.”
And there are many shipping records that show this trade. E.g. The Inverness Courier – 2nd October, 1856:
Sept 14 – [The] Phoenix From Lochs for Stornoway Stones [Captain] Mackenzie
In addition, Alex Murdo Macleod wrote that John Macdonald (Iain Dhomhnuill Bhan) of (12) Keose was a:
“…skipper of a cargo boat belonging to a Stornoway merchant. The boat was used to convey stones from the shores of Loch Erisort for the building of the Court House and former jail in Lewis Street, Stornoway. On his final voyage to Stornoway with a cargo of stones, and with John Macdon-ald at the helm near the mouth of Loch Erisort a crew member cried out “Tha sgeir romhad!” “Bha i riamh ann!” John replied.
The boat was a total loss, but no lives were lost. The above saying can still be heard locally.”
Those responsible for gathering the stone do not seem to have been too fussy where the stone came from, and it is said that this was when much of the stone at Dun Varclin at the Glebe end was removed.
It has also been suggested that other buildings around Swordale were removed at that time, but again, we cannot confirm this.
To the people of the Free Church, the continuing existence of the established ‘congregation,’ and the use of the glebe by successive ministers was a festering sore in the minds of many local people, and an issue of conflict and dispute in the parish for almost a hundred years
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