Last edited 21 Jan 2021

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Institute of Historic Building Conservation Institute / association Website

Lord Leverhulme on Lewis and Harris

After a generation of uncertainty, Lews Castle has been reinvented as a new cultural and heritage hub for the Isles of Lewis and Harris (which together form a single island).

Lews Castle.jpg
The new museum and archive building links to a glass-roofed courtyard within the castle which includes a café and shop (Photo: Susan Rabé).



The industrialist, colonialist, politician and philanthropist William Hesketh Lever, 1st Viscount Leverhulme (1851–1925), was most famous for creating Lever Brothers and founding the model industrial village of Port Sunlight, a fine example of English town planning and house design named after his famous brand Sunlight Soap. His endeavours as proprietor of Lewis and Harris between 1918 and his death in 1925 are probably less well known.

At the age of 67, the phenomenal wealth he had amassed enabled Leverhulme to underwrite his venture into Highland landlordism. He negotiated the purchase of the Isle of Lewis (400,000 acres, inhabited by 30,000 people), including the pseudo-Tudor Lews Castle, with Colonel Duncan Matheson between August 1917 and May 1918. The agreed purchase price was £143,000. In 1919 Leverhulme bought the adjoining Isle of Harris (a further 170,000 acres, home to a population of 4,750) for £56,000. South Harris was sold to him by the Earl of Dunmore and North Harris by Sir Samuel Scott. This purchase made him the biggest private landowner in Britain at that time.

Lews Castle, overlooking the harbour, became his base in Stornoway. Leverhulme wanted to use his vast wealth and experience as an industrialist to address the socio-economic problems that faced the islanders after the traumatic losses of the first world war.

Leverhulme had found a project to occupy his mind in semi-retirement. He planned to revolutionise Lewis and its 30,000 inhabitants, by reviving and modernising the fishing industry which had flourished in the 1800s. Stornoway had been the major herring port in Britain in the 1870s. Exploiting the abundant marine resources would regenerate the island as a thriving centre for fishing. He planned to improve the port and attract fish landings from visiting vessels, along with his own fleet of modern trawlers and drifters. Construction on a state-of-the-art cannery and an ice plant was begun to process the catch. Spotter planes would be deployed to search for shoals of herring, and refrigerated holds would reach mainland railheads ensuring that the catch was fresh when it reached his new MacFisheries chain of fishmongers. New roads and even a railway would be constructed to improve connections between the East (Minch) and West (Atlantic) sides of the islands.

Stornoway would be reinvented as the ‘Venice of the North’. Leverhulme intended to sweep away old, unsanitary housing, constructing imposing beaux-arts-style avenues cutting against the grain of the old grid pattern and creating garden suburbs. A new war memorial, town hall and art gallery were included in the development vision.

Leverhulme’s plans to develop the fishing industry in Lewis and Harris were welcomed by many; his improvement schemes provided much needed jobs after the war. However, some doubted that his ambitious plan to revive the fishing industry would succeed. People remembered past times when the fishing failed. When that happened, they always had the land to fall back on.

Economic realities

Leverhulme’s grand scheme, while aimed at relieving the life of the crofters on the island, took little account of the reality of their lives. What the crofters most needed was casual work to supplement their subsistence farming; what was proposed was regular employment in an industrial process. They did not want to be dependent on any landlord, even a millionaire philanthropist, for their livelihood, and most preferred to take control of their own destiny.

Leverhulme was keen to reform housing in the islands, and he condemned the vernacular Lewis blackhouse as an unsanitary anachronism. In Lewis around the turn of the century 80 per cent of dwellings were still of the blackhouse type, which were regarded by government inspectors as unfit for human habitation. These traditional thatched buildings, thought to have derived from Viking long houses, were well adapted to the harsh Hebridean climate. Built with double dry-stone walls packed with earth, they were very solid and very low, with tiny windows to protect the inhabitants from the weather. In Lewis they often incorporated a byre to shelter livestock and had a central peat fire perpetually making the interior smoky but cosy. The name ‘blackhouse’ was used to distinguish the older-style house from the newer ‘white-houses’ which had harled (roughrendered) walls.

A number of global and local factors beyond Leverhulme’s control conspired to wreck his development plans. The old markets across the North Sea to St Petersburg had been closed due to the war and the Russian Revolution in 1917. They did not revive. After the war the market for fish, including salt-cured herring, declined in Britain and was not strong enough to drive that part of Leverhulme’s plan forward. Poor business decisions made in Nigeria significantly dented the finances of Lever Brothers, impacting the flow of money for investment in island projects, resulting in revisions, delays and setbacks.

Despite the growing tensions, Leverhulme spent over £1 million in Lewis. Two model housing schemes were built in Stornoway, one on Matheson Road and another on Anderson Road, to house Leverhulme’s managers and employees. New roads were built in Lewis: a concrete bridge, now known as the Bridge to Nowhere, was constructed in Tolsta as part of a scheme to create a coastal road linking Tolsta to Ness at the north tip of the island. The road was never completed.

At a local level, there was a deep land hunger, lack of employment and opportunity. Although many appreciated the construction work that Leverhulme was offering, the land issue began to divide the community. The impact of the first world war on Lewis and Harris was devastating. From a population of 35,000, around 7,000 went to war. More than 1,100 men from Lewis and Harris lost their lives in the conflict. Another 201 souls, including 174 from Lewis and seven men from Harris, were lost within sight of Stornoway Harbour when HMY Iolaire was wrecked on the Beasts of Holm on 1 January 1919. These overwhelming events compounded the pressure for land reform.

Fit for heroes

Leverhulme found himself in conflict with the returning servicemen who had been promised ‘a land fit for heroes’ by the government; they had no alternative but to protest when this promise was not met. Leverhulme was not a supporter of crofting and failed to understand that it was a way of living, not an occupation. He was furious when some of these landless men illegally occupied his farmland. The government refused to take action against the ‘raiders’, which deeply upset Leverhulme. He finally decided to cut his losses and abandon his improvement schemes in Lewis, resulting in many islanders emigrating to Canada, America and Patagonia in the 1920s.

Although wounded by his failure in Lewis, rather than doing what most landlords do when things do not work out and selling up on the open market, Leverhulme made a grand gesture. In a public announcement he offered the castle and his Lewis estates to the people of the Parish of Stornoway. They accepted his remarkable gift and in 1923 the Stornoway Trust was set up to manage the new public estate on behalf of the community.

Leverhulme retreated to Borve Lodge in Harris, where he continued his improvement initiatives and fishing strategy in Harris at the village of Obbe, which was renamed Leverburgh in his honour. He continued to support development in Harris, building a hotel, roads, and houses and cottages for his workers; improving the harbour; developing fish processing; and buying the whaling station at Bunavoneadar, Harris.

He fell ill following a trip to his enterprises in Africa, and he died of pneumonia at his home in Hampstead, London, in 1925. Thirty thousand people attended his funeral where he is buried in the narthex of Christ Church in Port Sunlight. Following this, Lever brothers cut all ties with Harris and set about selling the estates still in his ownership. His descendants retained the title Viscount of the Western Isles, but that is all they thought to keep.

Leverhulme’s gift

Lews Castle is a Category A listed mansion house, set in a historic designed landscape overlooking the town of Stornoway. Constructed between 1848 and 1860, the castellated mansion house was designed by Glasgow architect Charles Wilson for 19th-century tea and opium trader Sir James Matheson. When Leverhulme acquired the castle from the Matheson family in 1918, he made some minor internal changes, installing an electric generator, telephones and central heating, and adding more bathrooms. An enthusiastic dancer, he altered the interior to create a ballroom, adding ionic columns and an Adam-style ceiling by Ernest Prestwich (assistant to Leverhulme’s head architect JL Simpson). Leverhulme hosted famous visitors, and invitations to events at the castle were eagerly sought.

Initially Stornoway Trust hired out the building to wealthy tenants. During the second world war it was requisitioned as a naval hospital and as accommodation for the air and ground crew of 700 Naval Air Squadron, which operated a detachment of amphibious biplanes from Cuddy Point slipway in the castle grounds. In the 1950s the trust sold the building to Ross and Cromarty Council, and it was purposed first as a college for navigation and marine engineering, then as a secondary school. Following local government reorganisation in 1975, the castle became the responsibility of the Western Isles Council (Comhairle nan Eilean Siar) and it continued to be used for educational purposes until structural problems were discovered in the ‘80s. By the late ‘90s the castle was unoccupied, a poignant reminder of Leverhulme’s unfulfilled development plans for the islands.

After a generation of uncertainty, and time spent on the Buildings at Risk Register, the Lews Castle vision has become a reality. The building has been reinvented as a new cultural and heritage hub for the islands. The years since 1923 have been problematic, but by restoring the castle, the islanders have finally delivered a project that is an embodiment of heritage and modernity coming together to bring life to a cherished building, landscape and community.

Identifying an economically sustainable end use for the castle was a vital requirement in securing external funding for the project, which combines heritage development, public access to a major historic environment asset, and top-quality hospitality and accommodation facilities. In March 2017 the development was officially opened by Scotland’s first minister, Nicola Sturgeon.

A feasibility study identified that developing the building into a hotel, museum and cultural centre would ensure the most economically and culturally beneficial future for the building and its grounds. The castle restoration was part of a £19.5 million partnership project involving funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund, Scottish Government, European Regional Development Fund, Highlands and Islands Enterprise and Bòrd na Gàidhlig. A modern annexe has been added to house Museum nan Eilean (Museum of the Islands) and the islands’ first archive facility.

The first phase of external repairs was completed in 2013, enabling the restoration of the external stone work and fabric. The second phase saw the ground floor rooms renovated to their former gothic-revival glory, including new hand-painted walls and plasterwork.

The renovation of the upper floors of the castle respected and in many cases reinstated much of the original room layout, with planning permission and listed building consent conditions imposed to protect and retain original features such as Sir James Matheson’s safe, fireplaces, doors, windows, cornicing, skirting, ironmongery and wallpaper. Non-original partitions were removed to create well-proportioned rooms.

Twenty-three bedrooms were designed in a flexible configuration of individual suites and apartments, retaining the castle’s unique layout and blending traditional features with contemporary boutique hotel style. The space in the castle has been leased to hospitality company Natural Retreats.

The new extension, which holds the museum and archive, was designed by award-winning architects Malcolm Fraser Associates. Established museum consultants Redman Design created the integrated interpretation and gallery layouts. Six of the famous Lewis Chessmen are on long-term loan from the British Museum and take pride of place as the showpiece exhibits in the new building inspired by the castle’s former glasshouses.

Leverhulme would have been impressed by the spirit and determination of the islanders in rising to the challenge he gave them, securing his legacy for generations to come.

Further reading

  • Buchanan, Joni (1998) The Lewis Land Struggle: Na Gaisgich, Acair.
  • Hutchinson, Roger (2003) The Soap Man: Lewis, Harris and Lord Leverhulme, Birlinn.
  • Nicolson, Nigel (1960) Lord of the Isles: Lord Leverhulme in the Hebrides, Weidenfeld and Nicolson.

This article originally appeared as ‘Lord Leverhulme’s Hebridean experiment’ in IHBC's Context 158 (Page 25), published in March 2019. It was written by Susan Rabé, a planning officer at Comhairle nan Eilean Siar, the Western Isles Council.

--Institute of Historic Building Conservation

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