Renewal Lewis

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The Attempted Renewal of Lewis & Harris

Massive changes took place in British society during Queen Victoria's long reign on the throne - but they made the gap between rich and poor wider than ever.

While many industrialists from south of the border made an absolute fortune in their mills and factories and treated Scotland as a holiday playground, Highlanders continued to suffer from centuries-old problems of poverty and deprivation.

However, at least some of the Highlanders' difficulties were of their own making. They were a proud but stubborn people who were sometimes resistant to change, and whose desire for land on occasions blinded them as to the best way of making progress.

Two remarkable Victorian businessmen attempted to bring new wealth and prosperity to the Hebrides, but found their efforts destroyed by the economics of trying to invest in this remote and windswept island chain.

In 1844, Lewis was bought outright by Sir James Matheson, who was a partner in the famous trading and financial company Jardine Matheson. Matheson believed that his purchase brought responsibilities as well as rights.

He tried to improve the standard of living for the islanders by building new roads, establishing a new ferry service and turning peat bogs into cultivatable land.

Matheson also attempted to boost the local economy by bringing modern industries to the island. He set up a fish curing factory, built a brickworks and encouraged local boat building.

His most innovative idea, however, was to set to a process to turn the local peat into oil. The idea worked and led to a flourishing industry for a time. However, the production process was relatively expensive and once oil was discovered in North America in the 1870s, the project became uneconomic and was abandoned.

By the time he died in 1878, Matheson had spent more than #500,000 improving an island he had bought for just #190,000.

Just a few years after Matheson's death, in 1884, another young entrepreneur paid a visit to the Hebrides for the first time. The Lancashire-born industrialist William Hesketh Lever - later Lord Leverhulme - took a holiday on a steamer and fell in love with Lewis.

Despite Matheson's attempts at benevolence, the islands were still going through a tough time. A report had just been published into crofting conditions, exposing the problems which the area faced. Lever saw the problems for himself, and recognised that there was a real challenge to be faced in bringing dignity and prosperity to the area.

It was to be many years before he was able to put his vision for the Hebrides into practice. In May 1918, the then-ennobled Leverhulme bought Lewis from the descendants of Sir James Matheson.

Leverhulme had paid another visit to Lewis and neighbouring Harris the previous year, and discovered that crofting was still has primitive as it had been on his first visit 33 years earlier.

Once again, the challenge of helping develop the island economy while at the same time creating an estate for himself appealed. This time, however, he had made and secured his fortune in business, and could afford the time and money to do it.

By 1919, he had also bought huge tracts of Harris, making him the largest landowner in Scotland. But, unlike many rich Englishmen buying estates in Scotland, Leverhulme was not interested in simply holding land for its own sake and for its use for sporting pursuits.

He was driven by the idea of turning the traditional crofting and fishing community into a modern industrially-based enterprise making money from the island's natural assets - principally the fish in the sea which surrounded it.

"Lewis and Harris", he said, "have long been the Cinderella in the government pantomime". He denied he was a philanthropist, claiming instead that he wanted to see his ventures succeed for their own sake as businesses.

His investment was massive. Leverhulme decided to organise the previously haphazard sale of the local fishing catch by creating a centralised distribution and sale outlet. He did this by setting up the MacFisheries chain, which went on to flourish across Britain.

He built a canning factory for exporting the fish and a separate ice plant for keeping it fresh. Stornoway harbour was improved to allow an extension of the industry.

On Harris, Lever improved the harbour at a small township called Obbe on the south of the island. He planned to establish an important fishing port there, and once again put an infrastructure in place around the harbour. He also renamed the little community Leverburgh.

However, his interests in improving the local economy went far beyond fishing. Leverhulme built roads across the islands, carried out experiments in land reclamation, and investigated the possibility of basket making. He also bought a controlling interest in the local tweed industry, and attempted to encourage crofters to use more efficient means of spinning.

Leverhulme also had grand plans for Stornoway. He made Lews Castle in the town his home, and entertained there most summers. He also drew up plans to make the community one of the most beautiful and well laid out in Scotland - even promising that if his scheme cost the council money, he would willingly make up the shortfall.

As ever, Leverhulme quickly translated his words into actions. He renovated the local gasworks, built an electricity plant to bring light to the town, and constructed a steam laundry.

He never thought his schemes would make fortunes, but felt they could produce a modest return and at the same time give the islanders both an income and dignity. He quickly became popular locally, and his good intentions were never questioned.

However, it did not take long for his grand scheme to begin to unravel. Leverhulme's first obstacle came only months after he had taken over Lewis, when he fell foul of laws which, ironically, were also designed to help the islanders by strengthening their crofting rights.

Under legislation, the government had the power to take over farms to break them up into crofts. But Leverhulme wanted some of the farms to stay intact in order to supply Stornoway with milk, for which the town was otherwise dependant on the mainland.

However, the Board of Agriculture and Scottish Office both insisted that the farms be broken up: as local men arrived back from fighting in the First World War, the need for smallholdings was greater than ever.

The issue came to a head when a gang of local crofting applicants seized a field belonging to one of the farms and threatened to take the rest. The lawlessness quickly spread, with villagers starting to dig up another field for themselves and then driving the sheep out.

As the trouble spread, Leverhulme rushed to the scene, promising the local men work on a road project but warning that if the seizures continued, he would seriously consider stopping his development work.

The disturbances stopped for a time, but the underlying problem did not go away. The Scottish Office agreed to give him 10 years to prove the success of his schemes, and in January 1921 he started his developments again.

However, an economic slump quickly followed forced Leverhulme to cut back on his investment programme. The government almost immediately announced that the moratorium was over and the farms would be broken up.

The devastated industrialist decided he could no longer carry on. Even in defeat, however, he was not bitter: he offered all his land in and around Stornoway, including Lews Castle, to locals for free, and even said he would hand over his land in the rest of the islands for crofting purposes.

The Stornoway offer was gratefully accepted, but, ironically, the crofting suggestion was turned down because the rates would have been too high.

The experiment was over. The people of Lewis had defeated Leverhulme, but they had also defeated themselves, as many were then forced to emigrate to America to make a living for themselves.

Undeterred, the industrialist continued his development project on neighbouring Harris. When he died in May 1925, a blast on the Leverburgh siren announced his death to the workers.

Unfortunately, the end of the man meant the end of his scheme. His executors quickly abandoned the development plan. The care, money and attention lavished on the Hebrides by this most benevolent and imaginative of Englishmen had, at the end of the day, all come to nothing.


Meanwhile...

  • 1923 Willy Messerschmitt establishes his aircraft factory
  • 1919 The German battle fleet is scuttled at Scapa Flow

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