The history and archaeology of Stornoway are of particular interest, as it is one of the most poorly understood towns in Scotland. We assume that there was a medieval settlement here, but we know nothing as yet of its nature or extent. However, piecemeal over recent years, we have had tiny glimpses into the past of the town through developments in the Point Street area, which are beginning to give us some idea of what the town looked like in its very early days.
The Prehistory of Stornoway
There was a prehistoric settlement in and around Stornoway, as early as 6,000 years ago. We know this because of the presence of a number of Neolithic and Bronze Age ritual monuments near the town, the largest and best known of which is the Neolithic (c. 4,000 BC) chambered burial cairn at Cnoc na Croich (Gallows Hill), in the grounds of Lews Castle. This cairn, which is about 30m in diameter, had a room inside it, which held the bodies of the dead. In different areas of the country, bodies were treated differently – some were cremated, others exposed to the elements first, then their bones interred in the cairn, whilst yet others were placed in the cairn intact. We don’t know how the dead were treated in this cairn, as all that now remains of the structure is the huge stones of the chamber, with a scatter of smaller cairn stones spread around them.
Loch Airidh na Lic contains the remains of a crannog, which can be seen in the summer when the water level is lower. This is an artificial island, which would have had a house or houses built on top of it. When it was first noticed in 1902, there were wooden logs surviving, though these are no longer visible. It’s likely that, if the buildings were wooden, this crannog might be early prehistoric, from the Neolithic or the Bronze Age, there was more wood available on the islands at that time. This is the only prehistoric settlement that we know of in the area of the town; though, given the number of prehistoric finds and ritual sites, there are likely to be others.
Stornoway in the Iron Age
We know very little about Stornoway between the Bronze Age and the arrival of the Vikings in AD 800, but this period, the Iron Age, is very important in the islands, in forming the modern pattern of settlement and developing the culture that we’re familiar with now.
The first half of the Iron Age was characterised by the construction of ever-more monumental stone buildings, culminating in the brochs, which were high-status, circular, dry-stone towers, and duns. Many of these were built on high places, or on lochs, and the nearest to Stornoway that we know is in Loch Arnish. It is entirely possible that there may have been a broch or dun on the site of the later Stornoway Castle (see below, Medieval Stornoway), but as the site is unfortunately destroyed, we have no surviving evidence of it.
It was in the second half of the Iron Age, probably in the sixth century, but possibly earlier, that Christianity came to the islands. As the population gradually converted to the new faith, they built chapels and churches near where they lived. The church of St Columba, Eaglais na h-Aoidhe, at Aignish, was previously dedicated to a saint of the early church, St Catan, and it is likely that its original foundation dated from this time. Immediately adjacent to the church and cemetery is the site of an Iron Age settlement. It may be that the same pattern applied in the heart of Stornoway, with an early church on the site of the later St Lennan’s, but only excavation could confirm that idea.
Viking & Norse Stornoway
Given its importance as an east coast anchorage, we must assume that there was a Viking settlement in or near Stornoway. Excavated sites in the Western Isles suggest that the Vikings, when they arrived here, probably settled and converted to Christianity relatively rapidly. There may have been violence, but we find little evidence of it, and it is likely that the incomers took over political control, without killing off the majority of the local population.
Lews Castle Grounds once again are the site of the best-known local Viking Age find. A hoard of ‘hack silver’ – bits of silver jewellery and coins cut up to use as currency – was found here (the Shoe Glen) in the 1980s. The coins were dated to the late tenth or early eleventh century, and the hoard may have been deposited around AD 990-1040. Hoards of precious metal were a way of banking money and are common in the Viking Age when international trade (and piracy and raiding) meant a lot of silver was in circulation in the Scandinavian world. The silver was wrapped in a linen cloth and put inside a cow’s horn before being hidden.
Medieval Stornoway was certainly focussed around the site of the castle, which is now under no. 1 pier, having been destroyed in its construction at the end of the 19th century. Plans and photographs of the castle from the 19th century show a simple tower, much ruined as a result of years of fighting, and theft of stone for ballast and construction in the town. We can assume that there would have been a settlement around the castle, but what it would have looked like, we do not know.
The other important building that may have been in or near the settlement is a chapel. Although the church of St Lennan is said to have been built by Colin MacKenzie, 1st Earl of Seaforth, in 1630, the curious Celtic dedication suggests that it was built on the site of an earlier chapel or church. Only future excavation might confirm this.
Excavations for the reservoir of a fountain on Point Street revealed a depth of nearly one metre of archaeological deposits under the street itself. The lowest feature of any note was a small hearth or fireplace built on the gravel of the spit which underlies the street.
The deposits which overlay the hearth seemed to be mainly compact brown-black, layered peaty earths, which one might find in a back yard area, suggesting that the pattern of houses facing out onto the beaches was one that was established early on in the settlement. The cemetery which surrounded St Lennan’s church did not extend this far east. This glimpse of the surviving archaeology of the town, suggests further excavation in this area, or in the adjacent garden, might provide important new evidence about the development of the town.
There is said to have been “a pretty town” in Stornoway, built by the Fife Adventurers, by the beginning of the seventeenth century, augmented later by buildings constructed by Dutch fishermen and English settlers. However, little or nothing survives of that town, partly because of its destruction by Neil MacLeod in his ongoing dispute with the Adventurers, but also because of the construction of a fort in the town by Cromwellian troops in the middle of the century. This fort is best known from a sketched plan that was published in the Stornoway Burgh Survey volume, Historic Stornoway (Dennison and Coleman, 1997). It incorporated some buildings from the town, including a ‘manor’, probably on the site of the present Town Hall, and the church of St Lennan, and shows the site of the castle. Engineering cores taken on Cromwell Street in the 1990s indicate that it is founded on a deep ditch, now full of silt and peat, which may be artificial – this could be one of the defensive ditches of the fort. The fort was built in 1653 but probably demolished when the troops left before the end of the decade.
It seems very likely that the stone of the fort went into many of the buildings which were thereafter constructed along North and South Beaches. Though the first documentary evidence for most of them is 19th century, several, for example, the Lewis Hotel, show signs of having been built in a number of stages and include imported Old Red Sandstone and limestone in their masonry. This has been confirmed by the discovery of two paintings by James Barret loaned to Museum nan Eilean. These date to the end of the 18th century, and show the Point Street area of the town in much its present form, though the majority of the buildings are lower, and plainer than they were in the following century.
Recent excavations in the area behind the Lewis Hotel have confirmed that this area stood open for much of the history of the town. The St Lennan’s cemetery does not appear to have extended this far west, which suggests that it was concentrated around the area of the present Crown Hotel, confirming stories of cemetery disturbance during the construction of the building. The cemetery was also disturbed by renovations on the Pointers building on North Beach, and in the parking lot of the Heb bar.
Surprisingly the walls of the fort were not found during the work on the Lewis Hotel site, though demolition rubble was. This supports the idea that it may have been deliberately demolished by the soldiers as they left or rapidly dismantled for building stone.
There is still clearly a great deal to discover about the history of the town, which can really only be revealed from its archaeology. It may be possible to target particular sites, such as the garden by the Town Hall, which could help us to understand the development of the town from prehistory, to the present day. The archaeology of this area is a precious resource for our understanding of our poorly documented past.
(Reference: Dennison, P. and Coleman, R. (1997) Historic Stornoway: the archaeological implications of development. Scottish Burgh survey series. Edinburgh : Historic Scotland.)
Dr. Mary Macleod
Seirbhis Arc-eolas nan Eilean Siar
(Western Isles Archaeological Service)
*Photographs © William Foulger