A Historical Overview
The Norse domination of the Hebrides lasted from about 800 to 1266 AD. The old castle of Stornoway, whose ruins were finally demolished in 1882, was originally built around 1300 by the Nicolsons who were themselves of Norse origin.
From about the beginning of the 14th century, the island was under the control of the Macleod’s of Lewis also known as ‘Siol Torquil’ (‘Torquil’s Seed’).
Their 300-year stewardship reads like a particularly gory soap opera; local clan feuds, various rebellions and a final last grasp for power by family rivals which ultimately led to their near extinction and the loss of their possessions.
In 1598, the ‘Fife Adventurers’, a group of lowland gentry and farmers were sent to Lewis by James VI to plant a colony but this venture was ultimately unsuccessful and in 1610, the Mackenzie’s of Kintail (later of Seaforth) acquired the island. In 1607, the king granted Stornoway the rights and privileges of a burgh of barony. In 1628, Colin 1st Earl of Seaforth applied to Charles I for a charter that would raise the town’s status to that of a royal burgh. The king agreed but the Convention of Scottish Burghs rejected it on the grounds that it would threaten the trade of Inverness and Tain; so consequently the charter was cancelled. The town became a police burgh in 1863.
The Seaforth family held possession of Lewis until 1844 when Lady Hood Mackenzie sold the island to James Matheson of Achany (1796-1878) for £190,000.
Matheson was a native of Lairg in Sutherland and had made his fortune in China and the Far East. Sir James (he was created a baronet in 1851) put some of his money into developing the town but his lasting legacy is undoubtedly the magnificent baronial pile that is the Lews Castle (1847-52) along with its beautiful grounds. In 1918, Duncan Matheson, Sir James’s great nephew, sold the island to the soap baron, William Hesketh Lever, 1st Viscount Leverhulme (1851-1925), for £143,000. In 1923, Leverhulme gifted the burgh and parish of Stornoway to its people and thus the Stornoway Trust, one of the oldest community owned estates in Scotland, came into being.
In 1975, the old Town Council disappeared as part of local government reforms and a single-tier local authority for the Western Isles was finally established.
Over the last millennium, Stornoway has developed from its Viking origins to be at various times a medieval castle, a colonial settlement, a Cromwellian fortification, a major fishing port and the centre of the Harris Tweed industry.
Today Stornoway is a diverse and bustling little town which attracts visitors from all over the world who sample our unique culture, language, and history.