The Seaforth Mackenzies
King James VI granted ownership of Lewis to the Mackenzies of Kintail in 1610. By about 1680, Lord Seaforth had established his estate house, Seaforth Lodge, on the Gearraidh Chruaidh, an area of rough sheiling ground on the west side of Stornoway harbour. Parts of this original building can still be seen within the stripped out walls of the mezzanine at the rear of the present Castle.
The last male descendant of the Mackenzies of Kintail was Francis, Earl of Seaforth, who died in 1815 and in 1844 the Lewis Estate was sold to James Matheson.
Lews Castle has many tales to tell about the history of the island – and a fine cast of colourful characters with which to tell them.
Sir James Matheson
James Matheson was born in Lairg, Sutherland and co-founded the Jardine Matheson company in Canton in 1832. Having made his fortune from the Chinese Opium trade, he returned to Scotland and, in 1844, purchased the Island of Lewis from the Mackenzie Trustees for £190,000.
Matheson commissioned the renowned architect Charles Wilson to design his new island residence on the site of the Mackenzies’ Seaforth Lodge. Building work started in 1847 and the £60,000 project took seven years to complete. A further £49,000 was spent on transforming the rough grazing land around the new Castle into extensive woodlands and private gardens. The temperate climate and shelter from the initial planting of hardy species, created ideal growing conditions for a wide range of native and imported species. A large conservatory complex, added in 1875 by Alex Sutherland, housed a host of more exotic and delicate species.
The creation of the Castle Grounds involved the clearance of tenants and the re-routing of public roads, which did not endear the new proprietor to the local population. To balance this, it must be noted that during his period of ownership, Sir James Matheson provided employment, funded famine relief and many other social and economic projects for the benefit of the island community.
On his death in 1878 the estate fell to his widow Lady Mary Jane Matheson and subsequently to his nephew Donald and grand-nephew Colonel Duncan Matheson. For financial reasons the Lewis estate and the Castle were put on the market in 1917.
William Hesketh Lever was born in Bolton, Lancashire, in 1851 and built up the Lever Bros/Unilever conglomerate. Having first seen the Hebrides on a vacation cruise in 1884, he bought the Isle of Lewis in 1918 for £143,000 and a year later acquired the Isle of Harris. In little over three years, Leverhulme spent some £2million on industrialisation schemes, largely based on fishing, which he believed would transform the economic and social conditions in the islands.
Leverhulme had ambitious plans for Stornoway and commissioned the artist Raffles Davison to draw up his future vision of the town. This, incidentally, included a bridge linking the harbour at Bayhead to the Castle Grounds.
Leverhulme gave the Castle electric lighting, central heating, numerous bathrooms and intercom telephones. An enthusiastic dancer, he extended the ballroom by combining it with an adjacent drawing room. He hosted many famous visitors and invitations to balls at the Castle were eagerly sought.
In 1923 Lord Leverhulme gifted Lews Castle and 64,000 acres of land to the people of Stornoway parish and the Stornoway Trust was established to manage this substantial estate on behalf of the community.
Lord Leverhulme’s gift to the community in 1923 specified that Lews Castle should be used for civic purposes and as the official residence of the Provost of Stornoway. However, in the economic circumstances of the 20’s and 30’s, the upkeep of the Castle became a growing problem. The terms of the original Deed were amended and among other uses, the Castle was let with the ‘home shootings and fishings’ to Lord and Lady Portarlington.
During the 1939-45 war, the Castle was requisitioned by the Admiralty and used as a naval hospital. As noted in Peter Cunningham’s excellent booklet on the Castle Grounds” this period of change allowed the woods to degenerate to a wild state and led to the destruction of the splendid glass houses which had housed exotic plants, including a New Zealand tree fern which survived in the open into the 1950’s.”
In the early 1950’s, the Stornoway Trust sold the Castle and about 10 acres of ground to Ross & Cromarty County Council and in 1953, the building became the first home for Lews Castle College.
In 1975, the College came under the remit of the newly created islands council, Comhairle nan Eilean. The Castle continued in educational use up to 1988, when structural problems were discovered and the Lews Castle School had to vacate the building. Following major repairs, the Castle was partially re-occupied for a period in the early 90’s.
In recent years, the Castle Grounds have benefited from major improvements undertaken by the Stornoway Trust. The Millennium Forest Project has enabled large scale clearance of invasive plants, extensive tree planting, re-surfacing of paths, bridge renewals and the building of new sawmill and visitor centre facilities.
The castle is currently the subject of a major feasibility study which will determine the best and most cost effective way to ensure this category A listed building is returned to its former glory.
Lews Castle Trust