A Castle in the Hebrides

By David Kessler

In this Installment: Shopkeepers of Ullapool.  Ferry to the Isles.  Some Castle history.  I'm in!  Souvenirs.  "You don't say."

In the mid 19th century, the Matheson family built a castle in the town of Stornoway on the Hebridean Isle of Lewis.  It's not the imposing mott and bailey design of the middle ages but more of a huge stone manor house with crenellations, gargoyles, small peaks and towers, and other homages to castledom.  It stands on top of a rise at the West end of the harbor and bay, with a good view of the surrounding areas, both land and ocean, and makes quite a sight for the traveler not expecting to see a castle as he slowly pulls into the harbor.

My decision to visit Lewis was based on symmetry more than on a knowledge of what was there; I had planned a week of mountains and I wanted to balance it with a week of water.  Lewis jumped out at me from the map and that was that.  Most people hearing my plans said that I would be bored, that there is nothing on Lewis.  No one mentioned the castle, focusing instead on how slow and uninspiring the pace of life there is and on how far away it was from my mountains.  Fortunately, I ignored them and set out on the long trip north.

I traveled by bus to Ullapool (the U pronounced like the u in "sea gull"), arriving with enough time to buy my ferry ticket for Stornoway, and have half an hour to wander before the boat came in.  I stashed my pack in the transport office and went out to see the town.

Despite being on the West Coast of the Scottish highlands, Ullapool's harbor is protected from the severest waves and wind by the hills flanking Loch Broom.  Any waves that want to come into town must travel this narrow channel which happily is deep enough to permit ships of any draft.  The result is a safe harbor for fishing boats and large cruise ships alike.  But Ullapool hasn't let this go to its head; it remains a quiet port town with a small residential area on the north side (away from the harbor) and a small commercial area by the docks.  This latter section consists of 2 streets running parallel to each other and to the shoreline that gently slopes up to perhaps 50 feet above sea level, and a few short roads running the short distance between these 2 streets.  Once you ignore the tourist nick-nack shops, Boots Pharmacy, and Edinburgh Woolens Factory store that never differ significantly from their counterparts in the rest of the country, you find a pleasant town that can be largely seen while waiting for the evening ferry to arrive.

After checking out the local bookstore, I headed down an alley with a sign marked "Antiques" where I found a yard and garage filled with partially restored furniture, old bottles and barometers, and some books, photographs, and miscellaneous other items native to antique shops.  I was looking through a shoebox of old postcards when one of the owners asked me if I were a collector.  I replied no, that I was simply an enthusiast.  I consider the difference to be largely in the price the two types are willing to pay for an interesting example, and when I defined it this way she agreed, and noted that she didn't have any collector-priced postcards.  Of course, she added, she would find some if I wanted, with a smile that meant she could re-price anything I wanted, to make it fit for a collector.  Another person there (with a good Scottish accent) heard the joke and remarked that this was the Highlander in her talking.  We all had a good laugh over this bit of cultural fun, which could just as naturally have taken place in New England, with "Yankee Trader" substituted for "Highlander".

Up the hill from the antique shop was a store with some very nice Celtic and historic artwork, which I bought some of when I returned from Lewis a few days later.  The store sign said "Leather Goods" (the principal material of its merchandise) and had a sandwich board just outside its front door that said, "Meet the Animals".  When the visions this conjured slowed enough for me to stop laughing and read the smaller print below, I found that it was advertising a local zoo of highland animals, and was not connected to the store it stood in front of.  I pointed out this joke to the store owner, who agreed that it was a funny juxtaposition, and said it made him think of Douglas Adams' banquet scene at the Restaurant at the End of the Universe, where the roast introduces itself and offers a slice from its haunch to diners.  We talked for a while, and then I returned to the docks and boarded the evening ferry.

The Calydonian MacBrae (or "CalMac") ferry line is the main ferry service in the Scottish Highlands, and to some islands has a complete monopoly.  This allows them to charge rates that while fine for the visitor are overly expensive for the regular customer, particularly if you want to take your car with you.  I was surprised to find out that locals do not receive any discount, and sympathetic a few days later on Lewis when I read in the local paper how the owner of a large trucking company was so angry at Calydonian MacBrae for not giving him a price break that he was making a bid to buy the company.  We'll see what happens; The 59 cost of taking a car one way to Lewis is exorbitant, even before you add on fees for its passengers, and is more likely to go down than up with new management.  But I didn't know about any of this as I boarded.

I immediately set to exploring the boat, as I had always done as a kid on ferry trips to Martha's Vineyard.  The Isle of Lewis ferry is smaller than the Islander ferry that runs out of Woods Hole, Massachusetts, but not by much.  Above the level holding cars were 3 decks, a small newsstand, a play space for kids (with large padded blocks to climb on, some of which went halfway up to the ceiling), a cafeteria, and a bar.  The sternmost sections of the upper 2 decks were open and not surprisingly, were cold and wet.  Most of my fellow passengers were locals who had made the trip many times before, so they wisely and calmly stayed below and left the smaller, uppermost deck and its weather to me.  All alone in the wind and cold mist I had a beautiful view of the crossing with no one to tell me I wasn't king of all I surveyed.  The water turned gray-blue, and layers of mist and rain made the small jagged islands and far off peaks that lined the horizons to each side of our path into long horizontal rows of shadowy shapes that were rocky silhouettes at close range, and became progressively grayer and more veiled with distance.

The entire passage took 2 hours and in all that time there were only 3 small fishing boats in the offing to tell me that this stretch of water was not the entrance to Brigadoon, but a well traveled stretch of ocean.  The wind was strong but not too harsh, and came from ENE; the waves were never more than about 3 feet tall.  I stood in the shelter of a metal structure that was topped with the CalMac flag, and a flood light, jotting a few notes, and laughing at myself for being the only person on board foolish enough to stay out in the rain.

With the exception of the ferry terminal, Stornoway's harbor has a 19th century skyline.  Nothing is more than 3 or 4 stories tall, and the overall effect could make a convincing backdrop for a Charles Dickens movie.  The castle sits slightly above and beyond this scene, but just close enough to appear part of the cluster of buildings when seen from the ferry's approach.  It's large-scale design, uniform stone color, and thin, crenellated towers make it jump out at you from among the short, smaller buildings all painted different colors.  I had no idea there was a castle on Lewis, and knew I had to explore it before leaving.  A miscommunication with the fellow who took me surfing one afternoon provided the free time to explore both the castle and its grounds on my last full day on the Island.

Stornoway castle is a beautiful structure set on large and lavish grounds.  James Matheson made his fortune in the British opium trade of the 1830's, and spent much of this drug money on shipping soil and plants to Lewis to create the proper setting for his castle.  He also spent a great deal of money helping the island's inhabitants through the famines of the 19th century.  He owned the island, after all.

The castle had one more owner - Lord Leverhulme - before being given to the people of Stornoway.  It was used as a naval hospital during World War II, then as the home of Lewis Castle College until the mid 1970's.  It then became the Lewis Castle School until 1988 when it was closed due to structural faults.  It is currently condemned and boarded up, so visiting it basically consists of walking around it, appreciating it's gargoyles, towers, and facades, and then moving on to its fantastic grounds.

I made my way up the small hill and walked around the castle appreciating all its details, and wishing that I could find some way of getting inside that didn't involve trying to climb up the shaky metal pipe that ran down one of its back corners.

After making a complete circuit of the castle, photographing a few of its elements, and looking at the large, nonfunctioning cannon that would point downhill toward the harbor were it not completely engulfed by a rhododendron bush the size of several school buses, I found myself standing in front of a boarded up doorway that I thought looked interesting.  I took a close look and found it was unlocked and only a little stuck.  I checked to see if anyone was around, and then slipped inside.  I saw black and white floor tiles just inside and stone walls as I pulled the door shut behind me, and paused to listen and let my eyes adjust before moving from the small space behind the door into the body of the castle.  I was in!

The interior was in various states of disrepair and it was obvious that at some point in the past someone had begun a renovating process - or at least had done some work to preserve certain features for whenever the castle is restored.  I was later told that the cost of a full restoration has been estimated at 10 million pounds.  Some walls had been stripped down to bare stone, or to wooden support beams and slats, while others had some plaster, and others still were in perfect condition.  Perfect condition meant salmon colored plaster walls with thin pieces of white mounding forming sections or large rectangular patterns.  Ceilings were darker with white molding forming a sort of mock vaulting, or were completely white and level, with large geometric designs in relief.  The floor was thin and unsafe in some areas, and I walked with a very careful step so that I might recognize these spots without falling through them.

I spent a good bit of time exploring the ground and second floors, but no others; the third floor was too unsafe to chance, and the basement was more of a dungeon.  It's better to stay in the light than to curse the darkness, and I didn't have my flashlight on hand as I had set out before noon and hadn't realized that I would be breaking into a castle.  If there's a lesson to be learned in all this (beyond the fact that sometimes whimsy is rewarded), it's to always ask oneself "might I be exploring a dungeon today?" before heading out.

I thoroughly explored the ballrooms, the side rooms, and the "NOTHING IS TO BE REMOVED FROM THIS ROOM", which held a collection of good plaster moldings removed from the walls and ceilings for safekeeping.

I wanted a souvenir, so I set up the remote on my camera and took a picture of myself next to a fireplace mantle that was ornamented with some particularly good plasterwork.  Then I noticed the schematic drawing of the ground floor, complete with location arrow ("you are here"), thoughtfully drafted and posted by Comhairle Nan Eilean, Technical Services Architecture.  The xeroxed plan was stuck to the wall with a few pieces of old masking tape, and was of no use to anyone in a condemned building.  I folded it neatly in quarters, and tucked it within my shirt, thinking that that way I could be discovered and ordered to empty my pockets without it being found (some adventures put me in a more paranoid mind than others, I guess).

Back at my door, I listened and then peeked out of a crack.  I heard and saw no one so I quickly slipped out, closed the door, and backed away while looking up at the towers and nodding.  My hope was that if anyone saw me they would assume I had just taken a closer look at the outside of the building.

Just as I reached a safe distance (safe for plausible deniability, I mean) a family of 5 came around the corner, kids first.  They were looking for the cannon, so I pointed out the overgrown hedge it was behind and they bounded off toward it as the parents came into view.  The father had lived in Stornoway for 8 years and had been in the castle many years earlier when he was affiliated with the university.  He pointed out various features of the building and then said that it was a pity he couldn't go inside and give me a tour.  If he hadn't been with his children I might have told him my secret, but no father in his right mind would take his kids into a building so unsafe.  So as he gestured and said things like "Over here is the kitchen, and behind this wall is the ballroom, which really was impressive" I held my tongue, nodded, and said "uh-huh" and "mmm" a lot.

When he mentioned that the best view of the harbor was from the roof of the castle, I considered going back in after he was out of sight, but then he told me one other important point: The castle had an alarm system that was only shut off when the caretaker was making his irregular rounds.  This meant that either the alarm (which I had seen, but not investigated closely) was not, in fact, used, or else that the caretaker and I had missed each other on our respective routes, like a comic scene out of an old movie.

I decided to count my blessings and move on to the castle grounds, where I had other adventures.



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