Last Thursday, 14 July, I visited Lews Castle which has been opened to the public for the first time in many years. Since the 1980s, the Castle had lain empty and unused, and was slowly falling into disrepair. A few years ago, a £19 million refurbishment programme was started and after many delays, the Castle was opened today.
Lews Castle, the country mansion of erstwhile landowner Sir James Matheson, was built in the middle of the 19th century for £60,000, which equates to £7 million in today's money. His fortunes came from the opium trade with China, something that even sparked a war between China and Great Britain. Sir James is credited with spending £329,000 (about £40m now) on the island of Lewis, with a road building programme and 'improvement'. Sir James's memory is tarnished by assisting 1,771 islanders to leave for Canada, America and Australia. They were removed as unable to pay the rent. The 1851 diary of his chamberlain (we'd call John Munro Mackenzie a manager today) shows cold contempt for the crofters, cottars and others who were unable to keep up payments. Rather than improve their lot on the ground, they had to emigrate. And when things did not go according to plan, it all became rather a nuisance.
Lews Castle today is resplendent in its former glory, but the contrast with the lot of Matheson's tenantry in the 19th century is excruciatingly jarring. One islander whom I accompanied on this visit was moved to tears. The rooms I visited were mostly completely empty, with the exception of the Ball Room, where dining tables were set out. The Castle also has a cafe and a small shop.
In a separate, newly built wing, the Western Isles Museum is housed. It has most of the exhibits on show that were featured in the old premises on Francis Street, but has moved in the 21st century with audio-visual and interactive displays. Full marks for that.
Six Lewis Chessmen are on permanent loan from the British Museum
Store Room Cafe
Further pictures here