Thursday, March 20, 2008


Lews Castle sits in lovely wooded grounds, across from Stornoway harbour. It was built about 1844 by Sir James Matheson, with part of a fortune obtained from drug dealing, condoned and encouraged by the British government. Matheson and his business partner, William Jardine, founded the trading company Jardine Matheson, which has gone from strength to strength and is now one of the largest business conglomerates in the far East. At the time of our story, Matheson and Jardine were importing tea and silk from China into the UK and in return, were exporting vast amounts of Opium from British India into China. Opium was apparently legal in Britain, but perhaps unsurprisingly, not welcomed by Chinese rulers because of its effect of turning millions of their citizens into drug addicts. The then Emperor tried to stop the trade, but Jardine Matheson appealed to the British Government to support them in continuing what they considered to be legitimate business. The Government agreed that the mass export of Opium into China was a very good thing and Jardine Matheson prospered. Britain defended its interests in the Opium trade, leading to the occupation of Hong Kong and the Opium wars.
Shortly after, Matheson purchased the Isle of Lewis, reputedly for £170,000 and did good works here for some years. He is said to have implemented a variety of schemes to reduce poverty on Lewis, which was suffering badly from the potato famine at that time.
As far as is known, he made no attempt to turn Hebrideans into junkies and by all accounts, was generally regarded as an OK feller.
A few years ago, a monument to Matheson was proudly erected in the castle grounds and current members of his family were present at the opening ceremony to pay homage to the great man. It is not recorded if representatives of the Chinese government were also invited to reflect on his achievements.
Lews Castle is now derelict and in a sorry state, but there are plans to turn it into a five star hotel and a new museum for the Islands.

The Isle of Skye is very attractive, easily accessible from the mainland and has long attracted incomers to live there. A Skye resident told me recently that 68% of people living on Skye are now incomers and that most people accept that this change in the balance of outsiders to indigenous population is generally considered to be positive. Here in the Western Isles, about 10% of the population are thought to be from outside and this is likely to increase year by year. The most beautiful and remote area of Lewis, where I am staying while my house is being renovated, is Uig, in the West, where about 470 people live. The population there has declined significantly in recent years, but seems to be increasing again because of an influx of new arrivals from England and the Central Belt of Scotland, looking for a quieter, less pressured and better quality of life. House prices here have rocketed during the last 3-4 years, like most other places in the UK, but are now beginning to stabilise and some advertised properties are being reduced to sell. This remains one of the cheapest places in Britain to buy a house, but the great advantage, apart from lack of pollution, good schools and spectacular scenery, is that you get much more space for your money than elsewhere. Most houses, away from Stornoway, are detached and often have large gardens or crofts attached.

Work on the house continues slowly. Although there have been no disasters or breakages during the last few days, I am thoroughly fed up and have told both the plumber and builder that I am moving back into my home on the 29th of this month and expect them to have completely finished their work by then. Am I confident they will take any notice and make a big effort to have the house ready for me by then? Of course I am.
Have been struck down with Cabin Fever once again, so have decided to go to the mainland for a week, for rest, recuperation and shopping. Will adjust my attitude while I'm away, become more optimistic and persuade myself that I will return to a completed house with a nice new kitchen and bathroom and a gloriously welcoming wood burning stove. Poor naive fool.

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