Historic Scottish island castle wins the lottery

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

File photo of the southern façade of Lews Castle, Stornoway.
Image: Neilgravir.

The UK's Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) announced today a grant of £4.6 million towards the restoration of Lews Castle on the Western Scottish island of Stornoway. Estimates suggest approximately £14 million (US$ 21.9m, 16.2m) will be spent to restore and convert the Victorian era property into a museum with four-star hotel accommodation.

Originally built as a home for James Matheson, who made his fortune in the Chinese and Indian opium trade, the castle has lain empty, and on the at-risk register, since the late 1980s. A gap of £1.6 million in required funding remains a concern the local Comhairle nan Eilean Siar (previously, Western Isles Council) is actively seeking help from both Europe and the Scottish government.

Council leader Angus Campbell intends to press the Scottish Government on the final funding; "it would be a huge shame if all the other funding is lost", he said. "We are optimistic about getting some European funding, which is absolutely crucial, and are asking the Scottish Government to close the funding gap." Campbell describes what would be the first UK museum with Gaelic as its primary language as "a generational project" with benefits throughout the communities of the Outer Hebrides. Local MSP Alasdair Allan commended the council's efforts to save Lews Castle saying they, and other agencies, "have been working tirelessly to progress plans that would ensure Lews Castle becomes both a cultural and economic asset to the islands."

We are optimistic about getting some European funding, which is absolutely crucial

—Council leader, Angus Campbell

Throughout its colourful history, the castle was at one time owned by William Lever who founded Unilever. Before gifting the castle to the local people in 1923, Lord Leverhulme invested in electric lighting, central heating, an internal telephone system, and the extension of the ballroom for social gatherings. In World War II, the castle was the base for a Naval hospital and squadron of amphibious biplanes. Post-war, it spent 30 years as a technical college and school.

If the final tranche of funding is secured, in 2014 the castle will become the first-ever archive facility in the Western Isles. The collections of Museum nan Eilean (MnE) could move from their current home into the castle; items held by the National Archives of Scotland could return to their native isles. And, modern facilities would permit collections from the National Museum of Scotland and the British Museum – such as the Lewis Chessmen – to be exhibited there.