A month that shaped the fate of Lewis

A group from local drama teams act as the crofting raiders in the BBC documentary "Leverhulme; Lord of the Isles", broadcast in 1971. (Pic: Bill Lucas)A group from local drama teams act as the crofting raiders in the BBC documentary "Leverhulme; Lord of the Isles", broadcast in 1971. (Pic: Bill Lucas)
A group from local drama teams act as the crofting raiders in the BBC documentary "Leverhulme; Lord of the Isles", broadcast in 1971. (Pic: Bill Lucas)
The word ‘sensational’ has rarely appeared in a Stornoway Gazette headline but the edition of September 6th, 1923 was an exception. It referred to a speech made by the departing Lord Leverhulme which contained a “sensational gift to Stornoway”.

​Leverhulme’s speech divided the island into two areas; one within a seven mile radius of Stornoway Post Office and the other covering virtually everything else. It was delivered at a meeting in the Town Council Chambers and would define to an extraordinary extent the future of Lewis, for better and worse.

These consequences are greatly in evidence down to the present day. Without that speech, there would be no Stornoway Trust and all that has flowed from it. If its terms had been slightly different, the whole island would be owned by the people.

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By entrenching division between town and country, his offer was deeply divisive as had been a hallmark of Leverhulme’s time on Lewis. One was made an offer it could not refuse; the other was made an offer which, it concluded with great reluctance, it could not accept.

Provost Donald Stewart with Lord Leverhule at Lews Castle surveying the harbour: (Pic: Bill Lucas)Provost Donald Stewart with Lord Leverhule at Lews Castle surveying the harbour: (Pic: Bill Lucas)
Provost Donald Stewart with Lord Leverhule at Lews Castle surveying the harbour: (Pic: Bill Lucas)

Within the space of a sensational month, these two defining legacies were confirmed. Stornoway and its environs became the bastion of what remains the largest example of community ownership in the UK. The rest of Lewis was left to the capricious whims of private landlordism, only recently and only in part corrected.

The Gazette’s founding editor, William Grant, was a staunch ally of Leverhulme and fulsome in his praise. “Sensational as is the offer of Lord Leverhulme”, the Gazette editorialised, “it is not one whit more princely than is characteristic of the man. He has already in his day given largely of his bounty…

“There are many Lewismen, while they are even staggered by this further expression of Lord Leverhulme’s generosity, who will feel disappointed that he had not been given the free-handed opportunity for which he stipulated four years ago when he announced his far-reaching schemes for the development of Lewis”.

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Having rapturised at length about “a man of Lord Leverhulme’s magnanimous mould”, the editorial dealt very briefly with potential doubts in rural Lewis. “It will take a few days before the Islanders as a whole will get over the rubbing of their eyes. When that comes they will see clearly what lies ahead which should lead them unerringly to a decision in a crisis as fateful as it is novel and extraordinary”.

William Hesketh Lever, better known as Lord Leverhulme.William Hesketh Lever, better known as Lord Leverhulme.
William Hesketh Lever, better known as Lord Leverhulme.

By the time he made his speech, Leverhulme had already abandoned his plans to make Stornoway a great centre of the fishing industry. Ostensibly, this was because of resistance from landless Lewismen to breaking up the farms into crofts. In fact, the Lever Brothers empire, particularly in Nigeria, was in trouble with financial pressures closing in.

On Monday September 3rd 1923, “members of Stornoway Town Council, Lewis District Committee and Stornoway Parish Council were convened, at the request of Lord Leverhulme, to meet him in the Town Council Chambers, when he made a statement as to the causes which have forced him to abandon, first, his great schemes for the industrial development of Lewis and now, his town planning scheme for Stornoway”.

Leverhulme recalled telling his audience “at our first meeting together” that he “was not attracted to Lewis by any love of sport such as fishing, shooting or deer stalking, but entirely by the possibilities I thought I recognised here, in Lewis, of doing something in a small way, within the limits of my capacity for the permanent benefit of the fine people living on the Island of Lewis”.

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He had been “round the world six times” and had “yet failed to find in any part of the habitable globe a people for whom an all-merciful Providence had not provided right at their own doors, the means of gaining a happy, full and complete livelihood. The means of livelihood vary in every part of the world, but they are always native, they are always natural and they are always dependable.

“In the South Sea Islands it may be the coconut; in West Africa it may be the palm oil tree and in the Island of Lewis it undoubtedly is the harvest of the sea”. Leverhulme recalled his plans to take advantage of this bounty – based around an investment of £750,000 (£37 million in today’s money) “to improve the harbour of Stornoway” in order to accommodate the fishing fleet which would feed his new industries.

But then Leverhulme came to the nub of the matter which, to his critics, confirmed a fatal inability to compromise with an alternative standpoint. “An essential condition of any development work I undertook in Lewis”, he said, “was that all raiding should cease and that the Government should agree that for ten years, during which my development works were to have a fair trial …. no farms should be taken for crofting purposes”.

In confirmation of that extraordinary carte blanche he demanded, Leverhulme explained: “In other words, that I should be left, as far as either raiding or taking by the Government of farm lands for crofts was concerned, undisturbed whilst I devoted myself entirely to the testing of the practicability or otherwise of my proposals”.

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While Leverhulme was lionised by those who supported his ambitions, less is known of his nemesis, Thomas Wilson who, from the outset, stood in the way of them. Wilson was a civil servant with the Scottish Board of Agriculture and his unflinchingly principled role surely deserves to be better remembered in the history of Lewis. Leverhulme certainly had not forgotten it.

“May I go back at this moment,” said Leverhulme, “to refer to a conversation I had with Mr Wilson in the autumn of 1918, my first year in Lewis. I saw him at the Castle and he showed me some plans the Government had been preparing for taking the farm of Gress and other farms adjoining on Broad Bay, and I at once took him into my confidence with regard to the development schemes I proposed … Mr Wilson was quite candid with me and quite courteous. He stated, in short, that whatever schemes I might have, the Scottish Office would take the farms for crofting. I told him I was quite confident if they knew my schemes, their policy would change. He was equally confident it would not…

“I was entirely wrong. For once the Scotsman belied his reputation of being able to see clearly, to use a Lancashire expression, ‘which side his bread was buttered on’, so all the schemes for development had to be abandoned by myself, but I still clung to the Town Planning Scheme for Stornoway”. He then gave a long account of why this too had now foundered on the Scottish Office’s insistence that the break-up of farms would proceed.

Having given his version of that history, Leverhulme turned to the gifts he was about to bestow. It would be “meaningless” to return each year, as “an ordinary visitor to the Castle” uninterested in fishing or sport. “I am like Othello with my occupation gone, and I could only be like the ghost of Hamlet’s father haunting the place as a shadow. Under these circumstances I would be depressed rather than exhilarated”.

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He could have sold the Castle and island, he said, at a “satisfactory” price. Leverhulme continued: “The other course, and the one that would be more congenial to myself, would be that I would make a gift of the whole island of Lewis as I purchased it from the late proprietor, Colonel Matheson, exclusive of most of the industries I had commenced here…”.

As far as Stornoway was concerned, the generosity of his offer was beyond dispute. It included the Castle – which he wanted to see turned into the municipal headquarters – and its grounds, together with sporting and fishing rights, and also the Stornoway Gas Works, the fish offal works and the steam laundry. The new Stornoway Trust would become the owners of the crofts, farms and lands within the seven mile radius.

With the exception of ex-raiders, tenants would be offered the crofts “as a free gift by myself to their respective cultivators”. Where the occupants “do not wish to avail themselves of this offer” the crofts and grazing rights would revert to the Trust. Leverhulme’s expectation was that most crofters would grasp the option of becoming individual owners, which did not prove to be the case. Within the seven mile radius, the significance of that issue was overwhelmed by the bigger picture of what Leverhulme had offered.

In the more rural areas, however, the “offer” of individual ownership was seen as a threat to security of tenure and the cohesion of the crofting system. This became one of two burning issues. The other was that the assets which were to go with the land – mainly sporting lodges and rights – were of little value and did not offer sufficient revenue to sustain the proposed Trust estate.

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Leverhulme had set a deadline. He told the meeting: “As I am leaving for Australia in November, I would like to have an early decision as to acceptance or rejection and I suggest that if I could have a reply, not later than the 6th of October, the intended recipients would have ample time to consider and to decide for acceptance or rejection, and I should then also have time in case of non-acceptance to make some sort of arrangements in connection with the sale of the Island of Lewis before I leave for Australia”.

Having delivered his offer, Leverhulme said he would leave the room while it was considered. The Gazette reported: “The Provost said perhaps Lord Leverhulme would permit him in a single sentence to express on behalf of the public bodies present their appreciation of the very princely offer which would receive due consideration and a reply which would be sent to him within the prescribed time. His Lordship then withdrew, the Councillors present standing the while.

“Provost Kenneth Mackenzie thereafter said he was sure the most sceptical amongst them must realise that Lord Leverhulme by his magnificent offer had that day heaped coals of fire on the heads of the very small percentage of the population who had opposed his schemes”.

It soon became clear however that it was more than a “very small percentage” who continued to view Leverhulme and his uncritical Stornoway admirers with suspicion. Two very different offers had been made, as Leverhulme must have been well aware.

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The following Monday, Stornoway Town Council accepted with alacrity, “subject to the adjustment of details”. As Provost Mackenzie explained, revenue from the extensive assets gifted to them “would enable us to improve the amenities of the town and to give effect, to some extent at least, to Lord Leverhulme’s own cherished hopes for the beautifying of Stornoway”.

Julia Fraser, the first woman councillor in Lewis, declared: “I regard Viscount Leverhulme’s offer of Lewis as a free gift to its people as the most magnificent, most magnanimous, as well as the most socialistic gesture of this generation, and I hope the public authorities will accept this great trust in the spirit in which it is offered”.

In the landward areas, however, the following weeks witnessed a ferment of debate around two key issues – implications for the precious rights enshrined in the Crofting Acts and the very limited sources of revenue available to a rural Trust. There were also complex questions about landless cottars and squatters, who numbered around 2000 and did not pay rates.

The Gazette reported on meetings from around the island though the great weight of the paper’s coverage was in support of Leverhulme’s offers. Concerns existed among crofters who were within the “seven mile radius”. For example, a meeting in Melbost reported unanimous support for a motion which stated: “We, the crofters of Melbost and Branahuie are going to keep to the Crofters Act and not to come under the Burgh of Stornoway by Lord Leverhulme’s offer”.

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Effectively, however, these villages around Stornoway had no say in the matter since the Town Council’s acceptance allowed Leverhulme to proceed as he proposed. For those outside the seven mile radius, it was far more complicated and the District Committee sought support from the Scottish Office to help them resolve their dilemma. On Saturday September 26th, as Leverhulme’s deadline closed in, a delegation went to Edinburgh to meet the Secretary of State, Lord Novar.

In advance of this meeting, the District Committee set out its position. They “would be acting in the best interests of Lewis if they accept the gift”. They were confident that “the crofters throughout the district are likely to remain tenants, in preference to becoming owners of their crofts”. However, financial assistance from Government would be required “for a few years at least”. They also asked for a change in legislation so that there would be a financial contribution from cottars.

The Committee’s chairman, Murdo Maclean, told the Secretary of State that Lord Leverhulme had given the offer “in concrete form but as to the conditions attached, they were in the dark…. On the figures they had from the Estate office, they found that it was hopeless”. While these difficulties could in time be overcome, their “object in coming here that day was to see whether the Government would encourage them and remove the bogey of finance that stood between them and accepting Lord Leverhulme’s gift”.

Their plea was not acceded to. Lord Novar – a Fifer who had previously been Governor General of Australia - told the delegation it was “impossible for him to entertain the proposal” that the Government should meet the deficit on the working of the estate which – for the parishes of Barvas, Uig and Lochs – stood at £1365 per annum (£68,000 in today’s money). Novar did promise support from the Board of Agriculture if the Trust was formed.

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Maclean responded that they would “just have to think the matter over and see what could be done”. On Friday 5th October 1923, a fateful meeting of the Lewis District Committee was held in Stornoway. They had sought further time to respond but Leverhulme turned this down. He telegrammed: “Regret to note that conference with Viscount Novar unsuccessful. I regret I cannot extend time for consideration of my offer beyond October 6th owing to the fact that I leave for Australia November 14th and will have many matters to do with the Islands before I leave”.

A long and anguished debate followed. They wanted to accept the offer but were daunted by the financial difficulties it presented. One councillor, Donald Macleod, Breasclete, spoke of the misunderstanding that existed among crofters throughout the island who “do not see that they are quite at liberty to remain under the Crofters Act”. More time was needed to consider and explain but Leverhulme would grant them no extension.

Councillor Alexander Maclennan said they would be “the laughing stock of the world if we accept a Trust that has a deficit from the start”. Julia Fraser responded: “We’ll be the laughing stock of the world if we refuse the offer”. When it came to a vote, there was a majority of six to three in favour of declining the offer “after carefully considering the statements of income and expenditure”.

With more time to address the very genuine financial challenge in an impoverished community, the outcome might have been different. History has tended to ignore the fact that the District Committee wanted to accept the offer before concluding they had no option but to refuse it. If Leverhulme’s undoubted generosity to Stornoway had been matched with quite modest support for the rest of Lewis, the outcome would have been different.

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Leverhulme had also muddied the water by making individual “free gift” ownership of crofts a part of his offer. As it turned out, even within the seven mile radius of Stornoway Post Office, that was not taken up and the crofters’ rights under the Act remained untouched. However, given Leverhulme’s hatred of crofting tenure, it is not difficult to understand why suspicions arose when he made individual ownership part of his offer.

There are plenty of “what ifs” in the whole Leverhulme story. If he had not arrived in Lewis, there would be no Stornoway Trust. On the other hand, if he made the offer to the rest of Lewis easier to accept, there would be no private landlordism down to the present day. The complexion of, and prospects for, the whole island have continued to hang on what transpired inside a month of 1923.

As for Leverhulme’s demand for a ten year free hand, “what if” it had been acceded to? For starters, large areas of Lewis which came under crofting tenure after 1918 would have remained as farms, leading to further conflict and emigration. His industrial schemes might have started but it is most unlikely that they would have been completed.

Not only were Lever Brothers’ financial problems closing in elsewhere, but within 20 months of his “sensational” offer, Leverhulme was dead. That brought an abrupt end to his schemes in Harris and the remnants of his estates were promptly sold off at bargain basement prices. Stornoway would have been left with equally little to show for his grand designs.

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Instead, Leverhulme’s premature departure had ensured that the “seven mile radius’ came under a Stornoway Trust, even if that was an unplanned by-product of his original intent.

Landlords, like the rest of us, are mortal and the timing of Leverhulme’s departure not only bequeathed the Stornoway Trust.

It also spared the great and good who had given his demands unqualified support the indignity of being proved wrong.