Liz calls last orders on her time at MacNeil’s

After 30 years of pulling pints for Stornoway’s imbibers, the licensee of MacNeil’s, Liz Neilson, has now called last orders on her career as a publican – and it’s largely to do with the uncertainty caused by Covid.

By Murray MacLeod
Wednesday, 28th July 2021, 3:06 pm
Liz is now looking forward to "spending time on the other side of the bar"
Liz is now looking forward to "spending time on the other side of the bar"

She first arrived on the island in 1991 to take over what was then Cromwell’s, along with the public bar of the Caledonian Hotel, but it wasn’t long before she realised that the premises slap bang in the middle of town was the one she should focus on.

“I couldn’t believe it when I came here and there was a pub called Cromwell’s – in Stornoway, with pictures of Oliver Cromwell on the wall,” she said. “I just thought it was unsuitable for the place.

“There were a lot of the O’Neil’s pubs around at that time and I was thinking it would be far better, far more suitable, so we all just chipped in and got the place kitted out.”

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Due to a legal requirement to follow the decor and style of other pubs around the country which adorned the same name and followed the Irish theme, a decision was taken to change it to MacNeil’s – and so it has remained to this day, and perhaps even indelibly so.

Liz recalls that when she took over the lease from the brewery, having run a pub near Livingston, the town had numerous licensed premises.

Other than Cromwell’s, there was the Clachan lounge and public, the Crown lounge and public, the Lewis, the Caley, the Crit, the Star, the Heb, the Seaforth lounge and public, the County lounge and public, the Whaler’s Rest (lounge and public) and the Caberfeidh Hotel’s lounge and and public - as well as the Rangers Club, the Royal British Legion and the Sea Angling Club. “And all of them were busy, too,” says Liz.

Today only six of them remain and in the town centre only MacNeil’s, the Crown, the Crit and the Lewis.

“It’s just changing trends – people just don’t come out to pubs the way they used to,” she says. “I feel so sorry for the young. There’s just nowhere near as much choice.”

Before Covid hit, MacNeil’s, she says, was enjoying their best ever year, thanks to a developing social media presence generating extra footfall and live music every night through the summer, except Sunday (when it remains closed), Monday and Tuesday.

But then the pandemic hit.

“My original idea was that I was going to take it on for the next five years and refurbish upstairs, but with the uncertainty over the future I just thought I’d bow out now,” says Liz. “It’s going to be like starting from the beginning all over again, having to be here all the time and building the business back up and, och, it’s just not for me anymore.

”Things should have been opening up a lot faster than they were, though that’s not everyone’s opinion, I know. But it’s a bit disappointing when you see 60,000 crammed into a football stadium and we’re only allowed 32.”

Her official end day is next Wednesday - but the good news is that there will be continuity as Andy Dowie, manager at the Sea Angling Club, has agreed to take over at MacNeil’s.

Liz’s own immediate focus is “to take some time for myself” and visit her elderly mother on the mainland. She is going to remain on the island and is “very much looking forward to spending time on the other side of the bar!”