A house called Stornoway

editorial image

IN its long and proud near 100-history the house has sheltered exiled European royalty during the terrors of war while it currently serves as the official residence for the Leader of the Opposition in one of the most powerful countries on earth. But now the history behind the house called Stornoway can be revealed by the Stornoway Gazette following pain staking research and exclusive contact with members of the Perley-Robertson family whose family named their house after the beloved town of their relatives.

The tale begins in our own home town of Stornoway, here on the Isle of Lewis, back in late 1797 when Caithness born and bred Hector Sinclair visited the island and had his soul wooed across the Minch to raise his family.

Falling in love with the island Hector and his young wife Ann McNishie from Petty, Nairnshire, set up home at Goathill Farm.

And so began a period of great joy for the newlyweds for whom had nine children, with all but one of them was born in the farmhouse at Goathill, before they left the island with their memories soured somewhat following a legal scrap with the island’s owner the Earl of Seaforth.

Author John Ross Robertson, a maternal grandson of Hector, recalled details of his grandfathers time, and subsequent departure from Lewis, in the foreword to his book ‘The Annals of Lodge Fortrose’ which offer a rare and exclusive insight into both the family’s history and life as an islander more than 200 years ago.

Hector lived and worked on Goathill Farm between 1798 and 1822 but in addition to his work at home he was also an accomplished road builder and road overseer and on behalf of the local authorities constructed some of the principal roads.

He was one of the first inductee’s into Freemasonry at the newly established Fortrose Lodge, Stornoway, where her was, by all accounts, a hugely popular and important member of the island community – although Lodge notes reveal he was fined 6d for having left the Lodge without asking on one occasion.

History remembers Hector and his family fondly but perhaps most famously for his final year in Stornoway – 1821 – as he became submerged in a lengthy and costly legal wrangle with the Earl of Seaforth which led to a lawsuit. Robertson writes his grandfather made every attempt to settle amicably but the Earl was unyielding and refused to flinch from his ‘do as I say or get out’ attitude.

But the record explains that in Hector, the Earl had found a tenant who steadfastly refused to be bullied and prepared a case, went to the mainland in a fishing boat before making his way to Edinburgh to consult his counsel, the late Lord Chief Justice Cockburn, then practising law in the city.

Travelling to the capital city was a far more harrowing and weary journey than in more modern times and in fact half of Hector’s trek was on foot. But his perseverance was rewarded upon arriving in Edinburgh where he was gratified by a most favourable opinion and advice that right was on his side.

He returned home with the proper papers underarm and served them on the Earl which led to a trial in Edinburgh. A few months later and he was back in Edinburgh and the trial took place, resulting as his solicitor had anticipated in a favourable verdict for Hector. Mr Cockburn is reported to have told Hector he had never had a case so well prepared by a client.

Perhaps with his memories of Goathill Farm soured by the case Hector chose to five up the tenancy at the end of his term where he made arrangements to move to a farm at Kerrowaird near Inverness.

Continuing his grandfather’s story Robertson explains that the family’s departure from Lewis was no ordinary one as Hector had established himself as a friend of everyone and his departure was looked upon with great regret.

To ensure a comfortable passage across the sea he secured a large lugger with a deep hold in which he stacked his furniture, farm implements and other utensils. A part of the hold was divided off to accommodate the family and was spread with straw so that might be comfortable on their journey.

Even the weather on the day the family left Stornoway was recorded with Robertson penning details of a sky ‘which was not over bright and with drizzling rain did not add to the comfort of the travellers as they quit the house,’ near the farmhouse at Goathill, in which they had lived for a few weeks after giving up the farm.

Robertson also recalled that the town’s people turned out to say goodbye and see the Sinclair’s set sail. One old inhabitant in 1895 said his father told him of the sorrow evinced at the leaving of the family and that the parting was so sad ‘the tide rose with the tears that were shed for the Sinclair’s as they sailed away.’

Having resettled in Invernessshire the family he lived at the 250 acre farm of Kerrowaird on the estate of the earl of Moray.

Ann died in 1851 aged 87 years and he died in 1852 aged 89 years but their legacy lived on in Stornoway for generations to come after, Robertson, a son of Hector’s daughter Margaret and living in Toronto, Canada, dug deep to assist the burgeoning town.

In 1895, some forty years after Hector’s passing, the Lewis Hospital was built on Goathill Road, not far from the farm and J.Ross Robertson furnished both wards in memory of his mother Margaret Sinclair.

Besides furnishing the wards Mr Robertson supplied an operating table and in other ways evinced a generous and practical interest in its welfare.

The one condition he attached was that the children of Freemasons, especially those of Fortrose Lodge, Stornoway, should always have preferable claim to be treated at the hospital.

As a result Lodge Fortrose decided to make an annual contribution to hospital funds – something they had not previously done.

 Fast forward 28-years to 1923 and Irvine Gale Perley-Robertson and his wife Ethel named their substantial new Ottawa home ‘Stornoway’ in honour of Irvine’s grandmother Margaret Sinclair (daughter of aforementioned Hector Sinclair) who was born in the house at Goathill Farm, Stornoway.

Irvine, (July 9, 1883 to February 26, 1956), is another fascinating character in the family tree. He was the son of Alexander James Robertson who was the author John Ross’ brother and sons of Margaret Sinclair.

One of the most interesting parts of Irvine – who was known to his friends as Ike – was he won a bronze medal in rowing during the 1908 Olympic Games as a bowman in a boat of eight in London on Henley-On-Thames. He helped his team mates defeat Norwegian nationals in the quarterfinals before losing the semi final to a British boat which won the final page.

In 1916 Irvine married Ethel Perley at St. Margaret’s, Westminster. In attendance was Ethel’s father, Sir George Perley, who was Minister of Overseas Forces in the United Kingdom, representative of Canada.

As Sir George had no sons Ike and Ethel decided to hyphenate their names so Perley would live on.

After the war they returned to Canada where they had five children: Jean 1919 – 2002; George 1921 – 1996; Alex 1921 – 2000; Anne 1924 – 2011 and Claire 1927 – 1992.

Irvine was a member of St Andrews Presbyterian Church for 36 years and a Glebe Trustee. On May 17, 1965, the Ottawa Citizen revealed a stained glass window was dedicated to the church by his wife and members of her family in his memory.

Irvine passed away in 1956 with his beloved wife following in 1978 but their legacy, and links to Stornoway, Isle of Lewis, lived on after the family decision to rename their large home at 541 Acacia Avenue in the Rockcliffe Park Village, Ottawa.

At the turn of the last century Rockcliffe Park Village was a rural area that attracted the elite and more houses sprung up after the area was connected to Ottawa by streetcar in 1891. Stornoway was one of these houses.

The house was built in 1913 by Ascanio Joseph Major, who controlled one of the largest wholesaling grocery enterprises in eastern Canada. He hired Allan Keefer, a noted architect of the day, to prepare the design.

The house, a 34 room mansion with eight bedrooms, five bathrooms, living room, sitting room (second floor), and dining room, was perched as the centrepiece on extensive grounds, by Keefer.

In 1923, the Perley-Robertsons, another distinguished local family, bought the house and enlarged it over the next few years.

Since then Stornoway has become one of the most important houses in the whole of Canada – as the official residence for the Leader of the Opposition ensuring Stornoway retains a pivotal role in Canadian politics. 

But before it took on its role as political hub it served a spell as a safe haven for a future Queen.

During the Second World War it served as the temporary home-in-exile of future Queen (then-princess) Juliana of the Netherlands and her family, including the current Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands.

Following the invasion of the Netherlands by German armies on May 10, 1940, the Dutch royal family went into exile. Princess Juliana, the heir to Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands, was sent with her husband and children to the safety of Canada.

The royal exiles lived first at Rideau Hall and then in a small, overcrowded house in Rockcliffe. In 1941, Mrs. Perley-Robertson came to the rescue, and offered Princess Juliana the loan of Stornoway. The princess and her family and friends moved in during the summer of 1941. It was to Stornoway that Princess Juliana brought home her third child in 1943.

When the Dutch Royal Family were living in Stornoway the Perley-Robertson’s temporarily moved to 21 Blackburn, Ottawa, which the home of Sir George Perley’s second wife.

They moved back to Stornoway after the Royal Family left and lived there until they sold the house in 1950 before building a house in the same neighbourhood. 

Stornoway has served its present purpose as the Official Opposition Leader’s residence since 1950, when it was purchased by a group of concerned citizens and later transferred to the government.

Nowadays the house is owned by the National Capital Commission who took it over in April 1988 but for many years it was owned and managed by a private trust.

They purchased the house from the Perley-Robertson’s at the discounted price of $55,000 (the house was reportedly valued at almost $5m in 2008) after Senator Gratan O’Leary launched a campaign to find a home for the leader of the Opposition.

Conservative leader George Drew (former premier of Ontario) and his wife were the first residents (1950–56), followed in 1958 by Lester and Marion Pearson. Since then, Stornoway has been home to a succession of political families — the Diefenbakers, the Stanfields, the Clarks and many others — continuing to this day.

Calling Stornoway home this Christmas is Thomas Mulcair, the NDP leader, and his wife Catherine Pinhas while Jack Layton had the shortest stay in Stornoway in Canadian history after spending just one night in the house after an eight year battle to become leader of the opposition.

Canada’s most famous address has not been without controversy over the years and Bloc Quebecois leader Lucien Bouchard famously refused the invitation to move into the residence as a mark of protest against the federal government.

Instead, the then leader of the opposition lived in nearby Gatineau, Quebec, between 1993 and 1997.

When the Reform Party displaced Bloc Québécois as the opposition their leader Preston Manning also declined to accept the keys to the mansion.

But his reasoning was very different to that of Bouchard as Manning as he reckoned the home was too extravagant to live there on the public purse. He even, somewhat controversially cracked a gag that it should be used as a bingo hall to pay off the national debt. Manning asked that he be provided with a more ‘modest’ residence, but soon moved into Stornoway.

Just last year Anne Caza, the last remaining child of Ike and Ethel Perley-Robertson passed away at the age of 87, but the Perley-Robertson family made their mark on both sides of the Atlantic with their generosity coming to the aid of islanders at the turn of the century when J.R personally funded the furnishing of both wards at the Lewis Hospital and with the monarchy of Holland who owe the family a nod of thanks.

The family’s proud links to the Isle of Lewis and to a house called Stornoway continue with burning pride and a warm smile.