The official opening of the Lews Castle Museum and Archive project was done by the Right Honourable Nicola Sturgeon MSP, First Minister of Scotland and marked the completion of a flagship cultural and economic regeneration project led by Comhairle nan Eilean Siar.
The £19.5m project, undertaken in phases over a five-year period, has restored Stornoway’s main landmark building as a visitor and hospitality destination.
At the heart of the scheme is a new Museum nan Eilean and Tasglann nan Eilean, the first public archive for the islands. The modern museum extension with views over Stornoway, the harbour and the Minch beyond, echoing the former glass-houses, is a visible symbol of the re-birth of the Castle.
A range of local and national partnerships have been crucial in bringing this challenging project to fruition and representatives of a range of partner organisations and funders attended the opening including National Museums Scotland (NMS), the British Museum, the Heritage Lottery Fund and local heritage organisations.
Since public opening in July 2016, over 34,000 people have visiting the museum and archive, with many more enjoying the restored public rooms of the castle, the Storehouse Café in the dramatic glass roofed courtyard and the adjacent Outfitters Shop.
The museum galleries examine the long human occupation of the Outer Hebrides with themed displays focusing on the relationship between the people the land and the sea, working life, community life and contemporary issues.
An innovative Gaelic-led approach to interpretation mixes objects, images, audio visual displays and interactive exhibits to provide an accessible and family-friendly experience which is proving popular with local people as well as visitors to the islands.
Particular highlights include a stunning cinematic gallery which takes the viewer on a virtual journey through the diverse landscapes of the Outer Hebrides across the seasons and in all weathers and the ‘Eileanaich’ (islanders) gallery in which a cross section of people talk about life in the Outer Hebrides.
Through a partnership with the British Museum, six of the world famous Lewis Chessmen take their place as a centrepiece within the main gallery.These fascinating playing pieces, carved from walrus tusk and whalebone some 800 years ago were discovered on Uig beach on the west coast of Lewis in 1830.
Over one-third of the objects on display have been loaned by National Museums Scotland, including archaeological finds from across the Outer Hebrides, a spectacular Viking hack-silver coin hoard and a three-wheeled Morgan car from the 1920’s which was the first private motor vehicle on the Island of Berneray.
Comainn Eachdraidh (local historical and community heritage societies) have played a key role in the project and are signposted in the new museum to encourage visitors to explore the unique and rich local collections that exist across the Outer Hebrides.
The restoration of the Lews Castle fulfils a long-held aspiration of the local community to see the iconic building brought back to life.The 19th century castle had lain vacant for almost 20 years and was at risk by the time the initial repair works started in 2012.
The main public rooms on the ground floor of the castle have been restored to their Gothic Revival glory, including ornate plaster ceilings and a fabulous 19th century wall mural in the Morning Room.
The exception is the spectacular Adam style ballroom which Lord Leverhulme extended and re-modelled in the 1920’s and has been restored in that style.The ballroom and other public rooms have already hosted a wide range of functions including what is believed to the first wedding ever held at Lews Castle.
The final phase of the project has created luxury holiday accommodation on the upper floors of the Castle with 23 bedrooms in a flexible configuration of individual suites and apartments with one to three bedrooms.The accommodation is scheduled for launch by Natural Retreats in April.
The Lews Castle Museum and Archive project has been funded by Comhairle nan Eilean Siar, the Heritage Lottery Fund, Highlands and Islands Enterprise, Historic Environment Scotland, the Scottish Government, the European Regional Development Fund and Bord na Gaidhlig along with significant private investment in the hospitality elements from Natural Assets, the parent company of the Castle operator Natural Retreats.
The architects for the overall development were Malcolm Fraser Architects of Edinburgh in association with Simpson and Brown Architects.The principal contractor for the project was John Graham Construction Ltd.Neil Mackay and Co of Stornoway undertook the initial envelope repair works to the Castle.
First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, said: “The opening of the Lews Castle developmentis a historic occasion for Stornoway and the whole of the Outer Hebrides and I’m delighted I could be part of the event. I’m pleased the Scottish Government and its agencies could provide funding to help restore this iconic castle to its former glory as well as providing a key cultural and heritage hub for the area.
“It is also very fitting that the refurbishment has been completed this year – the Year of History, Heritage and Archaeology. The Comhairle and its partners must be congratulated on developing what is now a beautiful venue for both local residents and visitors to the island to enjoy, telling the unique story of the islands in an amazing setting. It will also be a fantastic boost for the local economy, increasing tourism, creating jobs and bringing additional revenue to the islands.”