Letter from John Munro Mackenzie to Charles Wilson, architect of Lews Castle

Item author: John Munro Mackenzie, Chamberlain of the Lews
Item date: 24 July 1849
Grant Value: £483
Item cost: £483
Item date acquired: 2021
Item institution: Stornoway Historical Society
Town/City: Stornoway
County: Western Isles

Kenneth Galloway, Volunteer Archivist, writes: On 3 June 2021, the Society received a message from a member of the public in Stornoway, alerting us to a lot which had appeared in a forthcoming on-line auction.  The question posed was “Do you think Stornoway Historical Society would be interested in bidding for it?”  We located the lot on the on-line auction and immediately concluded that this item must be acquired for Stornoway and should be catalogued and stored safely in our archive. Further research revealed the following information in the descriptive text of the lot: 

“Entire letter from Stornoway to Glasgow with a Penny Red stamp cancelled by numeral 310 and backstamped at Stornoway and Glasgow “p Marquis of Stafford steamer”, therefore despatched by this private steamer operated by David Hutcheson instead of the twice weekly mail packet from Poolewe.  An unusual and very scarce ship endorsement on a letter from the Isle of Lewis.”

From this description it was clear that the main target bidding group would include collectors of scarce ship letters. However, further investigation revealed it as a significant piece of literary history pertinent to the town of Stornoway.  The writer of the letter was John Munro Mackenzie, Chamberlain of the Lews from 1848 to 1854, and the recipient was Charles Wilson, a distinguished architect based in Glasgow who had designed Lews Castle. The letter described delays in the final completion of the plastering and decorating of the new Lews Castle which, the Chamberlain hoped, would be ready in time for an imminent visit by Sir James Matheson, owner of Lews Castle and proprietor of the Island of Lewis from 1844, with family and guests.  The visit would likely have been one of the first by Sir James to his new stately home.

A professional archivist informed the Society about sources of grant aid which may assist us in acquiring this artefact.  We chose Friends of the National Libraries.  We received excellent guidance and support from FNL, resulting in a successful offer of grant aid on 9 June 2021.

Lews Castle is set in magnificent grounds and gardens overlooking Stornoway Harbour.  It remained in the ownership of the Matheson family until the entire Lews Estate and the Castle were bought in 1918 by Lord Leverhulme, a Lancashire industrialist.  In 1923, Leverhulme departed from the island, gifting the Castle and its grounds to the people of Stornoway Parish.  During WWII, the Castle served as a naval hospital, and the Castle Green provided some accommodation for air and ground crew of 700 Naval Air Squadron, who operated Supermarine Walrus amphibious aircraft from the slipway adjacent to the Castle into Stornoway harbour.  In the early 1950s, the Castle became a Further Education College.  This was followed by a period of unoccupancy and disuse, during which time the condition of the building deteriorated, and the new University of the Highlands and Islands was housed on a purpose-built campus in the Castle Grounds.  The Castle was, by then, in serious structural danger but a grant from National Lottery Heritage Fund enabled its refurbishment and the construction of an annex to house a bilingual museum and archive. 

Stornoway Historical Society is indebted to Friends of the National Libraries for providing us with an opportunity to secure an important literary piece in the historic jigsaw of this iconic building.  You have clearly demonstrated the validity of your organisation’s motto “Saving the nation’s written and printed heritage”.

Item Provenance
Bought from William George & Co. (18 June 2021, Lot 259) f