Utopia Britannica - British Utopian Experiments 1325 - 1945

Port ‘fish’light

Gazetter entry

Late on a Saturday night in June 1918 the inhabitants of Stornoway on the Outer Hebridean island of Lewis and Harris awaited the arrival of the new owner of the island. They had rigged a banner on the quay that read - 'Welcome to Your Island Home' and arranged for a pipe band to regale the new laird as he set foot on the quay. As the ferry pulled up to the quay just after midnight the Pipers and rest of the reception committee slipped away into the night in observance of the minute-old Sabbath leaving Lord Leverhulme the founder of Port Sunlight to arrive on his island in silence. At a hastily reconvened welcome ceremony a few days later Lever ended his speech in which he had put forward his plans for the revival of the island with the hope that 'We will be able to look each other in the face, and you will be able to say, "We thank you for nothing but the opportunity you have given us."

Lewis and Harris, joined by a narrow strip of land, are often spoken of as separate entities but are really one island covering an area of about a 1000 sq miles. In 1918 they had a population of about 40,000 who eked a precarious living from a combination of fishing, crofting and sheep farming. The history of the island in the 19th Century had been one of displacement of crofters by absentee landlords who replaced them with sheep, and later deer. This had led to a series of land campaigns by those crofters who had not been forced to emigrate, resulting in 'land grabs' and many crofts being occupied by squatters. A number of government measures had done little to help the crofters and the issue still gripped the island when Lever arrived.

Lever's grand plan for the island centred on reviving the fishing industry through the application of science and business skill. There would be an ice-making factory at Stornoway and refrigerated cargo ships to take fish to a depot at Fleetwood. To deal with gluts of fish, the herring curing facilities would be enlarged, a canning factory built and a plant installed to make fish-cakes, fish-paste, glue, animal feed and fertiliser from the offal. As McAlpines started work on the ambitious building programme; including houses with bathrooms in Stornoway and a semi-self-build scheme to build new crofts, two companies were registered; MacLine to run the fishing fleet operation and MacFisheries to run a chain of shops. Lever then proceeded to buy 350 high street fresh fish shops throughout the British Isles as outlets for the produce of his new fisheries. Lever's grand scheme, whilst aimed at relieving the life of the crofters on the island, took no account of the reality of the crofters' lives. What the crofters most needed was casual work to supplement their subsistence farming; what was to be on offer was regular employment in an industrial process.

In 1918 the Scottish Office proposed that under the Small Landholders Act they should take over some of Lever's farms on Lewis and provide 150 crofts for returning servicemen as a start in the pledge to provide 'smallholdings fit for heroes'. In the spring of the following year, impatient with the lack of any action, ex-servicemen waiting for crofts invaded farms on the island driving off farmer's animals and staking out six-acre plots and erecting shelters for their families. They had expected support from Lever, who often railed at bureaucratic incompetence, but instead he condemned the squatters and ordered them off his land. Lever saw the croft system as a millstone around the islanders' necks and believed that once his streamlined commercial fisheries operation was up and running, the crofts would be deserted as men & women left the land for the better wages and conditions that would be on offer. Lever's arrogance made him enemies among local politicians, at the Scottish Office and among the crofters. Other islanders enthusiastically supported his reforms


Houses built by Lever at Stornoway

Two things conspired to undermine the schemes on the island. Firstly the finances of Lever Brothers went through a rocky patch and the source of money for developing the island became problematic leading to delays and setbacks. And the land settlement issue refused to go away. The 'illegal' crofters won the support of the Highland Land League and the newly elected MP for the island. When Lever moved to evict the squatters and have then imprisoned the Scottish Office made it known that it would let the men go free should this happen. When Lever backed down and offered to let the crofters stay, if the bureaucrats would leave him alone for ten years to implement his schemes, the Scottish Office declined the offer as it was government policy to push ahead with further crofts. This brought a threat from Lever to withdraw his scheme completely. At loggerheads with the authorities and the crofters Lever busied himself elsewhere letting the works on the island slowly drag to a halt.

On Sept 3 1923 Lever addressed the Stornoway and Lewis councils to announce that he intended to leave the island. What came next was a complete surprise to those present - he announced that he intended to give all the crofters a gift of the freehold of their land and that the rest of the island would be made over to a trust for each of the districts. He gave them a month to accept the offer. The Highland Land League and district councils took a long look at the implications of implementing the schemes they had been campaigning for and promptly turned the offer down, letting the island be sold back to absentee landlords instead of taking the risk of making their reforms work. Only Stornoway accepted setting up a trust and going on to make it work for the benefit of the town.

Lord Leverhulme died in May 1925 and the board of Lever Bros. ordered all work on the Lewis and Harris project to stop and so the Port Sunlight of Fishing finally ended. In 1948 when the Faroe Islands were granted independence from Denmark they implemented development policies with great effect that were similar to those that Lever had tried resulting in a remarkably successful island economy.

The Scottish Islands are a rotten deal,
Those Celts are terribly difficle.
We find them unwilling to pull their weight
When we let them in at the Golden Gate.

They've no team spirit, they wont take part
In our study circles and community art
And at garden parties they won't concur
In speaking English - which is de rigeur

So welcome now to the realm of the divine
And sign your name on the dotted line
You'll find life up here a spree
For Heaven is a joint-stock company.

But far below in the Western Seas
The moors were quiet in the Hebrides,
The crofters gossiped in Gaelic speech
And the waves crept over the lonely beach

From: The Ballad of Lord Leverhulme Louis MacNeice

The full story of Lord Leverhulme's scheme is told in:
Lord of the Isles. By N.Niclson 1960.

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