It is intriguing to imagine how the Hebridean town of Stornoway would have looked in the 1860s, when Charles Morrison was writing his diary.
The Lews Hotel, located close to Macdonald & Morrison’s shop on North Beach Street, was Stornoway’s principal inn at this time. It was built in 1829 by a local couple, Captain John Mackenzie and his wife Agnes Murray Reid. This was recorded on a date stone, set in the centre of the main frontage.
Construction probably involved heightening an existing building which resembled the properties standing to the right of the hotel. Any untidy conjunction of old and new would have been masked by a coating of render, incised with lines to imitate masonry. Few buildings in the vicinity rose to three storeys in height and the new hotel must have dominated the waterfront.
Unfortunately, Captain John Mackenzie died a year after completing the hotel, in 1830, followed by Agnes in 1845. Nevertheless, the building continued to be owned by their descendants for many years to come.
The hotel is probably the establishment named ‘McKenzie’s Inn, Stornoway’ in a newspaper of 1831 (Aris’s Birmingham Gazette, 31 January 1831, 4). It may have been renamed ‘Lews Hotel’ in 1845, when Sir James Matheson was first welcomed to the island with a dinner in the Mason’s Hall catered by ‘Mrs Macleay, of the Lews Hotel’ (Inverness Courier, 3 September 1845, 5).
Charles Morrison’s landlady at 7 North Beach, Miss Betsy Macdonald, was Agnes Reid’s niece. As such, she must have enjoyed a close relationship with the cousins who owned the Lews Hotel. The hotel itself, however, was leased to a succession of proprietors, such as the aforementioned Mrs Macleay (or ‘McLea’). By 1848 it was run by Messrs Campbell & Hart (Ordnance Survey Name Book OS1/27/72/17). Campbell – one Neil Campbell from Argyllshire – later became a baker in Govan.
In 1863-64, when Charles Morrison’s diary was written, the hotel was kept by James Mackenzie from Contin. Upon his death on 16 February 1866 (recorded in Angus Macdonald’s Cash Book), his furniture and other effects were sold and the hotel was let by Mrs Daniel Lewis Mackenzie (1827-1912; John and Agnes’s widowed daughter-in-law) to Lachlan Ross from Skye. On the evening of 25 September 1863 Charles Morrison noted that he paid a visit to ‘Mrs D. L. Mackenzie’, who lived at 5 South Beach, seemingly the site of the Caledonian Hotel.
In 1870 Ross left Stornoway to take charge of the Royal Hotel in Portree. The Lews Hotel was once more advertised to let. It included two public rooms, a bar, nine bedrooms, stables and a coach-house. It also boasted gas, water and a W. C. (Inverness Courier, 21 April 1870, 4). The incoming proprietor was Allan Clark (d.1879), followed by Alexander F. Macdougall (d.1893). Part of the building, however, seems to have housed a shop: a grocer’s or spirit-dealer’s premises which may originally have been rented by the Mrs Macleay mentioned above.
Until the Posting Department was wound up by Macdougall in 1885, the following horses were stabled behind the hotel: Ben, Gipp, Wilkie, Bebbie, Monarch, Jeanie, Dick and Nors (Inverness Courier, 19 December 1885, 1). Sold with them were several vehicles: a ‘break’ capable of carrying 14 people, two large ‘wagonnettes’, one small ‘wagonette’, a covered phaeton, two dog carts and a cart.
The Lewis Hotel was listed Category B in 1971. Despite this, between 1999 and 2017 the wooden (hornless, four-pane) sash windows were replaced with UPVC, new dormers were added, and the stables to the rear were demolished.