Introducing Charles Morrison, A Stornoway Shopkeeper

Charles Morrison with his nephew Charles, from Dornoch, and George Mackay (Geordie Kay), a shop assistant, outside his shop at 5 Bank Street, Stornoway, c.1910 (K. Morrison)

The Stornoway shopkeeper Charles Morrison (1838-1920) came from a family of farmers and meal dealers living at Cyderhall near Dornoch, on the east coast of Scotland. Around 1855, aged 16, he set off for Stornoway, a fishing town on the Isle of Lewis, the northernmost of the Western Isles. From Dingwall – according to family tradition – Charles journeyed overland in the company of the postman (who crossed northern Scotland by foot on a weekly basis), then sought his passage over the Minch.

Once in Stornoway – the commercial heart of the island – Charles secured work as a salesman in the drapery and grocery shop of Matthew Russell (1818-92), another ‘incomer’. He lodged over the shop on South Beach Street with Russell’s family. In June 1861 Charles left Russell and entered into partnership as a general merchant with Angus Macdonald (1836-74) from Torridon. For a couple of years they traded as Macdonald & Morrison from a shop at 7 North Beach Street (close to the Lewis Hotel) owned by a Miss E. (Betsey) Macdonald. She doesn’t appear to have been related to Angus, despite sharing the same surname.

6-7 North Beach Street, Stornoway

This period in Charles’s life is covered in his diary, which is published as separate posts on this blog. Remarkably, Angus Macdonald’s diary from the same period has survived in the hands of his descendants in Australia. Together these documents offer a rare insight into the business life of Stornoway in the 1860s.

Macdonald & Morrison’s partnership was dissolved acrimoniously in May 1864, and each man set up his own business in the town. Macdonald remained in the North Beach Street shop while Charles moved out. The exact location of Charles’s first independent shop has not been verified.

Charles Morrison, possibly taken on 16 April 1864 when he wrote ‘we were at Dewar’s getting likeness’. (Dewar’s, Glasgow)

In 1869 Macdonald sold his business and stock (‘drapery, grocery, hardware, boots and shoes, ropes and lines &c’) to McIver & McLean. Improvements had recently been completed in the locality. These included the widening of Point Street and North Beach; the creation of Bank Street (which was given various names, including Cross Street and Harbour Lane); the formation of Percival Square, and extensions to both North Beach and Cromwell Street quays. Two years earlier Macdonald had bought buildings ‘facing North Beach Street, all near the new National Bank’. This included 18 North Beach Street – later T. B. Macaulay’s haberdashery and now (2022) Delights delicatessen. Macdonald remodelled 18 North Beach Street and built a new house to its rear, moving there in February 1868.

18 North Beach Street, Stornoway, with 5 Bank Street behind (the blue building)

The address assigned to the Macdonald family in the Census of 1871 was ‘5 Bank Street’. The preceding entry recorded Charles Morrison, with his own family and shop assistants, at ‘6 Point Street Lane’. Point Street Lane may have been yet another name for Bank Street.

It seems likely that ‘6 Point Street Lane’ eventually became 5 Bank Street, and it was here that Charles Morrison conducted business for most of his life. It is intriguing to realise that by 1871 Angus Macdonald and Charles Morrison, who fell out so fiercely in 1864, were living and working next door to one another. Perhaps they got over their disagreement and became amicable neighbours until Macdonald’s untimely death in 1874. Macdonald’s stock and the tenancy of his shop at 18 North Beach Street were advertised for sale in 1875. His widow, Eliza, quickly remarried.

The building in which Charles Morrison’s shop was established by 1871 had been erected in 1867. Its predecessor on the same site was Stornoway’s first Sailors’ Home. An article of 1853 recorded Sir James Matheson’s gift of ‘a new house’ to be used as a Sailors’ Home. Other accounts reveal that the Home was supervised by ‘Big Meg’ and had a coffee room to ‘keep poor “Jack” from the grog shops’ . When the building was demolished in 1867, presumably for street widening, Matheson sold the property to Alexander Mackenzie junior. Mackenzie – variously described as a joiner and an architect – may have designed and constructed the replacement building himself.

Advertisement of 1899

Mackenzie’s new building accommodated his workshop at one end (on Bank Street) and Mackenzie & Macfarlane’s drapery, grocery and ironmongery shop (est. 1867) at the other end. Charles Morrison had set up his shop in the Bank Street end of the building – presumably in Mackenzie’s former workshop – by 1871, but it was not until 1914 that he acquired ownership of the premises from Mackenzie’s heirs. Charles’s family had moved out by 1881 and it is rumoured that the upper-floor rooms were then used to accommodate herring girls during the fishing season.

Advertisement of 1921

In 1927, several years after Charles’s death, his daughter-in-law purchased Mackenzie & Macfarlane’s (‘Holy Alec’s’) half of the building for £800. From then until 2002 Charles Morrison & Son Ltd (incorporated 1928) comprised the two shops.

‘Charlie Morrison’s’ (or Buth Thearlaich in Gaelic) was famous for selling rope, paraffin, paints – indeed, all kinds of hardware – and its main customers were crofters and fishermen. Until the 1940s Charles’s daughter-in-law had her own china and glass shop in Cromwell Street. After this closed, china and glass was sold in the reorganised Point Street shop. Due to lack of space, however, a separate china and glass shop opened in a converted garage in Keith Street (‘Murrays Garage’); this closed in the late 1960s and the building was subsequently used solely for storage. In addition, for many years the firm ran the Shell Depot in James Street through its subsidiary, Charles Morrison & Son (Oils) Ltd.

The two main shops, with their separate entrances in Point Street and Bank Street and equal access to a central cash booth, continued to thrive, descending through four generations of the Morrison family, who celebrated the centenary of the company in 1864. After the business closed upon the retirement of the manager, Neil Macdonald, in 2002, the premises were taken over by the Digby Chick, one of Stornoway’s most popular restaurants. Its closure during the Coronavirus pandemic prompted almost as much anguish as the earlier demise of Charlie Morrison’s.

The Morrison family around 1878

Something must be added about Charles Morrison’s personal life and character. By 1863, when the diary begins, he was courting Christina Gerrie (1838-1921; often ‘C’ in the diary), whose sister Georgina was married to Matthew Russell. The Gerries came from the same area as Charles, having farmed at Proncy Mains near Dornoch until the estate went bankrupt in 1841. In 1844 William Gerrie (1790-1863), Christina’s father, took up the role of ‘Inspector of Roads and Bridges’ to Sir James Matheson (1796-1878). Having made his fortune in the Orient trading opium and tea, Matheson purchased the island in 1844 and built the magnificently crenellated Lews Castle, overlooking the town and its harbour. Gerrie was involved in the creation of the castle grounds and the construction of roads throughout the island. When his work for Matheson was completed, Gerrie moved his family to Goathill Farm just outside Stornoway.

Charles and Christina Morrison c.1905

Socially, the Gerries were a cut above Charles Morrison and opposed his relationship with Christina. Nevertheless, Charles and Christina were married in September 1864 and went on to have seven children. The family was fairly peripatetic, living at various addresses in Stornoway (in Kenneth Street, Point Street, Francis Street, Cromwell Street and Lewis Street) before settling, in 1905, at Dornoch House in Goathill Road.

Many years after his death Charles Morrison was remembered in Stornoway ‘as a dapper, well dressed gentleman who wore a “cut-away” black morning coat, hard lum hat and stiff white collar and tie’. According to his obituary in the Highland News, he was ‘a man of marvellous personal activity, clear of intellect, and alert in business; and his swiftly moving figure has been familiar to several generations of Stornowegians as he darted swiftly from place to place – indeed, it may be said that he seldom walked’. He was actively engaged in his business, alongside his son Matthew, until his last short illness.

Charles Morrison c.1895

Neatly written entries in Charles’s personal diary of 1863-64, a small black notebook, chart the development of his romantic relationship with Christina, the progress of his business, the economy and daily news of Stornoway, local characters, and – something of possible interest to church historians – details of Sunday sermons delivered at the United Presbyterian (‘UP’) Church in James Street. Original spelling and (very sparse) punctuation have been retained.

Morrison Headstone, Sandwick Cemetery

Please do not reproduce from Charles Morrison’s diary without permission from the family.

Comments from an old version of this post, now deactivated, have been pasted below for interest. Apologies for the poor resolution.

This entry was posted in Charles Morrison, Stornoway History. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Introducing Charles Morrison, A Stornoway Shopkeeper

  1. Pingback: Remnants of Victorian Stornoway: the Lews (now Lewis) Hotel | Building Our Past

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