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 an apprenticeship 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 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. Despite having the same surname, she doesn’t appear to have been related to Angus.
This period of Charles’s life is covered in his diary, which is published in this blog.
Macdonald & Morrison’s partnership was dissolved rather 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. It was always thought that Charles opened his shop at 5 Bank Street in 1864, but the story is not that straightforward.
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; the formation of Percival Square, and extensions to both North Beach and Cromwell Street quays. Macdonald had bought buildings ‘facing North Beach Street, all near the new National Bank’ (John O’Groat Journal 28 February 1867, 2). This included 18 North Beach Street – later T. B. Macaulay’s haberdashery and now (2017) Delights delicatessen. In 1867 Macdonald remodelled 18 North Beach Street and built a new house to its rear. He moved there in February 1868.
Since first publishing this blog, I have been contacted by Catherine Beveridge, a descendant of Charles Morrison’s erstwhile business partner Angus Macdonald. It turns out that Angus also kept a diary in the 1860s, and Catherine has kindly shared this with me! This exciting discovery sheds more light on Stornoway businesses in the 1860s, and refers to the building works at 5 Bank Street. The key entries can be seen here.
The house to the rear was 5 Bank Street. The Macdonald family is shown living there, with their salesmen, in the Census of 1871. Thus 18 North Beach Street and 5 Bank Street were unified in single ownership, just as they had been in 1821, as shown on John Wood’s map of the town which identified the plot as belonging to ‘Mrs Millar’. In the same Census of 1871, Charles, with his family and shop assistants, was recorded at 6 Point Street Lane. This address is difficult to pinpoint. It was listed in the Census Schedule immediately before 5 Bank Street, with no intervening properties. Today, 6 Point Street lies at the corner of Quay Street, but this may have been different from Point Street Lane.
It looks as if Charles Morrison and Angus Macdonald got over the disagreement recorded in Charles’s diary of 1863-64, and remained close neighbours until Macdonald’s death in 1874. Macdonald’s stock and the tenancy of his shop at 18 North Beach Street were advertised for sale in 1875 (Glasgow Herald, 3 February 1875, 2). His widow, Eliza, remarried in 1875. It was probably around this time that Charles acquired 5 Bank Street and created a new shop in the Macdonalds’ former living rooms. Meanwhile, the Morrison family moved from Point Street Lane to Cromwell Street.
Once established at 5 Bank Street, Charles Morrison thrived. In the 20th century his shop expanded, absorbing the neighbouring premises of Mackenzie and Macfarlane (‘Holy Alec’s’) at 28-30 Point Street. At one time, herring girls were accommodated on the upper floor.
‘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. The shop – or rather the two shops, with their separate entrances on Bank Street and Point Street – descended through four generations of the Morrison family, who celebrated the centenary of the company in 1964. After the shop closed in 2002, the building was taken over by the ‘Digby Chick’, one of Stornoway’s best restaurants.
By 1863, when the diary begins, Charles 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 Lews Castle, overlooking the town and the 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.
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 had seven children. They lived at various addresses in Stornoway (on Kenneth Street, Point Street, Francis Street, Cromwell Street and Lewis Street) before settling, around 1904, at Dornoch House on 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.
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 the subject of Sunday sermons delivered at the United Presbyterian (‘UP’) Church on James Street. Original spelling and (very sparse) punctuation have been retained.
The text of the diary is copyright K. Morrison.