By Eilidh Whiteford
Believed to be one of the older buildings surviving in Stornoway, Glen House has, at long last, been saved from ruin, repaired and refurbished.
A solid two-storey, stone built structure, Glen House has stood within the boundaries of Lews Castle Grounds, on Willowglen Road, for around 160 years.
The origins of Glen House are unclear – although local planners suggest there has been a house on the site since as far back as 1785, there is no indication of a structure on a 1821 Stornoway Town Plan, nor any mention of the house in the first census of 1841. However, the Admiralty Chart of Stornoway Harbour for 1846 does indicate a small buildings at the site of Glen House, marked 'school'.
The first Ordnance Survey map of Stornoway was completed in 1849, with the first edition of the map showing a large building at the Glen House site. This was marked as 'Mill Glen' when recorded in the 1951 census records a few years later.
In 1857, however, speculation ends, as the property became home to Henry Caunter, a man of science and close friend of landlord Sir James Matheson – and some of the most interesting times of Glen House began!
Caunter had moved to Lewis to aid Matheson's plans to bring industry to the islands, and was tasked with investigating and exploiting the islands' vast peatlands to produce the newly discovered fuel, paraffin, for the lighting oil market.
A single storey extension to Glen House was built by stonemason Donald Morison, and used to house the laboratory of a sharp young chemist, Dr Benjamin Paul, who was appointed in 1858 to develop Caunter's fledgling works into large scale production.
Caunter continued to live in the house until his death in 1881, joined in his last years by his spinster daughter Sarah. By 1885, Matheson's piper Thomas Mackay had taken up residence. Later residents came and went, including Lewis Factor Hugh Macleod in 1905, and, later, the family of local bakers Hugh Matheson.
In July 1942, however, as war raged, the Admiralty formally requisitioned Glen House for occupation by naval officers in charge at Stornoway.
After the war, Glen House was again rented from landlords The Stornoway Trust by a variety of different tenants, the last being DM Smith, Stornoway Estate Factor, who lived there from the mid-1960s.
In 1980, however, the shutters went up and Glen House lay empty, abandoned to the ravages of time and the Hebridean weather.
Another century turned, and in 2016 GlenHouse was opened up once again, set to become 'The Hub', home of local cycle repair business BeSpoke Bicycles, run by owner Alistair Glover.
Once initial repair work started, it soon became apparent that the building was in a much worse state than previously thought. Water was pouring in through the damaged roof; window frames had rotted and been vandalised and the stairs had dropped due to rotten ground floor joists, which had been decimated by wood worm and wet rot thanks to a small river discovered running through the house underneath the floorboards!
The building was suffering major mould growth, the electrics were old and unsafe, and the mains plumbing had serious leaks and blocked drains. Outside, trees grew out of the chimneys and the once renowned gardens were overgrown with rhododendron and weeds.
A year and a half of hard work followed, as Alistair and friends repaired the main house roof, replaced all the windows and doors, and completely replaced and rebuilt the ground floor joists and floorboards.
All the electrics, plumbing and drainage systems have been repaired and renewed, the premises fully insulated, and Donald Morison’s extension – the roof of which was nearing collapse – has been re-roofed to be Hebridean weather-proof once more.
Outside, the Glen House gardens have been cleared and are returning to their former glory, offering a new peaceful place for islanders and visitors alike to sit and watch the world go by, beside the gently flowing Glen River.
And one of Stornoway’s oldest buildings lives to serve those in its local community once again!
Photos by kind permission of BeSpoke Bicycles.
A full history of Glen House, its occupants and their lives, written by Dr Ali Whiteford, can be found at the BeSpoke Bicycle Repairs & Upgrades’ Facebook page