For decades, gargoyles guarded empty rooms and wooden boards blacked out windows.
The towers of Lews Castle could be seen cutting proudly into the skyline beyond Stornoway harbour, but up close, there was nothing to see – despite my childhood attempts to find a crack in the glass to peer through.
That all changed in 2017, when painstaking restoration work on the Gothic Revival-style 19th century castle was officially completed. The transformation cost nearly £20 million and took three years, but the result is spectacular.
After decades of seeing Lews Castle as a ruin, I knew I needed to experience its new lease of life up close.
I was vaguely aware of the building’s history already. I knew it had been built for opium baron Sir James Matheson in the 1840s, before being sold to Lord Leverhulme in 1918, who then gifted the castle and the surrounding area to the parish of Stornoway in 1923. Lews Castle became a naval hospital in World War II, and was used as student accommodation for the local college in the Seventies and Eighties before it fell into the disrepair I remember as a child. What would it look like today?
I arrived at the Castle late one summer afternoon, making my way inside through an imposing entrance that immediately deposits you in one of the most beautiful parts of the building: the corridor. That might sound odd, the description of a corridor as ‘beautiful,’ but it makes sense when you see it: a long, narrow hallway with arched ceilings painted in a dazzling starscape of blue and gold. I walked through it with my neck craned upwards, my eyes trained skyward.
The other public spaces on the ground floor are equally impressive, each individually restored to their former glory. The ballroom, with its high ceilings and elegant windows overlooking the harbour, is a Victorian interpretation of Georgian elegance that shows off intricate plasterwork on the chandelier-adorned ceiling. Walking beneath the glittering lights, I could almost imagine the lavish parties that would have taken place beneath them all those years ago.
Then there’s the eastern-facing morning room – so chosen for its abundance of natural light – which features delicate botanical wall paintings that were uncovered and added to during the restoration, bringing the height of Victorian interior design fashion to modern-day Stornoway. And discretely hidden nearby by the side of the sweeping staircase is a living room for guests only, with Harris-tweed upholstered chairs, a grand fireplace, and carefully curated books and ornaments scattered on shelves and coffee tables.
Upstairs, however, the self-catering apartments run by Natural Retreats are all 21st century style, with just hints of history.
Some dislike the modern additions – in the rooms and the architecture of the attached Museum nan Eilean, the latter constructed of weather-proofed stainless steel – but I think the contrast works well, bringing the building into the light of the present day while still holding on to its past.
“Harris,” my room on the second floor of Lews Castle, was bright, white, and minimalist, with pops of colour for contrast: green Harris Tweed cushions, abstract paintings, and a slip of red ribbon on the complimentary oatcakes. I was there for one night only, and my only objective was to relax. (With the welcome basket of goodies from Uist and Ness, and a bottle of wine, not to mention having the giant squishy bed and TV remote to myself, relaxing wasn’t hard to do!)
I wound down before bed over a Harris Gin in the sleek bar, just off the ballroom, and woke up the next morning with a cappuccino in the Storehouse Café, feeling rested and relaxed (not to mention pretty excited: I had just stayed the night in a castle, the same one I had played adventures outside as a child!).
For visitors new to the islands, though, there’s plenty to do other than lounge in your comfy hotel bed. Natural Retreats has an on-site Retreat Manager, who acts as your travel concierge to help with your adventures in the Outer Hebrides; after all, you’re only a short drive from the likes of the Callanish Stones, the Butt of Lewis, and even the beautiful beaches of Harris.
The Castle Grounds are on your doorstep, and cover acres of land outside the town (I love wandering through them now just as much as I did as a child, when every tree-lined path seemed full of adventure). And of course, the new island museum is just a few minutes away down the elegant staircase; it plays home to a selection of the famous Lewis Chessmen, and gives a brilliant, multimedia insight into life (past and present) in the Outer Hebrides.
Whether you’re staying the night or not, Lews Castle has so much to offer, for locals and visitors alike.
You can pop in for a coffee at the new café, enjoy an Isle of Harris Gin at the bar, attend any number of events in the ballroom (it’s hosted everything from weddings to tea parties), and get a taste of island life in the museum. It’s all a far cry from the lifeless, boarded-up ruin I saw on woodland walks as a child. Now, passers-by don’t have to imagine life inside in the castle, as I once did – they can go inside and experience it for themselves.
NEED TO KNOW
How do I get there? Lews Castle is only a short drive from the Stornoway ferry terminal and airport, and about a 15 minute walk from the centre of town. Whatever your mode of transport, head out along Bayhead Street and look out for signs for the Castle Grounds and Lews Castle – you’ll be at your castle accommodation in no time.
How much does it cost? Accommodation at Lews Castle starts at £110 a night. Entry to the public spaces and museum are free, although donations are welcomed at the latter.
What do I need to bring? The Natural Retreats apartments are self-catering, so although you’ll get a welcome basket full of local goodies, you’ll need to bring your own food (or order it via the personal food delivery service before arriving). Note that if you’re staying in one of the bedrooms, there is no mini-fridge to keep food and drink cold, so you’ll have to rely on the café or bar downstairs.
Have you ever stayed the night in a castle, or would you like to? What do you think of the new Lews Castle?
Let me know in the comments below – I’d love to hear from you!
Many thanks to Natural Retreats for hosting me during my stay at Lews Castle. As always, all opinions – and love of Hebridean history! – are entirely my own.