THE transformation of historic Lews Castle in the Western Isles took another major step forward today as the foundations for the new Museum and Archive extension were laid.
When completed in July of 2015 the new Museum of the Western Isles - a single storey structure of stainless steel, glass and Caithness stone - will become a permanent home for six of the world-famous Lewis Chessmen and other treasures of the islands.
Work on the £8.5 million contract, which also includes major repair and restoration works to the castle in Stornoway, is being carried out by Graham Construction. The long awaited refurbishment of the castle, closed for almost 25 years, was delayed for three months last year after the main contractor went into administration.
Western isles Council (Comhairle nan Eilean Siar), who now own the building, awarded the contract to complete Phase One of the renovation contract in February to local firm Neil Mackay and Co.
A spokesman for the council said: “Over the next few months the new museum and archive - a single storey structure of stainless steel, glass and Caithness stone designed by Malcolm Fraser Architects of Edinburgh - will emerge on the site of the castle’s former glasshouses, which were demolished after the Second World War. The juxtaposition of new against the old will have echoes of the relationship between the magnificent Victorian glasshouses and the A-Listed Castle.
“The museum will provide substantially enlarged display space and important new facilities including a special exhibitions gallery for local and national exhibitions and a bright attractive learning and community space within an existing sheltered courtyard.”
He continued: “Gaelic-led interpretation in the museum galleries will focus on stories of the land, the sea and the people of the Outer Hebrides. For visitors and local people the new museum and archive will be a gateway to a unique heritage resource – a network of local museums, historical societies, collections, archives, important sites and buildings, archaeology and a living Gaelic culture with a rich oral history.”
The spokesman added: “The work to the interior of the Castle will include full restoration of the public rooms to their period splendour for functions and hospitality use. A new glazed roof over an inner courtyard featuring remnants of the 17th century Seaforth Lodge will create a visitor link between the Castle and the museum.
“Comhairle nan Eilean Siar has identified a preferred hospitality partner for the project and is currently working to secure a funding package for the final phase of works to convert the upper floors of the Castle to create high quality hospitality accommodation.”
Councillor Angus Campbell, the leader of the council, said: “This is an important milestone for the Comhairle and the communities of the Outer Hebrides. The Comhairle is committed to investment in a new museum and archive building and a heritage service with the potential to deliver significant regeneration and cultural benefits for communities spread across the islands.”
Lews Castle was built in the years 1847-57 as a country house for opium baron Sir James Matheson, who had bought the whole island a few years previously with his fortune from the Chinese opium trade.
In 1918, the Lewis estate including the castle was bought by industrialist Lord Leverhulme from the Matheson family. He gifted the castle to the people of Stornoway parish in 1923.