Western Isles opium castle in restoration of the year final

Lews Castle. Picture: Contributed
Lews Castle. Picture: Contributed
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A HISTORIC Scotish castle built by a Scots opium baron has made it through to the final of the Great British Buildings Restoration.

Lews Castle on the Isle of Lewis beat off stiff competition to be named a joint winner of the Victorian category in the competition organised by the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors and featured on Channel 4.

The castle was built in the years 1847-57 as a country house for 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.

During WWII the Castle was taken over as accommodation for air and ground crew of British forces. After the war, the Castle was also used for accommodation for students of Lews Castle College, which is located in the grounds.

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Historic Building surveyor Marianne Suhr was featured in this week’s episode visiting the restored Castle, which had suffered for decades with the harsh Hebridean weather but now stands proud again.

The judges were blown away by the impressive restoration of the gothic revival style castle saying: “It was such a difficult building that had been out of use for forty years so finding a new use was going to be a major achievement.

“It would have been so easy to have taken a lesser route but in this instance they grabbed it by the horns and they have given a real full- blooded restoration.”

The Castle had fallen into disrepair and sat empty for decades until its re-birth as an innovative heritage and hospitality destination.

The £19.5 million regeneration project was led by Western Isles Council with financial support coming from the Heritage Lottery Fund, Historic Environment Scotland, Highlands and Islands Enterprise, Scottish Government, European Regional Development Fund and Bord na Gaidhlig.

The castle is home to the recently opened Museum nan Eilean, where six of the world famous 12th century ivory Lewis Chessmen from the British Museum collection are now on permanent display.

Lews has four restored ground floor rooms – the Ballroom, Dining Room, Library and Morning Room – which are now open to the public and can be hired for fully catered weddings, conferences and events.

The Castle’s upper floor boasts luxury holiday accommodation including suites and one, two and three bedroom self-catering apartments.

Travel and leisure company Natural Retreats has played a significant role in enhancing the splendour of Lews Castle through a partnership with Comhairle nan Eilean Siar.

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The company has created a stunning wedding and conference venue with luxury accommodation.

Matt Spence, founder of Natural Retreats said: “It is fantastic to see the loving restoration of Lews Castle acknowledged in this way.

“We hope that viewers of Great British Buildings Restoration of the Year will be inspired to come and see it for themselves. A spectacular building in a beautiful part of Scotland, we are privileged to operate it and look forward to welcoming our first guests at Easter.”