The Soap Man: Lewis, Harris and Lord Leverhulme
In 1918, as the First World War was drawing to a close, the eminent liberal industrial Lord Leverhulme bought—lock, stock and barrel—the Hebridean island of Lewis. His intention was to revolutionize the lives and environments of its 30,000 people, and those of neighboring Harris, which he shortly added to his estate. For the next five years a state of conflict reigned in the Hebrides. Island seamen and servicemen returned from the war to discover a new landlord whose declared aim was to uproot their identity as independent crofter/fishermen and turn them into tenured wage-owners. They fought back, and this is the story of that fight. The confrontation resulted in riot and land seizure and imprisonment for the islanders and the ultimate defeat for one of the most powerful men of his day. The Soap Man paints a beguiling portrait of the driven figure of Lord Leverhulme, but also looks for the first time at the infantry of his opposition: the men and women of Lewis and Harris who for long hard years fought the law, their landowner, local business opinion and the entire media, to preserve the settled crofting population of their islands.
franchise was yet more dramatic, rising from a mere handful of property-owners to thousands of crofting tenants. Despite being obliged to register themselves as new voters at the Ross-shire county seat of Dingwall, more than 100 miles and at least a day’s journey away on the east coast of the mainland, a huge number of freshly enfranchised Leodhasaich were qualified to enter a polling station in the November and December General Election of 1885. Alive to the origins and aspirations of most of
Shawbost or Lochs. That was the breathtaking summation of his few weeks of observation and conclusion. Its almost unimaginable scale would have made it preposterous from any other source. Issuing as it did from the multi-millionaire creator of Lever Brothers, its giddy immensity seemed almost seductive. Lewis would become an island of at least 200,000 people – six times more than had ever lived there. Stornoway would be an industrial and trading metropolis to rival Glasgow or Liverpool. Commuter
unfolded. Things could only improve as the days lengthened. They could hardly get any worse. Lord Leverhulme arrived in Lewis two weeks after the calamity. He had not been idle in the interim. His donation of £1,000 topped the bill of the Iolaire disaster fund (the second-placed candidate at the recent election, W.D. Mitchell Cotts, followed him with £500). And he was determined to get to work himself and to put the island to work, which this practical man, who was no stranger to bereavement,
with his glittering guests from the outside world. They could be thirsty affairs. In the first couple of years the teetotal Leverhulme often had to be reminded to pass round the whisky bottle. In 1921 the island of Lewis voted for the prohibition of retail alcohol. This local by-law was agreed upon two years after Andrew Volstead’s National Prohibition Act had been enforced across all of the United States. It was not an unusual measure, at the time or later, in the Protestant Celtic fringes of
many if not all the troubles in Lewis would vanish, if you see your way to adopt the suggestions which I make. It does seem a pity that the whole future of the island for years to come should be jeopardised and indeed wrecked on account of a difference in policy regarding two small farms.’46 All that the Secretary of State got for his trouble from Lord Leverhulme were threats of a total capital withdrawal, noisy insistences that Lewis ex-servicemen should be prosecuted for planting potatoes in