I lived in Glasgow for 17 years and I always said I would never move back to Lewis. I remember the moment I changed my mind. I was out for a run in the Castle Grounds.
This is a place I really love. It’s beautiful, it’s open, it’s green, it affords amazing views, particularly from the top of Gallows Hill, and it’s as invigorating as it is relaxing when you’re following the Creed.
It’s still my favourite place to go running but it’s also become the first place I take my children if we’re heading outdoors. They’ve both been round it many times in a buggy but now love exploring all the paths and pelting down them, full speed, trying to beat each other to the bottom (although this tends to end in tears as they’re aged five and two).
The Castle Grounds is arguably the greatest amenity we have on the whole of the Isle of Lewis — Stornoway the town might be a bit bleak without it — so I was quite confused when I saw pictures on Facebook this week, decrying its current state as “a disgrace” (the only thing I think is disgraceful is the amount of dog poo — pick up after your dogs please, people) and a landscape of “degradation” and “desolation”.
I didn’t recognise this place they were talking about. Part of me means that literally as I had to look really hard at the pictures to make out where they had been taken — and I think I know the grounds pretty well. If we have such a blighted landscape, I certainly hadn’t noticed before.
Armed with my iPhone, I went out for a run with the dog, determined to have a good look round to see exactly what folk were talking about.
Overall, the grounds do look different now, with the removal of all the rhododendrons, but the bald fact is, they had to go, and I don’t think that what we’ve been left with is worse. It’s also a work in progress. The current state of the grounds is not the end of the story.
I realised that I don’t normally look to my right when I’m running out the Low Road past Cuddy Point. Usually I’m too busy looking out across the harbour. Seeing how high or low the tide is, whether the ferry is in, and if the visibility is good enough to see to An Teallach.
I don’t normally look for trashed ground either but I did this time. Admittedly, there is quite a bit. Particularly on the stretch from Sober Island to the high lookout point.
But there were also many good things to see that weren’t visible before the rhoddies were cleared. Some of them are obvious built landmarks, like the stone hut beside the Creed and the many paths that are now accessible.
More subtle improvements include clumps of wild flowers — the daffodils along the harbour wall are beautiful just now — and patches where the ground is carpeted in vivid green moss. This is new and the beginnings of renewal.
The rhoddies that were so synonymous with the grounds were toxic to the soil and hugely invasive. If you had peered under those pretty purple flowers, you would have seen black and dead earth because of their acidity. Look up the countrysideinfo website and you will see the rhododendron is called ‘A Killer of the Countryside’. But I did wonder what the Stornoway Trust’s plan was, going forward. Having known the factor, Iain Maciver, since my Gazette days, I gave him a call.
I wondered, did he recognise the rhoddie eradication had left a landscaping issue? “Of course, that goes without saying. We’re certainly aware that we need to do, and our intention is to do, regeneration works of the grounds. A priority for the Trust is to continue that work.”
Well, do they have a plan? The answer is yes — a £5.5million plan under the Parks for People project, that involves “extensive replanting and reinstatement of the grounds as they were in Leverhulme and Matheson’s time (which did not involve rhoddies)”. They hope to include more exotic species, reinstate the castle nursery, create an adventure play area, and improve signage, access and drainage.
The problem is money. Most of it has been secured, including £3.9million from the Heritage Lottery Fund, but there is still a funding gap of around £600,000. “I would love to have it ready tomorrow,” said Iain, “but we’re going through this process just now with the funders to satisfy them that we have everything in place.”
But did they really have to get rid of ALL the rhoddies? “The type of rhododendron that was in the grounds was rhododendron ponticum which leaves the ground very acidic. It prevents other plants from germinating and growing; it’s not good for bird life: it’s not good for the ground and it’s a hugely invasive species.
“We were told before we started the Millennium Forest scheme, back in the 90s, that if we weren’t going to address the rhododendron problem that time, by 2020 or so the grounds would be virtually submerged in rhoddies.
“The problem with leaving part is that you’re leaving seed sources that spread and the most effective way (forward) is to try and clear. You have to continue monitoring the cleared areas before you start planting. It takes time (but) in places we’re seeing already positive signs of regeneration of other types of trees and species.”
He added: “Some of the rhoddies were 10 or 12ft high but nothing grows underneath them — that’s why some of the areas are so black. The leaves drop off and it’s a very, very acidic plant. We’re giving that soil a chance to recover.”
I think the Trust has done a lot of work to look after and improve the Castle Grounds. The clearance of the rhoddies made the creation of the mountain bike trails possible. Go back a little further, and there wasn’t even a Woodlands Centre! Hard to imagine now, but it was all the way back to the car and a drive home before you could get a cup of tea.
Iain Maciver said: “The onus is on the Trust to look after the Castle Grounds and everybody involved has to take that seriously because, if they don’t, they are in breach of the Deed of Trust. I accept that things aren’t as you would like them to be, but in order to address it you have to take action that is not that sightly at the moment.”
He added: “If people are happy to offer their labour, we’d be happy to try and accommodate that because there’s 600 hectares and the more hands we have to manage and maintain these acres the better.”
Getting rid of the rhoddies — and it’s an ongoing process — has altered the landscape, for sure, and it’s altered the way we experience the grounds too.
Take this as a bit of tongue-in-cheek nostalgia from my (picture shy) better half, who fondly remembers ‘bush walking’ when he was wee — i.e., flinging himself onto the giant bushes from a great height. “What’s the world coming to when the youth of today can’t lob themselves off a cliff knowing the rhoddies will break their fall…?!”
It’s the easiest thing in the world to knock what you’ve got but the Castle Grounds are still great and there can’t be many towns in Scotland that have as much parkland in relation to the size of their built area as we do.
It’s our Hyde Park — even to the fact it hosts the brilliant Hebridean Celtic Music Festival — and it makes our town.
Whenever I venture into the grounds — rain, hail or shine and even if it’s just to the Woodlands Centre — I’m always glad I live here.