Lews Castle

By Craig Neil
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Summary

Lews Castle is a Victorian-era castle situated in the heart of historic Stornoway on the Isle of Lewis.

The castle is a popular tourist destination thanks to its extensive landscaped gardens as well as an excellent on-site cafe and gift shop.

The main point of interest is the museum which features video displays, artefacts from across the island, and the famous Lewis chessmen.

Address:Lews Castle,
Castle Grounds,
Stornoway,
HS2 0XS
Opening Hours:Museum: April – September (Tuesday – Saturday, 10am-5pm).
October – March (Tuesday – Saturday, 1pm-4pm).

Cafe & shop: Mon - Sun – 10am-4pm.
Admission Price:Free
Parking:Free on-site parking
Contact:01851 822746
museum@cne-siar.gov.uk
Facilities:Shop, cafe, toilets, whisky bar

The highlights

1: The main highlight of a visit to Lews Castle has to be the museum and its fascinating collection of Lewis Chessmen.

These intricately-carved 12th-century figurines are remarkably well preserved and provide an insight into the culture of Norway and Scotland at the time.

Other points of interest in the museum are a series of rotating exhibitions about Lewis and its people, artefacts recovered from across the island, and video displays that discuss the landscape and wildlife of the island.

2: While there isn’t much to do inside the castle itself, the gardens are well worth a good wander around.

When the castle was originally built almost as much money was additionally spent on the gardens, and they continue to impress to this day.

The paths are well maintained and thread their way across 270 hectares surrounding Lews Castle.

3: The cafe in Lews Castle is well worth a mention, not just for the delicious food but also for the friendly and helpful staff that work there.

You’ll be able to fill hungry bellies with an assortment of home-baked treats as well as hot meals, and for a tourist attraction the prices are quite reasonable.

Lews Castle

Visiting tips

1: The main part of Lews Castle is set up for wedding parties rather than tourists, but the rooms are open to walk around at your leisure.

To make the most of a visit I recommend taking a peek in the ballroom and adjoining rooms before heading to the museum and cafe.

2: There’s a decent-size car park behind Lews Castle but instead of just driving to it you might consider parking near the harbour where you can walk along the harbour front – chips in hand – before crossing a bridge that leads directly to Lews Castle grounds.

From there you can explore the gardens (free of charge) and then head inside Lews Castle to visit the museum.

3: If this is your first time on Lewis you might be interested in the video documentaries and the photo exhibition in the museum.

The videos include talking head stories from some of the islanders who recount exactly what it’s like to live in the Outer Hebrides, while the old photos offer a fascinating look at island life before tourism brought so many visitors to Lewis’s shores.


Overview

The Isle of Lewis in Scotland’s Outer Hebrides is one of those places you’ll never forget after a visit.

It’s a big island at 85 square miles (that’s not including Harris) and it’s one that’s full of gorgeous scenery in addition to its ultra-friendly locals, amazing wildlife, and fascinating historic attractions.

Unlike most of Scotland’s west coast islands it even has a large town – Stornoway – which is home to nearly 7,000 people.

The size of Stornoway means it has plenty of things to see and do for tourists, not least of which is Lews Castle.

Lews Castle

The castle sits on the western edge of Stornoway harbour where it overlooks the town on a small hill that offers sweeping views of a flotilla of boats that constantly sail in and out.

Once in the grounds, visitors are free to roam around the enormous gardens (which cover more than 270 hectares) at their leisure, before heading inside to view the museum, cafe, and the castle itself.

Lews Castle is actually much newer than it looks, having been built from 1848 to 1860 by Sir James Matheson who had purchased the entire island several years before using wealth accumulated from the lucrative Chinese opium trade.

As attractive as the architecture is, it doesn’t (in my opinion) have the character of most Scottish castles, but even so there are lots of reasons why it should be placed firmly at the top of a Lewis sightseeing itinerary.

First, the surrounding gardens are lovely, full of huge flower borders, copses of non-native trees, and lots of sculptures seemingly hidden away in every manicured corner.

Lews Castle

Second, the castle is home to a first-class museum dedicated to the culture, people, and natural history of the island.

The museum is worth visiting on its own even if you don’t explore the rest of the castle or the grounds as it’s full of exhibits and features some genuinely interesting video documentaries. And of course, it has a display of the famous Lewis Chessmen.

Lews Castle has a very good cafe (probably the best in Stornoway) and a number of rooms that have been opened to the general public, though sadly these have no information panels and no tour guides on hand so it’s not always clear what each room was used for back in the day.

Entry to the castle and grounds is completely free and there’s no entry charge for the museum either, though they do ask for a voluntary donation at the exit.

Lews Castle

Tourist information

Getting to Lews Castle is easy enough from the centre of Stornoway as the castle dominates the western side of the harbour.

Visitors on foot need simply cross the footbridge at the north end of the A857 while car drivers can take the turning near the Spar filling station and MacLeod’s butchers (home of Stornoway black pudding) which is signposted at the roundabout.

The car park is located just after Stornoway Golf Club and is free to use, as is the rest of the site.

Lews Castle itself is not set up as a tourist attraction but many of the rooms downstairs are open to the public, while the upstairs area is only open to residents.

As the castle’s primary function is as a hotel and wedding venue there isn’t too much to see in those rooms, but the decor is much the same as it would have been when the Matheson family lived there so it’s worth taking a look for that reason alone.

The museum is obviously the main draw primarily for the much-hyped Lewis Chessmen which sit inside a glass chamber in the main exhibit hall.

Lews Castle

There are staff on hand to tell you all about the history of the chess pieces as well as the island and there are lots of exhibits and displays to look at that provide a good insight into life on Lewis.

I’d say a wander around the museum (which is only 4 large rooms) will take around 30-45 minutes, with another 15-minutes for nosing around the rest of the castle.

That being said, the gardens offer at least another hour or more depending on how far you delve into them.

Signposts in the grounds are slightly lacking but if you go to the Lews Castle website you’ll find a mini-map which is handy to have on your phone while walking around the site.

I’ve included a 360° virtual tour at the start of this article which will give you a better overview of the experience, so if you haven’t opened it yet be sure to hit the play button and take a look around.

Lews Castle

As is to be expected there’s a gift shop in the castle which sells a selection of quality locally produced artworks as well as reproductions of the Lewis Chessmen.

After a visit to the museum and gardens you’ll likely be gasping for a drink so the on-site cafe makes a welcome place to take a break.

The food is good, the staff are friendly, and the prices are reasonable, so it’s definitely worth heading to for a bite to eat.

Alternatively, you can cross over to the other side of the harbour where you’ll find several cafes in Stornoway high street, the pick of which has to be the An Lanntair theatre overlooking South Beach car park.

Lews Castle

Explore this area with a detailed paper map from Ordnance Survey:

Central Lewis & Stornoway – 459 Explorer.

Stornoway & North Lewis – 8 Landranger.

OS Explorer Maps: Best for walking, mountain biking, and finding footpaths. 1:25,000 scale (4cm = 1km in real world). Buy OS Explorer maps direct from Ordnance Survey.

OS Landranger Maps: Best for road cycling, touring by car, and finding attractions. 1:50 000 scale (2 cm = 1 km in real world). Buy OS Landranger maps direct from Ordnance Survey.


Things to do nearby

Lewis Loom Centre. Address: 3 Bayhead, Stornoway, HS1 2DU. Distance: 1 mile. A shop in Stornoway that’s an Alladin’s cave of history about Harris Tweed.

In addition to purchasing lengths of authentic Harris Tweed, visitors can watch demonstrations of spinning wheels, dyeing, and weaving.

Calanais Standing Stones. Address: Callanish, Isle of Lewis, HS2 9DY. Distance: 16 miles. Calanais (AKA Callanish) standing stone circle is one of the largest and oldest Neolithic stone circles in the world.

The stones were erected between 2900 and 2600 BC and comprise a circle of 13 stones with a 16-foot monolith in the centre, surrounded by 5 rows of smaller stones.

Tiumpan Head Lighthouse. Address: Isle of Lewis, HS2 0HB. Distance: 12 miles. A lighthouse on the promontory of Tiumpan Head near Stornoway.

The lighthouse is a good place for wildlife watching, not just for seabirds but also for marine animals including seals, dolphins, and whales.

Stornoway Harbour & Town Centre. Address: Stornoway HS1 2DG. Distance: 1 mile. Stornoway harbour is a traditional fishing harbour that is home to a fleet of small boats.

Visitors can enjoy a stroll along the harbour walls while watching the boats sail in and out, and they might even catch sight of the resident harbour seals.

Stornoway high street is just a 5-minute walk away which has a number of shops, cafes, and restaurants.


Frequently asked questions

Who owns Lews Castle?

Lews Castle was built by Sir James Matheson in 1847 but it wasn’t completed until 1854. Following his death in 1878 the castle first passed to his widow, Lady Mary Jane Matheson, then his nephew Donald and grand-nephew Duncan.

In 1918 industrialist William Hesketh Lever purchased the Isle of Lewis including Lews Castle which he subsequently gifted to the people of Stornoway parish in 1923.

The Stornoway Trust was established shortly after 1923 in order to manage the castle but it was later sold to Ross and Cromarty County Council in 1950.
Today, a new council body called Comhairle nan Eilean Siar manages Lews Castle in addition to The Stornoway Trust.

How many Lewis Chessmen are missing?

The Lewis Chessmen are a number of Nordic chess pieces that were discovered on Uig beach on the Isle of Lewis in 1831.

In total, 4 combined chess sets were uncovered of which 82 pieces are held by the British Museum including 11 held by the National Museum of Scotland.
There are 8 kings, 8 queens, 15 knights, 16 bishops, 12 warders, 4 berserkers, and 19 pawns. 

Since the hoard was recovered from Uig, 5 pieces have gone missing – one knight and 4 warders. 1 warder was recovered in 2019 leaving 4 missing pieces in total, plus a suspected 44 pawns that were not part of the hoard but would have been required to complete 4 chess sets.

Who owns the Lewis Chessmen?

The Lewis chessmen are owned by the British Museum and the National Museum of Scotland.

Where is Lews Castle?

Lews Castle is situated in the town of Stornoway on the Isle of Lewis, Scotland. The castle is located on the western bank of Stornoway harbour. Address: Stornoway HS2 0XP.

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