Discovering and sharing the history of Scotland’s island communities

An Enormous Reckless Blunder – The Story of the Lewis Chemical Works

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Keypoints: The story of the works is one of hope, drama and pathos and is inhabited, not only by the curious gentry, but also by academics, scoundrels and the men of Lewis, some of whom moved in unexpected circles. It is a tale of toil and strife, of success and failure, of the adventure of enterprise, but, above all, a tale of man’s quest to improve both himself and society.


Categories: History, Local history, Engineering, Science


Readership: General


Contents: Described as being ‘one of the most enchantingly bizarre episodes in Scottish industrial history,’ the full story of the Lewis Chemical Works is told here for the first time.
In 1844 James Matheson purchased the Isle of Lewis with the vast fortune he had made trading in the Far East. A man with a thirst for knowledge, especially in the fields of science and technology, he was also interested in ways to exploit the abundant natural resources of his new acquisition.
At the same time, in both Dartmoor and Ireland, peat deposits were being used as a source of fuels and other products, creating quite a stir in the markets. Henry Caunter, amateur scientist and business associate of Matheson, carried out experiments on the distillation of peat deposits in Lewis. These showed commercial promise and Matheson financed the development and construction of the Lewis Chemical Works, which would produce, amongst other things, lighting oil and paraffin from peat.


About the author: Born in London but brought up in Bristol, Ali comes from a family of engineers going back four generations. As he grew up he was surrounded by the engineering wonders of Brunel; docks, railways, steamships, and of course the famous Clifton suspension bridge. As a result he developed an abiding interest in 18th and 19th century engineering - and 20th century British motorcycles! He attended Bristol Cathedral School, where he was introduced to Chemistry, afterwards going north to study the subject for a degree at Edinburgh University, where he also undertook a PhD in Chemistry. Ali married a Border lass and they went further north, to the Isle of Lewis where he taught Chemistry for thirty years at the Nicolson Institute in Stornoway, and raised a family of three girls. Now retired, Ali spends his time gardening, cutting peats and making and restoring musical instruments and the odd clock.


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