The Soap Man: Lewis, Harris and Lord Leverhulme

The Soap Man: Lewis, Harris and Lord Leverhulme

The Soap Man: Lewis, Harris and Lord Leverhulme

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 revolutionise the lives and environments of its 30,000 people, and those of neighbouring 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.


The Highlands and Islands of Scotland have seen a greater variety of landowning thugs, philanthropists, oafs and autocrats than any comparable region of the western world. of them all, William, Viscount Leverhulme must be the most perplexing. He owned the largest single landmass in the Hebridean chain for less than a hundred months, yet in that short period he succeeded in dividing and confusing more intelligent people than seems possible.

To his family and his friends he was a good and simple soul brought low by Highland intransigence. To his acquaintances in Scottish government he became an irritant hardly to be borne. To the Gaelic Society of Inverness he was an English interloper trampling on a fragile heritage. To his fellow businessmen and directors of Lever Brothers he was an old but still formidable widower building castles in the sky. To the people of Lewis and Harris he was all of those things, occasionally at the same time, and ultimately another in a very long line of proprietors who could not bring themselves to understand the attachments and exigencies of their Hebridean lives.

Leverhulme’s impact on Lewis and Harris in the first quarter of the twentieth century can still be felt today, and will resonate into the future. the period spent researching and writing this book coincided with the passage of a Land Reform Bill in Scotland. This piece of legislation offers to Highland crofters the right to purchase through their communities the land upon which they live and work.

For most Scottish crofters this represents an historical opportunity: their first chance to take control of their inherited home. Those in Lewis, however, might have enjoyed this privilege for more than eighty years, had their grandparents and their parents accepted an extraordinary offer made by Leverhulme during his brief period as their landlord. Some of . . .

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