Lews Castle, overlooking the inner harbour, was built between 1847 and 1857 as a country house for Sir James Matheson who had bought the whole island in 1844 with his fortune from the Chinese Opium trade.
The castle incorporates part of the 17th Century Seaforth Lodge, which had been the seat of the Mackenzies of Seaforth. Parts of this original lodge can still be seen within the walls of the mezzanine at the rear of the present castle, however most of the lodge was destroyed to make way for the castle.
The castle was designed by Glasgow architect Charles Wilson and cost £60,000 to build. A further £49,000 was spent on developing the grounds around the castle into extensive woodland and gardens, where a wide range of native and imported species were planted. In 1875 a large conservatory complex was added that housed exotic and delicate species.
Following Sir Matheson’s death in 1878 the estate fell to various members of the Matheson family, but, due to financial reasons, was eventually put on the market in 1917.
In 1918 the island, along with the castle, was bought by William Hesketh Lever, a business man from Bolton in Lancashire. Leverhulme (the ‘Hulme’ part of his name is added in honour of his wife and at his insistence) gave the Castle electric lighting, central heating, numerous bathrooms and intercom telephones. In 1923 Lord Leverhulme gifted Lews Castle and 64,000 acres of land to the people of Stornoway parish and the Stornoway Trust was established to manage this substantial estate on behalf of the community.
During World War II (1939-45) the Castle was used as accommodation for the 700 Naval Air Squadron, who operated a detachment of six Supermarine Walrus aircraft from the castle grounds. From the early 1950s until 1989, when structural problems were discovered, the Castle served as a Technical College and school – Lews Castle College. Although partly re-occupied after major repairs, the Castle gradually fell out of use and has been vacant since the mid 1990s.
In 2006 a wide ranging feasibility study concluded that the Castle should be repaired and adapted to provide a new and enhanced Museum nan Eilean along with a high quality hotel with function spaces. The museum is due to open in the summer of 2015 with the hotel following two years later.