The village of Leverburgh was originally known as An t-Ob, or its Anglicised equivalent of "Obbe". It was changed to Leverburgh in 1921 with the breaking of the first of two waves of change that were to sweep over the village in the 1900s. The name An t-Ob means "the creek" and at the end of the 1800s the settlement here had a weekly steamer to Glasgow and an inn, and supported a small fishing community.
In 1918 Lord Leverhume, founder of the multinational company Unilever, purchased the whole of Lewis and Harris. An t-Ob was part of the Earl of Dunmore's South Harris estate, which Lord Leverhume brought for £36,000. Over the following five years he set to work to transform the economy of Lewis in particular, spending the better part of a million pounds in the process. In 1923 he gave up his plans for Lewis, deciding instead to concentrate on Harris.
An t-Ob, renamed Leverburgh in 1921, was to be the centre of an economic empire founded on fish. Lord Leverhume built and equipped fishing boats and set up a processing plant at Leverburgh including fish smoking and refrigeration facilities, warehousing and accommodation. The idea was to use aircraft to spot shoals of herring, which the fishing boats would then catch and return to Leverburgh for processing. These would supply a 400 strong chain of retail fish shops, called MacFisheries, that Lord Leverhume proposed to set up throughout the UK.
Lord Leverhume died of pneumonia after a trip to Africa in May 1925. £250,000 had been spent on new works and facilities in Leverburgh, but Leverhume's dream died with him, and the plant at Leverburgh was sold for just £5,000 to a demolition company. The vast South Harris estate, purchased in 1918 for £36,000, was sold for just £900.
Today, all that remains of Lord Leverhume's investment are some of the village houses, the Leverhume Memorial School, and the name of the village: and the last of these is gradually shifting back to the original An t-Ob as the move to reintroduce original Gaelic names across the Western Isles gathers momentum.
The result by the mid 1990s was described by Hamish Haswell-Smith in the first edition of The Scottish Islands as "a small, sad, rather down-at-heel port". Things started to change for the better in June 1996 when a second wave of change broke over the village.
This was the start of a direct vehicle ferry across the Sound of Harris from Leverburgh to Otternish on North Uist (it now goes to Berneray). No-one really knew what to expect of this new service: previously it had been necessary to use the triangular service linking Tarbert and Lochmaddy with Uig on Skye to transport a vehicle to North Uist from Harris.
What happened exceeded even the most optimistic of projections, and the Sound of Harris Ferry has been a runaway success. So much so that in 2003 a new, much larger (and quieter), vessel, the MV Loch Portain, took over the service. The impact on Leverburgh has been dramatic and positive. New facilities and services have opened up and it has even been necessary to build a new road to allow ferry traffic to bypass the higher parts of the village.
The result is that Leverburgh is making its way in the 3rd Millennium with a sense of optimism it hasn't experienced since the two short years from 1923 to 1925. Only this time it is based on something a little more substantial than one man's dream.
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