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Lews Castle in Stornoway, Built by Sir James Matheson
Lews Castle in Stornoway, Built by Sir James Matheson

Sir James Matheson lived from 17 October 1796 to 31 December 1878. He was one of the founders of the Jardine Matheson trading empire and in 1842 purchased the Isle of Lewis, making his home at Lews Castle in Stornoway, which he built. The wider picture in Scotland at the time is set out in our Historical Timeline.

James Matheson was born at Shiness, near Lairg in Sutherland. His father was a trader in India and James was educated at Edinburgh High School and the University of Edinburgh.

After leaving university he followed in his father's footsteps and became a trader in India. In 1828 he went into partnership with fellow Scot, William Jardine, to run the established trading company Magniac and Co. This proved to be a highly successful partnership and on 1 July 1832 they formed Jardine, Matheson and Company Ltd. with the aim of trading opium, tea and other goods to and from China, working closely alongside the British East India Company. The following year the British Parliament revoked monopoly rights of the British East India Company to carry trade between Britain and China, and Jardine Mathesons rapidly displaced them as the most important British trading firm in Asia.

By 1841, Jardine Mathesons had 19 clipper ships, the intercontinental carriers of their day, compared with the 13 of their nearest rivals. They also owned hundreds of small ships, junks and smaller craft. Key areas of business included carriage of opium from India to China; trading spices and sugar from the Philippines; and tea and silk from China; acting as shipping and insurance agents and operators of port facilities. When the Chinese tried to stop the flow of opium into their country because of its serious impact on the population, William Jardine (with support from many other British traders) persuaded the British Government to declare war on China to enforce the resumption of the trade. The war lasted from 1839 to 1842. The British duly won, and the flow of opium into China was resumed, and with it the flow of profits to the trading companies. The First Opium War also led to the colonisation of Hong Kong by the British and their ownership of it until 1997.

In 1843 James Matheson succeeded William Jardine, who died in February, as MP for Ashburton in Devon. On 9 November 1843 he married Mary Jane Percival. The following year he purchased the Isle of Lewis for £190,000. By the standards of the day, Matheson proved to be an enlightened landlord who invested heavily in the island and introduced a number of schemes to provide work and ease poverty. These included road building and drainage schemes and they eased the impact on the island of the potato famine by creating much needed employment. By 1850 he is said to have spent £329,000 on the island. Between 1851 and 1855 he also assisted 1,771 people to emigrate: these departures seem to have been more genuinely voluntary than most of Scotland's clearances.

Between 1847 and 1851 Matheson built Lews Castle, described as a Tudor Gothic mansion, which today still overlooks Stornoway. In 1851 he was rewarded for his efforts by being made Sir James Matheson, 1st Baronet of Lewis. He ceased to be MP for Ashburton in 1847, and from 1852 to 1868 served as the MP for Ross and Cromarty, being eventually succeeded by his nephew Sir Alexander Matheson.

In 1874, tenants of Matheson's on Great Bernera rose up in what became known as the Bernera Riot. Access to grazing rights had been increasingly denied by Matheson and his factor, Donald Munro, and matters came to a head when Munro sought the eviction of 58 families on Great Bernera. The riot led to a court case which the tenants won. The case resulted in a new approach to crofters' rights and land reform and continues to resonate today. Sir James Matheson died without a direct heir in Menton in France in 1878 at the age of 82.

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