‘It was mobbed’ is a description more often applied to a social club viewing of a football game than a book launch…but as people poured into the Caladh Inn on the evening of Monday September 3 for publisher Acair’s latest event, it was clear the Garry Ballroom conference suite was not going to be big enough.

Hotel staff hurriedly threw open the sliding doors to the Tonga Lounge and brought in a host of additional chairs from across the corridor.

This was the launch of ‘Mitchell’s – the story of a Stornoway family’s garage and bus business’ by Back-based author Colin Tucker.  

Matching the crowd on the floor was a line-up of speakers including Malcolm ‘Kiwi’ Macleod and ‘Tom’ Maciver. 

Kiwi explained the significance of the occasion.  In its day, Mitchells Garage was the apogee of employment in Stornoway, something that everyone aspired to, “the Arnold Clark of the Western Isles”.  Another speaker, Calum Maclellan, explained how when he applied for a job there were 42 applicants and only two got jobs.

The book is far more than a company or personal history, giving a direct insight into life over much of a century in Stornoway, how people lived and travelled, and in what ways they worked.  And there’s page after page of photographs, some of which have never been seen before, or have long been forgotten about.

The launch event also reflected the ‘family’ of Stornoway with shared memories and laughter as speakers ranged across the activities of Ian Mitchell, who sadly died suddenly at his home in Matheson Road, aged 83, only a couple of months after work on the book began.  Ian succeeded his father John in running the business – and John made the headlines in the 1930s when he fought the Stornoway Trust all the way to the House of Lords over the site the garage later occupied at the corner of Matheson Road and Bayhead.

Chris Mitchell told the crowd how he first learned about the House of Lords battle while studying in Glasgow – and how his father had been unfamiliar with many of the details until he had been able to get a summary of the case prepared from surviving legal records. 

Speakers explained how recordkeeping had not been a priority for John Mitchell, which was a contrast with the meticulous recordkeeping and planning of Ian, which extended to the detail of foreign trips to places like Istanbul, retailed by Kiwi, or the planning associated with Classic Car Club trips in recent years.

Agnes Rennie, manager of Acair, recalled how Ian had approached the company to get a book done and explained how Acair was a Scottish charity which actually made a priority of publishing books like this.  Agnes also praised the Caladh Inn which provided the facilities for the launch event for free, reflecting the role which the hotel restaurant had played in Iain’s life in recent years.

Colin Tucker explained how in October 2016 Ian had contacted him about having a book written, and he had met Ian and Chris for the project to be explained.  “For almost the next two years, I was living Mitchell’s.”  It had been anticipated that Ian would have provided a lifetime of information but sadly died only a couple of months later.  Nonetheless, with the records available left behind by Ian and the files of the Stornoway Gazette in the library in Stornoway, along with memories of former employees, it was possible to continue. 

‘Kiwi’ shared a wide range of memories – saying he mostly got to know Ian after he retired in 1995, apart from one incident when as a 15-year-old he had applied to be a mechanic at Mitchell’s and been rejected having, amongst other things, revealed he did not know the difference between a two-stroke and four-stroke engine.  He recalled the day that Mitchell’s closed and how he was there when Ian turned the key for the last time.   He praised Ian’s work with the Stornoway Rotary Club and emphasised how Ian how treated everyone, whatever their status, in the same way and described with reverence the personal presence which he had.

‘Tom’ explained how he had worked for Mitchell’s from the age of 15-30, leaving in 1981, having started on £3 a week.  He praised the turnout at the launch and said it was a testament to Ian’s impact across all of Lewis and Harris.  He also recalled Ian’s generosity to a retiring employee, Kenny ‘Keose’, who was presented with the surprise present of new Vauxhall car. 

Calum, who started in 1973 at the garage, recalled how the inspection pits for cars and buses in the original premises on Bayhead had been flooded at times of very high tides and needed baling out.  But this stopped when the garage was rebuilt.  He recalled how Ian had been sp concerned about the risks of damage to customers’ cars that he obtained boiler suits with rubber buttons to avoid the paintwork being scratched. 

The book is available from Acair, the Baltic Bookship and on-line, priced at £15…and worth every penny of that, everyone at the launch event agreed!

 

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(For any cove or blone who has followed the prolonged debate about what to do about parking in the narrowest part of Church Street, there is in the book an intriguing snippet – the first proposal to ban heavy traffic from that part of the street was made to the town council in 1948.  As a comparison, modern China did not exist in 1948, being still riven by civil war, and has in less time, grown from chaos to be the second biggest economy in the world.)