James Matheson was born in Lairg, Sutherland and having made his fortune from the Chinese Opium trade returned to Scotland and, in 1844, purchased the Island of Lewis for £190,000.
Matheson commissioned the renowned architect Charles Wilson to design his new island residence, Lews Castle, on the site of the Mackenzies’ Seaforth Lodge. Building work started in 1847 and the £60,000 project took seven years to complete. A further £49,000 was spent on transforming the rough grazing land around the new Castle into extensive woodlands and private gardens.
The creation of the Castle Grounds involved the clearance of tenants and the re-routing of public roads, which did not endear the new proprietor to the local population. He also presided over a policy of encouraged emigrations from his land and heavy-handed evictions and treatment of crofters by his factor Donald Munro leading to the Bernera Riot of 1872.
To balance this, it must be noted that during his period of ownership, Sir James Matheson provided employment, funded famine relief and many other social and economic projects for the benefit of the island community. Sir James even had a plan to remove the island’s covering of peat, and transform it into tar, but this was unsuccessful.
On his death in 1878 at the grand old age of 102, the estate fell to his widow Lady Mary Jane Matheson and subsequently to his nephew Donald and grand-nephew Colonel Duncan Matheson.