Photography by Sam Maynard Photography by Sam Maynard

An Lanntair was opened by the acclaimed Lewis poet and writer Iain Crichton Smith on 8th of March 1985 in the former Council Chambers of Stornoway Town Hall, which was to be our home until the opening of the new-build Arts Centre in 2005.

The initiative came from founding members Malcolm Maclean (artist, cartoonist and art teacher), Andy Bruce (architect) and Sam Maynard (then photographer at the Stornoway Gazette and now Vice President of Raw TV USA). Other signatories to the original constitution were Ken Kennedy, Murdo John Macleod, Agnes Rennie, Donnie Maclean (An Comunn Gaidheachd), Ina Maciver, Dr Finlay Macleod (who gave An Lanntair its name), Deirdre Macdonald and Robbie Neish (who designed our logo). They constituted An Lanntair as a non-profit limited company with charitable status – a community enterprise with membership open to all.

Malcolm, Sam and Andy continued their close involvement in the development of An Lanntair in its early years, during which a series of significant events and touring exhibitions built a reputation for ambition, innovation and quality. The declared aim was to “establish a creative space where new ideas could be explored”- a place that promoted the artists and culture of the Hebrides to the world and brought new arts experience to the islands.

An Lanntair was the first exhibition space in Scotland to adopt a Gaelic policy and the early programme ranged from Seann Nòs song events to world music star Ali Farka Toure from Mali.

The inaugural exhibition featured young island photographer Murdo Macleod and our first major touring exhibition was As an Fhearann: From the Land to celebrate the Centenary of the 1886 Crofting Act. This show – accompanied by a landmark book and a special Scotsman supplement – brought the work of contemporary artists like Will Maclean and John Byrne together with that of key historical figures such as William MacTaggart, Thomas Faed and Paul Strand. It toured Scotland’s major galleries and in 1989 went coast-to-coast across Canada. Other exhibitions created and premiered at An Lanntair include Togail Tir: The Map of The Hebrides, Ewan Bain’s Angus Og, Erik Hoffman’s Portraits from the Western Edge which toured to Germany and Acts of Faith by Steve Dilworth, which toured throughout Scotland. Our exhibitions have also been shown at the National Museums, the National Libraries of Scotland, the People’s Palace and CCA in Glasgow, the London Irish Festival, the Festival Interceltique de Lorient in Brittany and the National Museum of Slovakia among others. At one point An Lanntair had four exhibitions on show in four galleries simultaneously.

That first decade was about establishing the organisation, developing skills, building community links, and exporting our programme. Few would have predicted on the launch evening – despite the optimism, enthusiasm and support on show – that the organisation would develop exponentially, become a major employer and be at the cultural epicentre of the Highlands and Islands. And that one day, it would be difficult to imagine Stornoway without it.

GSA graduate Roddy Murray, initially appointed as Gallery Supervisor on a one-year contract went on to Head An Lanntair and guide it to the organisation we have today.  Long-standing relationships were formed with many artists, among them Steve Dilworth, Louise Scullion, Donald Urquhart, George Wyllie, Phil Cunningham & Aly Bain and support given to [then] developing talent like Iain Morrison, Willie Campbell and Kevin Macneil. In 1995 we won the STB’s Arts & Tourism Award for Calanais: The Atlantic Stones, created to celebrate our 10th anniversary.

In 1995, we commissioned a feasibility study to establish demand and a potential site for a new arts centre. There followed a 10-year campaign aided by Lottery funding which saw the new £6m building open on the 1st of October 2005. The inaugural event was the world premiere of I Was a Beautiful Day by Iain Finlay Macleod, with the Traverse Theatre. Five years later, our 25th Anniversary was marked by a fundraising extravaganza with, Peter ‘Dr Who’ Capaldi, while the Gnuis exhibition showcased Murdo Macleod’s photographs from his highly successful career as a Guardian photojournalist.

We continue to broadcast our cultural mission and respond to the challenge and opportunity of change and growth. Our portfolio has expanded to encompass residencies, dance development, partnerships, artists’ gatherings, mentoring programme, special projects, a range of festivals and TV links such as the Katie Morag exhibition, the appearance of Richard Dawkins at Faclan in 2012 and The Loom: a sculpture by Sharmanka created from a repurposed Hattersley Loom.

Other projects include Purvai inspired by Colonel Colin Mackenzie, born in Stornoway in 1754, who became the first surveyor General of India. While Uncharted linked communities in Australia and India.

Education and Outreach covers a wide spectrum of activity in schools, community, health, and social inclusion from pre-school to clients with dementia. And Performing Arts ranges across multiple genres of music to theatre, dance, and multi-discipline work. There is a close relationship with the Hebridean Celtic Festival. Cinema goes from strength to strength and Faclan: The Hebridean Book Festival is among the highlights of the year.

As a result, we have garnered significant awards, notably the Scottish Traditional Music Venue of the Year and Scotland’s Creative Place Award in 2015.

The Centenary of the First World War culminated in Lewis with the commemorations for the loss of the Iolaire on 1st January 1919. For which, in partnership with the national body 14-18 NOW, An Lanntair commissioned two major musical pieces: Sàl Salt by Iain Morrison and An Treas Suaile The Third Wave by Julie Fowlis and Duncan Chisholm. Both events toured to Celtic Connections in Glasgow at, respectively, the Mitchell Library and the Royal Concert Hall.

A landmark memorial at the site of the tragedy was also commissioned, from artists Will Maclean. Arthur Watson and Marian Leven. The dedication on 1st January 2019 was the final commemorative event of the four years, attended by HRH Prince Charles, and First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, among many other senior representatives.

More recently, Islander, a retrospective the work of the Late Donald Smith toured to the City Art Centre in Edinburgh. But the pandemic of 2020 was a major challenge. In its aftermath though, Mìr air Mhir an exhibition by arts graduates from the islands, who had been denied Degree Shows due to lockdown, was a perfect demonstration of the resilience, significance and mission of the arts and An Lanntair.