Roderick Smith of Stornoway: pharmacist and local politician

Roderick Smith was twice Provost of Stornoway; he fought to ensure The Nicolson Bequests remained true to their original purposes, and was granted Freedom of the Burgh in 1961.

By Sandy Matheson

During 2023, to mark the 150th anniversary of The Nicolson Institute, and to accompany the forthcoming book ‘The Nicolson Institute 1873-2023 : a 150 year celebration’ by Iain Smith, the Heritage Service blog will be publishing a series of vignettes: brief biographies of former pupils of the school who have achieved remarkably in their chosen fields. These have been written by a number of guest authors and provide a wide-ranging illustration of the achievements of some past students. The full list is available here. This month, we have selected those who made their mark in the field of politics.

Roderick Smith being presented with the Freedom of the Burgh of Stornoway, 30th September 1961

No one, before or since, has done more or fought harder than Mr Roderick Smith when Lewis interests were concerned, especially at County Council level. Born in Stornoway in 1871, he was educated at The Nicolson Institute. Smith was brought up in the straitened circumstances of a widowed mother and four siblings.

After he left The Nicolson in 1886, he worked as a shop salesman in the chemist’s shop of Alex Macpherson, took a fancy to the trade and was employed for 16 months in the pharmacy of Arthur Priestland in Ramsey, Isle of Man. He then attended night classes at Lancashire & Cheshire Union Institutes to obtain his entrance for the Liverpool School of Pharmacy, which he achieved in November 1896. After qualifying exams, he registered as a Member of the Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain as was necessary then, and still is, to practise retail pharmacy. When this period of study was completed, he took up service in the business of Macpherson and Company, Stornoway.  In due course he took over the business, retaining the original name for several years.  It eventually became known as Roderick Smith Ltd and still exists – as the Stornoway branch of Boots.

Like so many Stornowegians Roderick Smith was a second-generation rural boy of Bragar origins and made his way up the ladder without silver spoons or legacies.   The famous “John the Chemist”, also a man of Bragar, in due course came into Smith’s business.

Although well known in the community in his line of business, he was much more widely known for his outstanding service for a considerable number of years as a member of many public bodies, especially in the field of education.  His work on the County Council, although overshadowed in the minds of the people of his native town by his service on the Town Council, was of much greater value as more vital issues were concerned affecting not only Stornoway but Lewis as a whole.  Quick to anger when he deemed injustice done or the interests of Lewis dismissed lightly, he was fearless in expressing what he believed was right, whether it was the use of The Nicolson Bequests estranged from their original purpose, or matters affecting Lewis such as public health, social conditions, and the need for greater relief in times of distress by the Scottish Office.

Roderick Smith became a member of the Town Council of Stornoway in 1911 and for the next fifty years he devoted much of his time and energy without a break in service in the cause of town and island.  He served two terms as Provost of Stornoway from 1919 to 1922 and from 1933 to 1939.  His life-long interest in education began when he became a member of the School Board for the Parish of Stornoway; then on the Lewis School Management Committee of which he became Chairman, and on the Ross and Cromarty Education Authority where his forceful personality found its greatest expression.  His interest in The Nicolson Institute spanned many years. Even at an extremely advanced age he still attended the annual prize-giving ceremonies.  Having established the right of Stornoway as a Burgh of Barony under a charter granted by James VI to grant the Freedom of the Burgh to distinguished citizens, it was only fitting that he should have this honour conferred on himself on 30th September 1961.

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