The town's population is around 6,200, making it by far the largest town in the Hebrides. The traditional civil parish of Stornoway, which includes various nearby villages, has a combined population of just over 8,000.
Stornoway is an important port and the major town and administrative centre of the Outer Hebrides. It is home to Comhairle nan Eilean Siar and a variety of educational, sporting and media establishments. Observance of the Christian Sabbath has long been an aspect of the island's culture. Recent changes mean that Sunday on Lewis now more closely resembles Sunday on the other Western Isles or the mainland of Scotland.
The town was founded by Vikings in the early 9th century, with the Old Norse name Stjórnavágr. The settlement grew up around a sheltered natural harbour near the centre of the island; people travelled to Stornoway from all over the island, either by family boat or by horse-drawn coach, for onward travel to and trade with the rest of Scotland and further afield.
At some point in the mid 1500s, the already ancient MacLeod castle in Stornoway 'fell victim to the cannons of the Duke of Argyle'. By the early 1600s rumbling trade wars came to a head, and all further government attempts to curtail traditional shipping rights were firmly resisted by the islanders, as was an attempt by James VI, King of Scotland, to establish on the island the Scottish trading company known as the Fife Adventurers around 1598.; as a result, in 1610, James VI transferred Lewis to the MacKenzies of Seaforth.
In 1844, the MacKenzies sold Stornoway, and the Isle of Lewis as a whole, to Sir James Matheson (and his descendants) who built the present Lews Castle on a hill overlooking the bay of Stornoway..
In 1918, Matheson sold the island to William Lever, 1st Viscount Leverhulme. Lord Leverhulme held the island for a short time. His economic plans for the island (together with various business setbacks) overstretched his finances. Faced with failure in Lewis, he gave Stornoway parish to the people of the town. The Stornoway Trust was formed and continues to administer the parish for the people.
Today the harbour hosts a fishing fleet (and associated shoreside services) somewhat reduced from its heyday, a small marina and moorings for pleasure craft, a small shipyard and slipway, three larger piers for commercial traffic and Stornoway Lifeboat Station, run by the RNLI and home to a Severn-class lifeboat, Tom Sanderson. Her Majesty's Coastguard operates a Maritime Rescue Sub Centre from a building near the harbour.
A lighthouse, seaweed processing plant and a renewable energy manufacturing yard are situated on Arnish Point at the mouth of the harbour and visually dominate the approaches. Arnish Point is also earmarked by AMEC as the landfall for its proposed private sub-sea cable which would export the electricity generated from the Lewis Windpower wind farm with a planning application for 181 turbines submitted to the Scottish Executive. In 2008 the Scottish Government rejected the plans - the company responsible is currently planning their next move.
The Arnish area was also surveyed by SSE for a second sub-sea cable but lost out in favour of Gravir to the south as the preferred site. SSE prefers Arnish Point as of 2016. The manufacturing yard was originally established in the 1970s as a fabrication plant for the oil industry but suffered regular boom and bust cycles. The downturn in business from the North Sea oil industry in recent years led to a move away from serving this market. The yard is now earmarked as a key business in the development of the whole Arnish Point industrial estate and has received large amounts of funding in recent years.
In 2007 the Arnish yard was taken over by its third tenant in as many years. Cambrian Engineering fell into liquidation as did Aberdeen-owned Camcal Ltd with relatively large-scale redundancies. Both firms were affected by the absence of a regular stream of orders and left a chain of large debts impacting upon local suppliers. Altissimo Ltd is a new firm backed by a group of Swiss and Dutch investors, and has purchased the Camcal name from the previous operator. In December 2007, the yard won a contract to construct 49 towers for wind turbines in Turkey. This will ensure employment for around 70 employees for over six months.
On 1 January 1919, the Iolaire sank at the entrance of the harbour, one of the worst maritime disasters in Scottish or UK waters, with a death toll of 205 men, who were returning home from World War I.
Like much of the British Isles, Stornoway has an Oceanic climate, with relatively little variation of temperature and damp conditions throughout the year.. Winters are exceptionally mild for such a northerly location (just over 58 degrees north latitude); average nighttime low temperatures in January and February, the coldest months, are above 35 degrees F (2°C)., while daytime high temperatures average about 44 degrees F (7°C). Summers are cool, due to influence from the cool Atlantic Ocean; average daytime high temperatures in July and August are just over 60 degrees F (16°C). Precipitation falls mostly as rain (though snow occasionally falls in winter), and October through January are the wettest months due to frequent, sometimes intense storms from the North Atlantic Ocean, which can bring heavy rain and high winds. April through July represents a markedly drier season, when storm frequency and intensity diminish markedly. On average, May is the driest month in Stornoway, averaging under 2.3 inches (58 mm) of precipitation, while November is the wettest month, averaging nearly 5.7 inches (145 mm).
The Caledonian MacBrayne-operated ferry MV Loch Seaforth has been sailing since 2015 and sails from the harbour to Ullapool on the Scottish mainland, taking 2 hours 30 minutes. There are an average of two return crossings a day, with an increase and reduction in frequency in summer and winter months respectively. The former main ship on the route, MV Isle of Lewis (1995), used to carry the freight crossing, however she has now been reassigned elsewhere by CalMac. This means that MV Loch Seaforth is often heavily congested, particularly during the summer months.
Suggestions for the possibility of an undersea tunnel linking Lewis and Harris to the Scottish mainland were raised in early 2007. One of the possible routes, between Stornoway and Ullapool, would be over 40 miles (60 km) long and hence become the longest road tunnel in the world.
Stornoway is also the public transport hub of Lewis, and buses run to Point, Ness, Back and Tolsta, Uig, the West Side, Lochs and Tarbert, Harris. These buses are provided by the Comhairle and several private operators as well as some community-run organisations.
Stornoway Airport is located next to the village of Melbost, 2 miles (3 km) away from the town itself. From here services operate to Aberdeen, Benbecula, Edinburgh, Inverness and Glasgow, with flights from Loganair & Flybe franchisee Eastern Airways. The airport is also the base of an HM Coastguard Search & Rescue Sikorsky S-92 helicopter, and was previously home to RAF Stornoway. In 1898, the Hebridean Light Railway Company was proposed, with a terminus at Stornoway, but the line was never constructed.
Cruise ships visit the town and anchor in the bay, with passengers coming ashore on tenders.
Stornoway is home to the Nicolson Institute: founded in 1873, it is the largest school in the Western Isles and the only secondary school in Lewis providing a six-year course. It has a roll of around 1,000 pupils. After a two-year rebuilding project costing £29 million, the new school building was formally opened in October 2012.
Primary education in Stornoway is in Stornoway Primary School, which opened in August 1969. The school is on Jamieson Drive and has around 400 pupils. The head teacher is Annette Murray.
There is a further education college, Lews Castle College, which was founded in 1953 and is now part of the University of the Highlands and Islands. It runs over 140 courses and has around 2700 students.
There is also a small campus of the University of Stirling in Stornoway, teaching nursing, based in the Western Isles Hospital. It provides undergraduate degree programmes for adult nursing and supports postgraduate students, who can choose from various higher level courses.
Football is the most popular amateur sport and Goathill Park in the town hosts special matches involving select teams and visiting clubs and other organisations. Two local teams currently participate in the Lewis and Harris Football League: Stornoway Athletic (Aths) and Stornoway United. Until the early 1990s there was also Stornoway Rovers. Stornoway United FC usually win the Manor Dairy Football Competition.
Shinty is not as popular as in the rest of the West of Scotland, but the Lewis Camanachd team is based around the town. Rugby Union is also popular, and Stornoway RFC competes regularly in national leagues and cups.
The town also has a very popular gymnastics group which competes annually in sports festivals. The Lews Castle Grounds is the home of Stornoway Golf Club (the only 18-hole golf course in the Outer Hebrides).
Very near to the Nicolson Institute is the Lewis Sports Centre (Ionad Spors Leòdhas), which has a sports hall, fitness suite, climbing wall, swimming pool and various other facilities. It has a running track and an AstroTurf Football pitch. There is also the Stornoway Karate Club, a member of the International Japan Karate Association.
According to the 2011 Census, there are 5,492 Scottish Gaelic speakers (43%) in the greater Stornoway area.
The annual Hebridean Celtic Festival is a 4-day community-led festival which attracts over 10,000 visitors during July of each year. The Royal National Mòd has been held in Stornoway on a number of occasions, most recently in 2005, 2011 and 2016. Large influxes of visitors such as for these events can strain the town's accommodation capacity.
Stornoway is a sister town of Pendleton, in Anderson County, South Carolina, United States.
The radio station Isles FM is based in Stornoway and broadcasts on 103FM, featuring a mixture of Gaelic and English programming. It is also home to a studio operated by BBC Radio nan Gàidheal. The Gaelic-language public service broadcaster BBC Alba launched on 19 September 2008, is based in Stornoway.
The main local newspaper for the Western Isles is the Stornoway Gazette.
Stornoway black pudding is a gourmet black pudding, and was granted PGI status in 2013 by the European Commission to prevent inferior puddings produced elsewhere being marketed as "Stornoway" or "Stornoway Style".
Stornoway kippers and Stornoway smoked salmon are produced in town. They have one of the last working brick kilns in the UK, at the establishment of Stornoway Fish Smokers, Shell Street.
The Hebridean Brewing Company produces cask ale and filtered beer in bottles.
Notable buildings in Stornoway include:
Stornoway became immortalised in the song "Lovely Stornoway" by Calum Kennedy and Bob Halfin.
The 4AD Records folk-rock band Stornoway took their name from the town, after seeing it on the BBC weather report. They signed their record deal outside the Woodlands Centre in Lews Castle Grounds, Stornoway, after performing in the town for the first time in April 2010. Their second concert there was as headliners on the main stage of the Hebridean Celtic Festival on 13 July 2011.
"Stornoway" is the name of the official residence of the Leader of the Opposition in Canada's Parliament. It was given the name by its second occupants, the Perley-Robertsons, after the ancestral home of the Perley family.
The novel The Stornoway Way by Lewisman Kevin MacNeil is largely set in Stornoway.
RAF Stornoway is featured in the Tom Clancy novel Red Storm Rising as a base for Allied air operations over the North Atlantic and against Soviet-held Iceland.
Stornoway features heavily in the initial stages of the X-Men comics Dark Phoenix Saga due to its proximity to the fictional Muir Island and Proteus' attempts to find a new host body.
In the motion picture Latitude Zero by Toho Productions (1969), Stornoway Harbour is featured on a wall plaque as the construction site of the submarine "Alpha".
In 2007 the British car manufacturer Land Rover introduced Stornoway Grey as a colour choice for its vehicle line-up. In response, Stornoway's councillor Angus Nicolson appealed to Land Rover to relabel the colour as Silvery Stornoway, fearing that the association of grey with dull and boring would hurt the image of the town with tourists; Mr Nicolson said: "This is deeply insulting and is offensive, inaccurate and inherently degrading. This will hit tourism as it subliminally implants adverse connotations in the minds of those who have never experienced the reality of these beautiful islands." Land Rover replied that the colour in question is one of the most popular ones and the use of Stornoway in its name will instead "keep it on the map".
In 2011 Scottish author Peter May published The Blackhouse, the first of The Lewis Trilogy of thrillers based on Lewis, where the primary police murder investigation is based in Stornoway.
Stornoway has several churches of various Christian denominations, and is a stronghold of the Free Church of Scotland. The Sabbath is still widely observed in Stornoway; it is home to a number of members of the Lord's Day Observance Society, which lobbies for no work on the Christian Sabbath (Sundays), based on its interpretation of the fourth (by the Hebrew reckoning) of the Ten Commandments. Sunday newspapers are not available and almost all shops and local amenities are closed on Sundays.
Until July 2009, there were no Sunday ferry services to or from Stornoway. It was announced on 14 July 2009 that Caledonian MacBrayne would begin to operate Sunday sailings from Sunday 19 July 2009. Before this, they would operate additional sailings on Sundays if several previous sailings have been cancelled, to allow the backlog of traffic to clear. Caledonian MacBrayne have said that they took legal advice that not implementing Sunday sailings would be against human rights legislation.
There are Sunday flights leaving from Stornoway airport with two return flights to Inverness and one to Glasgow.