Lews Castle has long been a beacon of history and culture and now, thanks to a five year, £19.5million, redevelopment project the iconic Stornoway building has been brought back from the brink to be a proud flagship for the Western Isles.

At its heart, the new Museum nan Eilean and Tasglann nan Eilean (Lews Castle Museum and Archive) provide the first public archive in the islands –as well as the opportunity to view one of Lewis' most famous finds, the Lewis Chessmen.

With restoration work undertaken throughout the Castle, the modern museum extension opened to the public in July 2016, and welcomed over 34,000 visitors in its first five months; the equivalent to approximately 125% of the population of the Outer Hebrides.

And on March 6, Scotland's First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, took great delight in officially opening Lews Castle, Museum and Archive –commenting specifically on the six Lewis Chessmen, on display through partnership with the British Museum.

"There is so much to see here and anybody who visits will thoroughly enjoy it, but the Lewis Chessmen are obviously the centrepiece of it," she said. "The great thing about having them here is that they will attract more people to the museum who will then see the other wonderful things on display.

"I think it is wonderful to see the Chessmen wherever they are situated, but there is no doubt it is extra special for people to see them in the context of the place where they were discovered. So it is a real achievement and centrepiece of this museum and what has been created here is really special."

During her visit, Scotland's First Minister also enjoyed viewing some of the treasures from the new public archive when she met Archivist Seonaid McDonald, along with Collections Assistant Dawn MacDonald and Skills for the Future Archives Trainee Shona MacLellan.

"It was a pleasure to welcome Scotland's First Minister to the archive," said Seonaid. "The whole team was delighted with the visit.

"The First Minister seemed genuinely interested in the items we had selected and it was obvious from her comments that she was keenly aware of how important it is to preserve such important records for future generations, so that they can be made available to enable people to carry out research on many aspects of the islands' history.

"It also made our day when Nicola agreed to a 'selfie' with the team just before leaving, and even offered to take it!"

One of the historic treasures Seonaid and the team had looked out for the official opening was the oldest official record currently held in the Archive –the Minute Book of Stornoway Parochial Board 1845-1854.

"The records are a fascinating source of historical research as they show the conditions in which many people lived, the sort of work they did and their family circumstances," Seonaid explained.

A rent ledger from the Barvas Estate 1854-1867 also caught the First Minister's attention; as did the Minute Book of Lewis District Committee 1916-1920: "We had selected this item to show the First Minister the first woman elected to serve in local government in the Outer Hebrides,"Seonaid continued. "Following the local government elections of 1919, Mrs Julia M. Fraser was elected.

"The First Minister was interested not only in this, but also in the issues which the local council was grappling with at this time, which are recorded in the Minute Books, including Crofters' Housing, outbreaks of infectious disease, and transport."

And Archive Trainee Shona MacLellan spent time explaining some of the interesting features of an 1870 dated contract between MalcolmMacDonald, from Portnaguaran, Point, and the Hudson Bay Company.

"The term of the contract was for five years and Malcolm earned £22 sterling per annum while there," said Shona.

"The other interesting point within the contract is the fact that it was signed with a cross and it states 'his mark', meaning that he was unable to read or write. This was very common at the time; and the First Minister remarked on it, saying 'he was literally signing his life away'."

Malcolm may have signed his life away, but the Lews Castle, Museum and Archive project brought life back to Stornoway's historic building, which had been left to ruin for nearly two decades before restoration work began in 2012.

A Category-A listed building, Lews Castle was originally designed by Charles Wilson in the 1840s, and built around the remnants of the 1680s Seaforth Lodge, for Lewis owner Sir James Matheson.

In 1918, it was bought by industrialist and social engineer Lord Leverhulme, who also purchased the island of Lewis with intentions of transforming its economy and social conditions through a number of industrial and modernisation schemes.

When his plans failed however, Leverhulme gifted Lews Castle, its specially designed woodland Grounds, and the land of Stornoway parish to the community, leading to the creation of the Stornoway Trust in 1923.