The fairies & the Free Church
I had a chat about fairies with a colleague the other morning. We were walking from our cars in to work and it just . . . well, came up. My job involves a lot of conversations about the ‘otherworld’, about fairies, ghosts, witches and all manner of unchancy beings. ‘What on earth does this woman do for a living?’ you may well ask, and your best guess might be somewhere between nursery school teacher and delusional holistic healer. You’d be wrong, though. I actually teach students on Gaelic degree programmes about their own heritage – I teach folklore and I teach the history of the Highlands and Islands, because these are the things that no school ever taught us, despite the fact that these are also the things which make us who we are. Or, perhaps, because these are the things which make us who we are.
If you listen to your average Gaelic poet, you’d be tempted to think that the fairies were killed by the Free Church – sort of, ‘a big minister did it and ran away’. Calvinism swept in like a nuclear winter and turned everything black where once there was colour. The Wee Frees stifled the stories and the songs and dismantled the taigh-ceilidh brick by sinful brick.
Well, I’m afraid not. These traditional beliefs disappeared for a variety of reasons – population loss, modernisation, education and, probably most of all, because of the ebbing away of Gaelic. Oh, I don’t mean the language, though goodness knows it’s not in the best of health. No, no, I mean the culture that underpins it, the way of life, the state of being a Gael. Where were the fairies going to put themselves when their way of life was all but gone?
Gaelic survived as a demotic language because there was a world in which it made sense – a world of agriculture and faith and neighbourliness; a world in which no one used the word, ‘coimhearsnachd’* because the word, ‘baile’** was enough; a world in which no one said, ‘please’, or ‘thank you’ because their politeness was implied and understood by others who were just like them.
And Gaelic survived as a formal language too. Yes, there is still a high-register Gaelic that the world of education and academia, the world of the media can employ in their various endeavours. How did this miracle occur? The Church. Yes, even the Wee Kirk, the Free Kirk, the Kirk without a steeple. Gaelic was the language of worship because the Free Church was, at one time anyway, the crofting community at prayer. It reflected the community far better than an education system which was systematically shaming Gaelic out of the people. The Gaels could speak to God in the same language that they used to one another. I think there is something of this in Neil M Gunn’s novel, ‘The Green Isle of the Great Deep’ where an old man and a young boy find themselves in a Heaven from which God has temporarily absented himself. When he does finally appear, the boy initially mistakes him for a bodach*** from a neighbouring village.
Now, that Gaelic world has disappeared. I talk to young Gaels about their forefathers’ belief in fairies and ghosts; and I tell them that the Free Church started life as a radical institution. I’m not sure which of these is greeted with the most incredulity. The reason they have trouble believing in the early radicalism and social reforming zeal of the newborn Free Church is probably not because they see it as a staid and conservative old monolith now, however. That’s what I initially believed. I think it’s actually because the educating of Gaelicness out of the Gael is still going on.
We don’t know our own narrative, so it’s free for anyone to tell us whatever they choose. Students come to me from school believing that the sum-total of Highland history is embodied in the Clearances. They believe that the Gael’s lot was to suffer at the hands of richer, better-educated men. What a joy, then, to tell them of the supreme act of faith that was the Disruption, of the restoration of leadership and a voice to the Gaelic remnant. I believe that’s what the Free Church of 1843 was; and I believe that the Free Church of 2017 is no less a voice for the Gaelic community, no matter who else thinks it should be silent on questions of culture and lifestyle.
*** old man