A cup of cold water – but in whose name?

‘I never witnessed such countenances: starvation on many faces, the children with their melancholy looks, big-looking knees, shrivelled legs, hollow eyes, swollen-like bellies. God help them, I never did witness such wretchedness.’

Need is so familiar that we are almost inured to it. We have come a long way from the first shock of the Ethiopian famine in 1984 and the harrowing images it brought into our homes. For a time, we were unable to ignore poverty and suffering, and people’s response was immediate and heartfelt.

Except, these words do not describe the Ethiopian famine of 1984; they are actually an account of the Highland famine of 1845 – 55. More specifically, they are the eyewitness account of the Rev. Norman MacLeod, who was crossing the ford at Gramasdail in Uist, when he saw the destitute population, gathering cockles for their food. His heart was clearly moved, and he appealed to the Creator to take them into His care.

If you do not believe in God, such petitions seem void. I know that the Western Isles Secular Society (or is it Western Isles Non-believers – mo chreach, they have that many denominations, it’s hard to keep up), view prayer as an alternative to real help. Atheists think that to say, ‘I’m praying for you’ is tantamount to telling people that you are unwilling to do anything practical for them.

They say that . . . and then they also object to Christians being involved in charitable works. Groups like Hebrides Alpha should not be able to request a Christian commitment from its employees, palliative care should not be offered by a home founded by Christians; whatever next? It must be difficult, of course, carving out an identity for yourself purely in terms of what you do not believe. Such a negative position must leave you contradicting yourself frequently. I mean, telling Christians that they can’t interfere and impose their worldview on others seems to me a little bit like . . . well, interfering and imposing your worldview on others.

Charity, though, without Christians? Etymologically, the very word derives from one meaning, ‘Christian love’. This is not cold, dutiful alms-giving, but obedience to the Saviour. For He it was who said that the poor would always be with us. I don’t for one minute believe that this was meant as a discouragement, that we should resign ourselves to the omnipresence of grinding poverty. After all, He followed it up with something else – he added that we would not always have Him with us.

So, what was he saying? I believe that it was a reminder that the poor and needy are His proxy in one important sense: those who love the Saviour would not see Him suffer, would not see Him hunger, or thirst. Neither can a Christian look upon need in others, and not be moved in their heart to help. It is their privilege to help, and no man has the right to stand in their way.

The Rev. Norman Macleod appealed to the Almighty for the famine victims in the Highlands and Islands, and then he appealed to the government. Still in its infancy, the Free Church rapidly identified those most in need of food aid, able to do so because its ministers were so close to the congregations they served. ‘Breadalbane’, the boat they had purchased to circumvent problems with pulpit supply and availability of land for new churches, was pressed into service, carrying meal to the hungry corners of the region. Not one of those destitute people, I am certain, questioned the motives of the church in bringing them assistance.

In our own day, the shining example of Christian love in this regard is the Bethesda Hospice. Founded by Christians, built by charitable giving, it offers compassion, kindness, dignity – and, yes, love – to those in the last hours of their lives. They cared for my terminally-ill husband as though they were caring for the body of his Saviour. But they would care for anyone just the same. That is, after all, the essence of charity.

I recently sat in our hall in Stornoway Free Church, and listened to a presentation by Christians Against Poverty. There are people in this country right now who have to choose between eating and staying warm. We heard of a couple who ate only twice a week so that their children could have a meal every day. CAP is doing something about that. Have we honestly reached a point where people believe that work like this should be curtailed simply because it carries the label, ‘Christian’? And if we are reaching that point, what is secularism going to be doing to supply the deficiency? Or are Christians expected to carry on being charitable, and to be complicit in removing their Saviour’s name from their efforts,  lest He offend?

I pity anyone who falls for the argument that charity should not be allowed in the name of Christ. There is an agenda being pushed all the time, however, that aims to persuade us of just that. They tell us that it is our right not to have Christ’s presence insisted upon; they try to convince us that it is wrong for Christians to interfere in good works. God forbid that they should succeed. If they do, we might well say then of the secularists themselves, ‘I never did witness such wretchedness’.

The Seer’s Foot and the Shepherd’s Hand

Seeing into the future is one thing, but being fixated on death is quite another story. Growing up, all the tales of the second sight I ever heard – and there were many – seemed to be about just one thing: dying.

My father used to tell of a man from his village, known as Gidseoc (pronounced to rhyme, funnily enough, with Hitchcock). This fellow had no gift, as far as I know, but a pretty single-minded obsession with the other world. Gidseoc couldn’t go his own length without seeing mysterious lights, or hearing unearthly singing in a lonely spot. These uncanny happenings he shared liberally with his neighbours. My father, then just a wee boy, would listen, frozen with terror as the story reached its eerie denouement, when he would inevitably be sent out into the dark for more peats. Alone.

Being alone and frightened is not a nice thing. It doesn’t matter what you are afraid of. We all need to feel that someone else is there, going through it with us. And there are certain kinds of fear which, once you’ve experienced them, give you such empathy with other people in their loneliness and terror.

I used to be afraid of losing my husband. Whenever I would read a newspaper article about someone who had been widowed, I would cry like a leaky hose. Once, I tried to read, ‘In the Springtime of the Year’, about a young widow’s grief. Tears streamed down my face every night, until I eventually stopped reading halfway through the book. I knew that I could not cope with losing him. Or, rather, I feared that I could not.

There is, after all, only one fear anyway. We are afraid of being afraid. I thought that hearing the word, ‘cancer’ would destroy me; it didn’t. I thought that hearing the word, ‘terminal’ would destroy me; it didn’t. And I thought when I asked, ‘how long?’, that the answer – ‘days, but not days and days’ – would crush me into dust. It didn’t.

Nonetheless, the first quarter of the year will always be a little bit cianail for me. These were the three months of Donnie’s final illness. Yesterday was the second anniversary of that day when a very kind nurse handed me his wedding ring to keep forever.

What does one do on such anniversaries? I’m not a great visitor of cemeteries. Indeed, I’ve been to Donnie’s grave precisely once and only then to check that the Gaelic inscription on the headstone was correct. Oh, and that they’d left enough space for, ‘Agus Catriona’ (that’s some black, island humour for you right there). Well, yesterday I went to work as usual, bored some students about Icelandic nationalism and the evil eye (different classes), walked the dog and arranged some flowers. Then, I sat down and listened to a sermon, conducted in the language of Eden, on Psalm 23. It’s been a Psalm 23 kind of week. These words from the sermon reminded me of the meaning in my grief:

‘S e uan a th’ anns a’ bhuachaille. An t-uan seo a chaidh a mharbhadh ‘s a tha beo gu saoghal nan saoghal. Bidh e gan treorachadh gu beo-thobraichean uisge agus tiormachaidh Dia gach deoir bho an suilean. Cha bhi madadh-allaidh tuilleadh ann, cha bhi deoirean tuilleadh ann, cha bhi craidh no gort, no buaireadh, no Satan, no naimhdeas, no caoidh, no ionndrainn. Cha bhi cail de na nithean sin ann.
Bidh am Buachaille, an t-Uan fhein agus a’ chaoraich beannaichte, bidh iad fad na bith-bhuantachd comhla ri cheile aig na beo-thobraichean uisge sin.

And in English, for those of you in the cheap seats:

The Shepherd is the Lamb. This Lamb who was slain but who lives forever. He will lead them to wells of living water and God will dry the tears from their eyes.
There will be no wolf there, no more tears, nor pain, nor hurt, nor strife, nor Satan, nor enmity, nor mourning, nor longing. None of those things. The Shepherd, the Lamb Himself will abide by those wells of living water, together with His blessed flock, forever.

It was believed by some that the seer could share his vision with another if they stood on his foot, or placed a hand upon his shoulder.

I wish that I could do that with the Shepherd. If only I could say, place your foot on mine and see what I see. Then you’ll never be afraid of being afraid. This Lamb keeps the wolf at bay. You can lie down in peace because He is with you: if I’m nothing else, I think I’m proof of that. God doesn’t always let the cup pass from us. The painful things of life will still occur, and the things which make us afraid. However, when the nameless fear takes shape in your life, He will go through it all with you. After all, He went through it all for you.

Witch-finding is harder than you think . . .

I was given a broomstick by my late husband to mark our first wedding anniversary. It was a nod to the reputation that his home village enjoys as the witchcraft capital of Lewis. Later, my folklore students gave me a pointed, black hat. This (I hope) was a reference to the substance, rather than the style, of my teaching. Together, these two items conjure up a world of childhood stories, and whether you live in North Tolsta or North America, the witch is a familiar figure.

However, the witches of Gaelic folklore were not necessarily keen on displaying their badges of office. They didn’t fly about on broomsticks and tended to leave any hat-wearing to the godlier island ladies. Their arts were also practised more covertly than those of their southern sisters. Nor does Gaelic distinguish – as English does – between the black and the white witch. Our culture readily acknowledged the gift of the bean-fhiosaiche, the wise woman. She might have been a midwife and a healer, but these skills were respected and valued, not feared. The witch, on the other hand, was always black in Gaelic, always a bad woman.

Gaelic culture recognises something very important here – evil does not always wear a badge.I read the account of Saul and the witch of Endor with my Sunday School class recently, and was reminded of how easy it is to give children the wrong impression. Witches on broomsticks are all very well in stories, but it is so important that we all understand that wickedness is real, and often wears a benign face. Sometimes, it may even try to cloak itself in that most fashionable of disguises: tolerance.

There is a witch-hunt going on in Lewis right now, and – ironically – the victims are not enemies of God, but followers of Christ. Even their very grief is being exploited. National newspapers are serving up congealed cliches of island life: remote, pious, strict, reluctant to embrace the 20th century. This is the lazy journalism of a press which cares nothing about Lewis, nor knows anything, except that we are ‘other’ than them. Sadly, there are those within our own community whose blind opposition to the church means they are happy to see the island’s reputation sacrificed in the process. IMG_0022Not one of their number has named this maligning of our community for what it is: intolerance of the most hypocritical kind. I cannot comprehend a belief system which preaches tolerance, but cannot bear to hear the name of God mentioned; which claims an affinity with minorities, yet denies the existence of a unique island way of life.

But like so much else that they deny, it won’t disappear just to please them. Indeed, I have reason to believe that it is especially resilient in times of siege, and even death.

In Lewis, people used to understand the difference between sacred and profane. They would not mistake the wise woman for a witch. When death came to one family, it visited an entire community, and all sincerely mourned together. The true taigh-fhaire was a nocturnal watch, kept by neighbours on behalf of the bereaved. While the closest relatives slept, it fell to others in the community to maintain a vigil until morning, when the darkness eventually surrendered to the light, as it always must.

The watchmen on the wall will be first to see the day break. No one notices the shadows flee away; that’s the nature of darkness – one minute it seems to envelop us, and the next it has been sent scurrying. And then we forget that it was ever night at all.

The Laughing Wee Free

The problem with the Free Church is that people only ever see it from the outside. I don’t mean that those on the inside are blind, but there are certainly times when it seems as though we are mute. We stand by and let everyone else indulge us in the ‘giftie’ that Burns so earnestly wished for as he sat in church, contemplating the louse on a lady’s bonnet: ‘to see ourselves as others see us’.

How do others see us? The late Lewis poet Derick Thomson saw the Calvinist minister as a scarecrow, stealing the warmth from traditional Gaelic culture. His peers, Iain Crichton Smith and Donald MacAulay were no more complimentary about the influence of the Presbyterian Church on their native island and wrote frequently of its restrictive, life-denying effects. These men left Lewis in their youth to pursue careers in education and academia, but continued to perpetuate this view of the Free Church and its ilk for the rest of their lives.

In his millennial history of the Highlands and Islands, James Hunter gives two mentions to the Free Church. Here is a flavour of his thoughts on the subject: ‘while it is certainly hard to warm to the narrowly Sabbatarian, bitterly sectarian, faction-ridden and frequently reactionary Free Church of modern times, it is a mistake to assume that Highlands and Islands evangelicalism always exhibited only those traits.’ From this, I think we can take it that he believes ‘those traits’ were always present, but were, at one time tempered by something a bit finer. Note, of course, the use of the past tense.

Dr John MacInnes of the School of Scottish Studies describes our brand of Presbyterianism as, a recluse religion, not only turning away from the seductions of this world, but actually seeking at the same time to dominate ordinary, open society’. Dominate. Not ‘influence’, not ‘inspire’, not even ‘teach’, but ‘dominate’. It’s not sounding good, is it?

And this, ‘ordinary, open society’, of which he speaks – what do they say? They say we’re stuck in the past, we’re a narrow-minded Taliban, we’re regressive Calvinists (they don’t say which denomination is the progressive one).The Free Church is still seen as that scarecrow, coming into the ceilidh-house and spoiling all the fun.

For myself, I cannot agree with this jaded view of the Free Church. My experience of it – that is, the Stornoway incarnation – has been uniformly warm, positive and loving. We share our worship and our fellowship (and a lot of tray bake) , and we laugh at times – even out loud – and occasionally in the presence of the minister. Since becoming a member of the church I have not changed my personality, or become a narrow-minded automaton: if that was what was required, no one told me and I can find no reference to it in the handbook. This church, a branch of the church of Christ, has held me up through a dark and difficult period in my life. At my husband’s funeral, one of the prayers petitioned God that the church would be a husband to me; it has been. I can pay it no greater tribute than that.

The incomparable Professor Donald Meek suggests that the Presbyterian denominations’ failure to reflect openly on their own practices has left a hiatus, which has been gleefully filled by the kind of critics I’ve already mentioned. Is it wise, though, to go on ONLY being seen as others see us? Isn’t it time we said something – even a little – about how we see ourselves in this broken society that needs us now more than ever?

Just this week, at the prayer meeting, I heard a story of an elderly minister whose habit it was, each night before retiring, to pray around his village. He brought each household to the throne of grace and thus, served the community better than the hardest-working councillor ever could. And I doubt if he thought, ‘I must pray for my people’. His heart was tethered to theirs and he held them up to his Father for safekeeping. He wasn’t seeking to dominate, or impose his view; it was a simple act of Christian love. Isn’t it time we talked about that?

Ten Foot Tall Leodhasaich

‘When you learn about the people that you came from, it makes you feel ten feet tall’, said Peter MacLeod, one-time chairman of the Tong Historical Society. His organisation was one of a network of Comainn Eachdraidh (folk history societies) which sprang up in Lewis in the 1970s and 1980s. He was not boasting, but rather articulating the surprised delight experienced by people who eventually learn that they are more than just rural problems, burdening a distant government with their need for housing. As the Comunn Eachdraidh became a feature of villages throughout Lewis (and beyond), islanders began to map their own route from past to present.

Folklore has often been used as a PR tool. Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm hoped that their ‘Kinder und Hausmarchen’, published in 1812, would help to demonstrate the existence of a unified German culture. Our own Alexander Carmichael, exciseman and folklorist, collected for his ‘Carmina Gadelica’, believing that presenting the Gaidhealtachd to the rest of the world as a rich and ancient culture might help to dispel the post-Culloden propaganda that labelled the Gaels as unreconstructed philistines. In submitting evidence to the Napier Commission, a government enquiry into the social conditions of Scottish crofters, Carmichael thought outside the box. Alongside the more usual testimonies, he put forward some ancient Gaelic hymns and blessings.

Yes, read that last bit again – Carmichael wanted to present the inherent religiosity of the Gaelic people to the rest of the world as a positive trait. Smaoinich. He wasn’t saying, ‘yes, you’re quite right, they’re a shower of barbarous wretches – look at their prayers to a triune God . . .’ Different times, and yet not so different. Today, we are still having to prove that there is something about our culture that is precious and that is worth keeping. I tire of defending something, the dignity and longevity of which should speak for itself. Only last week, one of our resident secularists, bemoaning the lack of an 83rd hour in the week in which to go swimming, threw at me that there is no such thing as island culture, ‘other than Gaelic & music, etc’, she condescended to add.

No, indeed. No such thing as island culture. I don’t know what these Comainn Eachdraidh find to talk about. Lewis is just, as the lady said, the same as everywhere else in the U.K. We have no history to mention, no literary or folk traditions, no rich seam of lore, no knowledge of place names and traditional remedies, no bards, no distinctive agricultural traditions, no speech-makers, no dreamers, no unique worldview, no songs, no preachers, no island humour all our own. All we have is Gaelic and, aig deireadh an latha, as we’ve often said ourselves, ‘what good did Gaelic ever do us?’

But then, I agree with Dickens: ‘There are many things from which I might have derived good, by which I have not profited’. Perhaps I could be permitted to regard island culture and particularly Gaelic that way. If it was your first language, it doesn’t just inform who you are, it IS who you are. The kindest words that have ever been said to me were Gaelic ones and the kindest people were Gaelic people. Whenever my late father would tell me of his days growing up in Doune, or speak about the people he knew then, he always reminisced in Gaelic. For him, his language, his people and his culture were one. And it’s that way for me too. That’s why it is a great hurt and a terrible offence to tell an islander that their way of life is nothing special. You might just as well denigrate their parents.

If it seems that I’m piobaire an aona phuirt, well, I make no apology. There is a negative, anti-traditional, anti-church narrative being woven before our very eyes in Lewis at the moment. People are entitled to their views, of course, no matter how ill-judged. What they must not be allowed to do, however, is rewrite history, simply because they’d like to airbrush Gaelic, or the Presbyterian tradition – and anything else they don’t like or understand – out of existence. There has to be a counter-narrative, one in which we tell our own story, in our own words. Otherwise, someone else will tell us who we are in a tongue that’s not our own, and we will eventually start to believe them. After all, we’ve been round this way before.

Afraid of the Light

When I was eight years old, my much-loved granny died. The funeral was held in the sitting room of our house, as was still customary then. When the service was over, my immediate family disappeared – the men assembling into an orderly procession for the cemetery, as was usual on such occasions, and the women gathering to witness the beginning of this final journey. I was tearful, disoriented and upset. And then, an elderly neighbour bent down beside me and, pressing 50 pence into my hand, whispered, ‘you pray to God every day and you’ll see your granny again’.

A year or so later, my mother and I were visiting a lady that she worked with. When we got up to leave, she fetched a book for me to take home and keep. It was a nightly devotional for children and it made a big impression on me. So much so, in fact, that, persuaded by its exhortations, I finally knelt in prayer and asked Jesus into my heart. This was not my conversion and I would never pretend that it was, but I do believe that it was significant on my faith journey. I often drifted away from thoughts of God over the years that followed, but every time He pulled me back, this remembrance was never far from my mind.

Why am I sharing this? Well, because I’m dismayed by the way that, in Lewis right now, this kind of formative experience is being criticised by people who just don’t get it. Being secular, or humanist, or atheist, seems to mean saying that you are tolerant or inclusive, when all you actually want to do is erase any trace of Christianity from our midst. Grown men and women have been protesting that their children are ‘exposed’ to the Bible in school, that their little ones have come home in tears because someone was talking to them about Hell. They want to opt their children out of religious studies and worship, but don’t understand why this means no involvement in the school nativity play either. It’s not enough to take Christ out of schools, but He ought also to be removed from Christmas, in case He spoils it for the kids.

Reading their indignant diatribes on social media, it is hard to figure out how they can reconcile this total eradication with their claims that little Tommy or Emily will ‘make up their own minds when they’re older’. Will they? Based on what – you’ve removed any information about the Christian faith from their environment. All you are doing is creating people who are much more dogmatic than any Calvinist minister ever was; children who will be just as narrow-minded as their parents are proving themselves to be, but with no real idea why. And still, there will be that God-shaped hole at the core of their being because no matter how loudly you sing, ‘la-la-la, He’s not real’ . . . He is real.

It makes me sad. These two gentle, Christian ladies of my childhood acted out of love, of warmth and of community. I am so grateful that I belonged to a time when these things were understood. Old women and old men could show true concern for your soul without accusations of brain-washing being flung at them. As a child, I was taught to respect my elders and what they had to say, and this created true, strong inter-generational bonds. You could take or leave what they had said, but you listened politely to them and you respected them for it. In Jane Austen’s novel, ‘Emma’, the eponymous heroine is chided for speaking rudely to an older woman and reminded that, when Emma was a child, the other woman’s notice of her would have been an honour. I remember that feeling and I think we need to get it back.

After graduating, I worked as a community development officer in Ness, the northern part of the island. The building where I was based was also a community hall, which sometimes played host to a small church. I often worked very late there and it was an eerie building in a fairly lonely and somewhat creepy setting. One morning, an elder from the church had come in to set out the chairs for their service, and we got chatting. In the course of the conversation, he casually remarked, ‘we often pray for you, here on your own in the dark’. It was one of the loveliest, most humbling moments of my time there. When I left that job, they gifted me a Bible and 12 years later, were among the first to send condolences on the death of my husband. Prayer, after all, creates bonds which cannot be broken.

My late father was a Christian and one of the loveliest people I’ve ever known. He was a gentleman, though possessed of a wicked sense of humour, with a particular gift for giving nicknames. Our relationship was always good – we were close, and I often think back fondly to our many conversations on all kinds of topics. But, if this was therapy, I’d break down now and sob that he never told me he loved me. Nor did he; at least, not using those words. Nonetheless, I never doubted it. I know that he prayed for me and I heard ‘God bless’ from his lips many times. In Lewis, when I was growing up, that WAS love.

Somewhere along the way, we’ve lost that understanding of one another’s best motives. Now, it seems that children must be told not just about ‘stranger danger’, but also counselled in the risks inherent in allowing a teacher to read them the words of Psalm 23. The message seems to be, ‘watch out, because if someone tells you about Jesus, you may just believe what you hear’. If the churches in Lewis were as good at brainwashing as the secularists seem to believe, I can’t help feeling that the pews might be a bit less empty. But it’s obvious to anyone that they are, of course, lashing out like frightened children, afraid of what they don’t comprehend. Maybe if they shut their eyes tightly enough, they won’t have to see it and it won’t see them.

I think it’s time for someone to pat them on the shoulder, and simply say, ‘it’s alright, we’re praying for you, here on your own in the dark’.