‘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.