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. Not 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.