The thing about Ness is its unpredictability. It is the sort of place where Dr Who’s Tardis could very well choose to land. After all, no other district of Lewis manages to tread that line between loyalty to the past and faith in the future with quite so much aplomb. If I had to sum it up in one word, it would be, ‘authentic’. On the other hand, if I had no such restriction imposed upon me, I’d also add ‘crazy’ and ‘unpredictable ‘, but would be forced, on balance, to include ‘fabulous’ and ‘inspiring’ too.
Last Wednesday, I visited. Or, I should say, revisited. It was there I had my first proper, grown-up job as development manager for Iomairt Nis, a community-run company. For four years, I worked in the wee office behind the stage at Ness Hall.
When we held our millennial Gaelic-Gaeilge link event, Ceilidh san Iar-Thuath, my office served as a dressing room for Danu, a young Irish band.
Another day, a man breezed in and introduced himself to me as, ‘Wylie. I’m a photographer’. I gaped stupidly at him. ‘N-not Gus . . . Wylie?’ I stammered and, when he answered in the affirmative, I responded with, ‘you’re so good I thought you were dead’.
You never really knew what was going to happen from one day to the next in Ness. Inevitably, it was there I got my first taste of infamy.
When I agreed to rent the community hall to the newly-formed Free Church (Continuing), I naively failed to foresee any hassle. I don’t think I’ve ever been called ‘silly’ by quite so many different people in such a short space of time. Even the media wanted to know why I had done something so ‘controversial’.
If it was now, I would probably agonise, consult, pray . . . but I was young and could only see in black and white. I had the management of an underused and decrepit community facility; here was a community group in need of a temporary home. To me, there was no need for fuss. Nor was there any call for me to side against a group of people who simply wished to gather and worship God in much the same way that I was used to doing myself.
It turns out that I was right, though my method of dealing with the situation might have been less than sensitive. Eventually, the dust settled. Those who spoke against such use of the hall probably also regretted doing so. We are human, we all do things in the heat of the moment which we might wish undone a second later. The thing to remember is that our feelings, our opinions and our egos are not all that important in the grand scheme of eternity, or even in the small scheme of community.
True community is resilient, like family. There may be disagreements, hurts and rivalries but ultimately, when the chips are down, everyone clings together. Ness was like that.
And it’s still the same.
In the Comunn Eachdraidh cafe, people breeze in and out. Gaelic is spoken, patronymics are used. Casual conversations take place, and are often about who such and such a person’s family is, or what someone did for a living in Swainbost in 1922. They are comfortable and easily confident in their identity as Nisich because they know and value their roots.
Annie MacSween, who founded Comunn Eachdraidh Nis – the first of its kind – in 1977, is once again its chairperson. I wanted to use the adjective, ‘irrepressible’ in front of her name, but everyone who knows her will mentally insert it anyway, so I needn’t trouble. She told me that their meetings are still conducted in Gaelic. This is not an organisation which commemorates or even reenacts something which is gone, but one which is naturally and easily protecting something very much alive.
The wee dispute of 2000 did not break the palpable sense of community that one gets in Ness. It was, like all family rifts, weathered and then absorbed into the mythology of the place.
In the few hours I spent in Comunn Eachdraidh Nis last week, I spoke to blog readers from Dowanvale – fellow Christians, indeed fellow Wee Frees whom I had never met. Annie received a phone call while I was there from another gentleman I have also got to know through the blog, though we have not yet met either. We spoke, and I agreed to get involved with a pilgrimage he is organising. To Ness, obviously.
I emerged from my day in Ness, blinking in the light of reality, like Lucy tumbling out of the wardrobe from Narnia.
This is a district for which the past is not a foreign country at all, but part of the here and now. Those who died in the wars are not commemorated as names on a stone tablet, but remembered as vital links in the patronymic chain.
And Ness’ secular and Christian heritage co-exist unselfconsciously. For me, this is Lewis at its best: unadulterated by alien notions about identity and inclusivity. There, being a Christian and a Gaelic-speaker did not make me feel odd; it reminded me that I belong to something with roots and longevity.
Community is so good I thought it was dead. Ness proved me wrong.