The Little Islands That Could

Despite my reputation in some quarters as a religious fanatic, I am not usually to be found in church on a Friday afternoon. Gu deimhinne, I am not to be found in the Church of Scotland any day of the week, thank you very much, and yet here I was, in Martin’s Memorial, no less, at 2pm, when I ought to have been at work.

Except, of course, this was work. We were gathered for the Lews Castle College UHI graduation and I, along with my colleagues from the Gaelic team were there for two very particular reasons. Our former boss, doyenne of local history and professional Niseach, Annie Macsween, was finally being honoured for her major contribution to Gaelic language and culture. She was receiving a Fellowship of UHI from the University Court. Also, a 2008 graduate of ours, the well-kent broadcaster, Anne Lundon, was awarded UHI’s Alumnus of the Year; her career has long been a source of interest and pride to all of us who were privileged to have taught her.

It made me reflect upon the debt of gratitude that so many owe Lews Castle College, myself very much among them. These islands have always valued education and learning, but were forced to part with their young people – their future, really – in its pursuit. Until, that is, our wee technical and maritime College did what so many Leòdhasaich before it had done – and got ideas above its station.

Driven on by a few local visionaries, it got involved in the delivery of degree-level studies, as part of what was then just the UHI Project. University title and then degree-awarding powers did not follow until some time later. When I graduated BSc Rural Development in 1997, I received my scroll in Stornoway Town Hall, but my name was entered upon the graduates’ list at the University of Aberdeen – for it was they who had to validate these early degrees. My class was, nonetheless, the first to receive a degree through Lews Castle College; and I, merely by virtue of alphabetical order, was the first individual to do so.

Our Principal – my boss – reminded the graduates of 2019 that they should encourage others to follow the path they had. I hope, since coming to lecture at my old college in 2002, that I have been able to do that. There is something special about working there, and about providing the educational lifeline that says to students, ‘actually, no, you don’t need to get out in order to get on’. Indeed, we hardly have to say it anymore. This generation of youngsters has, mercifully, lost the Hebridean cringe that says if it’s home-grown it can’t be any good.

I have never suffered from that particular worldview. And my time as a student at Lews Castle College confirmed what I had already suspected: we may not be the same as anywhere else, but we’re every bit as worthwhile.

Sitting in Martin’s Memorial, applauding the success of our students, and the staff who get them there, I felt a wee surge of emotion. In his speech, the Principal also said that, in the early days, people didn’t really believe in UHI. He was right; they didn’t. I remember the scepticism, the struggle to convince folk it was ‘just as good as real university’ – and I remember that the doubt came mainly from within our own communities. So, watching the ceremony, with the mace, and the gowns, and the big velvet hat with which the graduands are slapped, I got a lump in my throat. This was it; this was a real university town, out in celebration of learning and progress, and of the people who constitute our future.

My degree opened a whole range of doors, the most important ones being in my own mind. I questioned, I listened, I learned, and tested my worldview against all this knowledge that was being shared with me. For a very brief spell, I even flirted with atheism, but I stopped that nonsense when it dawned on me that God knew fine that I still knew He was there. I read about land ownership, and the Highland famine, and community empowerment. And, oh, the dates – 1493, 1746, 1843, 1886 – that unlocked my people’s past in ways I would never forget.

Because of Lews Castle College and the education I got there, I have been able to keep faith with this community. I know, you see, what makes it tick. All along, I have understood and loved it, and believed that it just wasn’t hitting its full potential. Getting out to get on just didn’t make sense to me; staying and making it even better, though, now you’re talking.

I really hope that’s what some of these graduates will do now. We want their enthusiasm for the Western Isles to be invested back into the communities that made them. It’s time they added their voices to the local narrative. These islands are crying out for people who want to nurture them, and to develop them, without feeling the need to obliterate all that makes the place unique.

Perhaps my Lews Castle College education is the reason I struggle to understand the mentality of people whose very raison d’ etre seems to be moaning about Lewis (other islands are available). They don’t seek to put anything in, but they have endless complaints about it all. You name it, they have denounced it. And they reserve their bitterest criticism for people, with certain groups attracting more criticism than others – namely Christians, councillors, Stornoway Trustees, Gaelic speakers/activists, folk who aren’t Christians but like Sundays to be kept traditional, people who work for the council . . .

We have comprehensively defeated the nonsense that said we could never meet the need for undergraduate and postgraduate qualifications without leaving home. That’s done. Now, let’s set about creating a greater mood of intolerance.

Yes, I said ‘intolerance’:let’s not tolerate bitter, sad people who miscall these islands, but make no effort to contribute positively; let’s refuse to permit their negative droning to dominate the narrative about the Western Isles. If these kinds of voices had been listened to before, Martin’s Memorial would have lain empty this Friday afternoon. Instead, the little College that could just went ahead and did, scattering the sceptics in its wake.

I think scattering sceptics should be the island way. According to some, we get nothing right here in Lewis.

See me and my local education, though, we view it differently. We do things our own way, and that’s right for us. Anything else is just an inferiority complex – and I think these islands are just too good to have one of those.

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