Now Only Three

On Sunday morning, I was driving through the neighbouring village of Gress. To my left, the carpark was already starting to fill up, and people were unloading an assortment of beach toys, dogs and children. Over to the right, the cemetery lay quietly, an eloquent reminder that even in the midst of life, we are in death. As I continued onwards, I fell to pondering what visitors make of our cemeteries, plentiful and prominent as they are.

In fact, like our primary schools and churches, the burial grounds are a testament to the way in which Lewis was grown. Each village was a world entire for the people who belonged to it. And note my use of language- it’s something those from outside of the islands would do well to take on board: we make no claim of ownership on these communities, but they have a claim on us. That’s why, to a degree, the concept of community ownership in the literal sense is a bit alien. Traditionally, our relationship with land has not been proprietorial.

Indeed, our relationships were always described in terms of claims on, and not by, us. Where do you belong to? Who do you belong to? 

Thus, the villages had their churches to nurture the spiritual lives of the people, and schools to educate. Land was tenanted, not possessed, and the whole patchwork stitched together by fellow feeling, common experience and mutual understanding. 

The cemeteries are a part of it. One of the first things I did as a grown-up, married woman was to pay the lair fees for myself, my husband and my mother in-law. I began life in Tolsta paying nine pounds, then six . . . and now only three. It is an annual memento mori, a gentle pecuniary reminder nach e seo baile a mhaireas. Unlike many other townships, Tolsta’s cemetery is less prominent and so far removed from the village that you could go your whole life without glimpsing it. That’s a shame, I think, because when burial grounds are at the centre of a village, they do serve as a normaliser of death as something natural. For most villages, too, until very recently, burial itself occupied a central role in community life: everyone turned out to local funerals. 

Lewis funerals were the ultimate act of community – a public solidarity with the grieving family, and a respectful acknowledgement of the deceased person’s place in the tapestry of their lives. We understand better than most how someone you barely knew, or knew only by sight or who was just a name to you, still touched your life in some way, however small. They existed, they shared your heritage, they were a part of the same things you are. And thanks to our very civilised and healthy relationship with death, we are able to give them that dignified place at the end of life. The patronymic system ensures that their memory lives on, a chain linking those of us still in life to the relations and neighbours gone ahead into eternity.  It connects us, across the continents and oceans also, to the emigrated loved ones, keeping them a part of our community in life and in death, just the same.

We are losing our hold on what has kept these communities through the centuries. The church building may be where it was placed, at the centre of our villages, but the actual church is rarely at the heart of community life. And because of this, our relationship with death is also changing, turning into something sour and unhealthy.

It is darkly ironic that the unbelievers who call Christianity ‘a death cult’ are so prepared to argue against the sanctity of life themselves. If an unborn life is inconvenient, terminate it in the bud; if a person’s health is deteriorating or their quality of life poor, remove the burden now. Don’t wait on God’s providence, don’t trust him: push his hand away and do it for yourself. Somehow, we think that a life untrammelled by difficulty or pain is our birthright, and if it isn’t provided for us we must take it for ourselves. That justifies breaking the commandment to protect life. What does God know of our suffering?

The people who placed their churches and their cemeteries at the heart of community life knew better than to turn their faces from him. In accepting his seasons of providence, they showed great wisdom. ‘Fatalistic’, some have called it, but I don’t see it that way. They trusted him with all the moments of their lives. We are linked to them, through that patronymic chain, through all the words of prayer uttered by parents for children, by sisters for their brothers and vice-versa, and by pastors for their flocks.

Let us find our way back to a place where God is permitted to be God, and we accept that it is both in and to him we belong.

Another Man’s Croman

(A belated tribute to the late Eachann Dòmhnallach)

I like a laugh as much as the next miserable Calvinist, if only to take my mind off the doctrine of predestination for a minute. Any longer would be too long, even in the context of eternity. Unfathomable immortality may lie before me, but it’s still a sin to waste any of it on frivolity. 

It was in this grudging spirit that I dislodged ‘A View from North Lochs’ from the bookcase where it had been languishing, and took a flip through. Well, it fairly brought me back to the days when I would, as a geeky teenager, eagerly buy my illicit copy of the WHFP purely for Hector Macdonald’s offbeat look at island life. I had seen him once, shaking his fist at an SNP election cavalcade of which I was part, but he otherwise maintained – for me – an air of mystery and legend. He was smart and funny, with a voice that was nothing if not authentic.

Also subversive. A radical, if you will. And even if you won’t. Indeed, especially if you won’t, for isn’t that the way with radicals?

One of my favourite things about him was the way he managed to be a voice for the maws. Any Leòdhasach over a certain age knows that for long enough particular things ran unquestioningly along established lines. Certain roles were to be fulfilled by townies of a specific caste – it was not merely enough to be born within the samh of taigh nan guts and òcrach Bheinn na Dròbha, but it was a start. You certainly couldn’t have the country Maoris with their turned-down wellies traipsing into the town hall or clarting the carpets of Amity House with  anything unmentionable.

Eachann poked fun at this attitude without mercy. He feigned an exaggerated humility and tugged his forelock in such a way that one knew, somehow, exactly what he really thought. Don’t imagine, however, that this was wanton iconoclasm. In those heady days before the faceless nastiness of social media, this man had the art of satirising without giving gratuitous offence. 

And, as I reread the collected columns, published by Birlinn a number of years after his death, something else came back to me. Last week, in the course of my day job, I had to garner a view from Kinloch. (They will honestly do anything to try and provoke my resignation, but I stand firm). This latter-day Lochie commentator had useful insights to offer on the past and present of the crofting community. One thing really stood out, however.

We talk of schemes to regenerate the crofting community and the Gaelic community . . . and in the process, we overlook the common denominator. All these earnest attempts to revive the language and keep an historic system of land tenure alive, they fail to take account of the way in which community has changed.

One of the proofs that what I say is true is the ebbing away of island humour.
Not long ago, I tried to persuade a neo-crofter that he should keep his hens (I may have called them ‘chickens’ to ensure he understood me) to himself, and that if I was the kind of deviant who wanted hens, I’d get some of my own. He has taken the notion of ‘free-range’ to include my weed-killer infested property, so if the egg consumers of Tolsta start to display odd traits (sorry, odder), you’ll know why.  Not totally au fait with the notion of personal responsibility, he replied unconvincingly that he’d try. I, in turn, suggested that a man who is outwitted by hens probably shouldn’t have any in the first place, lest they overpower him with their superior intellect.

This gentle rejoinder was greeted by apoplexy of the sort normally reserved for hauliers ringing the Calmac booking line. He didn’t get island humour. Of course, why would he? And clearly he thinks that’s the worst I’ve got, so I’ll try to be gentler. Any crofter who wears a safety helmet on a quad probably should be handled with sensitivity, right enough.

I’d have had more respect for him if, instead of throwing a hissy fit, he’d replied as the other fellow did when his neighbour complained of a similar feathery invasion.

‘Tha na cearcan agaibhse staigh an seo a-rithist agus ag ith biadh nan cearcan againne’, the first maw complained.

‘O, tha mi a’ creids’ – tha iad glè bheag umhail mar sin’.

People don’t think of others like they used to, relate to others like they used to or, dare I say, know one another like they used to. It’s ironic that when it was merely ‘sa bhaile againne’, we were more of a community; and now that we no longer know or care for each other as we did, we just can’t stop using the word, ‘community’. 

I’m not all that sure who it is we’re trying to convince. What I do know is that most of the wisest people I’ve ever met had the same answer for dealing with the common or garden amadan – laugh at him. Whether he is an amadan sporting the chains of high office, an amadan with a pen, or an amadan on a grazings committee, he is underneath it all, just an amadan. 

And in a community like ours, we’ve all been the amadan at some point. Some come from a long line of amadain, others strike out for themselves. It would be nice if we could remember that, and learn how to laugh at ourselves – and each other – without it causing a fence.

Defending My Hope

When God decided I should emerge from my shadowy existence as a secret disciple, he must have had a plan, because he always does. Two sermons set me on the inevitable path to the Kirk Session (though they assure me that one blog – possibly even this one – will be enough to see me recalled). One, on the woman who had the issue of blood, convicted me that being healed is not enough, that we have to tell it abroad; and the second one, on the need for readiness to defend our hope in Christ. 

I have not shut up since. Compelled to defend the cause, or to share my hope, I have landed in all manner of trouble. At least part of the reason for that has been my own approach. 

In that, I am like the church as a whole. We love Christ, and in our zeal to share that with those around us, we sometimes forget that the messenger is much less apt to be shot if she considers the mode of delivery a little more carefully. 

Given that my chosen mission field was digital from the get-go, there were always going to be three principal difficulties. First of all, my audience is very mixed. On one hand there are the Christians who, for the most part, see what I’m doing and say little or nothing. Their silence may indicate approval, or the very opposite; I don’t know. On the other hand, there are the all-too-vocal unbelievers who wish I’d be quiet and keep my faith in fairy tales to myself. Secondly, online ministry of the sort I have embarked upon is lonely and prone to snap judgement from among the brethren. More traditional Christians think it folly to be engaging with atheists on social media, and some have made it clear that they see my dol a-mach as troublemaking. And thirdly, if you are using digital media for writing your views, people can misunderstand tone and intention. That’s why, I imagine, I have been variously accused of having a ‘Messiah complex’, being ‘bitter and cold’ and portraying myself as ‘the perfect, grieving widow who found God’.

You see the problem? It’s all too easy to lose people. If they dislike you, or your manner, or even just their idea of you, the psychological shutters come crashing down and you have no chance of reaching them. 

So, I have an image problem. There is an entire group of people – most of whom have never met me – entirely persuaded that I am a repellent Bible thumper, an unreasonable Sabbatarian and a smug, self-righteous hater. I must bear at least some of the responsibility for this because, without doubt, I have misrepresented my Saviour at times by being unloving and too swift to speak. If we look at any of Christ’s encounters with ordinary people in the Bible, or with leaders, for that matter, there are precious few words from him. 

We, on the other hand, seek to show him forth by jabbering endlessly. Fill the silence at all costs – isn’t that how we roll? Unfortunately, my heart is not fathomless, like the Lord’s: it is mean and brittle, and goes out only to those who are easy to love, and so much of what I think, say and write is devoid of the costly perfume that Christ pours out on me without measure. I set out to share his boundless grace, but end by keeping it meanly to myself and spilling out judgement and condemnation.

Or, at least, that’s how it seems to people who are only seeing me. There is too little of Christ in the way that I deal with unbelievers and I have, consequently, forced them to see him through the prism of me, rather than the other way around.  To say that I have misrepresented him is the understatement of the century. 

The endless words from me have been an attempt to fill the void that ought to be filled up with Christlikeness. I have to speak and write and speak some more so that the avalanche of words will persuade people that I am a Christian, and that he has begun a good work in me. Of course I believe that he has, but I shouldn’t have to say it: my life ought to be sufficient witness.

I could stand silent in the presence of doubters, as my Lord did, if I was able to reflect him back at them. For a long time, I thought I was doing that with this blog, but I am increasingly aware of speaking into darkness and being answered with silence and hardness of heart.

I think, perhaps, for a little while, it may be wise to sanctify God in my heart and ready myself to give the defence of the reason for my unquenchable hope, but only when it’s asked for. When people ask, you know that they have seen something in you without having to be told.

I have never – not once – been asked for that defence.