Because He Loved Us First

When the bombs fell on Buckingham Palace in 1940, Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother said that she was glad because it meant that she and the King could finally ‘look the East End in the eye’. Many people have laughed at this statement, believing it to be illustrative of just how out of touch the royal family is. People who had almost nothing, losing everything they owned in one night were not experiencing the same war as the privileged Windsors with their untold wealth and multiple palatial residences. If one castle gets totalled, move to another: that is not poverty.

We seem to believe that empathy can only stem from our having actually experienced something. Until the monarch has to live in a high-rise flat with no food in the fridge and no money to feed the meter, she cannot begin to understand the plight of her poorest subjects.

Empathy, though, is like faith – it shouldn’t require evidence. Nothing breaks my heart more than homelessness, though I have mercifully never been in that position myself. Surely the essence of the empathetic heart is being able to find the common point of experience. The Queen Mother was not suggesting that her domestic situation was the same as that of the Eastenders; she was saying, however, that both knew what it was to have their homes threatened and even breached. One was much larger and grander, yes, but home nonetheless.

And, just the same, when I saw our Queen sitting all by herself at the funeral of her husband, I could finally understand how a blone from Lewis and the monarch of a kingdom might have something in common.

When the time came for the mourners to file into the church on the day of my husband’s funeral, a church officer approached me and asked, ‘are you alone?’ I felt his words like a knife to my heart. Yes indeed, I thought, quite alone. My best friend, my helpmeet, my companion in life, has gone on without me, and I have to navigate this path as best I can with no hand to hold.

I don’t imagine the pain of losing a spouse is any less when you are a world leader. Perhaps, indeed, the pain is greater still for one whose life is so public. She must now find a way in which to do everything she used to do, but always conscious of the absence where Prince Philip used to be. It is likely – though by no means certain – that her reunion with him will come much more quickly than mine with Donnie. When I was first widowed, I used to envy elderly women in my position, because I thought they wouldn’t have to experience so much of life without their husbands.

Now, though, I know it makes no difference. Jesus knew he would raise Lazarus from the dead, but he still wept with the family. His tears were not merely for their pain, but for the human condition – for the fall that has brought us to a place of death. Inevitably, whether we are exalted in the land or humble, we gather at the graveside and mourn for what the great leveller has removed.

Jesus – the Queen’s Saviour and mine – was displaying empathy. He was shedding tears for mankind, for the sin that brought death into our experience. Although he was about to raise Lazarus from the dead, death would eventually claim him a second time.

Of course, the depth of Jesus’ empathy was what led him to finally surrender himself on the cross. So moved was the Lord’s heart by what we have inflicted upon ourselves, that he did not merely weep with the bereaved: he gave himself to death in our place.

Christ became man and walked this Earth. He was born into the humblest of surroundings. As a man, he had no home to call his own, no regular income, no insurance policies. The King of Kings was a vagrant.

But that isn’t what made him the most empathetic man who ever lived.

Before God sent his Son into the world, there was compassion, and there was empathy for our plight. Do we castigate God because he has never had his home destroyed, or lost his spouse? Would it be fair to tell him that he cannot understand our pain? Of course not, because he is the very model of what empathy means. If I may put it like this, he carried empathy to its ultimate conclusion.

If we are followers of Christ, then, shouldn’t empathy be part of our character? There are things I have not suffered, practices I do not approve, walks I have not had to take . . . but when I see my fellow man in their midst, where is my heart? Do I rush to judgement, to vitriol and condemnation, or do I say, ‘there but for God’s grace go I’.

Christ came alongside all manner of sin and suffering. That was empathy. And we are capable of it, it is expected of us, because he loved us first.

More than a Destination

About ten years ago, I found myself on a small, open boat, bound for Kitchener’s Island. Before you consult the Landranger Taobh Siar map, stop, you maw – it’s in Egypt. While we were making our way, a smaller boat still came alongside us and we were joined by three tall, dignified figures. These men and women were Nubians – indigenous people of southern Egypt – and they were there to sell their beads and trinkets to the day-trippers.

They are a displaced people whose ancient culture was no defence against the march of ‘progress’ – moved aside for the Aswan Dam, they grieve to this day for the loss of ancestral lands. And many eke out a living hawking crafts to rich, white tourists making their way to an island no longer known by its native name.

I wonder what they would make of other age-old civilisations actively choosing that life. Little did they think that, among the pasty-faced travellers who bought bracelets from them that afternoon, were people whose own way of life is being willingly subsumed by the great god of tourism.

People here in the Western Isles talk about tourism in reverential tones, as though it is some sort of moral good. Whenever the prospect of other kinds of economic development is raised – wind turbines being the obvious contemporary example – there is much swooning and tutting and cries of, ‘what will it do to tourism?’ For reasons I cannot fathom, almost everything we do here in the islands has got to be measured against that particular yardstick, as though, like some hideous aping of Brigadoon, we only exist when seen through the eyes of others.

The tedious Sunday issue is the same. Those who like the six-day uniqueness of Lewis and Harris are told that they are selfish, backward and ‘what must tourists think?’.

Well, with all due respect to them – and speaking as an occasional tourist myself – I don’t see why we should actually care. If they are going to visit, they should be pleased to find that we haven’t conformed to some mass-market idea of ‘Hebridean-ness’, but continue to uphold our own traditional values and way of life. Besides, surely we are more than just a destination.

Aren’t we a living community?

In order to go on being a living community, I contend that we have to look to agricultural metaphors – cherish our roots, and encourage our young shoots to grow. That, for those of you with a more literal turn of mind, means protecting our heritage, and nurturing our younger generation.

One of the great white hopes of our recent past has been the advent of community land ownership. It has taken its place alongside apple pie and motherhood (and flipping tourism for some) in the annals of all that is good and positive. I’m not persuaded, however, that it’s the panacea some would claim. The system of crofting tenure in its current form has really meant that the Gàidhealtachd has been wresting land from private control, only to watch the open market in holiday homes and tourist development turn us back into an off-season wilderness. If the tinkers could only see how we have moved from maligning and distrusting them to positively encouraging itinerant wanderers into our midst, the irony would probably knock them off their feet. Anyone with the necessary cash can buy a croft tenancy – or several – and turn these acres over to chalets, glamping pods or gypsy caravans, and there is not one single thing the landowner (community or otherwise) can do about it.

There is, of course, room for tourism in the Western Isles economy. We have many good quality, hotels, bed and breakfasts and guest houses; we have some high-end self-catering, and some good camping facilities. In the years to come, Stornoway’s port development will ensure that we are much better equipped to welcome cruise ship traffic. I recently lunched in a local hotel, where ours was one of only three tables occupied at the peak period. Obviously, local people are not enough to keep the doors of such businesses open. Summer visitors will undoubtedly swell the numbers and fill the tills, which can only be good for the hotelier and the conscientious people he employs.

I understand, too, that people want to come and witness the beauty and the heritage of our islands for themselves. That said, I object to the attitude that manifested last summer amongst some would-be visitors, on being told that locals were reticent about the reopening of our ports in the midst of a pandemic. ‘You can’t stop us’, some (a minority, I would hope) said, ‘the islands don’t belong to you’.

That’s told the land buyout brigade, eh?

Well, no, of course the islands don’t belong to us. What any born and bred islander will tell you, though, is that we belong to them. Lewis is much more than a lovely place to live for the native Leòdhasach; it holds us to itself in ways that I cannot begin to describe. Ask the Leòdhasach abroad to explain his cianalas, and he can’t, but it is the flip-side of loving the place that grew you.

However, that love has to express itself in practical ways for the Leòdhasach (other islands are available) at home. We have to be mindful of the fact that this IS a community. People who live here all the year round want to enjoy a little summer freedom, and not to have to constantly jostle with visitors because our entire economy has been given over to tourism. Equally, we have to provide for those who do come, and we have to allow that there will always be an industry that caters to them.

So, what’s the answer? Well, think of those other two indigenous plants, Gaelic and crofting. In fact, think of economic development in general. What have they all got in common?

Regulation. There is no regulatory body for tourism, though. Indeed, there is no real definition of ‘tourism’. That’s why, despite the extravagant claims made on its behalf, it is actually quite hard to pin down in any assessment of our islands’ or our country’s GDP. There is tension between tourism and Gaelic, tourism and land use, tourism and almost every form of economic development.

Yet, it grows unchecked, like a falasgair on tinder-dry mòinteach.

Three Years a Knave?

For three years, it’s leather, I’m told. Still, I can’t see balaich an Trust presenting me with a designer Italian handbag. I am much more likely to get a bròg.

(Yes, just the one).

Facebook has had a lot to say about the Stornoway Trust this last wee while, none of it very nice and most of it the product of fevered imagination. The fantasy version of the organisation that seems to preoccupy a small number of the electorate doesn’t actually exist in the real world beyond social media. Still, when you are largely unaware that there IS a real world beyond social media, that point is liable to be lost on you.

The most recent thing that Facebook had to say about the Trust was this morning, when it reminded me that, on this day three years ago, I was elected to serve a six-year sentence term. After a thoroughly unpleasant campaign, it felt like a dubious reward. Yes, I had entered the fray willingly, but I had not – given the low stakes – expected that people would target me so viciously. Again, this was social media, and not the real world. Indeed, the real world looked on aghast and many, I suspect, voted for me simply in order to show their solidarity with common decency against mob rule.

In any service that we give, it’s important to reflect upon why we’re doing it. The halfway point of my term gives me pause for consideration: is this how I wish to spend a sizeable portion of my time; and if so, why?

Well, the reason I stood in the first place is the same reason that I remain. I believed that I could contribute something to the running of the Trust – not as a maverick grandstanding for social media approval, but as one part of a team. Trustees function within the Trust as individuals, but outwardly as part of a homogenous entity.

We are – and many will love this comparison – like the tinker encampments of old; free to quarrel amongst ourselves, but always  presenting a united front to the world. A lot of our meetings are spent debating and disagreeing, but consensus must eventually be achieved and that, then, becomes Trust policy. On Trust policy, and Trust action arising from it, we speak as one: Trustees and staff are a single body with no prospect of divide and conquer. Anything else would be wrong.

It is this that some more vociferous elements in the community cannot accept. They try to raise individual trustees up on a pedestal, folk heroes for the masses, who have been elected to stir the pot and (hilariously) ‘sort things out’.

No one person could – or should – sort anything. It is a team effort. If you want to be that kind of hero, I’d suggest you look elsewhere to win your spurs.

What the Trust needs and, in large part, has been successful in attracting, is reasonable, committed people with a desire to put something back into their communities. Those who crave drama and dissent do no justice either to the historic organisation of which they seek to become a part, nor to the wonderful community it encompasses.

More concerning, however, than the pedestal-building, is the bullying.

During my three years, I have witnessed some disgusting displays by members of the public. One recently suggested that I simply cannot handle dissenting voices; he rapidly thought better of his comment and removed it, because he knows as well as I do that I could name and shame those who have been guilty of quite reprehensible conduct. No, correction, I probably couldn’t shame them because what they have said is so abhorrent that I believe them to be beyond the reach of shame. I can handle disagreement and, for that matter, abuse for I’ve received plenty. It shouldn’t be a question of ability to take it, though, should it?

Is this how we want to treat people in public life? Is this the side of our community that we want to show forth?Do we seriously want to make public service an endurance test where we try to break spirits and destroy reputations?  I think that everyone deserves better than the low mud-slinging melee that social media has become in the hands of the few.

The problem, however, is not with the Trust. In three years, I have learned a great deal, and I have – I hope – forged lasting friendships with people that I respect and admire. It has been absorbing and rewarding. Yes, I have much still to learn, but that’s the exciting thing about it. We deal with such a varied portfolio of activity that you never know what a day will bring.

That sounds like a ringing endorsement, doesn’t it? Yet, I cannot in all conscience recommend to anyone that they seek a seat on the Stornoway Trust. Or the Comhairle. Or Bòrd na Gàidhlig. Or the Crofting Commission.

Or any public office that the Facebook bullies have in their sights.

We can say what we like about wanting better representation and talk a good game about more women and more young people . . . but the bullying has to be addressed. I wonder how many decent, capable people are put off making a contribution to their communities because of this rot at the heart of things.

Three years on, I cannot say that the standard of discourse on social media Is better. Indeed, I think it’s far worse. They have learnt nothing. 

Nonetheless, let’s strive for something a little higher than personal attack; let’s bring back respect and honesty – and the ability to disagree with grace. Anything less demeans us all.

A Home For All Seasons

I am writing this blog as a howling gale rages outside. Myself and the dog are tucked up by the woodburner, enjoying the warmth and safety of home. And it occurs to me, as I pour another cup of Dark Grey no.4 (tea, incidentally, not malt whisky), that it could all serve as a metaphor for the life that I live.

The house was built many years ago by the father in-law that I never met, as a home for his growing family, of which my husband was the baby. In time, it became his, and I moved here with him as a bride in 2003.

Over the years, we carried out work that made it more our home, including the installation of the Morso Squirrel woodburner upon which I am currently toasting my cable-knit slippers. And Donnie became a tree and shrub aficionado, growing obsessed with screening the house off from the world. I remember saying to him, as we made yet another pilgrimage to Maybury Gardens, to please not mention the word ‘privacy’ again. ‘David Iain is going to think we’ve got something to hide’, I said, as we both laughed at the thought.

It is on a feu, and it is not mortgaged. So, when my beloved Donnie passed away in 2015, I had the comfort of knowing it was completely mine. No one could take it from me. He had, in the last few months of his life, been single-minded in ensuring that I would be secure in every way that he could make certain of. That was always his instinct. 

I remember one evening, a few years before the shadow of death crossed our path. He had filled up the log basket and gone out to close the gates. ‘That always feels good’, he said, shooting the bolt home, ‘everything secured for the weekend, and both of us safe inside’. It was why the trees were so important too: he was putting a circle of protection around what meant the most to him. This house was everything: it symbolised his parents and siblings, and his marriage to me. It was everything warm, safe and positive in a life kindly and gently lived.

So, when that legacy passed into my keeping, I felt very keenly that it was like having his protection still. He cannot put his arms around me now, and I cannot go to him with my troubles – but I have our home, with all its happy memories and warm associations.

Every metaphorical storm – and every literal one too – that has blown since I lost him, sent me to the solace of this place. Here, I feel close to him, and safe. 

But there is an additional reason for this. No, not additional – it is, in fact, the foundation that was there all along. It was what motivated Donnie, it was what sustained us both as we walked through the valley of the shadow, as much as in the sunlit uplands of happiness.

Love. Real love, that is. Not the Mills and Boon sort, nor the kind that breaks under pressure. The original, the best, patented by the Creator.

Over my sitting room door hangs a sign that says ‘The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?’, the first verse of psalm 27. It speaks volumes to me of what home is, of what it always has been. I understand God’s protection because I have always been blessed to have the shelter of a loving home.

Now is no different. I have a home that was built with love, and – as my husband wrote in the last of his diary entries – was always a place of happiness. That sort of legacy is not meaningless, and I don’t hold it lightly.

Not long ago, a friend of mine was talking about a widow who had some slight bother with her neighbours, and kept saying, ‘this wouldn’t happen if Murdo was alive’. I suppose he thought she was full of self-pity and being melodramatic. But I believe that she probably had a point, because people do treat you differently. Kind people treat you more kindly, and those who are only out for themselves seek to exploit your solitude. 

God has a heart for the fatherless and for the widows, though. I don’t just believe that; I know it. He has given me to have a safe place in storms of all kinds. Sometimes, he causes them to be calm, and sometimes he lets them rage and fume and blow themselves out.

But always, I am here, in the warmth and safety of my home. When the forces outside batter and buffet me, I look up and I read once more:

‘The Lord is the stronghold of my life, of whom shall I be afraid?’

The answer is this: no one. I am safe in the shelter of one who can silence the storm with a word. 

A humbling thought if you have ever glibly said of yourself, ‘I am the storm’. 

The land, the language, the people

Last night, I dreamt I went to Mangersta again. It seemed to me I stood in a passing place leading to the village, and for a while, I could not enter, for the way was barred to me. There was a padlock and chain upon the gate. I called in my dream, ‘fosgail an geata’, and had no answer, and peering closer through the rusted spikes of the gate, I saw that the houses were empty of anyone who could understand me.

Before this vision of mine is entirely fulfilled, can’t we utter some of the forbidden words? Isn’t it past time to talk about why one of Scotland’s last indigenous communities, wrapped and bandaged though it is by legislation, has failed to be protected by any of these measures?

We have reached a point where serious academic research backs up what we have all known for some time: the Gaelic language is in crisis because the community that nurtured it is in crisis.

This is not a problem that can be solved by Gaelic agencies because, quite honestly, this isn’t a purely linguistic problem. And it’s hard to talk frankly about the real issues because people will rush to call you ‘racist’ for using vocabulary that excludes – words like ‘native’ and ‘indigenous’ for example. Because the struggle has focused purely upon language acquisition for so long, they walk among us who will claim, ‘is Gàidheal mi’ just because they’ve learnt to speak Gaelic.

Well, I have news for such people: is not Gàidheal thu; is Gaelic speaker thu. There is much more to being a Gael than just speaking the language.

And there is much more to being an islander than just living here. People, sadly, are failing to recognise this, and that is contributing to the death of community. I have firsthand experience of people who bought crofts here in (yes, in) Lewis expressly for the purpose of starting a business. They, and many others like them, think that, because they have bought and paid for a parcel of land here, they have become islanders.

But, just as learning Gaelic does not make you a Gael, owning property in Lewis does not make you a Leòdhasach. And that’s okay, because – presumably – you’ve got your own cultural identity.

So, we get ourselves a culturally diverse Gàidhealtachd and everyone is agreed that this diversity is a good thing.

Except, not everyone. I don’t, for one. At this point, some of you will have decided that I’m just being racist. I’m not; I’m being realistic. We have reached a point where an indigenous people with its own language and way of life is under threat. It’s time to stop being so damned polite and right-on. And so, I am now going to launch into saying the unsayable.

We need a new approach. A complete sea-change in how things are done ought to begin with legal recognition of the indigenous people who inhabit the Western Isles. Once that status is conferred, there has to be robust support for crofting and for Gaelic. I’d like to see the Crofting Commission and Bòrd na Gàidhlig working together – they already share a building (in Inverness, for now, Rome wasn’t built in a day) anyway. One might almost say gun robh e meant.

And we have to look at land ownership legislation. Much is made of the community right to buy – but it’s largely meaningless in the nurturing of real community as long as anyone with a fat enough purse can bag a croft, regardless of background. Young local people cannot hope to compete with that, or with the other blight on our society: housing for tourism.

Tourism is low-hanging fruit for people hoping to make a fast buck, or development agencies looking for an easy ‘win’. It is used as a battering ram to foist change (Sunday opening) or to oppose development (wind farms).

‘What will visitors think’?’ is the constant refrain.

I don’t care what visitors will think. This isn’t a reservation or a living museum exhibit. We were born and brought up here and we are committed to it. But we have complacently permitted the ongoing vandalism of our way of life, and smiled politely as it is dismantled around us.

The recent publication of ‘The Gaelic crisis in the vernacular community’ is a wake-up call. We need legislation that will empower the Crofting Commission and the landowning community trusts to put land the way of young islanders. Under the ‘new normal’, people like me will be at home a lot more during daylight hours. At a stroke, this providence has reduced the sad phenomenon of dormitory communities. What if we saw the economically active generation combining their main occupation – broadcasting, lecturing, weaving, graphic design or whatever – with crofting? Imagine land being worked, and villages where you see activity in the middle of the day; imagine Gaelic being spoken as the older folk pass their skills on.

Maybe I’m a dreamer. I hope I’m not the only one.

I am not saying that incomers shouldn’t be welcome, that would be ridiculous. But I am saying that if we really are serious about our culture, we have got to stop it being reduced to a commodity. If we don’t act now to stop the exploitation of our heritage, one day we’re going to wake up and realise that the thing we’re selling no longer exists. Native islanders – and I include myself in this – have been remiss in not providing a better welcome for those who come to live among us. We consistently fail to demonstrate that there is more to places like Lewis than just scenery and much more to our culture than a few songs or scraps of tweed.

Community, like heritage, is codified in our conduct, and in our relationship, both with the place we call ‘home’ and with one another. You can’t package that up and sell it.

In the post-lockdown period, we have seen the ugly side of tourism. Not just the dirty camping phenomenon, but a disturbing attitude. All over social media, would-be visitors and those seeking to make money from them were talking about ‘rights’. The ‘rights’ of anyone who wanted to visit Lewis, for example. ‘It doesn’t belong to the islanders’ one man said, ‘and I can come if I want’.

No, it doesn’t belong to the islanders; that much is true. But we belong to the island in ways no visitor can comprehend.

As a student, I read Bruce Chatwin’s ‘The Songlines’, a beautiful book about his travels in Australia. In it, he wrote:

‘The whites were forever changing the world to fit their doubtful vision of the future. The Aboriginals put all their mental energies into keeping the world the way it was’.

We are the Aboriginals: custodians of our ancestral lands, speakers of an ancient language through which we construct and comprehend the Gaelic community. It is past time for us to recognise that and to take steps to protect what has been left in our care.

It is time for our indigenous status to be formalised; it is time for everyone to recognise that these communities would be nothing without their people. And it is time for us, as a people, to recognise that we are nothing without the heritage that give us our identity.

The Loneliness of the Socially-distanced Worshipper

We are now in that post-lockdown wilderness I dreaded, where no one seems very sure of what is safe, or what is lawful, to do. As so often happens with we humans, it has caused discussion of our plight to degenerate to levels rarely witnessed outside of the playground: ‘but they’re doing it, why can’t we?’ or ‘it’s not fair’, and, of course, ‘because I want to’.

Pubs, shops, hairdressing salons, and even restaurants are beginning to open up – just not places of worship. Children are scheduled to return to the classroom here in mid-August, but there will be no Stornoway communion at the month’s end. You may visit the zoo to stare at rare breeds, but the Leòdhasach èildear cannot be seen in his natural habitat (the suidheachan mòr) until late phase four, whenever that will be.

And, you know, I’m fine with that.

I will undoubtedly be called ‘selfish’ for saying so, but this is a personal blog, so it’s only to be expected that what you get is MY opinion. Here’s  my thinking.

The government did not wait until the virus had been eradicated, nor till effective treatment or vaccine was found; they opened up shops and businesses because this country, this world, is driven by money. It isn’t a Tory thing, or an SNP thing: it’s a people thing. Sadly, it’s all we know. Money is our security blanket. Without it, we are at the mercy of charity, and the mercy of our fellow men. Ask the 29,000 Scottish homeless how that’s working out for them, and you can begin to understand why we were all afraid for ‘the economy’.

So afraid were we that, suddenly, it was safe for businesses to reopen. And then it became okay for folk to stand one metre apart instead of two. Ask yourself why it is now we’re being told we must wear masks while shopping – could it possibly be that the government knows it has done something unsafe in permitting us to mix in such numbers?

So, yes, it’s the economy, stupid. That’s why pubs are open, but not places of worship. It’s why kids are going back to school in August, but I’ll probably be teaching my classes from home. The students I teach don’t need their mammies to stay at home with them, like the school kids would.

Churches are not businesses. Furthermore, they can do their thing perfectly well at a distance. We have been able to be out both ends on a Sunday whilst staying in, we have had our midweek prayer meetings and – I believe, ged nach e mo ghnòthach e – the Session meetings have also carried on. There has been Sunday school and youth groups. I don’t know about others, but my elder has conducted virtual visits, ensuring that his charges receive the usual high standard of pastoral care.

Besides all that, or, indeed, above all that, we have been open in ways that we have never been before. People are coming under the word who previously felt unable to attend church. That has to be a challenge for us, and the uncomfortable part surely is to ask ourselves why. What does online church have that physical church lacks? Or is it the other way around? Maybe it’s us, the visible church, that puts people off. And perhaps God is keeping us in this holding-pattern for that reason. Amidst all the cries of ‘I miss church’ and ‘I just want to get back’, could it be that God is reminding us that it isn’t all about the comfort of the saved. Is it just possible that he wants us in the wilderness, drawing others to him, instead of back in our time-honoured malaise of Sunday best and ‘fellowship’?

Besides, what would the benefits be to opening up? People like to cite the importance of gathering together. We are doing that. Online church is a gathering together in the spirit. It is possible to see and hear one another, using certain platforms. No, we cannot hug, kiss, or shake hands, but we won’t be allowed to do that anyway. And, I have a massive, personal objection to returning now. This, I guarantee you, will be a reservation shared by many.

Social distancing dictates that family groups and couples may sit together. Individuals – single, divorced, widowed – will have to sit alone in church. It can be a lonely enough experience going to church by yourself, but to have your singleness, your aloneness underlined in this way strikes me not only as uncomfortable, but unnecessarily cruel. I won’t be subjecting myself to it because it will not add a single thing to my relationship with the Lord. He is with me, here in my home, every minute of every day.

He has been in many homes these last three months. I cannot see online church as inferior because, in many ways, it has accomplished part of the great commission in which we were failing. The Gospel has been taken to the people where they are. God’s servants have stepped up to the plate and learned new ways of transmitting his message of hope.

Let’s not lose sight of that in the clamour to get back to ‘normal’. Normal is overrated.

The First Blast of the Trumpet Against More Rough Wooing

Were John Knox alive today, I don’t think the Protestant church in Scotland – if such a monolith existed – would be wise to choose him as a spokesperson. He had a somewhat unfortunate way with words, and a bit of an uncompromising manner, particularly when it came to ladies in government. It’s not that he was sexist, just that he believed female rulers were an abomination and ought to stay at home having babies.

And, like an awful lot of people – to be fair not all of them men – once Knox had said a thing, that was it. He was not a fan of taking back ill-chosen words, nor of admitting when he’d been a bit of an insensitive twit.

He even managed to contradict Calvin. Pause for dramatic effect. Yes, THAT Calvin – the one who gets the blame for the unfortunate personality traits of dour Wee Frees, Wee Wee Frees, and Wee Wee Frees to the Power of Three. Calvin had used biblical examples, such as Deborah, to demonstrate God’s willingness to raise up female leaders. Knox wasn’t having any of it, though and maintained that women ruling was a breach of the God-given order.

He inadvertently annoyed Queen Elizabeth I of England, and steadfastly refused to apologise. In typically winning fashion, he corresponded instead with her (male) adviser, Sir William Cecil . . . but, let’s just say, he didn’t win any prizes for diplomacy there either.

The worrying thing for me is that I’m not entirely persuaded that our church WOULD keep Knox away from the microphone. I can almost hear the arguments in his favour: ‘oh, but he’s so godly’; ‘oh, but his theology is sound’; ‘oh but he’s not afraid to speak the truth’. Knox would undoubtedly possess the courage and the drive to speak for the church in Scotland: but are those the only qualifications?

Let me circumvent any misunderstanding. I’m not referring to ‘the church’ in terms of an institution, or as a specific denomination. What I’m speaking about is Christianity, the cause of Christ. There are many in Scotland who love the Lord and who wish to see some restoration of truth to public life. But if we’re ever going to get there, we need a wee bit of the ‘s’-word: strategy. Strategy backed up by prayer and trusting to God, absolutely, but still, a strategy.

First up on my planner, therefore, is ‘silence all the would-be Knoxes’.

Knox was all kinds of things: courageous, straight-talking, and a champion of Christ. We have people like that, though obviously not of his stature, today. And sometimes, I’m afraid that when they speak, I cringe.

It isn’t that I usually disagree with the fundamentals of their message; how could l? Nor do I belong to that camp which feels that Christians need to water down the challenge of the Gospel. God IS love, indeed, but we also have to preach about sin and hell and judgment, and the danger of not accepting his free offer of salvation.

No, it’s about presentation. It’s about the fact that there is no use in battering unsaved sinners over the head with the fact of their sin. I cannot show them their sin and neither can you. Why? Because we’re sinners ourselves. They need the mirror of God’s perfection to see themselves in that light.

So, when Christians speak on moral issues, we do not need a John Knox to remonstrate with people for their sin. We need those who are gifted with diplomacy and, yes, the wisdom of serpents, tempered with the gentility of doves. Every man or woman who professes faith is not destined to champion it effectively in the public arena, and we have to find ways to channel gifts prudently.

I would like to see, for example, more female Christians being encouraged to speak on issues like abortion. It sits uneasily with me when the pro-life lobby is represented by men. Yes, they have as much concern and as much right to a view; but that’s not the point. Knox, no doubt, would be very willing to speak on ‘Reporting Scotland’ about protecting the unborn child – but that doesn’t mean that he would be the best person for the job. Whether we like it or not, perception is important, and we do nothing to win over the hearts of a hostile world by playing up to the stereotypes.

Don’t get me wrong, though, I’m not actually talking about gender. This is not me saying, ‘shut up, men, and let the girls talk’. What I’m trying to say is that we need to get better at representing our cause, by equipping our people to speak. There has got to be love, grace, intelligence and common sense. And, yes, there has got to be strategy.

The church needs people who walk with God, who pursue a holy life, and who are chiefly concerned with glorifying him. However, the world needs a church that can speak comfortably to it, in ways and words it will understand.

We are not going to win Scotland’s soul back with another rough wooing.

Crofting, cùram and the black, black Comhairle

‘The minister and the factor are the cause of all the misery and ruination’, I said last week on live radio. I wasn’t, of course, talking about anyone I know personally, perish the thought. No, I was, in fact, paraphrasing a view held by many of my fellow countrymen, and especially in that context, various writers over the years about the havoc wrought by these two archetypes. 

The Highlands, explored in literary form, invariably appear to have been torn asunder by these two men: the greed of the factor and the creed of the minister. Between them, many people believe, the landlords and the church pulled down the ancient edifice of Gaelic culture and left it in ruins.

Even to this day, nothing is more guaranteed to get a social media debate going than religion or land. The latter blew up into a Facebook squall last week, with the news that Comhairle nan Eilean has taken legal advice on whether it can include crofts in the valuation of assets, when recouping the cost of providing care.

It was always going to be a turbulent discussion. You have a heady mix of poorly-understood legislation, a local authority which is damned either way, and the rampant emotionalism that seems to accompany every invocation of the word, ‘croft’. Crofters are felt by many to have a moral right to the land, and to be automatically justified whenever pitted against authority. There is a sense in which Comhairle nan Eilean cannot win this debate. Like any organisation which finds its views at variance with those of the crofting community, or even one section of it, the council will inevitably be portrayed as a latter-day Dòmhnall Munro.

Crofts and/or houses which are owner-occupied are straightforward enough. The real controversy centres around tenanted crofts. If you are merely paying rent to a landlord . . . how can the croft’s value be calculated as belonging to you?

Unfortunately, the legal opinion sought by the Comhairle states that one possible way is to file for bankruptcy against the crofter, or his estate after he has passed away. This unpalatable course of action would be time-consuming, potentially costly and by no means certain to produce the desired result for the local authority. Insolvent crofters breach the 1993 Crofting Act. Nonetheless, only the landlord can apply for an order to have them removed, and even if they do so, the events that follow are firmly outwith the council’s control.

So, this is clearly an extremely vexed question and, like everything else of the kind, may well be slogged out on Facebook, but it certainly won’t be settled there.

What the discussion does throw up, however, is an interesting attitude around the perceived intrinsic worthiness of crofting. Evidently, from the comments I have read, many of us feel that it is part of island heritage and deserving of protection. Some even accuse Comhairle nan Eilean of instigating a modern version of the clearances.

The conceit there is that crofts and crofting ought to be the province of the indigenous population. That is an argument which, in the context of language and cultural preservation (where, by ‘culture’ I mean way of life and not some tweed nailed to driftwood, calling itself ‘art’) might have some merit.

We suffer, because of our remoteness, a tension between maintaining a viable population in these islands, and protecting our increasingly fragile heritage. How do you reconcile the need for people to keep services running, and shops and schools open, with the desire to shore up these things which are unique and precious about our islands?

For too long, there has been a concentration on Gaelic as a language, and little heed paid to the fact that it has – and requires – an underpinning culture. Crofting is undoubtedly part of that. Unfortunately, the moral argument posited by many against the Comhairle’s position falls down slightly on the fact that tenancies change hands for sometimes eye-watering sums of money.

You simply cannot have it both ways. If tenancies can be sold to the highest bidder, where is the mechanism for favouring – say – young islanders? It doesn’t exist.

Crofting, like Gaelic, has been subject to a tiùrr of legislation, but there has been the same mistake made in both cases: a failure to recognise the plant in its native soil, or to take measures that might have nurtured it there. With language, experts talk about intergenerational transmission – the passing of the language from parent to child, far and away the most natural learning process. The richness of vocabulary and idiom is then preserved in a wider Gaelic community, not least because communities have an inbuilt code that is mutually intelligible to its members.

In fact, now that the language campaign is waking up to the fact that it has neglected community in its working-out, I wonder whether there isn’t greater scope for an integrated approach to the promotion of Gaelic and crofting. Not, I hasten to add, in some twee, ‘living museum’ way, but an acknowledgement that there are vestiges of both traditions still extant here, into which new life could be breathed. And that they have a close relationship with one another in the communities where they grow wild.

It would take vision to realise, of course. Some years ago, the Crofting Commission published a paper which explored the possibility of designating Scottish crofters as an indigenous people. I wonder whether, under the new Islands Act, and with an eye to further crofting legislation in the next parliament, it may not be time to rekindle that spark of an idea.

Imagine: Comhairle nan Eilean Siar, Highland Council, the Crofting Commission, Bòrd na Gàidhlig, all working together on policy for the Gàidhealtachd from the inside.

We have much still to learn from the old slogans: the language, the land, the people; and strength through unity.

And the prisoners heard

Sunday afternoon sunshine lured me outside to sit on my recently-painted decking to read, write and contemplate. There were birds singing in the trees and lambs bleating in the croft beyond, but not a sound other than that to pierce the stillness. I had recently risen from morning worship with my congregation, and was in exactly the right frame of mind for a bit of contemplation.

I was also filled with an enormous sense of wellbeing. These are days filled with uncertainty, trepidation and, for many, grief. None of us knows when it may be our turn to walk through the valley of the shadow of death. Yet, we know that God is with us, and that ,while a shadow may well encroach, it can never devour.

So, while the world’s media is talking in terms of a global crisis, of catastrophe and lockdown, God is enabling me – and many more besides, I think – to experience this as the day of small things which we are warned not to despise.  As I sat in the warmth of this early spring day, I thought about the week just gone by, and the ways in which I have met with Christ in the long hours of solitude.

There is his word, of course, and prayer. These are constants. Normally, though, they are the launchpad for what Lady Bracknell disparagingly referred to as ‘a life crowded with incident’.

I am rediscovering my inner introvert, however. This week, I have  delivered a number of lectures and tutorials, spoken on the radio about my favourite Scottish novels, attended a meeting of the Stornoway Trust, and participated in a whisky tasting – all without budging from my dining table. In between, I walk, cook, clean, read and write. In the evenings, I chat to friends and family, listen to music, and catch up on television programmes, films and podcasts that I’ve missed.

Friday was glorious. I finished classes, and took the dog for a long ramble on the machair. Confusedly dressed in wellies, linen trousers and a cashmere hoody (I like to acknowledge all seasons in one outfit), I got spectacularly rained on. Showered and pyjama-clad, I lit the wood burner and laid out my various samples of Jura whisky and wild water from the Stornoway Trust Estate in time for the Instagram tasting event.

It was not, I am quite certain, the 46.7% ABV 21-year-old malt that gave me the feeling of complete serenity, but the sense that this was a day of privileges, dispensed by the hand of a gracious God. He has enabled me to continue doing my job, and fulfill other obligations while remaining safe and not feeling isolated in the least.

Discussing this with a Christian friend on Sunday evening, she said that she was concerned by the number of people – believing people – who are not doing so well. She hears from folk who say that lockdown is beginning to pall on them, who say they miss the human interaction of church. These are by no means all people who live alone either.

All of which set me wondering what’s wrong with me that, six weekends in, I am still only able to see the positives.

I have come to a number of conclusions. Ultimately, I don’t go to church for the social aspect. In fact, quietly and without anyone else noticing, I ceased attending organised fellowships of any kind more than a year ago. Church has been a place of worship for me, and that continues to be possible by God’s grace through the technology which it is our privilege to access and enjoy. Yes, there are people whose society I miss, and I will be glad to see them when we are once more able to share a pew. Until then, however, I am getting the essential parts of the church experience at home.

Like many others, I am gratified by the way in which being a church quite literally without walls has enabled new people to join us for worship. An open door may theoretically be welcoming, but there is still a threshold to cross which can seem like a journey of a thousand miles to the stranger. Online worship presents no such barrier.

A lot of Christians are invoking the image of Israel’s captivity to describe where we are at. I don’t disparage other people’s feelings or experiences, however, when I say that this is not my view of things at all.

Christ has freed his people, and we do him no justice if we consider ourselves captive still. We ought to be like Paul and Silas who sang and prayed in their cell at midnight. The walls could not contain them because their hearts were fixed upon worshipping God. He was there with them, he is here in my house too; and he is with all his people wherever they are. Ask the suffering and persecuted church if you can’t believe a Wee Free woman.

My favourite part of that account, though, is the following four words: ‘and the prisoners heard’.

Those who are still enslaved, not by government lockdown, but the bonds of sin – what is our witness to them? Perhaps he has brought us out of our comfortable churches into the information super-highway so that they will hear us, not weeping and complaining, but lifting up our voices in praise of the Christ who will never leave nor forsake us.

Empty pews & the fellowship of the Spirit

I feel like a child in a fairytale. It feels as though, just by wishing hard enough, I have made the thing happen. ‘Which thing?’ you ask, fearing that I’m going to say I’ve met a handsome prince, and that you’ll have to send someone to show me that really it IS only a frog. No, not that thing. The thing I needed, the thing I secretly longed for has happened.

The world has stopped. And I have been able to stop with it.

For the few (I’ve lost track of how many) weeks of lockdown, I have been harbouring a secret. It has made me feel out of step with everybody else, but at the same time absolutely wonderful. And, if this really is just an enchantment from which we will all soon wake up, it’s safe to tell my secret, however it may shock.

In fact, I know it WILL shock, because right from the beginning of this, the Christian church has been chided for its readiness to embrace online worship. ‘You should be weeping for what you have lost’, we were told, the very first week, ‘you should grieve the loss of fellowship and count electronic services a poor substitute’.

It has been said before, of course. In the book of Numbers:

‘And the people of Israel also wept again and said, “Oh that we had meat to eat!

We remember the fish we ate in Egypt that cost nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic. But now our strength is dried up, and there is nothing at all but this manna to look at.”’

Am I being harsh? No, I don’t think I am. We are shown repeatedly in Scripture the danger and folly of looking back to halcyon days that were less than the perfection in our minds. God took the Israelites out of Egypt for a good reason: it was not their home, of course, and it was a corrupting influence, teaching the cults of paganism and idolatry. Their longing for the varied diet of the oppressor as opposed to the wholesome manna provided by God needs no interpretation.

It is this which makes us all repeat the mantra, ‘when we get back to normal’. We are human and we want what is easy and familiar. That’s hardly surprising.

Surely, though, the church cannot want to go back to what it was before. I cringe at the repeated requests that we not get too comfortable with live-streaming our worship. Why? What is ‘too comfortable’? It’s the provision God has made and there is no better application for man’s creative ingenuity than tribute to the Creator himself, who made it possible. Of course, I’m being deliberately obtuse; I know very well the point that’s being made.

What about fellowship?

Well, I’m here to tell you that occupying the same physical space does not add up to that. Fellowship is spiritual, not geographical. It is literally ‘of the Spirit’: we are united in him, wherever we are, and have the concern and care of one another, regardless of proximity or distance. How else can we have brotherhood with the global church or a heart for mission?

Is there not a very real danger that, when life is too easy and the pews too – figuratively speaking, obviously- comfortable, we mistake merely being in the same place twice-weekly for the deeper spiritual bonds of Christian fellowship?

Perhaps, then, God has removed that privilege for a season, so that we would understand its illusory effects.

As for the exhortation to weep, I don’t have much time for that either. Grief can paralyse in ways that do nothing to aid spiritual growth. Witness psalm 137:

‘By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion.

On the willows there we hung up our lyres.

For there our captors required of us songs, and our tormentors, mirth, saying, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!” ‘

They sat down. They hung up their lyres. Grief and looking back rooted them to the spot and dried up their praise.

WE are in a strange land and never more so than now. This, though, is all in God’s providence and we must – surely – be called on to be like Paul and to worship him in all circumstances.

Which brings me to my secret. I know it is fated to be misunderstood, but still I think it’s worth airing.

I am glad the churches are closed.

On a personal level, it’s a relief. Life for me was so out of hand busy that, frankly, Sunday had ceased to be a day of rest. It was frequently one more day on which I had to drag myself out of the house and follow a timetable. More often than not in recent months I went to save face and to avoid answering awkward questions.

I was exhausted and verging on burnout.

Please don’t misunderstand me: this was never about coldness towards the Lord, his word, or his people. It was the cumulative effect of too much everything.

Now, I have the joy of worshiping without the tiredness. I can pare it all back to essentials and focus on the word and the praise.

This is not about one person’s convenience, of course, though I do wonder how many others feel as I do right now. It is about what the Lord is saying to his own people. We still have the privilege of corporate worship; he has not taken that from us.

I take two things from the current situation. First, he has demonstrated that fellowship is not a closed shop. We have been forced to go public and it is a real joy to know that the unchurched are finding comfort in acts of online worship. It is, as far as I am concerned, the ‘go’ of the Great Commission being partly fulfilled.

Second, he is chipping away at our complacency. To be together means much more than haphazardly sitting under one roof. It is love, care, gladness to be a people, concern for one another, sharing one another’s joys and woes.

If I survive to see the end of this pandemic, I will be glad to go to church. I pray that I will be doing it – that we will all be doing it – with a new heart and a new vigour. This is not a make-do and mend situation; God is giving us a blessing by keeping us apart, so that we might better learn what it really means to be together.