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.

Full Moon Fever

The moon – and particularly the full version of it – has come to feature in my life more than I might have expected. I don’t know if it’s my imagination, but I rather think that the Kirk Session and Balaich an Trust all get a bit hairier and a bit howlier round about this time of the month. It definitely used to be that my social media presence agitated more folk while Luna was waxing than at any other time, but that’s all quietened down as they find other ways to spend their time: sharpening sticks and piling up stones, or whatever it is trolls do when they’re not trolling. Writing letters of complaint, possibly, in the case of those who fancy themselves a bit ‘educated’.

I don’t exactly know why, but in my pre-Christmas book buying frenzy, I ordered myself a copy of the 2020 Almanac. Perhaps, on reflection,  I am spending too much time with bodaich. But, no, it has a very practical application for someone who lives in North Tolsta and needs not only to know the lunar phases, but also which herbs make a good poultice to see off the effects of the evil eye. This is the sort of old wives’ lore a person can find in an almanac.

It is, of course, from the Latin, ‘luna’, meaning ‘moon’ that we get the word ‘lunatic’. This application of the term stemmed from the belief that mental illness manifested more extremely when the moon was waxing and full. My husband used to scoff at my suggestion that it had such influence, but I’m not entirely convinced that people who grew up in the witchcraft capital of Lewis are best qualified to pronounce on what might be considered erratic behaviour.

Actually, I do believe it has a part to play. Get your green crayons out now, ready to write letters of disquiet to the Session, because I’m about to tell you my reasoning.

We know from that great and infallible god, science, that the moon has a good deal of influence on tides, on gravity and on the forces that move the world generally. People do not dispute this; it is what we lovingly call ‘a fact’.

I know from my actually great, actually infallible and definitely God that he created the moon and everything upon which it pulls. Yes, the seas, the rivers, the animals, the seasons – all of these are subject to the lunar force. An integral part of the Creation too, though, is your common or garden human being. We are not apart from it, separate from it, distinct from it; we are a piece of the entire complex jigsaw that God called into being.

Therefore, we too are governed by the forces he instituted. Including the moon.

There is a school of thought in modern society that talks a lot about going back to nature, of getting closer to the low-intensity way that our forefathers used to live. People are drawn to the idea of making things, craftsmanship and following the seasons. I know my Harris seanair certainly liked to grow his own quinoa, and my granny was the first woman in Achmore to embrace shabby chic, but this new movement goes deeper than that. It’s as if people are looking for something simpler; as if they want to shed the complication and burden that modern life has placed upon our shoulders.

Look at the Greta Thunberg phenomenon. That a young girl and, indeed, a whole generation, is traumatised by the threat of environmental apocalypse testifies to our broken-down relationship with nature.

But it speaks of something else too, as does this whole shift to downsize, to reduce your carbon footprint: it’s all a symptom of the fact that we are looking the wrong way.

What is it we’re seeking in all of this greening? Listen to what people are saying. They want the environment to be safe for their children, they want to know that the food they eat and the water they drink is unpolluted by chemicals, they want to stop losing species at a rate of knots. It is the same instinct that drives us back to our almanacs and that causes us to feel better if we predict tomorrow by looking at the moon instead of a television screen.

We know that we are responsible for the state of the environment. God gave the one part of Creation crafted in his own image stewardship of the rest – and we blew it. Indeed, we blew it so badly and so early that man had to leave the garden he was made for. Man, in his own befuddled way is now trying to find his way back.

Because we are wise in our own sight and have been since the moment that precipitated the Fall, our map for getting to Eden is one we drew ourselves. It’s a tacked-together affair, made up of environmental policy and recycling bins. We think we can save ourselves, but the reality is that what we are seeking in all of this is the Creator himself.

And yet, in our own perverse way, we are going to try every other method to fix ourselves first. I don’t need an almanac to tell you how that ends.