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.

Glory in the glen . . . or anywhere

‘These are our Castle Grounds’, I found myself thinking on Thursday night as I watched the little tent in the glen fill up with people. There was something special about seeing them arriving in knots of two and three – intentionally leaving their homes to come and gather under canvas in worship of the Lord. Psalms, songs of praise, prayers and Scripture readings. It was all about ascribing to Him the glory that is due and, nestled there in the hollow of God’s hand, we were not several denominations, but one church.

And I feel that this kind of event is all the more important in our day. Just as, last summer, a couple of hundred of us gathered in the glebe at Baile na Cille, for worship, this too felt like a statement. It is primarily an opportunity to spend time in adoration of our Lord – but it is also a witness to a world that seems blind to His glory. Being outside, though, is not just important because we are more likely to be overheard than when we are closed up in a building.

No, there is something else; there is as much of reclamation as there is acclamation in our al fresco praise. Every place where God’s name is spoken with reverence, I feel a flag is planted for His cause. Where two or three gather in His name, He is in the midst to bless. And so, on Thursday night, in Willowglen, God was undoubtedly present.

I do not pretend that certain places are more sacred than others, because that would be to confine our boundless God, and make Him small. Nonetheless, it is difficult to see how a place where His spirit has moved can ever be mundane again. Will I be able to pass through Willowglen and not remember with joy the night it became a place of worship for its own Creator and mine? Hopefully not.

This lovely corner of God’s handiwork has been abused lately. Instead of a protective instinct for all this beauty, something much uglier has been in evidence. Many have chosen to vandalise and sully the Castle Grounds in a fit of pique about policy. It is too petty for words. But it is a stark reminder of where we are.

I reflected on the harsh words of the last few weeks, even as I listened to these much more attractive ones drifting out of the tent:

Ach mise molar leam do neart;
gu moch a’ seinn do ghràis,
Airson gur tu mo thèarmann treun,
‘s mo dhaingneach fhèin ‘s gach càs.

God is the defence of my life. With every passing day I am more conscious of my need for such a refuge. And why? You have no use for protection except when you are in enemy territory. But, then, that’s what this is, even the beautiful Lews Castle Grounds: made perfect by God, but marred by man. From this enmity against the very Creator stems the mistreatment of what His hands have made, whether that is earth, trees, water . . . or humanity itself.

Nothing is sacred: not even life, and certainly not places like Willowglen.

On Thursday, though, there were all the elements assembled that we might need to recreate Psalm 137. We had a river to sit down by, and boughs of willow in which to hang our lyres. Here we were, being required to praise the Lord’s song in the midst of hostility.

I felt, however, that it was not a time for weeping – not for ourselves, anyway. Gathered under that canvas shelter, we testified to the impermanence of our sojourn in this world. We pitch our tent for a while, yes, but the house of many mansions is home. What God makes, what God provides – whether it is a garden, or a temporary place to gather – we should esteem, because it is by His grace and from His hand, the hand His children love, that we receive it.

That evening, for a few hours at least, we remembered Zion. It’s a particular kind of memory, though. Just as the prophet Isaiah spoke of the coming Christ in the past tense, we sing for joy at the recollection of Glory that awaits

Meantime, we have to rise up to our feet on that riverbank, and take down our lyres from the willow branches. I am more certain than ever that this strange land is crying out in its captivity to hear the Lord’s song; and who shall sing it for them, though they try their utmost to quench the sound with mocking?

That’s why Grace on the Green matters. The world does not believe that we are free, that we are filled with joy that no amount of their hostility can kill. We usually worship shut away from them; we politely contain our praise for God in buildings from which little sound escapes.

Those confining edifices are not the church: we are. And our oneness with Creation is never more apparent than in praising the Creator’s name in the midst of all He has made.

The least we owe Him, then,  is to sing His song for those whose eyes remain blind to amazing grace, and the immeasurable glory of God. It isn’t found in a place, but in a person. And they might find Him anywhere – but  certainly wherever His church gathers to adore Him.

 

The Wrong Coinneach; the Right Christ

Have you ever found yourself on a trip with the wrong Coinneach? It happened to me last Wednesday. I thought I was going to Harris with Coinneach Mòr, in a reliable, BBC car whose satnav would use RP English, probably even pronouncing our destination as Roe-dell. Instead, in a flagrant abuse of licence fee payers’ money, I was issued with Coinneach Beag, ‘driving’ an automatic Yaris, and taking his good time about it.

We were bound for St Clement’s church to do that which no Wee Free ever does in a place of worship: look at art. I fretted all the way there, and almost welcomed the frequent violent stalling as a distraction. When your head keeps coming into contact with the dashboard it’s hard to think about anything else – even heresy.

The exhibition was a visual exploration of the  poem cycle by Orcadian George Mackay Brown, entitled ‘Tryst on Egilsay’, describing the death of St Magnus. Yes, art AND saints all in one day. But an Orcadian saint, whose story the late poet regarded as one of the most precious in Orkney’s heritage.

It was so appropriate to have this in Harris for a number of reasons. For one, it is believed that the account of Magnus’s death was preserved for posterity by one Hebridean eyewitness – Holdbodi, of the farming class, and loyal ally of Magnus.

Magnus was meeting on Egilsay with his cousin, Hakon, to discuss which of them should rule Orkney. The former brought with him two boats and the corresponding number of men, as had been agreed. Much less honourable, the latter brought eight boats, packed with followers. When Magnus saw them approach, he knew what his fate would be.

It is almost unbearably moving to read the account, in Orkneyinga Saga, of Magnus’s steadfast faith in the face of such threat. Instead of fleeing, he went to church and prayed, forbidding his men to defend him.

And then, he bargained in a way that every Christian hopes they would too in the same situation. He didn’t beg to have his life spared. Instead, he asked Hakon to do anything – even putting out his eyes – short of murder. ‘God knows that I think more of your soul than my own life’, he told his cousin, and because this was true, he wanted to spare Hakon the guilt of his blood.

He was persuasive, and would have got his way, but for Hakon’s men. They said that they wanted a single ruler for Orkney and that, therefore, one of the two earls must die. Thus, Magnus’s fate was sealed, and he prayed forgiveness for the perpetrators before being put to death.

Hakon had opted for political power and the death of his soul; but Magnus chose the good portion.

It might seem strange in one way to be marking this Norse-Orcadian earl’s death in a mediaeval church in Harris. But not when you think about it. St Clement’s was probably built a couple of centuries after the magnificent St Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall, yet it is part of God’s real estate. In that very church, I felt all manner of hope was represented.

Gaelic culture, so apparently subsumed by the political might of the Vikings flowered when their age was done. St Clement’s testifies to that, belonging as it does to that most Gaelic of eras in our history. A minority language, oppressed by the major language can still be resurgent; and, as the Norse example shows, official status does not make any language the one of your heart.

Magnus, though, and St Clement’s, and the people who visit there to read of his martyrdom, speak the greatest hope of all into the world. Some may choose political power, progress and popularity here in this life; but if you are a Christian, you surely wish to identify with Magnus who, at the hour of his death prayed for his friends, but also his enemies, forgiving their sins against himself.

In the end, it didn’t matter which Coinneach took me to Harris; I needed to go in order to be reminded of something. When even those you have called friends hate you for Christ’s sake, it’s easy and natural to feel bitter, but it is better to remember the lesson of this mediaeval Orcadian Saint: their souls are worth more to Him than my life.

Hakon appeared to have walked away with all the prizes – his life; the exclusive rights to the Earldom of Orkney; and even forgiveness from the man he had put to death. But his cousin, in fact, was the winner, able to discern which were the true riches and, in complete faith, to choose Christ over against everything else.

We have, all of us, to answer for ourselves, but I hope I can continue to say with Magnus, and with Job, ‘though He slay me, I will trust in Him’.

That will meet any deficiencies in myself, in my friendships, and in my journey through this world. Even if part of it has to be in a hybrid automatic driven by the wrong Coinneach.

Crofting, Calvinism & the Colonised Gaels

Geekery comes in many forms, but I have always been particularly susceptible to the uniquely Teuchter variety. Now, before you leap to conclusions, no, I cannot name you every model of Massey-Ferguson ever to set wheel upon the Isle of Lewis; nor am I qualified to identify a brand of dip merely by its bouquet. However, I enjoy the complexities of Calvinist theology and of crofting regulation in almost equal measure. It has been easier to indulge the former, because there are places you can go and books you can read which will help the picture clear.

Crofting legislation, on the other hand, has been a right patchwork quilt. Now, however, someone has actually written ‘A Practical guide to Crofting Law’ – that someone being the well-kent lawyer, Brian Inkster, a bit of an expert in the feannag of crofting law and all its associated vagaries. This is not a legal tome for professionals, but a very usable little book which covers all the main aspects of crofting and its relationship with the law of the land (yes, pun intended).

I warmed to it immediately when I saw that page 1 of chapter 1 contained the word, ‘therefrom’. He was only placing crofting in its historical context – something I do myself fairly frequently for bored students – but couldn’t suppress a lawyerly adverb even at this early stage in the proceedings.

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It’s a depressing feature of life in the Gàidhealtachd that any description of who we are or what we stand for must always involve talking about organisations. We are surely the most regulated people in all of Creation. Reading Mr Inkster’s description of the Crofting Commission and the Scottish Land Court, I couldn’t help smiling to myself. All our resident malcontents (and more than a few non-resident) pile the blame onto churches for the perceived stifling way of life here, but no one ever seems to wonder quite why we need so many bodies to keep an eye on our language, our land, our economy – and that’s before we even get started on the plethora of environmental designations that Scottish Natural Heritage has at its disposal. Before you put a spade in the ground, you’d better find out if it’s a RAMSAR site, an SSSI, an NNR . . .

We have accepted it, though, as our lot (pun eile) in life. Like every other endangered species on the planet, the Gael has to be subject to much monitoring and scrutiny. There are more schemes and safeguards linked to us as a people than your average violent offender.

Everything, from the air that we breathe to the words that we use is subject to policy. If I start a business, join a committee or put up a polytunnel, there is an agency that needs to know. We have island plans, community partnerships, rural networks – all designed to protect us. We are like wayward teenagers, not trusted to get the bus home by ourselves in case we talk to strangers.

Ah, but, Mr Inkster’s book brings us neatly, in chapter sixteen, to that wee glimmer of freedom – the Teuchter equivalent of turning twenty one and being given the key of the door: community buyout. You’ll have heard of it because it’s been quite the apple pie and motherhood of the Gàidhealtachd over the sixteen years since the 2003 Land Reform Act was passed. The Act afforded the crofting community a right to buy and become its own landlord – not piecemeal, croft by croft, but to purchase an entire estate as one crofting body if so desired.

Now, I’m not rubbishing this development. It’s difficult to, when you recollect the heroism of Assynt, and of Eigg, in challenging absentee landlordism before there was tailor-made legislation to assist their endeavour. What I am merely pointing out is that the crofting community right to buy is something that had also to be granted via an Act of – albeit the Scottish – Parliament. It is arguably benevolent in its tendency, but still regulation nonetheless. Mr Inkster refers to the ‘Scottish ministers’ many times in this short chapter, reminding even the most gung-ho of community trusts that they have what they have at the behest of government, and of the reams and reams of law which have made it possible.

It’s easy to fool ourselves that we are freer than we actually are. Human beings are incredibly gullible, and very liable to convince themselves that there exists no authority higher than their own. That anyone from the seven crofting counties still believes this to be the case is extraordinary, when you consider the weight of legislation under which they live, move and have their being.

When I was a child, we marked the centenary of the 1886 Act, which put the word, ‘crofting’ onto the statute books for the very first time. It has always been cited as a great stride forward and, I suppose it was in many ways. But it was also the beginning of state-sponsored interference in a way of life which had existed previously on its own terms. Yes, it mitigated against some of the worst excesses of private landlordism, but it also sank the Gael into that abiding sense of being a permanent ward of state.

I think we are more at risk than ever these days of regarding ourselves as ‘looked after’. By the time the centenary had come and gone, organisations like the Crofters (as it was then) Commission, the HIDB and even the embryonic Scottish Crofters Union were household names. The folk leading the organisations and formulating policy were known to those most affected by their decisions. Even more crucially, those leaders were affected by their own policy too – because they lived in the communities regulated by these organisations.

Quietly, insidiously, the state moves the machinery that regulates Gaeldom further and further from its beating heart. Leadership has to come from within – for our land, for our language, for our economy, for our very way of life.

I, for one, am tired of seeing the Gàidhealtachd being run like a colony from Edinburgh. It’s long past time for the natives to get restless.

 

 

Now the Precious Years are Gone

I was not part of the exodus from the Gàidhealtachd last weekend. The crowds making their way over land and sea were a mildly interesting sideshow – a filler at the end of the Gaelic news, a spectacle from which I tried hard to avert my eyes. It is certainly not that I don’t care for the music of Runrig, because they have been the soundtrack to my life since I can remember. These guys made a song of my outlook and experience over four decades and, all things being equal, I should have been there for the last dance.

Some things are just too much, though. Apart from that long-ago concert in the hangar at Stornoway airport, I shared every other Runrig experience with my husband. If I had gone to listen to them once more, I would only have spent my time looking for him in the crowd.

And so, I spent Saturday and Sunday in an island that seemed emptied of half its population. Sometimes, I would hear a snippet of their music on the radio, or catch a glimpse of them on television, and I would remember . . .

My mind goes back to the year that I turned fifteen, when they came to play in Stornoway, and I was just so excited at the prospect. And then, horror of horrors, a controversy broke out: their gig was going to clash with the preparatory services for the Stornoway communion. With any other band of their reputation, that would have been brushed aside. Runrig, though, were different. The date was changed, plans remade, and the Free Church minister in Stornoway received an apologetic phone call from Donnie Munro.

You are never too big, or too important to be respectful. This, after all, was the band that sang, ‘cum ur n’ aire air an Iar is air an àite a dh’ fhàg sibh/keep remembering the west, and the place you left’.

When I say that I grew up with them, I don’t merely mean that they were there as the years went by. I have already alluded to their part in forming my political consciousness, and for articulating the dumb love that I felt – feel – for home. Every year, when I speak to students about our history as a Gaelic people, I can do no better than quote Runrig’s ‘Fichead Bliadhna’. It expresses far better than I ever could the disgrace of successive generations kept in ignorance of their own past:

I learned many things
The English language, the poetry of England
The music of Germany
The history of Spain
And even that was a false history

Twenty years for the truth
I had to wait
I had to search
Twenty years of lies
They denied me knowledge of myself.

It was because of Runrig I took an interest in the Highland clearances, because of Runrig I cared about politics, because of Runrig I first read Carmina Gadelica, because of Runrig I discovered the land wars, because of Runrig I understood that Gaelic was more than just a dying language.

They sang more than merely big songs of hope and cheer: they were the singers in my bloodstream who have stayed mainline all my life.

Everything that matters to me about being a Gael, about being an islander – I can find it somewhere in the canon of this band’s work. Their polite and deferential approach to the Rev Murdo Alex Macleod in 1991 was indicative of something that owes much to the soil in which they were nurtured. Every word I ever heard them sing was shot through with love of place, love of nature, love of people and that matchless Gaelic spirituality that shaped our best lyricists. So many of their melodies recall congregational worship, with the psalms at its centre:

Song, sacred, eternal
Lift on high the voice of the people
Song, I am reconciled
Let it rise up from the moorlands

One of the most memorable evenings I spent in their company was at the now infamous gig on the banks of the Ness, when the deluge threatened to sweep us all away. We were, Donnie and I, soaked to the skin, shivering and muddy. It took hours to get back to the hotel, to get showered and warm, but we agreed that it was the finest of all our Runrig experiences. Until, that is, they came back to the HebCelt and we watched the sun set over Stornoway to their unmistakeable sound. Home, Runrig, and the man I was sharing my own last dance with, though neither of us knew it then.

Many have paid their own tributes to Runrig; most had the courage to be there with them as they said that aching goodbye. Mine, however, happened that night, out on the castle green. But Runrig’s own words, as always, speak for me more eloquently than I could ever do for myself:

But now I know and I don’t want to believe it
Where does it leave you now
That the precious years are gone

I know you well, you’ll be nothing but grateful
Never let it be said they were spent in thoughtless ways
Warm winds blow ‘cross the ties that bind forever
For a place in the sun and for the hearts of love a home

(Photo credit: Marie MacDonald)

 

Your Gender-fluid Granny

There was some difficulty in ascertaining what species I was, the day my parents brought me home from the hospital. My brother – a mere 20 months old at the time – was held up to peer into the carrycot and hazarded three guesses. I was, he mused, either a bird, a kitten or a hen. In my defence, I must say that he had a limited vocabulary and life experience, and it was that, more than any weird fur or feather arrangement on display which led to this misapplication of ‘isean’ ‘piseag’ or ‘gog-gàg’.

And then, when I was a little older, my father seemed to be labouring under some misapprehension that I was a collie. He worked myself and my brother like a brace of sheepdogs, every time he wanted some of the woolly halfwits moved from one part of the croft to another. We always had an actual dog, but never one that was helpful in the usual ways one might expect. Seonaidh Mòr was adept at wearing hats and escaping; Tim was the king of intimidation and burying things, but neither canine cv had ‘working with sheep’ as a life-skill.

Finally, however, I settled on just being a girl or, as modern parlance would have it, ‘the gender I was assigned at birth’. It’s the use of ‘assigned’ that amuses here. Whose decision is it? I imagine the midwife approaching my mother and saying, ‘Well, Mrs MacLean, regardless of what biology seems to be suggesting, we’re making this one a boy, because we’re out of pink blankets for the moment’. To think the future course of my life may have depended upon the laundry efficiency at the Lewis Hospital . . .

Thankfully, however, there must have been a good supply of the apropriate colour of blankets, and I was, according to the hospital wristband, ‘Baby MacLean – Girl’. Born the day before my granny’s birthday, but arriving early, as is my wont, there was really nothing for it but to name me after her.

Naming children for their relatives is a practice that seems to have fallen into disuse, unless I have misread the situation and there actually are a whole lot of bodaich on the Taobh Siar called Dylan. There was a time, however, when it was de rigeur, and when a family dispute could well be sparked by parents’ failure to honour a sensitive relative in the naming of their child. Regardless, that is, of whether said child was of the same gender as the relative who expected this honour.

Yes, those of you who think we islanders so narrow in our outlook, and so unsophisticated in our response to contemporary issues, read this and consider: gender fluidity started in the Hebrides.

Amongst our older generation, it is not difficult to find legions of women named Angusina, Murdina, Duncanina, Kenina, Hughina, Willina . . . Each one of these is testament to two things: their parents’ commitment to family honour; and a complete lack of chauvinism. Some people will jokingly say that it’s tantamount to saying to your daughter, ‘we really wanted a boy’ but I think you have to look at it in its social and historical context.

The really important social custom being observed here was the preservation of traditional names, and the giving of due place to senior members of the family. It is not about gender at all really, and it is certainly not about the superiority of male over female.

There is something else as well. The number of firstborn girls who were named for male relatives testify to the fact that parents were well aware that this might be their only such blessing. My sister was named for our great-grandfather – my father’s seanair, and the only father figure he ever knew – because, I imagine, my parents sensibly accepted that there might be no siblings and, even if there were, there might be no boys. As it happened, two boys followed, but neither of them had the name ‘Donald’ bestowed upon him. That distinction belongs to my sister, Donna.

I used to think that it was only we islanders that had this obsession with genealogy, and with naming. But many other civilisations have the same interest. God, in His wisdom, placed our Saviour within a human lineage, so that even prophets like Isaiah knew that the Messiah would come through the house of David. The name of David remains linked inextricably with that of the Lord, giving Him that identity which was so necessary for our understanding of Him, and for Him to experience fully what it means to be human.

I think that there is a lesson for all of us in the fact that our Lord’s identity was not something that could be neatly summed up in one word. There were many facets to the only perfect man who ever lived, but that did not diminish Him one bit. And even we, who are made in His image – albeit now like a shattered looking-glass – are greater than the sum of our parts.

In my case, I am happy to be the gender I was assigned by my Creator. And I am happy to be nighean Mhurdanaidh Catrìona Dhòmhnaill Iain Ruaidh. Or banntrach Dhòmhnaill Chaluim Sheonaidh. Some people know me as Post Tenebras Lux, or the woman who taught their kids in Sunday School, or their Gaelic tutor, or that blone on the Trust. Catriona Murray, nee Maclean is a daughter, sister, auntie, friend, lecturer and widow.

But, in any and all of those things, I am who I am, what I am and where I am because God ordained it so. It is, like everything else He does, fixed and secure. And, contrary to what modern wisdom will tell you, this does not box you in – it liberates you in ways that doing as you please, and being who you think you are, never will.

What did Gaelic ever do for you?

A sardonic gentleman of my acquaintance recently dismissed the phrase, ‘saoghal na Gàidhlig’ as making it sound like we live in Brigadoon.

Brigadoon was, of course, the eponymous village in a Hollywood musical, which emerged from the Scottish mist for one day every hundred years. And that, coincidentally, is about the frequency with which the Gàidhealtachd attracts the attention of the media, or the government, or the two-bit celebrity out for cheap publicity.

The filmic village was protected by the local minister’s prayer. By those terms, Brigadoon went on in peace and harmony, as long as its people kept within its boundaries, and it remained mostly unseen.

Sound familiar?

We are good, though, for a few column inches from lazy journalists. Or, no, let’s call them what they are: racist journalists.

I have seen all the counter-arguments made by my fellow Gaelic speakers. They will quote statistics, they will use scientific evidence for the cognitive benefits of bilingualism, they will even travel through history to prove to a few bigots that Gaelic WAS spoken outside of the modern-day Gàidhealtachd.

And that’s all great. It really is. Make those arguments if you have the appetite for them.

But, here’s the thing, I don’t see why I have to justify my identity to anyone, least of all a tabloid journalist, or a Lowland politician.

In a world where you can identify as a teapot, or a dog basket, or a Taiwanese figure-skater, why is my honest to goodness Gaelicness still a problem? And, more importantly, why is it allowed to be a problem?

Why are people permitted to say and write the things that they do about Gaelic?

I read a comment on social media recently, where it was suggested that the racist abuse levelled at Gaels does not signify because snide comments don’t cause a language to die.

No, but they can make people ashamed, which causes a culture, a way of life, to die – and that’s what Gaelic is to me. It is not simply a language and it certainly isn’t a cash cow, or a political football either.

It is long days in the potatoes with my parents. And it is the laughter of older folk, sharing that unique humour that only makes sense if you’ve grown up with it. Gaelic is knowing words like ‘tobhta’, not because I am seeking linguistic richness, but because, in my world, there only was one tobhta. Gaelic is the taigh fhaire chairs from the village hall, piled up at someone’s door like the sorrows that they represented, or the blessings they counted.

For me, Gaelic was long, tedious sermons in the homely setting of the Seminary and understanding the spiritual significance of ‘dà cheann-latha’. It was the kindness of the old folk – that particular keen-eyed concern. And it’s handshakes, more warmly expressed in Gaelic as ‘breith air làimh’ – ‘grasping hands’.

That, for reasons of clarity, I should add, is not grasping as in mean, as in looking for money. It is grasping as in hanging on for dear life to the things that matter.

Language, however, doesn’t matter to me at all. I don’t want Gaelic if what’s on offer is a sterile thing in a test tube: a synthetic language without a cultural context; a wild animal placed in a zoo because we have let its habitat be destroyed.

But don’t mistake me. I am not talking about Gaelic as a thing of the past – I am talking about it as something that formed me. Like my parents, my family, my home, I carry it with me. It is who I am; it is my very self.

When I worked as a development officer in Ness, I spent a lot of time applying for funding. It would have been much easier to obtain if more of the Nisich had been Welsh, or lesbian, or . . . well, just not so . . . Niseach. They were just boring old White British – no extra cash for that. But then, I thought, no, they ARE part of a minority ethnic group, and so the heck am I. Repeatedly, then,the National Lottery received forms from me with ‘Other’ ticked and, under ‘Details’: ‘crofters and speakers of Scottish Gaelic’.

That’s who we are. It is what we are. Why should we apologise? We have been doing that for centuries.

It’s time to clear the taigh-fhaire chairs from the door, and build up the walls of the tobhta. Restore. Revive.

We are an indigenous people, still occupying our ancestral lands. Despite clearance and emigration, despite famine and despite concerted policies to eradicate our way of life, we remain.

Gaelic in Edinburgh and Glasgow is all very laudable, but I tend to think of the proverb which says the bird sings sweetest where it was born.

This was never just about language. And working hard to save the language is rather missing the point, if there survives no place on earth where it is woven into the hearts of the people.

Gaelic is my father and my mother, and it is my home. When people denigrate the language, and deride our way of life, that’s what they strike at.

And all the shame is theirs.

 

 

 

Giving Up Sarcasm for Life

Many years ago, my father was in his local shop, where several neighbours were also gathered, buying their messages. A well-known local lady, noted for her considerable girth, walked past the window, but did not come in. Not a word was spoken as they all followed her progress past the shop, beyond which was nothing but a dead-end.

‘Where on earth is she going?’ one customer asked. The nonplussed silence of the others was finally broken by the shopkeeper:

‘Unless she’s going down to the bridge to turn’.

Nowadays, this might be misconstrued as all kinds of things: sexism, body-shaming, nosiness . . . Actually, it was of its time and of its place – an indication of how community was really an extension of family. These people knew one another. Gentle mockery and robust banter were all part and parcel of village life. The rules were implicit and understood by everyone at an almost instinctive level.

Our island has evolved over the years since then, of course. That kind of exchange would no longer be possible for many reasons, not least the fact that it originally took place in Gaelic. There is also a new seriousness, a carefulness, to people’s interactions. We have become more guarded in our dealings, one with another.

I see this online quite frequently. Not long ago, I witnessed someone being told off for being unpleasant when, what he had actually been was mildly ironic. We are lovers of irony in Lewis – dry wit that puts people in their place. You can get away with that when you are self-deprecating too; when you are equally willing to aim the barbs at yourself. It is all part of the code.

Interestingly, this obsession with political correctness and equality has not created more kindness, however – quite the contrary: it has brought a nastier, harder edge into our exchanges. We are trying to manage human relationships by legislation, and sometimes tying ourselves in knots in the process.

It is sometimes difficult for me, as a Christian, to see where I should fit into this new regime. The situation is complicated by the fact that I am a Gaelic-speaker, and an afficionado of the old way of dealing with folk – show them you care by laughing at them. Well, not at them, exactly; near them, maybe. I can identify with the seanair of a slightly older friend of mine who, having stepped into the breach when her father died, used to greet her brothers with a cuff around the head. Whoever sat nearest the door would receive this treatment; once, it was her new boyfriend from the South.

I get that bodach’s thinking. My slaps are usually verbal, but they are generally a sign of my affection – nothing else. People get that. Or, at least, I hope they do. Sarcastic I may be, but I would hate to hurt anyone’s feelings.

It used to be a major consideration for me: how, if I became a Christian, could I stop being this way? And, one day, I was in church and the message echoed my very concerns. Be wary, the minister said, of starting to build the tower without first being certain that you have the tools to finish the job. I don’t remember the context – I only remember the way I felt. He had verified my self-doubt, validated the sense of unreadiness in myself.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I am not blaming him. Preachers are not responsible for the way individuals in the èisteachd might be feeling at any given moment, which is just as well. They are not meant to be in the business of pandering to feelings or petted lips, but to laying the truth before us.

No, the point is that I recall that sermon – probably inaccurately – as being a caveat against rashly jumping into Christianity. Don’t start unless you’re sure you will see it through. And, part of my smorgasbord of excuses for holding back was, of course, my quick tongue. How could I even think of following Christ when the first thing I would probably do thereafter is let His cause down by saying the wrong thing?

As it turned out, though, saying things has been very much what He had in store for me. He has turned my . . . well, let’s be generous, and call it outspokeness, on its head. It was not necessary for me to work on ridding myself of sarcasm, or that wry Leòdhasach view on the ridiculous, because God had a use for it.

And it was never going to be up to me to change anyway because, for one thing, I couldn’t do it on my own. I understand that now. He hones you, chips away the rough edges and works at refining any impurities away. Yet, He does not change the essentials of who you are. If you rely on Him as your guide, and ask Him to govern your tongue – and, in my case, keyboard – then He will.

Viewed through the lens of prejudice and hatred, the world will always magnify your flaws. God, though, views you through the filter of the cross, where these flaws are made whole.

Don’t hold back from giving your life to Him as I did because you think yourself imperfect or inadequate. You are both those things, as am I, but the material point is that He is sufficient.

He may even use those very imperfections in His own service.

Arts Centre with an Inferiority Complex

I turned 11 years old in the centenary year of the Crofting Act of 1886. The social and historical significance of this piece of legislation has never left my consciousness since then – learning about how the Gaels had suffered before security of tenure; of communities broken and scattered; of a way of life halted; of a population depleted; of emigration for want of a better choice. The kernel of truth planted in my young mind in 1986 led me on the path to where I am now, both professionally, and in my concern for this community and this culture.

And the doorway to my own people, to a better sense of my own identity, was opened by none other than An Lanntair.

This was my first awareness that such an organisation even existed. It encouraged schoolchildren all over the island to explore the history leading up to the passage of the Act. The arts centre, operating out of a network of unsuitable rooms in the Town Hall, did a phenomenal job with the iconic Às an Fhearann exhibition. And I cannot have been the only person for whom it was a seminal experience.

It was because of An Lanntair, then, that I set off on a path of discovery which led me to see not just the intrinsic value in Gaelic and crofting culture, but the injustice which our community has suffered down through successive generations.

We were, just a couple of centuries prior to that, a strong, sea-going, Gaelic kingdom. Our laws, our culture, our mindset and, yes, of course, our language, were all thoroughly and completely
Gaelic.

But, by 1886, we were broken, scattered and well on our way to being ashamed of everything that identified us as different.

Different to what, you may ask?

Well, different to the mass culture that surrounded us – the English-speaking, English-thinking, imperialist mindset that could not bear to look upon difference without wishing to homogenise it. They
set about dismantling our language. You have, no doubt, heard tales of
schoolchildren thrashed for using their mother tongue, of the maide-bualaidh, and of the maide-crochaidh.

They didn’t beat our language out of us, though, or our culture – they shamed it out of us. I suppose, they educated it out of us. If you want to get on in the world, you will have to stop being so . . . different. That was the message. And, worst of all, though I say ‘they’, it was more often than not perpetrated by those from inside the culture who had, themselves,been made ashamed of their roots.

Make no mistake, that is still the message. Only now, it is done under a different guise. We are not told to stop being different in order to get on; we are told that preserving our difference breaches equality legislation. And we are told, like before, that our otherness makes us a laughing stock, and an embarrassment to ourselves.

And who is leading the charge against our difference, our otherness?

An Lanntair, sadly, that’s who. Housed these days in an expensive, if ugly, purpose-built centre, the local bastion of arts and culture is turning on the community it was created to represent.

I know the argument, such as it is. It’s all about exploring new horizons, and pushing the boundaries . . . But as a centre for arts in a minority and fragile culture such as ours undoubtedly is, can An Lanntair really look itself in the mirror and say it is doing the right thing? Of course not. This is a clear case of carry on regardless.

We have had two soundings of community opinion in recent times. The Stornoway Trust election showed a real appetite in the community for maintaining the precious remains of our heritage as much intact as we can. And the We Love Lewis and Harris Sundays Facebook group has a membership in excess of 2300 at the time of writing.

An Lanntair has taken no cognisance of what is unquestionably the prevailing
view. It has carried out a frankly bizarre trial, opening one small part of its operation and extrapolating from that to surmise that there will be great demand for its other services. There is no joined-up thinking in evidence here, and there is utter disregard for the culture of the area.

I would support the removal of local authority funding to a different cultural provider. Perhaps the £60k + could be distributed amongst the Comuinn Eachdraidh network, or the Fèis movement to more directly support island heritage. Whatever else An Lanntair is doing, it is not doing that.

Actually, it is complicit in sabotaging a very precious element of who we are, all in the name, not of pushing boundaries, or challenging norms as they pretend, but of appeasing a vocal minority who either understand nothing, or care nothing for the very thing which makes
this place special.

Apologists for this cultural vandalism have tried to invoke equality legislation. Who is being discriminated against? You may well ask.

Well, An Lanntair’s predecessor opened my eyes to who I am, and where I came from, and what is valuable about my history and heritage. My eyes cannot be closed, therefore, to what is being done, or why. This is not about equality; this is not about fairness – it is about shame. An Lanntair is choosing to represent those who are ashamed of this island and its identity, and is disingenuous enough to call that progress.

The shame is all theirs, however. That kind of progress dates back to well before 1886. We fell for it then, but we won’t be falling for it now; we are not ashamed of our heritage, we are not ashamed of who we are.

And I don’t think that an arts centre with an inferiority complex is the kind of thing this community really needs.

 

Whose providence have we inherited?

Working in the College, which is situated right in the grounds of Lews Castle, I have always been aware of the legacy left by Lord Leverhulme to this island. It has been on my mind rather more this week, however, as I continue in my quest to be elected onto the Stornoway Trust – the body which administers the estate he gifted to the community.

I wish I could say I’m surprised at how little people seem to know of the history associated with the Leverhulme era, but it is one of the greatest frustrations of my professional life. The Gaels are generally ignorant of their own past: that is why it has been possible for many of the wrongs of history to be replicated in the present day. Those who do not learn those lessons are doomed to repeat their mistakes.

That is not what shocked me at all, then, but the response to what I thought was a fairly innocuous comment, left by an outgoing Trustee on my campaign page. He was echoing my endorsement of another candidate, and made reference to the importance of having a ‘God-honouring Trust’.

Cue shrieks and howls of derision. But – honestly – what did people think Christians were going to want, if not that? After all, if an organisation is not honouring God, where does it stand in relation to Him? Our nihilistic friends would probably say ‘nowhere’, but that is a child’s answer; God does not leave us that option. We are, quite simply, with Him, or against Him. And that’s fine, that’s free will; you make your choice, and you take the consequences, as with anything else.

So, you are – as an individual, God-honouring, or God-denying. And, as an organisation, the same is true.

Honouring God, for the Christian, is the foundation and framework of their life. It is their first thought and their best hope. I am a poor example of this, but I do try. When I remember, I ask Him that anything I do would be to His glory and not mine; I ask Him to keep me humble. Clearly, I do a very bad job because there are those in our midst who accuse me of thinking I’m ‘the new Messiah’.

Like we need another one.

So, I don’t make a great job of humility. But I know this, and I work on it, and with His help, I will be kept where I belong. And even when I am making a mess of it, and thinking that anything I’m doing is of myself, in my soul I know it’s Him – it’s all Him.

Which is why I do not understand why this man’s comment caused such outrage, even amongst some Christians. There was one suggestion that it was ‘undemocratic’ to define the Trust this way because Leverhulme’s deed establishing the body which would have oversight of the estate, made no mention of honouring God.

I think, in a week of reading and hearing some pretty astounding points of view, that one knocked the wind out of me most – like a punch in the stomach. Are we, honestly, at this stage, when we need a legal document to permit us to honour God? Do we really think that democracy – a manmade system necessary to mitigate against our sinful tendencies to exploit and bully one another – sits in superiority over the Creator of all things?

In His own providence, I had heard a sermon on our relationship with human authority, just last Sunday evening. Christians have a dual citizenship – in Heaven, in the highest sense, but also in this world. We are required to submit to rightful authority, as long as it does not lead us to sin against God.

The best way of ensuring this is to elect godly people into authority. And the best way of ensuring that we do, is to be a prayerful people. Our voting, our decision-making, our every action must be clothed in prayer that God will guide us to honour Him.

All of this, I realise, reads for those who suspect me of having a Messiah complex, as being a plea for ‘the church’ to hang onto ‘power’. No matter what I say, or how I couch it, my words will be warped and twisted and I will be described as a hateful and bitter killjoy.

Nonetheless, the fact remains that every Christian wants God to be honoured in all that they do. Therefore, in standing for, or serving on the Trust, in doing your day job – whatever that might be – in bringing up your family, in speaking with your friends, in living your life, that is what must come first.

I am still naive enough to hope that people reading this will understand, therefore, that this is how Christians approach service. They wish to honour God first and foremost; and so they should. Far from meaning, however, that they will neglect their duties to the people they are supposed to serve, the opposite should be true. Enemies of Christianity shout, ‘keep them out of government; sweep them off every committee’.

And, as in so many other circumstances of unbelieving life, there is no thought to the long-term consequences of a world without God. People are free to create power structures without Him – but there is a question that remains unasked by many, perhaps because it is too frightening even to contemplate:

If we remove God from every corner of public life, what manner of thing will fill the void?