Secure Tenure in a Better Country

There is a line in the Runrig song, ‘Flower of the West’, which says that ‘the breathing of the vanished lies in acres round my feet’. For me, that articulates something that I feel very much here in my own community – the almost palpable sense of history everywhere. I know people who claim no interest in the past, who dismiss it as irrelevant. We are here, now, they will say, what’s the point in looking back?

Well, the point in looking back is to see how we got here. I am firmly with William Faulkner on this, when he said, ‘The past is not dead. The past is not even past’. How could it ever be, in a place like this?

That’s why I think it is a tragedy that Gaels do not learn their own history. For many years, the only formal access to it was through the Higher Gàidhlig course where, if you studied the poetry of the 18th and 19th centuries, you would also be taught about the Jacobite cause, the clearances, the famine, emigration and the Land War. And that knowledge is so empowering. When you know about these things, you can see where your community, your family, and you as an individual fit into the bigger picture.

That is where I derive my identity from.  I am a Gaelic-speaking hybrid of Maclean and Macdonald. My father’s people were cleared from Mangersta and settled at Doune: that’s Doune Carloway of the Iron Age broch. And my mother’s folk were from Harris on her paternal side: na Fìdhlearan, hereditary foresters to the Campbells of Scalpay, in the deer forest of Amhuinnuidhe, before relocating to Ardhasaig, via Taransay.

Today, I work in the very college from which I graduated in 1997. Our pretty campus is situated in the grounds of Lews Castle, built by Sir James Matheson in 1851 and gifted by Lord Leverhulme to the people in 1923, when the Stornoway Trust Estate was created – the first community-owned estate in Scotland.

I sit on the board that manages the Lancashire soap magnate’s legacy. Despite all the talk, the iconoclasm, and the liberal sprinkling of meaningless words like ‘progressive’ throughout public rhetoric, I see at least part of my role there as being to maintain the dignity of such an historic organisation. Stornoway Trust has always had a sense of its own historicity, and that’s why I feel an affinity with it: knowing your roots will always strengthen your sense of identity.

Of course, there are other aspects of my identity too. On a Sunday, I worship at the Free Church on Kenneth Street  – itself a relic of that great chapter in our history, when ministers and congregations walked out of the Church of Scotland to form a denomination free from the power of patronage, and outside interference.

Its establishment precipitated other radical acts. Described as ‘the crofting community at prayer’, it is believed that the community cohesion and leadership provided by the early Free Church, contributed to the events that followed, culminating in the Napier Commission and the Crofting Act of 1886, which finally granted security of tenure. Beyond that there were – here in Lewis – the raids which saw crofters clashing with landlord and government in their thirst for land on which to subsist.

I grew up in the relatively new village of Newmarket, where there is a mixture of crofts and of allotments, rented from the Trust. Our home was built on one of the latter, but my father still ran the croft at Doune, shearing and dipping sheep within the tobhta of his old home.

Land, you see, runs through it all. The soil under our feet, and the landscape before our eyes, seem to form the boundaries of our being. We ache for places we have left, and love those in which we make our homes. It is a universal experience, but always rooted in a familiar landscape – one whose form and history is meaningful to us.

And yet, however strong my sense of self is, however anchored here in Lewis, and however much the past whispers to me as I move through the landscape of my life . . . this is not really home. Yet, this is not the contradiction that you might think, because – like many other refugees – I have a dual history and a dual identity.

As much as the Fìdhlearan of Ardhasaig are my people, I would claim kinship also with the Israelites. Their yearning for the land of promise speaks to me in my own geographical and historical context. Because I know who I am as an islander, I can recognise in myself that desire for true belonging.

The most famous articulation of this, unsurprisingly, comes from Paul in 2 Corinthians 5: 8, when he says that he would prefer to depart this world to be with Christ. In a letter he left for us, his family, before his death, my father expressed his love for us all in just those terms. Though he said that another lifetime with us would be wonderful, he was prepared to go and be with his Saviour, which – he wrote – was far better.

Is that not an extraordinary witness? When we are blessed to have family and friends for whom we care deeply; when we are intimately tied in to the landscape and history of a particular place; when our identity here on earth is made of something older and finer than ourselves . . . what a testimony, then, to be able to say that there is something more awaiting us beyond those limits.

I believe that the privilege of heritage and history is there to teach us about this greater gift. God placed each of us within a particular lineage, a particular culture, so that we might identify with that international movement of refugees towards our ultimate home.

Knowing who my people are, and where I came from does not tie me faster to this world, as you might expect; it heightens my expectation of what God has prepared in eternity that is richer even, than the security I enjoy now. There, the father who once walked with me over the acres at Doune, was happy to go; there the husband who loved the vista of Traigh Mhòr was happy to go.

One day, I too will finish my journey, and find true security of tenure.

 

 

 

 

 

Land, people & misleading language

The motto of the Highland Land League – ‘An Tìr, an Cànan ‘s na Daoine’ – laid out the pattern of priorities for the region in the second half of the nineteenth century: land, language and people. It also made famous the adage, ‘is treasa tuath na tighearna’; the tenantry is mightier than the landlord.

I would agree that the land, the language and the people (though not necessarily in that order) ought to enjoy the same precedence today. There is a triangular relationship between them, and to try removing any single one is to compromise the integrity of the whole. It is through that prism I understand my community, and wish to present it to the world. It was interesting, therefore, to read of the visit made by a group of Papuans to Lewis recently, under the spiritual guidance of Alastair McIntosh from the Centre for Human Ecology.

Alastair’s theology and mine may differ somewhat, but we can certainly concur on the revelation of God that is manifest in His creation. The maker’s thumbprint is upon everything we see. It was land, of course, and the question of whose it is to possess that drove much of the Old Testament narrative, and this, in turn, inspired some nineteenth century Highland ministers to preach rousingly to their congregations about the inherent right of an indigenous people to steward its own territory.

Those rights were codified first in the Crofting Act of 1886 – and ultimately in the Land Reform Acts of 2003 and 2010.

The 1886 Act was an effective full stop to the worst excesses of clearance – it prevented the eviction of crofting tenants without a very good reason. It also furnished the statute books with the first mention of the word, ‘croft’, and set in motion a whole category of legislation that baffles finer minds than my own right up to the present day. Those laws were once a necessary protection to subsistence crofters, who lived in a region which had been systematically abused and neglected by turns over several centuries.

In more recent times, however, and particularly since the passage of the 2003 Act, the role of crofting law seems to have changed. The nature of crofting communities certainly has, with fewer and fewer being the tenants of a private landlord from whom they may require protection. Indeed, the Point and Sandwick areas visited by the Papuans, are fortunate to have enjoyed the protection of a community landlord since 1923; long before any laws existed to facilitate such models of ownership.

Yet, a small number of people in those communities, persist in the belief that they are the natural successors of those men who raided Aiginish Farm in 1888. Perhaps some are related by blood – I don’t know – but that is where any coincidences begin and end.

The representatives of Point and Sandwick spoke to the Papuans of their aspirations to build turbines on ‘their land’, and I am sure the visitors had no reason to cast doubt upon this version of events. However, in all their travels around the peninsula, I wonder whether any of the delegation inquired as to where the fabled wind farm would be sited . . . because the answer would, truthfully, have to be ‘oh, not in Point – or Sandwick’. In fact, they would be built upon the grazing provided to the crofters of these areas as a supplement, a compensation for the lack of suitable pasturage within their own boundaries.

Crofting law made provision for their forebears to have adequate grazing for their sheep and cattle, when people depended on the land for their livelihood. Now, the story is told that this is an age-old struggle between an oppressed people and its heartless landlord. I wouldn’t mind, but this is such a misrepresentation as to be almost laughable.

I say ‘almost’, because I tend to think that history is too important to be manipulated like this. We can learn a valuable lesson from it, but only if we take events as they really happened. And even then, only up to (pardon the pun) a point.

What the few people in the four townships are engaged in is not, in fact, a fight against ‘officialdom’; it is a struggle against reality. They have painted themselves as latter-day Glendale martyrs and appear now to be taking the fantasy global.

There is no doubt in my mind that some of the people who claim to speak for the ‘four townships’ love the land that they were brought up on. Perhaps there is some mysterious and spiritual link there; I don’t know. But it is stretching credulity somewhat to suggest that their souls ache for a bit of grazing,  upon which – likely – few of them set foot before the photo opportunities made it expedient.

Living under community land ownership is something of which I’m sure many truly oppressed people dream. What Point and Sandwick Trust have apparently failed to convey to their visitors is that they are in that happy position already: they were born into that situation, indeed, both individually and corporately.

I would suggest that, if they want to pick a fight with officialdom, a good place to start might well be the UK government. They it was who signed up to all the UN legislation for the protection of indigenous peoples . . . secure in their mistaken belief that no such categories exist in the whole of the British Isles. Take up that fight if you really feel that the land, the language and the people are worthy of the effort.

That particular slogan may well have some mileage left in it, if the people stop fighting one another for the land that they already possess. And, as for ‘the tenantry is stronger than the landlord’ – I’d say that sentiment is obsolete in a world where these are one and the same.

 

 

 

Never Say ‘Amen’

A friend was telling me recently about a job she used to do, which involved supporting families affected by Alzheimer’s disease. She found that the best way of getting people to open up was by going for a walk with them. If they didn’t have to look at her, they were much more likely to share honestly whatever might be troubling them. I was reminded of this today when a colleague alluded to the old adage about how we lecturers are meant to interact with students – ‘the guide at your side, not the sage on the stage’.

Both those pieces of advice caused me to reflect on my relationship with God. He has been, I must say, the guide at my side for longer than I have ever acknowledged – even to myself.

For years, He was there, a presence I am ashamed to say I took for granted. If I had to describe it now, I would say that it felt as though He was just by my shoulder and that I could turn and speak to Him as you do to any companion seated nearby. There were periods of many months during which I said nothing and then, I might speak to Him easily and casually, with no preamble.

I never really thought of it as praying. There was no kneeling, no bowing of my head, no formality. And, I realise now, no amen.

My life, for almost as far back as I can remember, has been a conversation with God. He was there, whether I remembered or not, and whether there was silence, or speech from me. His presence is the reason that I never felt alone, even though I was frequently by myself; and His nearness is the reason I never felt weak, despite being faced by many situations to which I was not equal.

When I was a wee girl of nine or so, I asked Him in. The Victorian devotional for children that I was reading each night urged me to do so, and I was moved by the image of Jesus knocking at the door of my heart and being ignored. It troubled my childish conscience that He wanted my attention and was not receiving it. Yet, I hesitated to make the move because I had gathered that it was not to be undertaken lightly or unthinkingly.

Eventually, though, my defences were breached and I made the invitation.

And, if you had asked me a few months ago whether it changed my life, I would have very swiftly answered in the negative.

Now, though, I am not at all sure that’s true. Something did change for me that day: He did as I asked and took up residence in my heart, so that I was never quite free of Him afterwards. Even when my mind was far from Him, even when my behaviour was a million miles short of what would please Him, God was working in my life, and waiting by my shoulder.

It surprises me now to reflect on how utterly dense I was. All those years of wondering whether He would save me, trying to figure out what I had to do . . . I had to do nothing because He had already done it all.

It has been said that, if all else failed, God would whip you into Glory. I remember, shortly after my husband died, repeating this to the minister who visited me at home. He looked mildly surprised. Probably, on reflection, because this heathen was quoting Professor Collins at him. But I felt instinctively that this was what had happened – not necessarily that the Lord was inflicting pain on me to force my hand, but that He was using my pain to illustrate His own complete sufficiency. To demonstrate, in fact, a truth that has become so precious to me since then: that our trials are opportunities to experience even more of His love.

When these troubled times recede, even a little, it is easy to slip back into old habits and to reduce God back to nursery proportions. Because of His tenderness to me, and because of how I first got to know Him, I risk making Him smaller than He is. I know this, and it troubles me.

I was discussing this with a friend last Friday, and he spoke of how the heavens really do declare the glory of God – the stars He has placed so precisely, for example. Driving home that evening, I tried to capture some sense of that awe, but it evaded me. It still felt that He was in the passenger seat beside me, that I could tell Him about my day.

And then, on Sunday, I had a brief sense of the wonder I had been seeking. It was not in a blinding flash of lightning, nor the smallness one can feel under a wide-open Lewis sky.

No, it was sitting in church. The sermon was about God’s dealing with the ever-grumbling Israelites when He substituted the bitterness of Marah for the sweet waters of Elim. This God of the Old Testament – the one who is often said to lack love, by people who simply don’t know Him – dealt with the Children of Israel as He deals with me. He is patient, and He blesses in situations when that is the very last thing I expect.

There are not two Gods – Old and New Testament; the God of Creation and the God of salvation; the jealous God and the loving God; the nursery God and the church God. He is one. This God is vast in His power, but intimate in His knowledge of us; He is just, but merciful; He is a King, and He is also a Father.

He goes before me, but He walks beside me. I can speak to Him anytime I want. That does not make Him small – it only goes to show what love there is in the hand that shaped the universe, that it pauses in its work to dry my tears.

 

 
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