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)

 

Tweed, gin and . . . psalms?

‘Just yourself, or the whole Session?’ I nervously asked the minister recently, when he mentioned that he would like a word after the service. I frequently worry that I might unwittingly commit heresy and find myself summoned to where the dark-suited ones are most awfully assembled. On this occasion, however, it was not chastisement that awaited me, but a request that I might stand in for the minister while he took a holiday.

Not in the pulpit, you understand, but speaking to some journalists about our Gaelic and Christian heritage.

For, you see, they are two sides of the same coin.Even the lovely French-Canadian journalist grasped this during her brief stay in Lewis. We met for coffee the day before the interview and I told her of the difficulty that newcomers to the island have with understanding the culture.
‘But you must preserve it’, she said earnestly. Already she could see.

Of course we must. The sad thing is that we even have to talk about it. Our observance of the Lord’s day in this island has given Sunday its special, relaxed quality. We mustn’t say that it’s good for mental health, though. I made that mistake recently on Twitter and the howls of derision from our secular neighbours were quite shrill. How, they asked, could I suggest that having a choice of how to spend the day was bad for anyone’s mental health?

Their question, designed to make me look silly actually reveals something about their own selfish agenda. I was, in fact, thinking of all the people who presently have the peace of mind of knowing that they will not be asked to work on a Sunday. They were, as ever, thinking only of themselves.

Coffee does not pour itself, films do not project themselves onto screens. Behind every person expected to turn out to work on a Sunday so that the secularists have that much lauded luxury – ‘choice’ – is a family. You see, they talk about ‘a family day’ and ‘family time’, and ‘family activities’, but what they actually mean is their family; not yours.

And it wouldn’t be so ironic if it wasn’t for the fact that they try so hard to position Christians as selfish, and themselves as tolerant.

We can’t expect people who were not brought up in this unique, precious and sadly precarious culture to understand it as native islanders do. They simply cannot, any more than I could become a Weegie by moving to Glasgow, or a Cockney by making my home in earshot of Bow Bells. So we should certainly cut them a little slack.

However, we can expect them to try. Lewis is not Glasgow, nor is it London: it is, as James Shaw Grant said, ‘a loveable, irrational island’. Come and live in it by all means, but learn a little about it first. It is open for business six days only. But who really comes to Lewis for commerce? Perhaps you can’t buy a latte or swim in the pool on Sunday, but you can leave your back door unlocked. Maybe your child can’t see the latest Pixar on the Lord’s Day, but then you can let them play outside by themselves without obsessively watching.

When I take a holiday, I do a fair bit of research into my destination beforehand; who makes their home in an island like Lewis without knowing how things are here? Sunday is special to more than just the Bible-bashers and Wee Frees.

Oh, and speaking of Wee Frees, a wee read of the history of the Gaels might help some understand the church they’re so fond of knocking. It holds disproportionate power, they say, over the people; improper influence in a secular world.

No, it has a special place in our affection, because of its history. Our forebears were treated as though their culture was nothing – their way of life, their language, their very selves – and their communities were broken apart in the pursuit of capitalism.

Leadership came from the newly-formed Free Church, established on the foundation of complete sovereignty under the headship of Christ. They saw food to the destitute and spiritual nourishment to hungry souls. This church preached in the language of the people, and helped to lead a generation out of the worst kind of bondage: the one that says the world and its tinsel-show is all there is.

The Wee Frees still march under that banner. And here in Lewis, it’s just as it was in the time of the clearances: the pursuit of commercialism, the desire to be identical to everywhere else, and the blind destruction of something so far beyond price.

It has happened this way in many other minority cultures too. ‘Oh’, they will say, ‘Christianity and culture are not the same’. It is in the imperialist mindset to tell the native what he is and isn’t. Harris gin, HebCeltFest and tweed are in; orduighean and Gaelic psalms are out. And God? Very last century, so they tell us.

This week, the local presbytery of the Free Church is holding days of prayer in its various congregations. Many petitions will be made for the Christian heritage of Lewis. It is not so much about asking to preserve it, but earnestly praying to preserve from themselves those who are bent on destroying it.

My heart goes out to them, for they have no idea what they’re doing.