Sunday Swimming & the Flood to Come

It isn’t often that you see the Leòdhasaich clamouring for equality with the people of Uist, but there’s a persistent wee group that is making just that demand. What is it the deasachs have that we could possibly desire? Shoddy ferry services? Ropey Gaelic? Stinky Bay?

No, of course not: it’s their enviable public pool opening times. In any one week in Uist, you can swim for a few hours every day – fewer, that is, than if you were in Lewis. But the real object of the Green-eyed Leòdhasach monster is the one hundred and eighty minutes on a Sunday afternoon when amphibious types in the vicinity of Benbecula can enjoy splashing about in the municipal baths. Never mind how available – or otherwise – this activity is the rest of the week; the Uibhistich cannot be allowed to have anything their northern neighbours don’t have, no matter how small.

There’s something faintly disturbing about the article on the BBC Alba news site, which says that equality legislation prevents councillors voting against Sunday opening of the Stornoway facility on religious grounds. Call me pedantic, but I don’t think that’s equality, then, is it? I mean, Christians who are councillors are being told that they should vote against their faith because a minority in the community wants (not needs) a leisure facility to open on Sundays. If I was a councillor right now, I’d be faced with the prospect, therefore, of breaking the law, or of abstaining – how does that protect my right to equality?

I know, because this argument has been rehashed many times, that the unbelievers who persist in campaigning for Sunday opening think that’s acceptable. They fall into two camps: those who say Christians should keep out of elected office altogether, and those who say that Christians who ARE elected should abstain from voting on anything which is liable to be coloured by their faith.

But, here’s the thing – Comhairle Nan Eilean is still a representative democracy. Tough though this concept seems to be for some keyboard warriors, elections sometimes produce unwanted results. The inability to accept defeat is what leads to nonsense like ‘#NotMyPrimeMinister’, and the sort of silliness that suggests this or that person ‘doesn’t represent me’.

Maybe we need to go back to school and relearn how democracy of this variety is meant to function. Councillors are elected to represent the generality of their ward; no elected member, no matter how chameleon-like, can possibly be representative of each individual voter, and it is childish in the extreme to deploy that argument.

So, bearing this in mind, the Comhairle is representative of the community. Every voter has an opportunity to express their views through the ballot box – and the fact that we in Lewis persistently return a conservative council, many of whose members have an active faith, speaks to the will of the people. It isn’t an accident, it isn’t a sinister and highly improbable collusion between the Free Church and the returning officer . . . it’s the voters.

There’s a rag-tag remnant of the local secular society which turns up every so often on social media, making wild claims that corruption and theocracy are rife in this island. They seem to have the idea that the Free Church, the Comhairle and the Stornoway Trust are all working together to suppress ‘progress’. Yes, three male-dominated organisations cooperating seamlessly and following a plan, that’s plausible – as long as you’re not getting them to assemble flat-pack furniture, obviously.

If we can’t put this stupid fantasy to bed once and for all, though, how can debate about local issues ever rise above the juvenile?

This reopening of the debate about Sunday swimming is destined to play out along the same tired lines yet again. Those who so desperately want to see swimming pool attendants forced to work on a day that most of us – including the petitioners – take for granted as a day of rest, will argue that this is progressive. They want ‘family time’, but they don’t see any inequality in causing others to forsake Sunday at home in order that they can have the option of a heated swimming pool if the fancy takes them, now and again. It is, they argue, their right, under equalities legislation.

Their right. How absolutely hollow that sounds in an island where home care provision is pared to the bone, where lifeline bus services are under threat, where village schools are closing, where many roads are more potholes than surface, and where the local hospice is under threat of closure.

How petulant, how trivial, how utterly First World does it sound to you? It’s a miracle that we have a swimming pool at all, given how harsh the cutbacks have been.

The reason the swimming pool will not open on Sunday is threefold. First of all, there is no money. Secondly, there is no need.

And, finally, there isn’t even much appetite for it. Yes, there are undoubtedly some very vocal people who want it, and probably quite a few strong, silent types as well. Ditto Sunday golf and Sunday anything you care to name – cinema, shops, cafes.

How, they will howl, do I know there isn’t much demand? Surely they have made themselves abundantly clear on Facebook – blimey, they’ve been insulting and personal enough, surely the message has penetrated by now?

Well, here’s the message. If you are a Christian in Lewis, or even just someone who likes Sundays the way they’ve always been, take heart. It would be easy to let the mob rule of social media con you into believing that things are worse than they are. But, read what they say – it is mostly bluff, bluster and the occasional towering rage. Battles are not won or lost on either Facebook or Twitter; these have become somewhere for the politically impotent to vent their fury.

Be encouraged by the fact that our community consistently returns a council that reflects the values of the many, not the few. Candidates who criticise our island and who profess shame in relation to our heritage do badly at the ballot box.

But these same people then become frustrated and embittered by the proper function of democracy, even calling it ‘tyranny’. They hiss and spit, and try to subvert the work of organisations like the Comhairle. Most alarming of all, they are aided and abetted in this by daft laws about equality.

We Leòdhasaich have a conservative and fairly traditional set of councillors – and we came by them fair and square. If a minority can demand the sort of ‘equality’ which mutes the very characteristics for which many of us actually voted them in, it is way past time for action.

If legislation for equality actually can stop our democratically elected councillors voting with their conscience, then that is surely a hint to Christians in our island that the tide is indeed lapping at our feet, and we have received all the flood warnings we have any right to expect.

Buns, Fences and Self-belief

An inferiority complex is hardly anything to boast of, but mine really comes effortlessly: brought up a Gael, a Wee Free, a female (the gender apparently assigned to me at birth), and a wearer of spectacles, I had somewhat of a head-start. Add being painfully shy and the youngest of four siblings into the mix and . . . well, what are you going to do? Early on, having accepted my lot in life as a timid, narrow-minded, myopic maw, I embraced under-achievement.

I was, nonetheless, interested in the people I came from as soon as I was taught about the reasons behind the 1886 Crofting Act. It appeared that I belonged to an endless line of truaghans, forever requiring to be helped up and helped out. The more I read of the Gael, the more this seemed to be the case. Famine. Grinding poverty. Emigration. Lack of ambition. Ill-advised allegiance to lost causes. An infinite list, it would seem.

Growing up in the age of the IDP – affectionately nicknamed ‘I Don’t Pay’ – and the HIDB, and Board of Agriculture housing grants, there was a pervasive sense that people like me lived by the begging bowl.Policy relating to the development of the Gàidhealtachd was once described as ‘chucking buns across the fence’, as though to appease some invisible beast. The beast in question was usually referred to as ‘the Highland problem’. What our government, and those tasked with developing us described in this way, though, was just normal, everyday life to us. We had grown used to being perceived as a burden.

It wasn’t about the Gaels being charity cases, though, nor was it about being unable to fend for ourselves. Indeed, it was about something else entirely; it was about the fact that we never got to be in control of our own destinies. And we never fought for that control because we simply never believed that we were good enough.

To be honest, I’m not at all sure why I’m using the past tense. Although I am well and truly over the Hebridean cringe, many more are not. You see it manifest daily on social media, and in letters to the press, critical of our local institutions – the inept Comhairle, the corrupt Trust – while lauding what takes place elsewhere. Why aren’t we like Orkney, Shetland . . . anywhere but here?

It’s a destructive and defeatist argument which gets us precisely nowhere. We are not Orkney or Shetland – but neither, sadly for them, are they us. So, instead of wasting time on whingeing, what are we going to do?

Let’s start by understanding the bun chucking in a new light. Government policy, changes to legislation, development initiatives – these are not charity; they are initiated to mitigate against the one thing that we can never change: geography. Remote from the centres of power and distant from markets, these necessary measures have always been an attempt to level the playing field.

That done, we generally get on with things. When the HIDB was created, it ushered in a period of economic development; with the birth of Comhairle nan Eilean in 1975, islanders showed unprecedented levels of initiative and entrepreneurship. Ditto the IDP; Ditto the 2003 Land Reform Act. This is how we roll. If you build it, we will come. Give us a fair chance. We don’t request special treatment, or positive discrimination – just an even-handed crack at doing the best we can.

This is why I believe there is still an argument to be made for the largest capacity interconnector that SSE can build. Sometimes it takes an islander to know islanders. There are those willing this to fail, just so they can wallow in the satisfaction of having been right to negatively compare their own home islands to other places.

Never mind them, though, because there are others, those triers, just waiting for the playing field to be evened out. Islanders always take advantage of the opportunities that development creates. I have every confidence that this scenario will be no different. Once that cable gets the go-ahead, there will be no shortage of schemes, no lack of vision. Projects will most definitely come.

I can understand the regulator being reticent about giving the go-ahead to something which might, on paper, be under-subscribed. It has to be paid for, and it’s their job to ensure that much needed development in the Western Isles doesn’t end up costing the UK consumer money.

What they cannot know – and what we have to prove – is that they are dealing with no ordinary place, and no ordinary people here. Let history speak for us, and show that we never knowingly passed up a chance to make things better for ourselves.

The word ‘insular’, meaning inward-looking derives from the Latin word for ‘island’. I think there are times when that is a strength: let’s look inward at all the ways in which we Hebrideans maximised every opportunity we ever got – not to be like anywhere else, but to be absolutely true to ourselves.

 

 

 

 

Tilting at Windmills

Having spent a fair bit of my teens and twenties campaigning for the SNP, I was on something of a sabbatical in 2005. Not long married, my life revolved around making a home for myself and my husband. But I was delighted, and on a Red Bull/coffee-induced high the night Angus Brendan MacNeil took the Western Isles back for my party. He visited our home the next weekend, and I was glad that supposedly Tory Donnie had quite literally hung out the flags in celebration.

There were others, less nationalistic than I, who were – nonetheless – delighted with our new MP, simply because he had ousted Calum MacDonald. After eighteen years, the sitting MP had fallen foul of the anti-wind farm lobby, with his vociferous support for developer-led projects in Lewis. Like most rural politicians with any vision at all, Mr MacDonald had a desire to see inward investment come to his constituency, and said of the proposed Barvas moor wind development:

‘It is the equivalent of oil coming without the problem’.

Ah, Calum, without the problem . . . if only.

Scroll forward to the present day, then, and what do we find? Angus MacNeil, now an MP of fourteen years’ standing, making an urgent plea for the 600mw cable that can only be justified by . . . yes, you guessed it, developer-led wind farms.

And, isn’t politics a funny old business, but it seems that Calum MacDonald agrees with the man who replaced him. He is quoted as saying, ‘we certainly need one big development in order to finance the interconnector’.

Before you start getting a warm, fuzzy feeling, and begin to believe that the two of them are pulling on the same oar for the good of community over party politics . . . well, na bi cho gòrach. Did you just come down the Creed in a fishbox?

Calum now supports wind farms developed by communities. Wee communities, like Aiginish, Sandwick, Melbost and Branahuie, that is. He thinks that four grazing committees have more right to represent ‘community’ than, oh, say, Comhairle nan Eilean, or the Stornoway Trust. Perhaps it’s having fallen foul of the ballot box himself that leaves his attitude to democracy so jaded; we will probably never know. Somehow, though, the folk from those four committees have been persuaded that they, and they alone, have the right to derail something that elected representatives of the whole community have worked for years to bring to fruition.

I sympathise with Calum; it can’t have been easy seeing his career as MP being taken away in one evening. He must have wanted to stay where he was and see the Barvas project – and, later, its successor, the Stornoway Wind Farm – to completion.

In 2008, three years into Mr MacNeil’s tenure, the Barvas Moor development had been rejected; four years after that, the Scottish Government gave the thumbs-up to LWP’s Stornoway project.

Had he still been our MP, I wonder how Calum MacDonald would have received these tidings?

We can only know what his response HAS been, as a member of the unelected public. It has been to try, most cynically, to drive a wedge between one iteration of community and another. He has attempted to paint legitimately elected organisations, representative of the Western Isles in the case of the Comhairle, and of the Stornoway Estate in the case of the Trust, as somehow infringing the rights of crofters.

How? In acting for the greatest possible good, for the widest possible interpretation of the word, ‘community’, how has the Comhairle or the Trust acted to the detriment of anyone? No one can answer that, except in the usual way – by bandying about words like ‘corruption’ and ‘cronyism’; sentiments that are beneath contempt and, incidentally, far more detrimental to the integrity of our community than any decision made by elected members.

There has been a coming together in the last few days, I am delighted to see. The Stornoway Trust, Comhairle nan Eilean Siar, the MP, the MSP, and even the First Minister, are all united in their desire to see the 600mw interconnector awarded to the Western Isles. One councillor, claiming that the entire Comhairle was out of step with him, received a letter from the Council Leader. I shared the copy that came into my own possession, not mischievously, but because I felt the public needed to see it too.

You can only make decisions based on the information available to you. I believe that Lewis Wind Power has been very conscientious in supplying that; I know that the Trust has also made a great effort in that regard; and yes, perhaps the local authority could do better. If you are too quiet, you allow misinformation and propaganda to fill the vacuum. Roddie MacKay’s missive to Councillor MacCormack, however, says everything that needs to be said.

The community, in every measure that we have of that quality, has now united behind the common good. Calum MacDonald has – once again – found himself on the wrong side of the debate. But there is a spirit of consensus in the air, and he could still be part of that – himself and the so-called ‘four townships’.

A few people have got dewy-eyed over the idea of ‘the crofters’ being mistreated by the nasty Comhairle and the wicked landlord. Some have got carried away with the idea that this handful of people, from four unelected grazing committees, are heroically standing up against the might of a French multinational.

But, in reality, they are simply tilting at windmills.