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.

 

Building Bridges to Nowhere, Sheltering Trolls.

Not far from my home in Tolsta is the famous ‘bridge to nowhere’, an incongruous monument to Lord Leverhulme’s progressive plans to develop this island. The improbably elegant bridge sits between moor and machair, never having performed the function for which it was originally intended – linking two communities divided by miles of untamed wilderness.

Leverhulme thought that his ideas for Lewis were going to bring prosperity and ease of life for a people who had just come through the Great War and suffered the unimaginable tragedy of the ‘Iolaire’, only to be forgotten by the government which had promised homes fit for heroes. The new landlord was filled with philantrophic design, planning to give these hard-pressed people a shiny, modern island.

But they didn’t want his ideas. They didn’t agree with his vision of progress. All they wanted was what they were used to – crofting and the traditional life with which they had grown up. Eventually, Leverhulme understood that he was beaten and retired from the scene with good grace.

Scroll back a few centuries, to 1598, when King James VI high-handedly granted ownership of Lewis by Crown Charter to a group of gentlemen from Fife. The plan was that they would colonise and thereby civilize the island, and the islanders. They would bring in the culture of the outside world and the local barbarians would be forced to conform.

The local barbarians were not in favour of this plan. They razed the new settlement to the ground and forced the interlopers out. King James was outraged and denounced the people of Lewis as ignorant and barbaric.

Well, perhaps they were, but they knew that no one should be able to tell them what to do with their birthright. Centuries of doing things their own way, including the glory days of Tighearnas nan Eilean, the mediaeval Lordship of the Isles, had left them with no appetite to see their cultural heritage further dismantled by the Scottish king or anyone else so wholly ignorant of the Gaelic world and its ways.

Leverhulme gave up when he knew he was beaten; the Fife Adventurers had to be driven away, but both have something in common. They approached Lewis with a mind to ‘improve’ it, giving no thought to whether their idea of progress concurred with that of the people.

Cultural imperialism, they call it. When the representatives of the dominant culture tell those of the minority one that their views do not count, that they are imagining threat where it does not exist, that their interpretation of their own identity is mistaken . . . what else are we to call it?

And yes, I am talking about what is happening in Lewis right now. It needs saying again and again, because I just don’t think it has been taken seriously enough.

Some people in our community believe this is just a wee spat on the internet – the likes of me stupidly debating with trolling secularists who don’t even live in Lewis. There is a creeping, insidious – and let’s call a spade exactly what it is – lying narrative being used by people who call themselves ‘ secularists’ but are actually just negative and bitter enemies of Christ.

They tell us Lewis is centuries behind everywhere else, that we have been duped by a power-hungry church and, like the sheep we are, have followed blindly wherever the ministers have wanted to take us.

It offends me beyond words that anyone thinks that this is acceptable, or that it should go unchallenged.

Christianity does not consist of staying silent when God is maligned by ignorant people; it consists of offering them the truth, that they might have the same chance of being corrected that we were blessed to get. Oh, they will call you names for it. They will say that you too are ignorant, narrow-minded – closed-minded, even. Your intelligence and your integrity will be called into question.

One of them almost silenced me recently by calling me ‘publicly pious’. It would be a deliciously apt way for an unbeliever to shut my mouth, wouldn’t it? By making me believe that my witness is nothing more than Pharisaic.

My silence is what would make me a Pharisee, however. If I opted to remain quiet now, I would be caring more for what my reputation is before men; and I wouldn’t half seem like the ideal meek, quiet Christian – the kind the unbelievers want.

They would love us to be quiet and stand aside; they want us to be ashamed of who we are. Most ludicrous of all, they will have you to believe that they are reasonable, seeking ‘compromise’. You know, that thing where I want the door closed, you want it ajar, so we compromise and have it half-open.

I am not justifying myself to them. They have their opinion of me, which is neither here nor there. But I do have some concern for what other Christians make of everything that is going on. And them I do owe some kind of explanation as to why so much of my writing lately has been on this theme.

This is not a war of words only. Nor is it just happening online – it is having negative and divisive consequences for this community. Our Saviour and His church are being maligned. We, His followers, expect abuse for His sake. But that does not mean we allow lies about who we are in Him to go unchallenged, in case those lies should become a stumbling-block to any as yet outside.

The secularist manifesto in Lewis suggests that they are about unity and progress, while the church is about power and control of the 19th century kind. All I am saying is beware, because theirs is exactly the kind of bridge that leads to nowhere.

And, if I’m not mistaken, it shelters the very worst kind of troll.