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.

Twenty-five is Silver, but Wisdom is Gold

A quarter of a century ago, I took a life-changing opportunity. It came in the form of the fledgling University of the Highlands and Islands, and its very first degree. It turned out a BSc in Rural Development really was for me.

I was a young Gaelic-speaker whose interest in her own culture was finally being validated. The eclectic obsessions and tangents that had never quite added up to anything clicked satisfyingly into place. Photos by Gus Wylie, a lecture from James Shaw Grant, articles written by Prof Donald Meek, all saying that the ‘rubbish’ I’d amassed in my head was not rubbish at all.

This mattered. And now I was beginning to have the tools to say what ‘this’ was.

Tertiary education ought to be a turning-point, and it was in my case. I learned so much about life, myself, and the Gàidhealtachd. It was then that I found out about the Highland famine, about people starving right here in the islands, about the 1872 Education Act, and the warped way that schooling had turned a people from its own culture.

In the quarter-century since Lews Castle College set me on that path of discovery, much has happened. There are, for instance, many more degree programs available, two of which I now teach on. Before coming back to the alma mater to work, in 2002, however, I spent four years in Ness working as a development officer, learning from, and about, people.

It was there I picked up two valuable life lessons: working for a committee is tough; and serving a community is thankless.

Fool me once and all that, but I have recently gone headlong back into the world of community development. By coincidence, the Factor of the Stornoway Trust estate –who works for the committee of which I’m now a member – was appointed twenty-five years ago too, the same year that the BSc Rural Development was validated.

I encouraged him to write me a guest blog to mark this milestone, and then swiftly gave up, because I’m not one to nag a Lewismen, and besides, I also know when I’m beaten. Like a lot of folk who have worked for committees, he has built up a natural resistance to being steered. Nonetheless, like a lot of folk who have worked for committees, I am a stubborn blighter, and will make a wee nod here to his silver anniversary, ge b’ oil leis. With any luck he’ll be sorry for not taking up his own pen instead.

The role of Factor has been fulfilled by some fairly monstrous figures – Patrick Sellar, Dòmhnall Munro – but our fellow’s name doesn’t really belong with those. Faint praise, you may think, but he’s an understated kind of cove, and I don’t want to make him blush.

Oh, alright, then. You’ve twisted my arm.

He’s funny. Not funny-peculiar. Well, yes, maybe a little peculiar. It wouldn’t make for sanity, would it, working with the likes of . . . well, me. But he’s mostly funny-ha-ha. A sense of humour and – if possible- a sense of the ridiculous, make working for a committee bearable.

Come to think of it, there is actually one similarity between himself and Dòmhnall Munro – Matheson’s hated Factor, known variously as the Shah or the Beast.

I don’t mean his infamous treatment of widows. Despite some provocation, he’s managed not to oppress me much anyway.  In fact, I was thinking more of his influence in local life here in Lewis.

Munro was chair of the Parochial and the School boards of all four parishes; he was vice-chairman of the Harbour Trustees; Director of the Stornoway Gas Company; Director of the Stornoway Water Company; Deputy-chairman of the Road Trust; Baron Baillie, and much more besides.

Our Factor is Chair of Lewis Crofters, he is grazing clerk in Laxay, he is a committee member of the Lewis & Harris Sheep Producers, of the Lochs Show; he is a director of the Lewis & Harris Auction Mart, and much more besides.

That is largely where the similarity ends, though. One took all that he could out of Lewis and its people; the other puts all that he can back in.

He (mostly) quietly puts up with a lot. I know, because I’ve worked for a committee and for a community. People don’t count the long hours, or the extra miles; they only want to criticise. They don’t tend to value your point of view, or knowledge, because they’re too busy imposing their own.

And this is the real lesson I have gleaned over the past twenty-five years. No matter what area of life you find yourself in, look to the experience and wisdom of others who have been treading that path longer than you have. A course of study is limited in what it can teach you; but human example is boundless. This island is full of people with much to teach – and most of them are not in classrooms or lecture halls.

I have learned, and am still learning, from people who are usually older, but always wiser, than I. Wisdom can sometimes simply be the art of deferring to someone who knows more, or knows better.

Our society, though, is becoming increasingly hostile to that concept, seeing it as weakness to admit that you don’t know everything. Opinion is pushed into the vacancy left by knowledge and understanding. Youth is exulted over the sagacity of age, despite all the warnings from history that this is rank foolishness.

Well, here I am going on record, twenty-five years on, neither young nor old, and admitting that I am still very much on a learning curve. My favourite writer – Neil Gunn – put it perfectly, as ever, when he wrote:

‘Knowledge of ignorance is the end of so much knowledge, and the beginning of wisdom’.

Come back in another quarter-century and maybe, just maybe, I’ll have something to say that’s worth the hearing.