More than a Destination

About ten years ago, I found myself on a small, open boat, bound for Kitchener’s Island. Before you consult the Landranger Taobh Siar map, stop, you maw – it’s in Egypt. While we were making our way, a smaller boat still came alongside us and we were joined by three tall, dignified figures. These men and women were Nubians – indigenous people of southern Egypt – and they were there to sell their beads and trinkets to the day-trippers.

They are a displaced people whose ancient culture was no defence against the march of ‘progress’ – moved aside for the Aswan Dam, they grieve to this day for the loss of ancestral lands. And many eke out a living hawking crafts to rich, white tourists making their way to an island no longer known by its native name.

I wonder what they would make of other age-old civilisations actively choosing that life. Little did they think that, among the pasty-faced travellers who bought bracelets from them that afternoon, were people whose own way of life is being willingly subsumed by the great god of tourism.

People here in the Western Isles talk about tourism in reverential tones, as though it is some sort of moral good. Whenever the prospect of other kinds of economic development is raised – wind turbines being the obvious contemporary example – there is much swooning and tutting and cries of, ‘what will it do to tourism?’ For reasons I cannot fathom, almost everything we do here in the islands has got to be measured against that particular yardstick, as though, like some hideous aping of Brigadoon, we only exist when seen through the eyes of others.

The tedious Sunday issue is the same. Those who like the six-day uniqueness of Lewis and Harris are told that they are selfish, backward and ‘what must tourists think?’.

Well, with all due respect to them – and speaking as an occasional tourist myself – I don’t see why we should actually care. If they are going to visit, they should be pleased to find that we haven’t conformed to some mass-market idea of ‘Hebridean-ness’, but continue to uphold our own traditional values and way of life. Besides, surely we are more than just a destination.

Aren’t we a living community?

In order to go on being a living community, I contend that we have to look to agricultural metaphors – cherish our roots, and encourage our young shoots to grow. That, for those of you with a more literal turn of mind, means protecting our heritage, and nurturing our younger generation.

One of the great white hopes of our recent past has been the advent of community land ownership. It has taken its place alongside apple pie and motherhood (and flipping tourism for some) in the annals of all that is good and positive. I’m not persuaded, however, that it’s the panacea some would claim. The system of crofting tenure in its current form has really meant that the Gàidhealtachd has been wresting land from private control, only to watch the open market in holiday homes and tourist development turn us back into an off-season wilderness. If the tinkers could only see how we have moved from maligning and distrusting them to positively encouraging itinerant wanderers into our midst, the irony would probably knock them off their feet. Anyone with the necessary cash can buy a croft tenancy – or several – and turn these acres over to chalets, glamping pods or gypsy caravans, and there is not one single thing the landowner (community or otherwise) can do about it.

There is, of course, room for tourism in the Western Isles economy. We have many good quality, hotels, bed and breakfasts and guest houses; we have some high-end self-catering, and some good camping facilities. In the years to come, Stornoway’s port development will ensure that we are much better equipped to welcome cruise ship traffic. I recently lunched in a local hotel, where ours was one of only three tables occupied at the peak period. Obviously, local people are not enough to keep the doors of such businesses open. Summer visitors will undoubtedly swell the numbers and fill the tills, which can only be good for the hotelier and the conscientious people he employs.

I understand, too, that people want to come and witness the beauty and the heritage of our islands for themselves. That said, I object to the attitude that manifested last summer amongst some would-be visitors, on being told that locals were reticent about the reopening of our ports in the midst of a pandemic. ‘You can’t stop us’, some (a minority, I would hope) said, ‘the islands don’t belong to you’.

That’s told the land buyout brigade, eh?

Well, no, of course the islands don’t belong to us. What any born and bred islander will tell you, though, is that we belong to them. Lewis is much more than a lovely place to live for the native Leòdhasach; it holds us to itself in ways that I cannot begin to describe. Ask the Leòdhasach abroad to explain his cianalas, and he can’t, but it is the flip-side of loving the place that grew you.

However, that love has to express itself in practical ways for the Leòdhasach (other islands are available) at home. We have to be mindful of the fact that this IS a community. People who live here all the year round want to enjoy a little summer freedom, and not to have to constantly jostle with visitors because our entire economy has been given over to tourism. Equally, we have to provide for those who do come, and we have to allow that there will always be an industry that caters to them.

So, what’s the answer? Well, think of those other two indigenous plants, Gaelic and crofting. In fact, think of economic development in general. What have they all got in common?

Regulation. There is no regulatory body for tourism, though. Indeed, there is no real definition of ‘tourism’. That’s why, despite the extravagant claims made on its behalf, it is actually quite hard to pin down in any assessment of our islands’ or our country’s GDP. There is tension between tourism and Gaelic, tourism and land use, tourism and almost every form of economic development.

Yet, it grows unchecked, like a falasgair on tinder-dry mòinteach.

Dead in the Water?

There was a day when every village had its taibhsear: someone who could foretell future events. Inevitably, the visions were limited by the boundaries of his world – that is to say, he saw what would befall the local and the domestic sphere only.

To predict national and even international developments, however, that was the province of the true seer. Think of Coinneach Odhar, lifting that circular stone to his eye and telling Lady Seaforth that her husband, abroad in Europe at the time, was enjoying the company of other ladies. She had insisted on knowing where he was and yet, Coinneach faced the ultimate punishment for ‘speaking evil of dignities’. Legend has it he was put to death, simply for humiliating the lady before her people.

It’s the lot of the prognosticator, I suppose, to risk their own reputation by voicing what has not yet come to pass. Today, in all but the most despotic regimes, making a mistake will not cost your life . . . though it may well damage your credibility. Witness, if you will, the present silence of political pundits on the likely outcome of Mr Johnson’s election. Who wants to put their head above that increasingly unpredictable parapet?

In the Gaelic world, it is a tradition which some think was born out of a purpose other than ACTUALLY seeing the future. The filidh, according to ‘The Textbook of Irish Literature’, tended to combine ‘the functions of magician, law-giver, judge, counsellor to the chief, and poet’. Elsewhere, the word ‘filidh’ is sometimes translated as ‘seer’. So, this person originally was more than the mere poet we have come to consider them. Those other roles were obviously separated off at various points in history, but nonetheless, our poets were at one time also our seers.

Or were they?

In fact, I think it very likely that our poets were more in the order of cheerleaders. You know the kind of thing: ‘we will win this battle and crush the Campbells and their blood will stain the heather while we dance on their graves’. Sort of latter-day locker room pep talks for the clan. And then, full of vim and vigour, with the filidh’s words ringing in their ears, the men would do battle – and win. Thus, poem becomes prophecy and the filidh a seer.

It’s depressing, therefore, that while this tradition appears to be alive in Lewis, the would-be seers are using their dubious gift for a purpose other than cheerleading. For the last few months, we have had something resembling a Greek chorus emanating from parts of our island regarding the prospect of real development. The latest sad chapter of this prognostication reared its head – bizarrely- last Sunday evening.

The PR consultant for Point & Sandwick Trust released another of her copious blogs on the topic of how bad outside investment is for these islands. Sorry, no, not for these islands – for the shareholders of four crofting townships near Stornoway. In this extended piece of writing, we are told (repeatedly), that the interconnector is ‘dead in the water’.

Perhaps the intention behind this singularly morbid article, then, is that it should be regarded as self-fulfilling prophecy, a sort of anti-pep talk for the Comhairle, the Trust and Lewis Wind Power. Is superstition so strong with those behind the blog that they believe repeating the message again and again gives it some sort of power?

And, crucially, why does a small number of people derive such pleasure from the dashed hopes of the islands entire? If you haven’t already, ask yourselves who should be gleeful at the prospect of no cable, no renewables industry, no community benefit, for a place so in need of all these. What delight is to be had at the thought of Lewis continuing to lose its young people because we have failed to provide opportunities for them?

We have an unparalleled wind resource here in the islands. What we need now, in order to exploit that for the future good of all our people, is unity.

There has been talk – a lot of talk – about unfairness. It does not lie where some say, however. We would do well to remember the old Stornoway burgh motto: God’s providence is our inheritance. He placed these islands where he placed us and we cannot change geography. Working as one, speaking to the government as one, however, we could definitely mitigate against its disadvantages.

It’s apparent to almost everyone that the case for the cable, far from being ‘dead in the water’, is there to be made. How impressive it would be, how laudable, if those who have stood against progress thus far would add their voices to the clamour for what the Western Isles truly deserve.

Coinneach Odhar’s final prophecy was the desolation of his master’s broad lands, and the destruction of his line. I can’t – despite much evidence to the contrary – believe that this is really what anyone wants to see in Lewis. I hope we don’t forsake this one great chance to secure a future for these islands, simply because we failed to work in harmony.

That would leave more than just the cable dead in the water.