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.

FPs and children and bears – oh, my!

My grandfather’s cousin Maggie was headmistress of a primary school in Uist for many years. Every communion season, she would faithfully shut the school on Thursday morning and trot all the kids off to the Free Presbyterian service of preparation. She did not ask parents for permission, nor enquire as to the nature of their personal belief system. If it was now, I have no doubt that complaints would be lodged, enquiries initiated, perhaps even suspension of duties agreed. Maggie would be seen as imposing her ‘narrow’ views on other people who profess to possess none of their own.

Maggie would be vilified. And that would be wrong. Sometimes, a bit of perspective is what we need.

Recently, I spoke to someone who had been a pupil in her school. He smiled fondly, remembering the two-hour church services, a great alternative to lessons. Meanwhile, he said, the transport delivering that day’s lunches to the wee school would arrive to find the place deserted, neither teacher nor children to be found.

Her eccentric devotion played havoc with the routine. And yet no one spoke against her.

You see, Maggie was respected. She was a very competent teacher, and a good person, with real heart for the children in her care. When news circulated that Hercules the Bear was on the loose in Uist in 1980, she took steps for the children’s safety. Rather than risk anything happening to them, she kept them in after school. For a party.

Who says Free Presbyterians don’t know how to have fun?

The parents were used to her idiosyncratic approach to educating their kids, but trusted her implicitly. She loved children. I know that because the few times I was in her company as a little girl, I could sense it. Genuine affection spilled out of her, and she did not try to contain it, nor repress it. Everyone was addressed as ‘a ghaoil’; and she meant it.

Her former pupil who spoke so affectionately of her to me added something else. There were sometimes children in her school who were in need. They were not allowed to remain that way for long. Maggie acted, you see, not from a merely sentimental view of childhood, but with a practical, Christ-like love.

When He acts through the Maggies of this world, the Lord is not narrow, but expansive. She gave with both hands from a full heart. Hers was a life of devotion – to her family, to her community, to ‘her’ children. By loving them, she was serving her Saviour, and I believe she sought no higher honour than that because she had the wisdom to know there is none higher.

And so, to the present. If she was headmistress now, think of the administrative nightmare that Maggie would be. How many risk assessments and PVGs would it take to curb her enthusiasm? What would the food hygiene inspectors say about the congealed lunches served to pupils late back from the day of humiliation? Most concerning of all, what would the liberal thought police say about the children being exposed to Calvinist extremism?

Well, I’ve heard enough of their po-faced, reactionary hysteria to take a guess. They would suggest that she was indoctrinating their children, abusing her position, being unprofessional. She failed to check which god, if any, the families worshipped, before bringing them along to meet hers.

I think we can all understand the need for rules, for standards, and for guidelines. But does no one else long for those days when we didn’t rely on them quite so much? A time when kids came home in the boot of a neighbour’s car because he was giving so many a lift in bad weather. Or when teachers could hold your granny’s displeasure over you as a threat if you didn’t really feel like going to Scripture Union that week.

We didn’t have an obsession with health and safety, nor with political correctness. Yet, we were more tolerant, more caring, more . . . real. There was community, and there was respect. No, we didn’t talk about it half as much as people do now, but we practiced it a lot more.

Maggie had retired from teaching before all of this, and I’m glad. She would not have understood why progress and coming into line with the hallowed land of ‘everywhere else’ had to mean the death of community. There would have been no place for her in this brave, new world.

That alone tells me that we are on the wrong path – one where our children are bound to meet something much more terrifying than any bear.

 

 

 

Our Father, Our Heritage

There is a school in Lewis, I’m told, where the day no longer begins with the Lord’s Prayer. The prayer, for anyone who doesn’t know, was given to us as a pattern for how we should communicate with the Lord.

But someone – and I don’t know who makes these kinds of decisions – has taken it upon themselves to decide that children don’t have to know how to pray. There is someone in the local educational establishment who is so certain that we no longer require God, that they are prepared to take this step.

This person needs our prayers.

They need our prayers, not just because they plainly doubt the central message of Christianity for themselves. Somehow, through their role in education, they have been entrusted with important decisions regarding the welfare of children. And they have chosen to apply that status to this grievous step. Having, presumably, had the opportunity to accept or reject Christ for themselves, they have chosen to turn their face from Him.

But they are so assured of His irrelevance that they have decided that the children for whom they have responsibility do not need Him either.

I stand in awe of such self-belief.

The well-rehearsed argument of the secularists is that Christian parents should teach their own children how to pray. Yes, they should and, I imagine, do. But what about non-Christian parents? Their children will not be taught at home how to call on the Lord, or even that such a path is open to them.

‘My child can decide for himself, when he’s older’, they tell you. Don’t be fooled by the decisive tone in which this is said, however – hear the vagueness of what they’re saying. Their child will decide at some future point. Not now, though. So, when?

 

Children learn about world religions as a matter of course. The same parents who wanted an end to the Lord’s Prayer are perfectly happy to see their wee ones coming home with books about Diwali and Hanukkah. It’s okay to talk about Mohammed and Buddha, but keep Jesus out of it. Let them have superficial knowledge about what others believe, but don’t give them anything practical that they can use; don’t, for any sake, allow them to understand that they belong to a Christian heritage.

Don’t give them the life skill that is prayer.

Whoever has chosen this path is sending a very damaging message to the children. In an education authority where 44% of the population attends church, acknowledges God as its Father, and communicates regularly with Him in prayer, the children are effectively being told: this is nothing to do with you. You may hear prayers, you may know praying people, but what is that to you?

A curriculum which fails to reflect the local community is letting its young people down. I thought that the Western Isles had learned that lesson with the Gaelic language. There was a day when it was the norm for children to hear and speak only Gaelic  in the community; and to hear and speak only English in school. With enlightenment and the lifting of anti-Gaelic prejudice came a desire to let the school be an extension of the culture in which it was situated.

Everyone realised that this was the right way to educate children – the function of a school should never be to wean the child away from his heritage.

Yet, here we stand in 2017. Children from Christian homes, from Bible-believing homes, go to a school where prayer is not uttered. They sit down to eat, and grace is not said. God – their God, and the God of their parents – is not acknowledged.

When I was a child, my parents sent me to school, secure in the knowledge that the values of our home would be extended into my  school day. We began each morning with the Lord’s Prayer; we commenced each meal with a blessing. Nobody tried to impose anything on us – it was simply how the day was framed. Some of my peers have grown up to be atheists, some to be Christians. The place given to prayer in the school day did not ‘brainwash’ any of us – but it did affirm the values of our island community.

Those who became atheists are not, I pray, a finished product, but a work in progress.

I can pray for them because my Lord showed me how. And they, when darkness threatens to overwhelm, can pray for themselves because our school allowed them to learn that skill.

Whoever has decided to end the use of prayer in a primary school in Lewis has made a mistake. But God is merciful, and He allows second chances. He forgives those that trespass against Him.

The Lord’s Prayer begins with an acknowledgement of our Father in Heaven. It ends by giving Him the glory.

I pray, with the entire Christian community of Lewis, that this story will finish that way too.

 

 

The Corncrake, the Medium and the Message

I have a lot of sympathy for the corncrake. For years and years, it was just there, rasping its way through hot summer nights. If I was sleepless, I harboured mildly hostile thoughts towards it which were always forgotten by morning, but otherwise, it was just part of the soundscape of my youth.

And, now, the corncrake is endangered, and needs to be protected. Changes were proposed which would make it feel more welcome in the Outer Hebrides. Bewildered crofters agreed, although it required little or no actual alteration to their traditional practices anyway. Now the corncrake is scrutinised, discussed, counted.

Like the Gael, in a way. I don’t remember having any real concept of myself as part of a Gaelic-speaking family, or a Gaelic-speaking community growing up. We just were. But, like the corncrake, unbeknownst to some of us anyway, we were in serious danger of extinction.

The reason, in both cases, is more or less the same: our habitats had altered and become hostile. A language is not, in and of itself, a terribly precious thing. It only makes sense within a particular set of circumstances, and this is especially true of a minority language. Gaelic worked when there was a Gaelic community to speak it.

This is where the conservationists got it right and the linguists got it wrong: preserve the habitat so that the way of life and everything else falls into place.

The schools, at one time, were bent on homogenising the Gael: making him an English-speaker and a useful member of society. They desired, in short, to destroy his habitat. In church, however, it was the message that counted. They were communicating the Good News in a language that the people could fully understand: their own.

Church was simply reflecting the community in the language that it employed because, ultimately, the medium used is a matter of little importance, as long as the message is faithfully delivered and clearly received.

That community has now changed. Fewer and fewer people are opting to worship in Gaelic; consequently, there are fewer and fewer opportunities to do so.

Even more worryingly, though, fewer and fewer people are worshiping at all. Christ’s name is not revered in our midst as it once was, and that makes me much sadder than any decline in the language through which I first heard His name.

If Christians too are an endangered species, then, perhaps we could learn from what was done for the corncrake.

The needs of that bird centre around two essential elements: it requires a safe resting-place, and something to screen it from harm.

Not unlike the Christian.

Our resting-place is in Christ, and it is Christ who will also cover us when there is danger abroad. That is how it has always been.

The corncrake likes a managed habitat, where it can safely nest, but where there is also tall vegetation in which it can hide. Those have always been its conditions. When crofting declined – and with it the traditional management of grassland – the corncrake began to retreat also. When the habitat was restored, however, the corncrake began to return.

Success in the world of conservation is frequently governed by statistics, and the world equally loves to crow over the declining percentages of church attendance. What they don’t seem to understand is that it was never about numbers.

It has always been about the glory of God. The church I go to has not lost sight of that fact. At every assembly there, the Lord is front and centre. I have heard preaching in Gaelic and English, I have participated in praise and prayer in Gaelic and English, but His glory is in it all, shining through.

Like the church of the Disruption and beyond, which faithfully spoke to the people in a tongue they would understand, ours must also adapt the habitat somewhat to the species it hopes to attract. Then, it was, Gaelic-speaking crofters and their families; now it is the digital generation of (mostly) English-speaking but frequently Biblically unaware people.

This might mean that our habitat will include more than just our lovely 19th century church; it may mean that Stornoway Free Church – amongst others – has to expand into cyberspace, out into the digital highways and byways, where the people are. What must change was never that important in the first place; what stays the same is Christ because He is foundational to it all.

After all, let’s not forget that where the people are, that great predator, Satan, also will be prowling.

Surely, then, it falls to us to tell them of a safe habitat, one where there is cover more secure than they can imagine, and a resting-place so safe they can never be plucked from it. And we must tell them of its complete suitability for their needs.

What does it matter what our habitat has or lacks, what it encompasses or excludes, as long as it has at its very heart the covering shelter of Christ in all His glory?

 

 

 

Broccoli and the Secular Delusion

When I was shorter than I am now and even more ignorant, my parents entrusted me to the state for the purpose of obtaining a rudimentary education. It was 1980 and here in Lewis, anyway, it was reasonably safe to assume that the state and my parents were, broadly speaking, pulling on the same oar.

So, when I would go home and bore them with details of the school day, neither of them batted an eyelid at mention of the Lord’s Prayer. Every morning, before a stroke of work was done, our chairs were scraped back and thirty or so little heads bowed to recite the old, familiar and beautiful words.

It’s only now, writing this, that I am struck by the privilege we enjoyed and our parents also, knowing that we were in the care of people who had their priorities straight. Whatever kind of home a child came from, these teachers were helping each and every one to commit their day into God’s hands.

At other junctures in the week, the Psalms would be learned, recited individually, and sung in unison. There were Bible stories – Noah and the Ark, Abraham and Isaac, wonderful stories of faith and strength in the Lord. We learned the Ten Commandments, not just by rote, but really, truly learned their relevance and that they were foundational to all other laws. And yes, we learned action songs: Mr Noah Built an Ark, We Are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder . . . we were children, and we loved these stories in whatever form they came.

I can’t speak for anyone else in Laxdale Primary, but as I grew up, I grew away from the Bible. There were fallow years when I scarcely considered God. As a student, I briefly entertained the childish notion that there was no Creator and that all of this . . . well, it just sort of happened.

My formative education did not prevent me from asking questions, but rather, it gave me a starting point for my questions. Without even a rudimentary understanding of God’s covenant with mankind, how could I possibly question it?

Nor, indeed, did it make me ignorant of other faiths. In secondary school, we were given an overview of the major world religions. Having first had a grounding in Christianity both at home and in primary school, our teenage years seemed the appropriate juncture to introduce us to what others believe.

So-called secularists don’t want this sensible pattern, however. They want children to be taught about ALL the major world religions from the beginning of their school career. This is – supposedly – going to equip the little ones to select their own faith, or dismiss them all out of hand as their parents have.

A child can no more select his own faith than he can select his own gender, or his own ethnicity. Their faith is an inherent part of who they are, and should surely come from within the home and the wider community. It is not a teacher’s place to lay the kinds of foundations that responsible parents used to provide, making the state responsible for their son or daughter’s very identity.

Of course, it is the parents’ prerogative to not believe in a deity of any description. If that is the case, however, surely there should be consistency. Children who are opted out of religious observance cannot then complain if they are excluded from marking religious festivals – Easter, Christmas, Diwali. Parents object to this on the grounds that their child will ‘stick out’ socially. Sorry, I don’t get this. You say that Christians are trying to brainwash your child with harmful doctrine, but you might be prepared to put your little one in harm’s way if it makes him popular with others?

Besides religious observance, there is religious education. Most of the right-on brigade seem to be of the view that it’s alright to teach about Christianity here, as long as other religions are given equal place. If that is the way our education system is headed, I think I would prefer that Christianity was not taught at all.

It is not an alternative to Islam or Sikhism in the same way that the Lib-Dems are an alternative to the Tories. I am offended by the infantile suggestion that people should be offered a smorgasbord of religions, choosing the one that most appeals to their worldview.

Faith informs your worldview. Not long ago, I was asked how important my faith is in my life, a question which is very difficult to answer adequately. It is my life. It pervades and inhabits: it is the eyes through which you see, the heart with which you feel and the force which drives you on. My instinct recoils at the notion of faith as a decision, a garment coldly chosen from an array of others.

If people think that Christianity is just a philosophy which you may reject because the gods of another belief system seem more attractive, or the mode of worship is more poetic, then they still don’t know what Christianity is. Only this week, an atheist told me that he would ‘consider it if you show me the evidence’. He has the evidence already, of course. The point is that he will not consider it.

When I was a child in Laxdale School, I didn’t like broccoli. Oh, I hadn’t tried it, but I knew by the look of the thing, and by what other children said about it, that it wasn’t for me.