The Port We Long to See

This week, since donning my own ‘Iolaire’ pin, I have noticed them on other lapels also. Like the poppies which we are so used to seeing annually, they are a silent, unifying act of remembrance. To wear one, I think, says something about how much this place and these people mean. For me, the men who were lost on that night, and those whose lives were changed forever, are still part of the chain to which we belong. That lovely custom of patronymics – bearing not only your own name, but that of your father, and grandfather before him – has kept us linked to one another across years, across great distances, and even on either side of death.

It will soon be one hundred years since that night which entered the Lewis psyche, arguably never to leave. I am a believer in Carl Jung’s collective unconscious: that there are areas of the subconscious mind which are motivated by experiences we did not personally have, but which are inherited from our ancestors. Because I believe also in original sin, this makes perfect sense to me. Add to that the strength of what we now call community in this island, and it is small wonder that wounds inflicted a century ago have not quite healed.

And, of course, our own particular experience may add a poignancy even to something so far in the past. When I was younger, I could listen to Murdo MacFarlane’s ‘Raoir reubadh an Iolaire’ with relative equanimity. Now, I find his description of the woman’s dawning grief virtually unbearable:

Sguir i dhol chun an dorais

‘S air an teine chuir mòine

She ceased going to the doorway

Or putting peat on the fire’

I had so many years of waiting for my husband to come home that, even now, three and a half years after his death, on some level I think I am still waiting. Nonetheless, I know what it is to feel your hope dying, and for loss to move from being an abstract thing that happens to others, to being a reality from which no earthly power can liberate you. For me, it didn’t happen when I was told he would die within a matter of days; it happened when they removed the PICC line, which had delivered the hope-giving chemotherapy into his arm. It was symbolic of the death we were now all having to accept. There would be no more going to look hopefully out the door for me either.

 But, just as light drives out darkness, life overcomes death. You must go on, and the providences which God gives will shape your dealing with others, as well as your understanding of self.

And, as it is with individuals, so it is – I believe – with community.

The Lewis that awoke from the last year of war into a January filled with nothing but grief must have faltered at first. There must have been, as there is for every one of us who has lost a loved one, the thought that recovery from this would be impossible. And there were difficult times to follow; not least the years of emigration because, much as people wanted to cling to their home island, it could no longer support them all. As Donald MacIver put it, in these lines from the beautiful ‘An Ataireachd Àrd’:

S na coilltean a siar chan iarrainn fuireach gu bràth;
Bha m’inntinn ’s mo mhiann a-riamh air lagan a’ bhàigh;
Ach iadsan bha fial an gnìomh, an caidreabh ’s an àgh,
Air sgapadh gun dìon mar thriallas ealtainn ro nàmh.

In the woods of the west I would not wish to remain;

My mind and desire were always on the hollow by the bay;

But those who were generous in deed, in fellowship and joy,

Are scattered defenceless like a flock of birds before its enemy’.

 Scattered: by war, by the Atlantic, by death. And yet, still those names belonged in the patronymic chain. It may have been strained by absence, and by distance but, like the heaving rope which brought so many men alive from the Beasts of Holm, that chain held fast.

 And it holds fast even now. We don’t wear these badges to mark a distant and remote event, but a personal grief which has permeated life in Lewis and Harris since the turn of 1918. I like to think that it has shaped this community, made it finer and stronger, and knit it closer together. Even though we will have times of drifting apart, and of falling out, remembering is an act which will always unify us.

The sinking of the ‘Iolaire’ ended 205 lives, and blighted many more. This was part of the same providence which the Stornoway motto claims as our inheritance. I have often heard expressions of surprise that such a bitter experience did not turn the survivors against God. That incredulity comes from the same place that caused someone to ask me whether I had been angry with Him for taking Donnie. 

Job’s answer ‘Shall we receive good from God, and not receive evil?’ is the right one here. Like Job, and like the psalmist – over and over – we have to take providence and let it do its work. Those more challenging aspects are not something we recover from, but something which becomes part of our identity. 

To commemorate this centenary is only partly about those who were lost, although of course that’s significant too. We have, also, to be thankful for the fact that God was faithful to this community: a constant in the years of turmoil. Many gave their sons, and who understands that sorrow better than Him? 

The poppy, a symbol of violent death, is paired with the bell, a symbol of holy power on the lapels of islanders this year. May they be tokens to us all of the One who perfectly unites both, and sees all His people safely to the shore.

 

Lewis Revival – A Reaping Time

When the sign reading ‘Lewis Revival’ went up above a Cromwell Street shopfront in Stornoway , I’m sure it stirred a similar train of thought in the minds of many onlookers. It was not lovely vintage cups, or upcycled furniture I pictured, though, and I’m sure I wasn’t alone.

There are certain episodes in this island’s past which inform its cultural identity.

As we approach the centenary, of course, people are well aware of the ‘Iolaire’ disaster, when so many men of Lewis and Harris lost their lives within sight of home. That marked this community deeply.

Only a few years after, many more would leave forever on other ships – the ‘Marloch’, The ‘Canada’ and the ‘Metagama’: names that would resonate down through the years.

Lewis was not easy to live in. It struggled to support its native population and, frequently, the answer offered to the poor was ‘go elsewhere ’.

We hear their story often. The Lewis diaspora. They went to the ends of the earth and made the best of it. Some prospered. And some didn’t. Eventually, their deaths would be reported in the ‘Stornoway Gazette’, because, no matter where they were in the world, they belonged here. It was circumstance that sent them away.

Or, to give it another name, providence.

And that same providence kept others at home. Gradually, they honed a community from what was left. Even another war did not finish them.

Far from it.

The generation of young men who fought the war against Hitler, they were the old men of my childhood. There was something about many of them – a kindness, a patience and a quiet, dignified strength. They had seen horrors that my pampered mind cannot conjure. And they came back to this quiet place to make a life.

Only four years after their return, a spiritual awakening began in Barvas. Such events can seem sudden to us, looking as we do through the lens of history.

But God prepares the ground before he plants. Mary Peckham, a reluctant convert in 1950, explained to an American audience many years later what the Lewis of her youth was like. She described how ‘gabhail an leabhair’ was the norm in every household – family worship morning and evening. Unconverted people, that is, as well as Christians. Everyone. And the children were educated in Scripture and in the Shorter Catechism. Little children were learning some very big truths.

And as a result, she said, when God sent His spirit down, ‘there was fuel to burn’.

You cannot make a fire by simply lighting a match, after all. There has to be fuel, and something to make it catch.

I was confined to the house recently because of a stubborn flu. And while I was, I listened to a Gaelic sermon I’d missed in our own church. It was about revival as prayed for in Psalm 126.

When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion,we were like those who dreamed.

Our mouths were filled with laughter,
our tongues with songs of joy.

The psalmist is not indulging in wistful daydreams about better days long ago. He evokes an older time of bondage from which God released His people, asking – and believing – that He will do so again.

Being aware of our history and of our spiritual heritage as an island people is not an academic exercise, however, and nor is it a foray into nostalgia.
The writer of psalm 126 is not asking God to make things exactly as they were in the glorious days gone by. That wouldn’t benefit anyone, attractive though it may seem.

No, the reason we need to remember these times of revival is so that we pray in earnest that He will send His spirit down again. Nothing short of that will bring the spiritual growth we so desperately desire to see.

This time, though, the fuel is more scattered. While we meditate on God’s goodness in past days of revival, and ask Him in His mercy to remember us once more, there is something else we need to do.

We need to gather together, building up in prayer and fellowship what will become His fire when He chooses the moment to send forth the spark of life.

The history of Lewis is worth keeping in our consciousness because through it, God’s faithfulness frequently shines. As a people, we bore with providence and held fast to Him. I have written elsewhere of how the twin demons of war and emigration were faced down with the singing of psalms. God’s providence is our inheritance, the motto of the old town council, says it best.

He has shown Himself faithful through it all; what reason have we to think that He will fail us now?

He hasn’t; He won’t. We must bear with His timescales and His plan. Think of what he has brought us from and what He has brought us to. Think of who He is and what He has done.

That’s who we are counting on – not governments, or economists, not churches, and certainly not ourselves.

His providence is our inheritance, and our heritage is established by Him. It is an unquenchable flame, and He is not finished with us yet.