The land, the language, the people

Last night, I dreamt I went to Mangersta again. It seemed to me I stood in a passing place leading to the village, and for a while, I could not enter, for the way was barred to me. There was a padlock and chain upon the gate. I called in my dream, ‘fosgail an geata’, and had no answer, and peering closer through the rusted spikes of the gate, I saw that the houses were empty of anyone who could understand me.

Before this vision of mine is entirely fulfilled, can’t we utter some of the forbidden words? Isn’t it past time to talk about why one of Scotland’s last indigenous communities, wrapped and bandaged though it is by legislation, has failed to be protected by any of these measures?

We have reached a point where serious academic research backs up what we have all known for some time: the Gaelic language is in crisis because the community that nurtured it is in crisis.

This is not a problem that can be solved by Gaelic agencies because, quite honestly, this isn’t a purely linguistic problem. And it’s hard to talk frankly about the real issues because people will rush to call you ‘racist’ for using vocabulary that excludes – words like ‘native’ and ‘indigenous’ for example. Because the struggle has focused purely upon language acquisition for so long, they walk among us who will claim, ‘is Gàidheal mi’ just because they’ve learnt to speak Gaelic.

Well, I have news for such people: is not Gàidheal thu; is Gaelic speaker thu. There is much more to being a Gael than just speaking the language.

And there is much more to being an islander than just living here. People, sadly, are failing to recognise this, and that is contributing to the death of community. I have firsthand experience of people who bought crofts here in (yes, in) Lewis expressly for the purpose of starting a business. They, and many others like them, think that, because they have bought and paid for a parcel of land here, they have become islanders.

But, just as learning Gaelic does not make you a Gael, owning property in Lewis does not make you a Leòdhasach. And that’s okay, because – presumably – you’ve got your own cultural identity.

So, we get ourselves a culturally diverse Gàidhealtachd and everyone is agreed that this diversity is a good thing.

Except, not everyone. I don’t, for one. At this point, some of you will have decided that I’m just being racist. I’m not; I’m being realistic. We have reached a point where an indigenous people with its own language and way of life is under threat. It’s time to stop being so damned polite and right-on. And so, I am now going to launch into saying the unsayable.

We need a new approach. A complete sea-change in how things are done ought to begin with legal recognition of the indigenous people who inhabit the Western Isles. Once that status is conferred, there has to be robust support for crofting and for Gaelic. I’d like to see the Crofting Commission and Bòrd na Gàidhlig working together – they already share a building (in Inverness, for now, Rome wasn’t built in a day) anyway. One might almost say gun robh e meant.

And we have to look at land ownership legislation. Much is made of the community right to buy – but it’s largely meaningless in the nurturing of real community as long as anyone with a fat enough purse can bag a croft, regardless of background. Young local people cannot hope to compete with that, or with the other blight on our society: housing for tourism.

Tourism is low-hanging fruit for people hoping to make a fast buck, or development agencies looking for an easy ‘win’. It is used as a battering ram to foist change (Sunday opening) or to oppose development (wind farms).

‘What will visitors think’?’ is the constant refrain.

I don’t care what visitors will think. This isn’t a reservation or a living museum exhibit. We were born and brought up here and we are committed to it. But we have complacently permitted the ongoing vandalism of our way of life, and smiled politely as it is dismantled around us.

The recent publication of ‘The Gaelic crisis in the vernacular community’ is a wake-up call. We need legislation that will empower the Crofting Commission and the landowning community trusts to put land the way of young islanders. Under the ‘new normal’, people like me will be at home a lot more during daylight hours. At a stroke, this providence has reduced the sad phenomenon of dormitory communities. What if we saw the economically active generation combining their main occupation – broadcasting, lecturing, weaving, graphic design or whatever – with crofting? Imagine land being worked, and villages where you see activity in the middle of the day; imagine Gaelic being spoken as the older folk pass their skills on.

Maybe I’m a dreamer. I hope I’m not the only one.

I am not saying that incomers shouldn’t be welcome, that would be ridiculous. But I am saying that if we really are serious about our culture, we have got to stop it being reduced to a commodity. If we don’t act now to stop the exploitation of our heritage, one day we’re going to wake up and realise that the thing we’re selling no longer exists. Native islanders – and I include myself in this – have been remiss in not providing a better welcome for those who come to live among us. We consistently fail to demonstrate that there is more to places like Lewis than just scenery and much more to our culture than a few songs or scraps of tweed.

Community, like heritage, is codified in our conduct, and in our relationship, both with the place we call ‘home’ and with one another. You can’t package that up and sell it.

In the post-lockdown period, we have seen the ugly side of tourism. Not just the dirty camping phenomenon, but a disturbing attitude. All over social media, would-be visitors and those seeking to make money from them were talking about ‘rights’. The ‘rights’ of anyone who wanted to visit Lewis, for example. ‘It doesn’t belong to the islanders’ one man said, ‘and I can come if I want’.

No, it doesn’t belong to the islanders; that much is true. But we belong to the island in ways no visitor can comprehend.

As a student, I read Bruce Chatwin’s ‘The Songlines’, a beautiful book about his travels in Australia. In it, he wrote:

‘The whites were forever changing the world to fit their doubtful vision of the future. The Aboriginals put all their mental energies into keeping the world the way it was’.

We are the Aboriginals: custodians of our ancestral lands, speakers of an ancient language through which we construct and comprehend the Gaelic community. It is past time for us to recognise that and to take steps to protect what has been left in our care.

It is time for our indigenous status to be formalised; it is time for everyone to recognise that these communities would be nothing without their people. And it is time for us, as a people, to recognise that we are nothing without the heritage that give us our identity.

Crofting, cùram and the black, black Comhairle

‘The minister and the factor are the cause of all the misery and ruination’, I said last week on live radio. I wasn’t, of course, talking about anyone I know personally, perish the thought. No, I was, in fact, paraphrasing a view held by many of my fellow countrymen, and especially in that context, various writers over the years about the havoc wrought by these two archetypes. 

The Highlands, explored in literary form, invariably appear to have been torn asunder by these two men: the greed of the factor and the creed of the minister. Between them, many people believe, the landlords and the church pulled down the ancient edifice of Gaelic culture and left it in ruins.

Even to this day, nothing is more guaranteed to get a social media debate going than religion or land. The latter blew up into a Facebook squall last week, with the news that Comhairle nan Eilean has taken legal advice on whether it can include crofts in the valuation of assets, when recouping the cost of providing care.

It was always going to be a turbulent discussion. You have a heady mix of poorly-understood legislation, a local authority which is damned either way, and the rampant emotionalism that seems to accompany every invocation of the word, ‘croft’. Crofters are felt by many to have a moral right to the land, and to be automatically justified whenever pitted against authority. There is a sense in which Comhairle nan Eilean cannot win this debate. Like any organisation which finds its views at variance with those of the crofting community, or even one section of it, the council will inevitably be portrayed as a latter-day Dòmhnall Munro.

Crofts and/or houses which are owner-occupied are straightforward enough. The real controversy centres around tenanted crofts. If you are merely paying rent to a landlord . . . how can the croft’s value be calculated as belonging to you?

Unfortunately, the legal opinion sought by the Comhairle states that one possible way is to file for bankruptcy against the crofter, or his estate after he has passed away. This unpalatable course of action would be time-consuming, potentially costly and by no means certain to produce the desired result for the local authority. Insolvent crofters breach the 1993 Crofting Act. Nonetheless, only the landlord can apply for an order to have them removed, and even if they do so, the events that follow are firmly outwith the council’s control.

So, this is clearly an extremely vexed question and, like everything else of the kind, may well be slogged out on Facebook, but it certainly won’t be settled there.

What the discussion does throw up, however, is an interesting attitude around the perceived intrinsic worthiness of crofting. Evidently, from the comments I have read, many of us feel that it is part of island heritage and deserving of protection. Some even accuse Comhairle nan Eilean of instigating a modern version of the clearances.

The conceit there is that crofts and crofting ought to be the province of the indigenous population. That is an argument which, in the context of language and cultural preservation (where, by ‘culture’ I mean way of life and not some tweed nailed to driftwood, calling itself ‘art’) might have some merit.

We suffer, because of our remoteness, a tension between maintaining a viable population in these islands, and protecting our increasingly fragile heritage. How do you reconcile the need for people to keep services running, and shops and schools open, with the desire to shore up these things which are unique and precious about our islands?

For too long, there has been a concentration on Gaelic as a language, and little heed paid to the fact that it has – and requires – an underpinning culture. Crofting is undoubtedly part of that. Unfortunately, the moral argument posited by many against the Comhairle’s position falls down slightly on the fact that tenancies change hands for sometimes eye-watering sums of money.

You simply cannot have it both ways. If tenancies can be sold to the highest bidder, where is the mechanism for favouring – say – young islanders? It doesn’t exist.

Crofting, like Gaelic, has been subject to a tiùrr of legislation, but there has been the same mistake made in both cases: a failure to recognise the plant in its native soil, or to take measures that might have nurtured it there. With language, experts talk about intergenerational transmission – the passing of the language from parent to child, far and away the most natural learning process. The richness of vocabulary and idiom is then preserved in a wider Gaelic community, not least because communities have an inbuilt code that is mutually intelligible to its members.

In fact, now that the language campaign is waking up to the fact that it has neglected community in its working-out, I wonder whether there isn’t greater scope for an integrated approach to the promotion of Gaelic and crofting. Not, I hasten to add, in some twee, ‘living museum’ way, but an acknowledgement that there are vestiges of both traditions still extant here, into which new life could be breathed. And that they have a close relationship with one another in the communities where they grow wild.

It would take vision to realise, of course. Some years ago, the Crofting Commission published a paper which explored the possibility of designating Scottish crofters as an indigenous people. I wonder whether, under the new Islands Act, and with an eye to further crofting legislation in the next parliament, it may not be time to rekindle that spark of an idea.

Imagine: Comhairle nan Eilean Siar, Highland Council, the Crofting Commission, Bòrd na Gàidhlig, all working together on policy for the Gàidhealtachd from the inside.

We have much still to learn from the old slogans: the language, the land, the people; and strength through unity.

No medium required: Gaelic is alive

When I was in primary six, our class teacher asked who among us spoke Gaelic. I regarded the unexpected question with suspicion and decided not to put my hand up. He wasn’t so daft, though, and fixed his eye on me, before asking several questions, all of which I answered fully . . . in Gaelic. There was no denying it after that. So, three out of his thirty pupils were labelled ‘native’, a category which has long since fallen into disuse because of its supposed ‘ethnic’ connotations.

Having progressed through primary school to the point where I was staring down the barrel of my penultimate year, here was someone asking me about my first language. I hadn’t thought about Gaelic as belonging in the classroom, any more than I would have welcomed the sight of my father with a deamhais in the GP’s surgery. It was a peculiarity of my home life, nothing more. And, in a house where your mother plays the bagpipes and your father insists that someone named Bodach Brùgan lives in the cavity walls . . . well, you can understand why this example of their craziness manifesting in school was unexpected to say the least.

The reason we were suddenly being asked about our fluency was with one eye on preparation for secondary school. I realised this many years later but, at the time, I merely obliged the teacher by doing as I was told.

What a funny way to realise that your mother tongue is a relevant part of your identity. Six years of education and not one mention of its existence, far less its influence on my life and, ‘next thing, suddenly, this change of mood’, as Seamus Heaney once wrote about the power of education.

Education HAS power, and as with every other tool of its kind, there is potential for misuse. Over several centuries, education was used to teach the Gaels of their inferiority. Don’t believe those who tell you that Gaelic was beaten out of the population; it wasn’t – it was taught out of us. We so equated the acquisition of English with progress, with the fabled ‘getting on’, that anything tying us to the traditional way of life was . . . well, a bit embarrassing, frankly.

As I was being asked that question by my teacher, however, a bit of an ar-a-mach was taking place in the unlikeliest of locations: Breasclete. There, for the first time, primary school children were beginning to be taught entirely in Gaelic.

And this week, the news began to filter out that Comhairle nan Eilean Siar is taking the momentous step of making Gaelic the default language for new enrolments. In other words, the ‘GME’ box is pre-selected and, if your child is bound for an English education, you will have to untick ‘Gaelic’. AS Donald Dewar once said about something else entirely, ‘I like that’.

It doesn’t materially change anything. If you don’t want GME for your child, you will simply have to say so, like Gaelic speakers have done since its inception. I’m a little puzzled by the objections I have read to this small administrative change, but not remotely surprised.  We have to remember that what may be one small administrative change for the Comhairle, is one giant shift in mindset for the electorate.

See, I can’t have been the only one whose identity was largely ignored by the education system until 1985. Indeed, I know I wasn’t.

So, we struggle now to comprehend the fact that we are accepted. The perverse types among us even object to it – how dare the Comhairle make Gaelic the default choice for enrolment.  Bring back the glory days of persecution, of the maide-crochaidh, of the ignominy and shame at being labelled a ‘maw’.

Sometimes, I have to confess to that mindset myself. When Gaelic is talked about in terms of percentages, and of cost to the taxpayer, and even when its champions cite the cognitive benefits of bilingualism, I just want to snatch it out of their hands and run for the hills.

For me, Gaelic is my home, my parents, the laughter at one liners no English monoglot could get. It is the distinctive clipping sound of the sheep shears, and the smell of the freshly-shorn fleece. Gaelic is psalm singing and kind-faced bodaich and cailleachan who looked at you with the sort of Christian love that your soul can feel, even if your tongue cannot name it. Lewis Gaelic for me is warmth and security and humour. This Gaelic so derided by parliamentary committees and small-minded unionists, is the umbilicus linking people like me to a place and a people we love so much it defies description . . . even with two languages at our disposal.

The time of which I write here is gone and many of the people with it, though the place remains. I cannot capture for you what Gaelic means to me because it is elusive, beautiful and fragile as a soap bubble. But I can say that Comhairle nan Eilean has finally lived up to its name with this decision to normalise Gaelicness in the heartland.

No child in Lewis – or Harris, or Uist, or Barra – should wait ten years to speak to a teacher in their first language. And now they won’t have to.

 

 

 

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. 

Crofting, Calvinism & the Colonised Gaels

Geekery comes in many forms, but I have always been particularly susceptible to the uniquely Teuchter variety. Now, before you leap to conclusions, no, I cannot name you every model of Massey-Ferguson ever to set wheel upon the Isle of Lewis; nor am I qualified to identify a brand of dip merely by its bouquet. However, I enjoy the complexities of Calvinist theology and of crofting regulation in almost equal measure. It has been easier to indulge the former, because there are places you can go and books you can read which will help the picture clear.

Crofting legislation, on the other hand, has been a right patchwork quilt. Now, however, someone has actually written ‘A Practical guide to Crofting Law’ – that someone being the well-kent lawyer, Brian Inkster, a bit of an expert in the feannag of crofting law and all its associated vagaries. This is not a legal tome for professionals, but a very usable little book which covers all the main aspects of crofting and its relationship with the law of the land (yes, pun intended).

I warmed to it immediately when I saw that page 1 of chapter 1 contained the word, ‘therefrom’. He was only placing crofting in its historical context – something I do myself fairly frequently for bored students – but couldn’t suppress a lawyerly adverb even at this early stage in the proceedings.

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It’s a depressing feature of life in the Gàidhealtachd that any description of who we are or what we stand for must always involve talking about organisations. We are surely the most regulated people in all of Creation. Reading Mr Inkster’s description of the Crofting Commission and the Scottish Land Court, I couldn’t help smiling to myself. All our resident malcontents (and more than a few non-resident) pile the blame onto churches for the perceived stifling way of life here, but no one ever seems to wonder quite why we need so many bodies to keep an eye on our language, our land, our economy – and that’s before we even get started on the plethora of environmental designations that Scottish Natural Heritage has at its disposal. Before you put a spade in the ground, you’d better find out if it’s a RAMSAR site, an SSSI, an NNR . . .

We have accepted it, though, as our lot (pun eile) in life. Like every other endangered species on the planet, the Gael has to be subject to much monitoring and scrutiny. There are more schemes and safeguards linked to us as a people than your average violent offender.

Everything, from the air that we breathe to the words that we use is subject to policy. If I start a business, join a committee or put up a polytunnel, there is an agency that needs to know. We have island plans, community partnerships, rural networks – all designed to protect us. We are like wayward teenagers, not trusted to get the bus home by ourselves in case we talk to strangers.

Ah, but, Mr Inkster’s book brings us neatly, in chapter sixteen, to that wee glimmer of freedom – the Teuchter equivalent of turning twenty one and being given the key of the door: community buyout. You’ll have heard of it because it’s been quite the apple pie and motherhood of the Gàidhealtachd over the sixteen years since the 2003 Land Reform Act was passed. The Act afforded the crofting community a right to buy and become its own landlord – not piecemeal, croft by croft, but to purchase an entire estate as one crofting body if so desired.

Now, I’m not rubbishing this development. It’s difficult to, when you recollect the heroism of Assynt, and of Eigg, in challenging absentee landlordism before there was tailor-made legislation to assist their endeavour. What I am merely pointing out is that the crofting community right to buy is something that had also to be granted via an Act of – albeit the Scottish – Parliament. It is arguably benevolent in its tendency, but still regulation nonetheless. Mr Inkster refers to the ‘Scottish ministers’ many times in this short chapter, reminding even the most gung-ho of community trusts that they have what they have at the behest of government, and of the reams and reams of law which have made it possible.

It’s easy to fool ourselves that we are freer than we actually are. Human beings are incredibly gullible, and very liable to convince themselves that there exists no authority higher than their own. That anyone from the seven crofting counties still believes this to be the case is extraordinary, when you consider the weight of legislation under which they live, move and have their being.

When I was a child, we marked the centenary of the 1886 Act, which put the word, ‘crofting’ onto the statute books for the very first time. It has always been cited as a great stride forward and, I suppose it was in many ways. But it was also the beginning of state-sponsored interference in a way of life which had existed previously on its own terms. Yes, it mitigated against some of the worst excesses of private landlordism, but it also sank the Gael into that abiding sense of being a permanent ward of state.

I think we are more at risk than ever these days of regarding ourselves as ‘looked after’. By the time the centenary had come and gone, organisations like the Crofters (as it was then) Commission, the HIDB and even the embryonic Scottish Crofters Union were household names. The folk leading the organisations and formulating policy were known to those most affected by their decisions. Even more crucially, those leaders were affected by their own policy too – because they lived in the communities regulated by these organisations.

Quietly, insidiously, the state moves the machinery that regulates Gaeldom further and further from its beating heart. Leadership has to come from within – for our land, for our language, for our economy, for our very way of life.

I, for one, am tired of seeing the Gàidhealtachd being run like a colony from Edinburgh. It’s long past time for the natives to get restless.

 

 

Secure Tenure in a Better Country

There is a line in the Runrig song, ‘Flower of the West’, which says that ‘the breathing of the vanished lies in acres round my feet’. For me, that articulates something that I feel very much here in my own community – the almost palpable sense of history everywhere. I know people who claim no interest in the past, who dismiss it as irrelevant. We are here, now, they will say, what’s the point in looking back?

Well, the point in looking back is to see how we got here. I am firmly with William Faulkner on this, when he said, ‘The past is not dead. The past is not even past’. How could it ever be, in a place like this?

That’s why I think it is a tragedy that Gaels do not learn their own history. For many years, the only formal access to it was through the Higher Gàidhlig course where, if you studied the poetry of the 18th and 19th centuries, you would also be taught about the Jacobite cause, the clearances, the famine, emigration and the Land War. And that knowledge is so empowering. When you know about these things, you can see where your community, your family, and you as an individual fit into the bigger picture.

That is where I derive my identity from.  I am a Gaelic-speaking hybrid of Maclean and Macdonald. My father’s people were cleared from Mangersta and settled at Doune: that’s Doune Carloway of the Iron Age broch. And my mother’s folk were from Harris on her paternal side: na Fìdhlearan, hereditary foresters to the Campbells of Scalpay, in the deer forest of Amhuinnuidhe, before relocating to Ardhasaig, via Taransay.

Today, I work in the very college from which I graduated in 1997. Our pretty campus is situated in the grounds of Lews Castle, built by Sir James Matheson in 1851 and gifted by Lord Leverhulme to the people in 1923, when the Stornoway Trust Estate was created – the first community-owned estate in Scotland.

I sit on the board that manages the Lancashire soap magnate’s legacy. Despite all the talk, the iconoclasm, and the liberal sprinkling of meaningless words like ‘progressive’ throughout public rhetoric, I see at least part of my role there as being to maintain the dignity of such an historic organisation. Stornoway Trust has always had a sense of its own historicity, and that’s why I feel an affinity with it: knowing your roots will always strengthen your sense of identity.

Of course, there are other aspects of my identity too. On a Sunday, I worship at the Free Church on Kenneth Street  – itself a relic of that great chapter in our history, when ministers and congregations walked out of the Church of Scotland to form a denomination free from the power of patronage, and outside interference.

Its establishment precipitated other radical acts. Described as ‘the crofting community at prayer’, it is believed that the community cohesion and leadership provided by the early Free Church, contributed to the events that followed, culminating in the Napier Commission and the Crofting Act of 1886, which finally granted security of tenure. Beyond that there were – here in Lewis – the raids which saw crofters clashing with landlord and government in their thirst for land on which to subsist.

I grew up in the relatively new village of Newmarket, where there is a mixture of crofts and of allotments, rented from the Trust. Our home was built on one of the latter, but my father still ran the croft at Doune, shearing and dipping sheep within the tobhta of his old home.

Land, you see, runs through it all. The soil under our feet, and the landscape before our eyes, seem to form the boundaries of our being. We ache for places we have left, and love those in which we make our homes. It is a universal experience, but always rooted in a familiar landscape – one whose form and history is meaningful to us.

And yet, however strong my sense of self is, however anchored here in Lewis, and however much the past whispers to me as I move through the landscape of my life . . . this is not really home. Yet, this is not the contradiction that you might think, because – like many other refugees – I have a dual history and a dual identity.

As much as the Fìdhlearan of Ardhasaig are my people, I would claim kinship also with the Israelites. Their yearning for the land of promise speaks to me in my own geographical and historical context. Because I know who I am as an islander, I can recognise in myself that desire for true belonging.

The most famous articulation of this, unsurprisingly, comes from Paul in 2 Corinthians 5: 8, when he says that he would prefer to depart this world to be with Christ. In a letter he left for us, his family, before his death, my father expressed his love for us all in just those terms. Though he said that another lifetime with us would be wonderful, he was prepared to go and be with his Saviour, which – he wrote – was far better.

Is that not an extraordinary witness? When we are blessed to have family and friends for whom we care deeply; when we are intimately tied in to the landscape and history of a particular place; when our identity here on earth is made of something older and finer than ourselves . . . what a testimony, then, to be able to say that there is something more awaiting us beyond those limits.

I believe that the privilege of heritage and history is there to teach us about this greater gift. God placed each of us within a particular lineage, a particular culture, so that we might identify with that international movement of refugees towards our ultimate home.

Knowing who my people are, and where I came from does not tie me faster to this world, as you might expect; it heightens my expectation of what God has prepared in eternity that is richer even, than the security I enjoy now. There, the father who once walked with me over the acres at Doune, was happy to go; there the husband who loved the vista of Traigh Mhòr was happy to go.

One day, I too will finish my journey, and find true security of tenure.

 

 

 

 

 

Now the Precious Years are Gone

I was not part of the exodus from the Gàidhealtachd last weekend. The crowds making their way over land and sea were a mildly interesting sideshow – a filler at the end of the Gaelic news, a spectacle from which I tried hard to avert my eyes. It is certainly not that I don’t care for the music of Runrig, because they have been the soundtrack to my life since I can remember. These guys made a song of my outlook and experience over four decades and, all things being equal, I should have been there for the last dance.

Some things are just too much, though. Apart from that long-ago concert in the hangar at Stornoway airport, I shared every other Runrig experience with my husband. If I had gone to listen to them once more, I would only have spent my time looking for him in the crowd.

And so, I spent Saturday and Sunday in an island that seemed emptied of half its population. Sometimes, I would hear a snippet of their music on the radio, or catch a glimpse of them on television, and I would remember . . .

My mind goes back to the year that I turned fifteen, when they came to play in Stornoway, and I was just so excited at the prospect. And then, horror of horrors, a controversy broke out: their gig was going to clash with the preparatory services for the Stornoway communion. With any other band of their reputation, that would have been brushed aside. Runrig, though, were different. The date was changed, plans remade, and the Free Church minister in Stornoway received an apologetic phone call from Donnie Munro.

You are never too big, or too important to be respectful. This, after all, was the band that sang, ‘cum ur n’ aire air an Iar is air an àite a dh’ fhàg sibh/keep remembering the west, and the place you left’.

When I say that I grew up with them, I don’t merely mean that they were there as the years went by. I have already alluded to their part in forming my political consciousness, and for articulating the dumb love that I felt – feel – for home. Every year, when I speak to students about our history as a Gaelic people, I can do no better than quote Runrig’s ‘Fichead Bliadhna’. It expresses far better than I ever could the disgrace of successive generations kept in ignorance of their own past:

I learned many things
The English language, the poetry of England
The music of Germany
The history of Spain
And even that was a false history

Twenty years for the truth
I had to wait
I had to search
Twenty years of lies
They denied me knowledge of myself.

It was because of Runrig I took an interest in the Highland clearances, because of Runrig I cared about politics, because of Runrig I first read Carmina Gadelica, because of Runrig I discovered the land wars, because of Runrig I understood that Gaelic was more than just a dying language.

They sang more than merely big songs of hope and cheer: they were the singers in my bloodstream who have stayed mainline all my life.

Everything that matters to me about being a Gael, about being an islander – I can find it somewhere in the canon of this band’s work. Their polite and deferential approach to the Rev Murdo Alex Macleod in 1991 was indicative of something that owes much to the soil in which they were nurtured. Every word I ever heard them sing was shot through with love of place, love of nature, love of people and that matchless Gaelic spirituality that shaped our best lyricists. So many of their melodies recall congregational worship, with the psalms at its centre:

Song, sacred, eternal
Lift on high the voice of the people
Song, I am reconciled
Let it rise up from the moorlands

One of the most memorable evenings I spent in their company was at the now infamous gig on the banks of the Ness, when the deluge threatened to sweep us all away. We were, Donnie and I, soaked to the skin, shivering and muddy. It took hours to get back to the hotel, to get showered and warm, but we agreed that it was the finest of all our Runrig experiences. Until, that is, they came back to the HebCelt and we watched the sun set over Stornoway to their unmistakeable sound. Home, Runrig, and the man I was sharing my own last dance with, though neither of us knew it then.

Many have paid their own tributes to Runrig; most had the courage to be there with them as they said that aching goodbye. Mine, however, happened that night, out on the castle green. But Runrig’s own words, as always, speak for me more eloquently than I could ever do for myself:

But now I know and I don’t want to believe it
Where does it leave you now
That the precious years are gone

I know you well, you’ll be nothing but grateful
Never let it be said they were spent in thoughtless ways
Warm winds blow ‘cross the ties that bind forever
For a place in the sun and for the hearts of love a home

(Photo credit: Marie MacDonald)

 

What did Gaelic ever do for you?

A sardonic gentleman of my acquaintance recently dismissed the phrase, ‘saoghal na Gàidhlig’ as making it sound like we live in Brigadoon.

Brigadoon was, of course, the eponymous village in a Hollywood musical, which emerged from the Scottish mist for one day every hundred years. And that, coincidentally, is about the frequency with which the Gàidhealtachd attracts the attention of the media, or the government, or the two-bit celebrity out for cheap publicity.

The filmic village was protected by the local minister’s prayer. By those terms, Brigadoon went on in peace and harmony, as long as its people kept within its boundaries, and it remained mostly unseen.

Sound familiar?

We are good, though, for a few column inches from lazy journalists. Or, no, let’s call them what they are: racist journalists.

I have seen all the counter-arguments made by my fellow Gaelic speakers. They will quote statistics, they will use scientific evidence for the cognitive benefits of bilingualism, they will even travel through history to prove to a few bigots that Gaelic WAS spoken outside of the modern-day Gàidhealtachd.

And that’s all great. It really is. Make those arguments if you have the appetite for them.

But, here’s the thing, I don’t see why I have to justify my identity to anyone, least of all a tabloid journalist, or a Lowland politician.

In a world where you can identify as a teapot, or a dog basket, or a Taiwanese figure-skater, why is my honest to goodness Gaelicness still a problem? And, more importantly, why is it allowed to be a problem?

Why are people permitted to say and write the things that they do about Gaelic?

I read a comment on social media recently, where it was suggested that the racist abuse levelled at Gaels does not signify because snide comments don’t cause a language to die.

No, but they can make people ashamed, which causes a culture, a way of life, to die – and that’s what Gaelic is to me. It is not simply a language and it certainly isn’t a cash cow, or a political football either.

It is long days in the potatoes with my parents. And it is the laughter of older folk, sharing that unique humour that only makes sense if you’ve grown up with it. Gaelic is knowing words like ‘tobhta’, not because I am seeking linguistic richness, but because, in my world, there only was one tobhta. Gaelic is the taigh fhaire chairs from the village hall, piled up at someone’s door like the sorrows that they represented, or the blessings they counted.

For me, Gaelic was long, tedious sermons in the homely setting of the Seminary and understanding the spiritual significance of ‘dà cheann-latha’. It was the kindness of the old folk – that particular keen-eyed concern. And it’s handshakes, more warmly expressed in Gaelic as ‘breith air làimh’ – ‘grasping hands’.

That, for reasons of clarity, I should add, is not grasping as in mean, as in looking for money. It is grasping as in hanging on for dear life to the things that matter.

Language, however, doesn’t matter to me at all. I don’t want Gaelic if what’s on offer is a sterile thing in a test tube: a synthetic language without a cultural context; a wild animal placed in a zoo because we have let its habitat be destroyed.

But don’t mistake me. I am not talking about Gaelic as a thing of the past – I am talking about it as something that formed me. Like my parents, my family, my home, I carry it with me. It is who I am; it is my very self.

When I worked as a development officer in Ness, I spent a lot of time applying for funding. It would have been much easier to obtain if more of the Nisich had been Welsh, or lesbian, or . . . well, just not so . . . Niseach. They were just boring old White British – no extra cash for that. But then, I thought, no, they ARE part of a minority ethnic group, and so the heck am I. Repeatedly, then,the National Lottery received forms from me with ‘Other’ ticked and, under ‘Details’: ‘crofters and speakers of Scottish Gaelic’.

That’s who we are. It is what we are. Why should we apologise? We have been doing that for centuries.

It’s time to clear the taigh-fhaire chairs from the door, and build up the walls of the tobhta. Restore. Revive.

We are an indigenous people, still occupying our ancestral lands. Despite clearance and emigration, despite famine and despite concerted policies to eradicate our way of life, we remain.

Gaelic in Edinburgh and Glasgow is all very laudable, but I tend to think of the proverb which says the bird sings sweetest where it was born.

This was never just about language. And working hard to save the language is rather missing the point, if there survives no place on earth where it is woven into the hearts of the people.

Gaelic is my father and my mother, and it is my home. When people denigrate the language, and deride our way of life, that’s what they strike at.

And all the shame is theirs.

 

 

 

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.

Wee Free Frankenstein

This time last year, I was a sinner saved by grace, marvelling at the year of blessings I’d enjoyed since coming out for Christ. Today, I am writing my one hundredth blog, almost a year on from where it all began – aptly enough, at the Stornoway communion.

When I met the man who would somehow become my blogging mentor, I was minding my own business, enjoying tea and fellowship and – more than likely – one of the house special pancakes. We discussed other subjects, I think, before we got round to talk of blogging.
‘You should think consider getting your thoughts down in a blog of your own’, he said, casually and unwittingly creating a monster every bit as uncontrollable as the one cobbled together by Dr Frankenstein. I am one of those dim-witted and suggestible Wee Free women you’ve heard tell of and so, I duly trotted off home to dream of blogging.

Only when the communion weekend was over could I even begin to think of beginning. I didn’t want to do anything controversial which might bring the wrath of the Session down on my head, so I wrote an article about the Free Church and the fairies.

I had long been thinking it was high time we aired the positive influence of churches like the Wee Frees (other denominations are available) on our community. The church had not, historically, engaged in debate about its demeanour or influence, maintaining a dignified silence despite heavy and frequently unwarranted criticism.

Someone else less dignified was going to have to speak up for it. And I owed that much.

You see, this time last February, I was able to look back on almost two years without my husband, and see where the church had been his substitute. I was able to appreciate the anchorage it had provided, the purpose, the kindness. Its loving arms had held me up through those hard, hard months. Yes, it was a challenge to be there sometimes, but it was more of a challenge not to be.

And so the blog really began as a labour of love. Love for my community, for my heritage, for my church and, most of all, for my Lord.

I don’t think I appreciated just how much those loves would upset other people. You see, even although I have no power except the one vote that we all get on gaining the requisite age, my opinions seem revoltingly offensive to some. All I have is this blog, through which I continue to voice my loves. It offends me when people say of Lewis that there is no distinctive culture. Somehow, I feel like Scarlett O’ Hara slapping her petulant sister, and saying, ‘don’t say you hate Tara – it’s the same as hating ma and pa’.

It saddens me that in this supposedly enlightened age, I have to explain that loving my heritage – Gaelic, crofting, Free Church – does not make me a bigot. I do not despise people who are different; but I do question why my difference, the distinctiveness of Lewis has to be a problem to solve, not an attribute to celebrate.

I am sad that a narrative has crept in which is entirely critical of this island. It’s backward, it’s repressed, it’s secretive, it’s got a dark side. Well, maybe I’m just the delusional closed mind some say I am, but that is not my Lewis.

My Lewis is warm and welcoming. It is that particular brand of island humour which manages to be sharp and gentle all at once. Lewis people are polite, never ones to push themselves forward or demand a hearing. And they are unfailingly kind. This is an island of hands clasped in friendship, of ‘placing’ one another, of being interested. When you die in Lewis, there will always be someone to attend your funeral.

We respect the dead, but crucially, we don’t wait until then – we respect the living too.

Blogging has been a revelation, then. Like a poultice, it seems to have drawn an awful lot of poison to the surface. It is no surprise in one respect: Christians are prepared to be hated, after all, for the sake of who they follow. But He does not send us out into the field unprepared, or unarmed. Their slings and arrows may graze, but the wounds they leave, like their arguments, are always superficial.

Far and away the greatest revelation, though, has not been the hatred – the anonymous messages, the disrespectful language, the bullying; it has been the fullness of God’s love that I have experienced through writing the blog.

He has brought me into contact with so many of His people through it. These people have encircled me with prayer and upheld me in all manner of trouble – even, I suspect, though they sometimes didn’t know it. Messages of support will come when I am on the point of giving in; a portion of Scripture shared when my grief is too heavy a burden; links to music that will uplift my heart when it is struggling to find joy.

I learned something so important last year, which I know I have alluded to before. Why wouldn’t I – it was life-changing; I will share it every chance I get. And I must apologise to the troll who accused me recently of getting all my thinking from the pulpit, but this DID emanate from just that source.

In all of our trials, we are not to be worried how we will maintain our faith in God; we are to see them as a means to experience more of His love for us.

I have experienced His love so abundantly that one hundred blogs more would not do it justice. He has never left my side, and I will not leave His. Where His name is trodden on and where His church and His people, who are also my people, are spat at, I will also go to be spat at.

Love me, despise me, ignore me – I am not going away.