Life Should Mean Life

My employers, in their wisdom, decided that I should learn the dark art of genealogy, believing that it would augment the other subjects I teach. They would not listen as I protested, tears streaming down my cheeks, and they turned aside from my plaintive cries of, ‘my grandfather was a Hearach, I don’t need to know any more’. Nothing else would do but that I should be forced to gaze upon the full horror of my own private gene pool, without so much as benefit of clergy.

The clergy, as it turns out, would be no good anyway. I confided in the minister on Sunday that I had been wading in the murkiness of my ancestry. He told me that he had discover a forebear of his own was someone fairly horrifying. My best guess was Genghis Khan, but he shook his head solemnly, ‘worse, even, than that’.

And so, if the person I might otherwise have turned to for counselling is, himself, traumatised by the past, what am I to do? I am left to confront the worst that Miavaig, Achmore and (whisper it) Ranish, have to offer.

To be honest, I had approached this research with some trepidation and not because of my mother’s bizarre network of Deasaich and Lochies. Sometimes you just have to accept that you’re descended from werewolves and move on.

It was my father’s side that was causing the real concern. He was the product of my granny’s liaison with a man she met while working at the herring fisheries in Fraserburgh. All my life, he had been a taboo, an unmentioned and unmentionable shadow; he was a gap in the family tree and likely to remain so.

Still, I had a few clues. Armed with those, I went looking in earnest last week, and found more than I ever expected. He married six months before my father was born – another lady who was also expecting his child. Tracing back from there, I discovered that his own mother had a child to another man before finally marrying my great-grandfather.

So much personal and social turmoil in one line – and so many repetitions of that hateful word: illegitimate.

I realise that it was a legal term, but it carried so much weight of disapproval in society that the child could be forgiven for thinking that he or she was indeed ‘not lawful’. But, then, that all depends on whose law we are following.

When I try to imagine how hard it must have been for my granny to tell her parents of her condition, in Doune in 1927, my heart goes out to her. She had to face their disapproval and disappointment, while also facing up to her own fear, and the heartbreak of finding out that the man she had hoped to marry was married to someone else.

And I wonder, if it was now, whether she would just quietly book herself into a clinic, and end the life she was carrying. Would she be crushed by her mother’s anger, devastated at being made unwelcome in the family home? Or, would the thought of gossip in the small village where everybody knew each other drive her to blot out the mistake as quickly and as cleanly as she could?

See, there are many who would say that, had that option been open to her, it would have been my grandmother’s right to take it. Her body, her choice.

But, she did not have the option, and so she had to suffer all those things I mentioned. It could not have made for an easy life, but neither did it kill her. It’s said that, when she bravely went to seek baptism for her baby boy, the minister was kind. The fact that I even know that speaks volumes. There would have been precious little kindness, little softness in how she was met, as someone who had so spectacularly breached the rules of society.

She weathered the storm. My father not only survived his upbringing, but grew into a man that any mother could be proud of. He was a good father to his sons and his daughters, a good husband to his wife, and a very kind human being. It was not unusual for people to turn up at our house, just to thank my father for how he had dealt with their loved ones when they had been in his care.

He was actually, for me, the epitome of human dignity. Not just because of his own character, but because of how it was formed. Unplanned, illegitimate, inconvenient – but a life, with all the potential that holds. My granny could probably only see the heartbreak of her own dashed hopes, her ruined reputation, and the expense of another mouth to feed. Who knows what all that pressure might have led her to do, had she been due in 2018, instead of 1928.

Nobody knows what the child in the womb might become.

John the Baptist recognised his Saviour, and leapt for joy, though they were both as yet unborn. Life is precious from the moment it is conceived, and its destiny belongs only in the hands of its Creator. It may be inconvenient, it may be frightening, it may be painful, it may be difficult.

But, then, that’s the point of this wonderful life – in God’s hands, it may be anything.

 

 

 

Hallowe’en is coming, and the Clocks Are Going Back . . .

Someone – and I’m not prepared to say who – created a bit of bother in Stornoway Free Church last weekend. They posted a flippantly captioned meme onto the church Facebook page, featuring a photograph of our two ministers. This flagrant misuse of the image was bad enough, but to compound the felony, it was heavily implied that one of the reverends could not be trusted to put the clocks back.

Which is ironic, really, because we all know that the Free Church has been setting this island back centuries since its foundation in 1843. What would one hour more have mattered?

I am a little bit obsessed with time myself. In the normal course of things, I like to be early. Sometimes ridiculously early. This is why I don’t like going to things with my less punctual friends and relatives. Walking into an early morning prayer-meeting once, after the door had been shut almost caused me a nose-bleed. It is my uptight side coming out. And there’s not a lot I can do about it.

On Hallowe’en night, I was due to give a talk on the Otherworld. So, I duly press-ganged my sister into accompanying me, and she wrong-footed me by being at our appointed meeting place early. We both arrived at the Leurbost Community Centre a good forty minutes before I was expected to utter a single word about witches. As we sat in the car park until a more respectable hour, hordes of children dressed as ghosts and witches (well, I assume they were children) rushed past. It brought back many happy memories of similarly dark and cold evenings, when a crowd of us would go from door to door, singing for a donation to the party fund.

And nostalgia was the tone for the whole evening. There was something about it . . . talking, as people did long ago, about superstitions, about mysterious lights and unexplained noises, and women who were suspected of being a bit uncanny. Woven into it was Gaelic, and genealogy, and laughter, and scones. My more eccentric granny was from Achmore, and the previous generation from (inevitably) Ranish. All North Lochie genes seem to emanate from Ranish. And there were lovely ladies there who had worked with my parents in the Old County Hospital, or knew my mother, or were related to a neighbour.

It was an old-fashioned evening. People wanted to ‘place’ me, and I in my turn had to figure them out. There was darkness, cold and an atmospherically howling wind outside. Inside, though, I felt like some magic had indeed taken place, and that, in talking about the tales of da-shealladh and taibhsean, I had unwittingly conjured up the past.

The tea and baking that followed my rambling was preceded by a grace. It makes me glad to know that some communities still continue with this, and some still open all their meetings with prayer.

But it makes me sad to think of the people who would see this humble gratefulness to God for His unwarranted goodness to us as just so much more superstition. There are those who would place the dignified words of blessing and thanks in the same category as charms to ward off the evil eye, or rituals to protect a child from felonious elves.

People are interested enough to come and hear about Hallowe’en, and the things that our ancestors believed. They were, I think, afraid of what might come out of the darkness to harm them. It wasn’t really spirits of the dead, or witches bent on evil that threatened them at all, but the nameless fear of things they could not comprehend. Illness, infant death, loss of all kinds . . . if these come at you unexpectedly and without explanation, perhaps you just have to create your own framework in which to understand them.

And people who dismiss God as superstition are just the same. They have built up their own version of the Otherworld, just a lot less plausible than the one populated with fairies and witches.

Their imaginary realm is the one they inhabit now. And they think it is all there is. The atheist thinks that when he closes his eyes on this world, he simply ceases to be. They do not waste time speaking to an imaginary deity now, because they do not expect to meet him later.

But they will. We all will.

I don’t like to dismiss the beliefs of our forefathers as mere superstition. They believed the things that they did in good faith, but also at times out of ignorance. Some of our good old Highland ministers (not at all the sort to forget to wind the clocks) believed that second sight may have been an example of hierophany – God communicating directly with a rural population which was largely illiterate and unable to read Scripture for itself.

The truth is, however, we don’t know. There are indeed, as the Bard (nope, not Murdo MacFarlane, the other cove) once said, ‘more things in heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy’.

‘Philosophy’ here might well refer to all of learning – whether that is astronomy, biology, or some daft creutair from the local college who has learned a few things about witches and wise women.

But the really wise women are not waiting for revelation in dreams or visions. They are setting their clocks to spend time with the Lord. His book is better than magic, and in His presence you will find more things than are dreamt of in any philosophy, I’m sure – even in the fondest prayers of the Christian.

 

Ambushed by the Enemy Within

I have a friend who is an elder. He is also a relative of some description but this is Lewis, so isn’t everyone? We have a Henry or two in common ancestry, that’s all I know. This particular fellow has a weakness for loud ties and, despite the fact that he has zero rein over his tambourine-wielding wife, I have an awful lot of time for him. She may be out of control, but I’m quite fond of her too, and have high hopes of reforming her. Or, at least, of removing her tambourine to a place of safety (probably Martin’s Memorial).

He asked me an interesting question about this blog recently. In fact, he’s asked me twice whether I get a lot of negative comments about it. A valid enquiry. Apart from that one time the minister cautioned me that I was in danger of harming my mother’s mental health (‘you’re sending your mother droil and she’s going to have to leave the island’ were, I believe his exact words), no one has given me any hassle about what I write.

It surprises me in one way because I have certainly experienced spiritual attack. I expected to; I’m a member of a very level-headed and scripturally-grounded church, so I was warned to expect such things after coming out for Christ. They prepared me for it, and they equipped me to know how to deal with it.

When it came, though, it did not happen the way that I thought it would. The Devil is the master of the surprise attack, the spiritual ambush, and while I was busy crying and getting upset about what had happened to me, he was stealing my peace. And here’s how he did it:

He exploited my sinful weakness and my propensity to harbour a grudge. Deviously, he got me to inflict the real harm on myself.

On what would have been my husband’s birthday last year, with the knowledge that his headstone was being installed in the cemetery at that moment, I took the dog for a walk, already feeling emotionally fragile. Yards from my own gate I was subjected to an aggressive verbal assault from a neighbour that I had never spoken to in my life. About Donnie’s death, she spat these words I will never forget: ‘I don’t care. Sh*t happens’.

I shut down. Instead of reaching out to God, instead of running to be with His people, that Sunday, I stayed at home, feeling sorry for myself. And her poisonous words festered. She had physically threatened me, but her words about my loss were what really stung.

Earlier this year, before I even started the blog, I received a horrible tirade of anonymous messages. They were sinister, dark and vile. Amongst other things, I was accused of cynically portraying myself as a ‘perfect Christian’ and ‘the grieving widow who found God’. It was a time of great grief for our church, so I didn’t feel I could confide in people who were already over-burdened. This time, I didn’t stay away from worship, but felt strangely isolated.

And it was all my own fault.

You see, the power to harm me spiritually did not come from the words used by either of these poor souls. It lay entirely in my own difficulty with forgiveness, and an unfortunate tendency to self-pity.

The frontal attack from these people was not what my eye should have been on, but the enemy within. My heart is deceitful above all things, and it can even fool me.

But my church prepared me. Somewhere in the armoury I had what I needed. Prayer and the Word, as we are repeatedly told, make up the first line of defence. We have the weapons, we have the whole armour of God – but we forget to use them.

In this case, I eventually understood what He wanted me to do. I let go of my bitterness and the feelings of injustice that I am apt to nurse all too fondly. It is not
up to me to forgive, but it is so much better to pray that God will. Once you have prayed for someone, all the enmity goes. He has forgiven me much more than this; why should these two troubled souls not have the same? Perhaps because they don’t deserve His forgiveness?

But, then, neither do I. Yet, I have it.

When I let go of all the bitter thoughts, when I stopped rehashing their attacks in my mind, the miracle happened. God’s peace returned, and the Devil skulked away. He can’t abide the light.

Prayer is the most effective tool, the most powerful weapon, and the most enduring comfort that any Christian has. If you need to achieve something, to defend yourself, or to find peace, use prayer.

This blog has been a source of great blessing to me; it has brought so many wonderful people into my life. It is encompassed by a ring of prayer. I believe that is more impenetrable than a ring of steel.

And, know this, so does the enemy.

 

 

So Good I Thought It Was Dead

The thing about Ness is its unpredictability. It is the sort of place where Dr Who’s Tardis could very well choose to land. After all, no other district of Lewis manages to tread that line between loyalty to the past and faith in the future with quite so much aplomb. If I had to sum it up in one word, it would be, ‘authentic’. On the other hand, if I had no such restriction imposed upon me, I’d also add ‘crazy’ and ‘unpredictable ‘, but would be forced, on balance, to include ‘fabulous’ and ‘inspiring’ too.

Last Wednesday, I visited. Or, I should say, revisited. It was there I had my first proper, grown-up job as development manager for Iomairt Nis, a community-run company. For four years, I worked in the wee office behind the stage at Ness Hall.

When we held our millennial Gaelic-Gaeilge link event, Ceilidh san Iar-Thuath, my office served as a dressing room for Danu, a young Irish band.

Another day, a man breezed in and introduced himself to me as, ‘Wylie. I’m a photographer’. I gaped stupidly at him. ‘N-not Gus . . . Wylie?’ I stammered and, when he answered in the affirmative, I responded with, ‘you’re so good I thought you were dead’.

You never really knew what was going to happen from one day to the next in Ness. Inevitably, it was there I got my first taste of infamy.

When I agreed to rent the community hall to the newly-formed Free Church (Continuing), I naively failed to foresee any hassle. I don’t think I’ve ever been called ‘silly’ by quite so many different people in such a short space of time. Even the media wanted to know why I had done something so ‘controversial’.

If it was now, I would probably agonise, consult, pray . . . but I was young and could only see in black and white. I had the management of an underused and decrepit community facility; here was a community group in need of a temporary home. To me, there was no need for fuss. Nor was there any call for me to side against a group of people who simply wished to gather and worship God in much the same way that I was used to doing myself.

It turns out that I was right, though my method of dealing with the situation might have been less than sensitive. Eventually, the dust settled. Those who spoke against such use of the hall probably also regretted doing so. We are human, we all do things in the heat of the moment which we might wish undone a second later. The thing to remember is that our feelings, our opinions and our egos are not all that important in the grand scheme of eternity, or even in the small scheme of community.

True community is resilient, like family. There may be disagreements, hurts and rivalries but ultimately, when the chips are down, everyone clings together. Ness was like that.

And it’s still the same.

In the Comunn Eachdraidh cafe, people breeze in and out. Gaelic is spoken, patronymics are used. Casual conversations take place, and are often about who such and such a person’s family is, or what someone did for a living in Swainbost in 1922. They are comfortable and easily confident in their identity as Nisich because they know and value their roots.

Annie MacSween, who founded Comunn Eachdraidh Nis – the first of its kind – in 1977, is once again its chairperson. I wanted to use the adjective, ‘irrepressible’ in front of her name, but everyone who knows her will mentally insert it anyway, so I needn’t trouble. She told me that their meetings are still conducted in Gaelic. This is not an organisation which commemorates or even reenacts something which is gone, but one which is naturally and easily protecting something very much alive.

The wee dispute of 2000 did not break the palpable sense of community that one gets in Ness. It was, like all family rifts, weathered and then absorbed into the mythology of the place.

In the few hours I spent in Comunn Eachdraidh Nis last week, I spoke to blog readers from Dowanvale – fellow Christians, indeed fellow Wee Frees whom I had never met. Annie received a phone call while I was there from another gentleman I have also got to know through the blog, though we have not yet met either. We spoke, and I agreed to get involved with a pilgrimage he is organising. To Ness, obviously.

I emerged from my day in Ness, blinking in the light of reality, like Lucy tumbling out of the wardrobe from Narnia.

This is a district for which the past is not a foreign country at all, but part of the here and now. Those who died in the wars are not commemorated as names on a stone tablet, but remembered as vital links in the patronymic chain.

And Ness’ secular and Christian heritage co-exist unselfconsciously. For me, this is Lewis at its best: unadulterated by alien notions about identity and inclusivity. There, being a Christian and a Gaelic-speaker did not make me feel odd; it reminded me that I belong to something with roots and longevity.

Community is so good I thought it was dead. Ness proved me wrong.

 

 

 

Your Father’s Side & The Family Name

It is hard to believe that we Hebrideans have any Viking DNA. I imagine that if a young Lewisman had ever said to his parents that he was off on a summer adventure to sack and loot, to raid and pillage, their reaction would almost certainly have been, ‘ach dè bhios daoine ag ràdh?’ What will people say? Surely marauding on this scale would reflect badly on them and therefore would have to be nipped in the bud.

‘What will people say?’ used to be the refrain of parents and grandparents in the island. Nowadays, people think of this attitude as narrow-minded, judgemental and stifling, but I think it helps to reflect a little on how it developed in the first place.

Your village was your world. The neighbours were as familiar to you as those who occupied the same home and shared the same surname as you. Besides, you didn’t go by your surname – you went by a patronymic, a chain of names stretching back into the distant past, connecting you to people you had never known. Perhaps you had some of their characteristics without knowing it. If you did, some cailleach in the neighbourhood would notice. ‘Iain Dhòmhnaill Sheumais used to walk like that’, or if she was feeling acerbic, ‘It’s a shame you took after your father’s side. Your mother’s people were good-looking.’

People knew one another inside-out, which meant knowing their history. Not just their personal history, either, but being able to place them in the context of their lineage. Forget Burke’s Peerage, your average cailleach had an encyclopaedic knowledge of her own people and those of her neighbours. It meant that they could see where your good points and your bad had emanated from. And so, your personal conduct would be added to that. The responsibility not to tarnish a good family name rested equally with each member, and each successive generation. Any deviant behaviour was likely to be dismissed as ‘rud a bh’ anns na daoine’ – a weakness in your people.

Now, of course, we don’t have villages; we have ‘communities’. Some are more community-minded than others and it’s not always the ones you think. I live in a rural village where there is quite a lot of Gaelic spoken and some crofting still taking place. You will even see the odd peat-stack. Nonetheless, when I was widowed, my immediate next-door neighbours visited, but no one else.

Had I lived fifty years ago, I would have been Banntrach Dhòmhnaill Chaluim and the neighbours might have rallied round; nowadays, I don’t have that comfort, or that status. I am not on their radar. People probably don’t even talk about me, no matter what outrageous – hypothetical – thing I do. It doesn’t matter to them because I am a stranger. Community in that sense has gone and many of us now seek that feeling of belonging and identity elsewhere.

For me, it has come from my church. I have been blessed with a close and supportive family, and my church family has been likewise.

My church family has at least as many quirks as my actual relatives. There are those who make you laugh, who laugh at you, who are always ready to help, who always want you to help, those who encourage and those who gently put you in your place. It has its father figures and mother hens, its bossy big sisters and cheeky wee brothers. This family has get-togethers and minor disagreements, outings and heart to hearts.

And this family knows its own heritage. When we are together, no one has to ask, ‘who do you belong to?’ We have the same father. He knows us all more completely than we know ourselves; and yet He loves us nonetheless. Each of us carries the unfortunate burden passed down from our first parents, and each of us has added some particular sins of our own. It is in our DNA to rebel.

Keeping together, though, returning often to our Father’s house, I think, is the only way we can refrain from bringing shame on the family. Reputation is very important when you are responsible for more than just your own. In God’s family, we need to reflect on our conduct more frequently, and ask the question again: ‘what will people say’? We have to fight against ‘rud a bh’ anns na daoine’.

Surely this is one setting where the ultimate goal is for everyone to see that we take after our Father, and that the family have care of each other. I hope that’s what people will say.

The Family Tree and the Well

If you want to change your identity in Lewis, forget fake passports – you had better be prepared to forge an entire family tree for yourself. Even if you do, though, someone is bound to recognise you on your auntie Effie, or your cousin Angus. We cannot escape our dualchas, it seems, and especially not in a place which has eyes everywhere and a memory as long as time. Whatever you do may very well be written-off as, ‘rud a bh’ anns na daoine’. If Effie had one Babycham too many at her sister’s wedding in 1973, well, chances are you’ve got a weakness for the hard stuff too.

We have an interest in our genealogy here that is stronger, I think, than in many other places. People tend to be aware of relatives that are actually fairly distant. Recently, through the wonders of modern technology, I have been corresponding with just such a person about our shared Achmore ancestry. My maternal granny was from that village and it is nice to have names, dates and addresses to fill out the sketchy pictures in my head. It is good to know about my people, and to see Achmore as somewhere other than just the place my father threatened to move us to if we didn’t behave.

That interest can even transcend geography. Relatives long since emigrated to Canada will follow with interest the news from ‘home’. My great-uncle Henry, brother of my Achmore granny, went off to live in Australia as a young man of eighteen or so. He died, while reading the ‘Stornoway Gazette’ (me too, many times . . .) The point is that he died an old man, but was still keeping up with goings-on in Lewis, until the very end.

When I was a student, one of our lecturers mentioned that his brother, who had lived in New Zealand for the greater part of his life, would soon be coming back to Lewis for his first visit since emigrating. ‘I wonder’, he mused, ‘how many people who don’t even know him, will have heard that he’s coming home’. He made a valid point. That is how news is shared in Lewis: people frequently tell me things about people I have never met. I have felt heart-sore for men and women who I wouldn’t recognise if I tripped over them.

A few months ago, at a church conference, I met a lady and we got talking. She began the process of ‘placing’ me. It didn’t take too long. Being a (fairly) young widow in a wee place like this makes me easy to identify. ‘We didn’t know who you were’, she said, ‘but we prayed for you’. I was moved beyond words. No wonder I had felt the Lord upholding me in my grief, no wonder He had seemed so near – even strangers were bringing me before Him.

God, of course, does not need to be told anything about me, or anyone else – that is why the gravestones of those who die unidentified frequently bear the legend, ‘known unto God’. Prayer is not intended to inform Him, but to involve Him; it is the greatest kindness one human being can do for another. Imagine, in the worst moments of your life, that unseen community of praying people, committing you into the care of the Almighty. Whether you cannot, or will not, do it for yourself, it is their privilege to pray on your behalf.

The woman of Samaria did not enjoy these benefits of community. Her lifestyle might have shocked and offended her neighbours, so she lived a solitary life, even purposely going to the well for water when she knew that none of the other women would be present. There, however, she met a man who told her everything she ever did. He met her where she was, and to her declaration that her people were waiting for the Messiah to come and reveal all, Christ responded with, ‘I Am’.

We islanders were not the first to place value upon family history, and upon names to embody enduring truths about us. In the Old Testament, a person’s name frequently tells of their character, or their greatest attribute. God often renamed them to fit their new life – Abram became Abraham and Sarai, Sarah, for example. Jesus, who had a human genealogy, just like you or I, chose instead to use ‘I Am’ when meeting this marginalised woman.

We are not told her name. Not even a family nickname to go on. Had she been from Shawbost, rather than Samaria, the lack of detail might be frustrating. But then, she’d had five husbands, so perhaps we could place her after all. Jesus didn’t concern Himself too much with her past, though. Yes, He mentioned it, to show that He knew her, but He didn’t cast it up against her. The woman’s inward transformation came through hearing His name and knowing – really believing- who He was.

Just as we need to ‘place’ people within their family trees in order to feel that we know them, this woman also had to hear who Jesus was. Even if she had been told his human name, however, it might have meant nothing to her. On the other hand, hearing, ‘I Am’ caused her to forget her outcast status and run headlong towards the very people who had shunned her.

That’s the change of identity we should all be striving for. Your DNA might say you’re descended from Vikings, and your family tree tell you that great-uncle Alasdair was a bit of a one for the boireannaich. But your Saviour says, ‘I Am’ –  and none of that other history matters anymore.