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.

 

 

 

 

 

Buns, Fences and Self-belief

An inferiority complex is hardly anything to boast of, but mine really comes effortlessly: brought up a Gael, a Wee Free, a female (the gender apparently assigned to me at birth), and a wearer of spectacles, I had somewhat of a head-start. Add being painfully shy and the youngest of four siblings into the mix and . . . well, what are you going to do? Early on, having accepted my lot in life as a timid, narrow-minded, myopic maw, I embraced under-achievement.

I was, nonetheless, interested in the people I came from as soon as I was taught about the reasons behind the 1886 Crofting Act. It appeared that I belonged to an endless line of truaghans, forever requiring to be helped up and helped out. The more I read of the Gael, the more this seemed to be the case. Famine. Grinding poverty. Emigration. Lack of ambition. Ill-advised allegiance to lost causes. An infinite list, it would seem.

Growing up in the age of the IDP – affectionately nicknamed ‘I Don’t Pay’ – and the HIDB, and Board of Agriculture housing grants, there was a pervasive sense that people like me lived by the begging bowl.Policy relating to the development of the Gàidhealtachd was once described as ‘chucking buns across the fence’, as though to appease some invisible beast. The beast in question was usually referred to as ‘the Highland problem’. What our government, and those tasked with developing us described in this way, though, was just normal, everyday life to us. We had grown used to being perceived as a burden.

It wasn’t about the Gaels being charity cases, though, nor was it about being unable to fend for ourselves. Indeed, it was about something else entirely; it was about the fact that we never got to be in control of our own destinies. And we never fought for that control because we simply never believed that we were good enough.

To be honest, I’m not at all sure why I’m using the past tense. Although I am well and truly over the Hebridean cringe, many more are not. You see it manifest daily on social media, and in letters to the press, critical of our local institutions – the inept Comhairle, the corrupt Trust – while lauding what takes place elsewhere. Why aren’t we like Orkney, Shetland . . . anywhere but here?

It’s a destructive and defeatist argument which gets us precisely nowhere. We are not Orkney or Shetland – but neither, sadly for them, are they us. So, instead of wasting time on whingeing, what are we going to do?

Let’s start by understanding the bun chucking in a new light. Government policy, changes to legislation, development initiatives – these are not charity; they are initiated to mitigate against the one thing that we can never change: geography. Remote from the centres of power and distant from markets, these necessary measures have always been an attempt to level the playing field.

That done, we generally get on with things. When the HIDB was created, it ushered in a period of economic development; with the birth of Comhairle nan Eilean in 1975, islanders showed unprecedented levels of initiative and entrepreneurship. Ditto the IDP; Ditto the 2003 Land Reform Act. This is how we roll. If you build it, we will come. Give us a fair chance. We don’t request special treatment, or positive discrimination – just an even-handed crack at doing the best we can.

This is why I believe there is still an argument to be made for the largest capacity interconnector that SSE can build. Sometimes it takes an islander to know islanders. There are those willing this to fail, just so they can wallow in the satisfaction of having been right to negatively compare their own home islands to other places.

Never mind them, though, because there are others, those triers, just waiting for the playing field to be evened out. Islanders always take advantage of the opportunities that development creates. I have every confidence that this scenario will be no different. Once that cable gets the go-ahead, there will be no shortage of schemes, no lack of vision. Projects will most definitely come.

I can understand the regulator being reticent about giving the go-ahead to something which might, on paper, be under-subscribed. It has to be paid for, and it’s their job to ensure that much needed development in the Western Isles doesn’t end up costing the UK consumer money.

What they cannot know – and what we have to prove – is that they are dealing with no ordinary place, and no ordinary people here. Let history speak for us, and show that we never knowingly passed up a chance to make things better for ourselves.

The word ‘insular’, meaning inward-looking derives from the Latin word for ‘island’. I think there are times when that is a strength: let’s look inward at all the ways in which we Hebrideans maximised every opportunity we ever got – not to be like anywhere else, but to be absolutely true to ourselves.

 

 

 

 

Coming Home

One of the greatest privileges of writing this blog is the way it has brought me into contact with people who contact me to say it speaks to them, or comforts them, or makes them laugh. Recently, I heard from a man with Point connections (and, despite that, I still got back in touch!) regarding my blog on the ‘Iolaire’ and its place in our heritage.

 As proof of what I was saying about our ancestry, and our connection to the island being an unbreakable chain, a heaving line that brings us home, no matter where we are, I have pleasure in sharing the following with you. It is a story, written by Anna Cumming and published in her school magazine. She was neither born, nor brought up, here in Lewis, yet the ‘Iolaire’ is also part of her identity too. You will agree, I am sure, that what we have here is a fine and sensitive writer – and, hopefully, a future guest blogger as well!

As I fought my way through the bustling crowds in Kyle of Lochalsh, I made my way to the ship that was to take me home  from the War. It had been a long fight, wearisome and brutal. Everyone, from the youngest infant to the oldest man, had  been affected in unspeakable ways. Those who had not lost anyone in this fight were few and far between; over a thousand  men from our island had perished. And for many, the pain of separation from young men going off to fight had been the  hardest sacrifice they could ever have made …

Mother stood in the kitchen, baking oatcakes and humming an old Gaelic folk song as I carried in the fish I’d caught that day while fishing with my best friend Will. Father, I think, was next door with Christine, my younger sister, no doubt planning her upcoming wedding to Murdo.

It was with a heavy heart that I gave mother those fish. Will and I had been discussing the war that day, and in particular the navy. After he had told me of the need for sailors, he had said something that had inspired me. Will wanted to go to war and to fight for his country. I admired him for his bravery. I relished the idea of adventure. And so I had signed up in the town. But how could I tell father? Christine? And how on earth could I break my mother’s heart?

I still remember the look on her face when I told her. All the colour drained from her cheeks, and she stared at me in shock. And then she did something which took more bravery than anything I have ever seen. She smiled. Told me she was proud. Said she loved me.

And that is what kept me going through four years of pain and terror. It was for my mother, the most valiant, strong woman I have ever known. I wrote to her every week from wherever we were, to reassure her. Sometimes, Christine wrote to me about Murdo, who was now her husband, and Mary. Mary was her little two-year-old girl, who had been born to them on my thirty-third birthday. That was the best birthday present of my life, a niece. And I had never seen her.

But the war was over now; I was coming home. It was all going to be so much better. Will and I had written to our families, telling them to be at the docks early in the morning. It was going to be wonderful! And I knew a secret – Will was going to  propose marriage to his girlfriend, Catherine. She would get such a shock!

Sitting in a tight corner on the ship, I watched the stars with Will. He loved the stars. It had become a routine to look up at them whenever the night was clear, and imagine that our families were watching too. I think Will mainly thought of Catherine when he looked at them, but mother was the person in my heart. If I knew her, she’d be turning the house topsy-turvy, preparing for our return. I could already imagine her face when our boat came in. Her joy would be unbounded.

Glancing up as I came out of my reverie, I saw that the stars had disappeared behind a dark cloud, which was covering them like a shroud. I could barely even see my own hands.

“Lights! I can see the lights!” laughed someone, and as I looked out towards Stornoway, I laughed too. All of the coast was lit up with hundreds of twinkling lights, sending out beams as if to cheer us on our way. We were coming home, and it felt amazing.

An uneasy whisper started in the bow of the ship; the Arnish lighthouse was strangely out of place. Will glanced at me, brows furrowed.

“That’s not …”

CRUNCH! What was that? We crashed to a halt, lurching forward on top of one another. A sense of foreboding swept over me, until it engulfed me utterly. I was frightened, frightened in a way that no gun or torpedo had ever made me feel.

A few men yelled, but most managed to stay calm. Will bit his lip, drawing blood, before turning to me, his eyes gleaming in the darkness.

“Roddy, I’m going to go and get the lifebelts and give them out to those who can’t swim. This doesn’t feel good, and –”

As he spoke, there was another lurch. Suddenly, I realised that my worries were about to be realised. Will leapt up and grabbed some lifebelts, giving them out to those who couldn’t swim. Angus, Donnie, Alex, Norman … the list went on and on. I helped him, determined to be as brave as he was, and to do my part. I wasn’t the only one

John, another good friend and stalwart companion, had grabbed a rope and tied it firmly around both his waist and the mast. Nodding briskly at me, he dived into the wintery ocean. I couldn’t see him after that. It was pitch black, except for

the faint, flickering light from the lantern hung from the mast. All I was aware of was the motion of reaching for a lifebelt and giving it out, reaching for a lifebelt and – nothing. We were out of lifebelts. Some men were jumping overboard in an attempt to swim to shore; one began climbing the mast for refuge.

Just then, someone let out a cry: “The rope! It’s tightened! John has made it!”

The now taut rope was evidently secured to something on the rocky shore. Just as I took my place in an orderly queue, I felt a tug at my arm. It was Will. I have never seen a man look as courageous in the face of danger as Will looked that night, his hair wild, his eyes sparkling with a determined fire.

“Roddy! I’m going to swim to shore. No, don’t you dare try and come with me, you know that you can’t swim well.”

I tried to protest, but he held his hand up to silence me.

“Now, now, Roddy. I will swim alone, for that rope is needed for those who cannot swim, and I’ve a greater chance than most. You get on that rope and keep safe. I promise you I’ll be alright!”

I don’t know why I trusted him, I really don’t. Most probably, it was because Will had never broken his word before. Anyway, I obeyed him. As he dived overboard, I gripped the rope and took a deep breath before leaping off the tilting deck.

That passage in the darkness, being tossed by the rolling waves was the most nerve-racking thing I’ve ever done. As the sea crashed against me, dousing me repeatedly with foam and spray, I could hear the shouts of the other men. When I reached the end of the rope, it was all I could do to crawl up on to the shore, safe.

The sun shone in through the window as I blearily opened my eyes. It was bright, and yet there was a coldness in its gleam, as if even the sun could not laugh. As my mind pulled itself together, I shook my head. Where was I?

“Roddy! Oh thank goodness!” cried someone, and I was pulled into a warm hug. From the warmth and scent of fresh bread, I recognised my mother, and nestled into her arms, finding comfort amidst distress. After a moment of this, I released myself. Around my bed were clustered Murdo, Christine, father and a little girl who must be my niece Mary. And then I saw Catherine. She was crying.

“Catherine …” I said, fear stabbing my heart, “Catherine, where’s Will? Catherine!”

“Oh Roddy,” she said, “He’s … gone.”

Mother wept, “And not just him, either. Around two-hundred lost their lives last night. They – they swam the wrong way. Out to sea. Their bodies started washing up on the beaches this morning.”

That was the moment when my heart broke.

Years later, and I stand gazing up at the stars, thinking of Will. How he risked all to give others a fighting chance of survival. His dreams, of children and a home of his own with Catherine. All his goals and ambitions, wasted so young. I sighed. Will really wasn’t coming home.

 

 

 

Gaelic Rock, Gaelic Soil and Community

Next Saturday will be a valedictory one for Gaelic rock, as Runrig perform for the very last time. The week preceding promises to be good for Gaelic soil, marking as it does, the fact that so many acres of this beautiful land are now under the care of those who love them best. This, in case you hadn’t heard, is Community Land Week.

It was probably Runrig who contributed most to the awakening of my consciousness of the land issue. When, at age ten, in the centenary year of the Crofting Act, my eyes were first opened to the fact that I lived at the very edge of political power, I began to see the importance of knowing the hand which history had dealt my people. But my love for the music of this band directed my questions – most of which they had asked before me.

In the song, ‘Fichead Bliadhna’, we have the very real anger of young Gaels, demanding to know why they had learned the history of every civilization on earth but the one to which they belonged. Nothing else Runrig has done, however, compares to the album, ‘Recovery’, for making this very valid point. It is filled with an awareness of how much land and crofting have shaped who the Gaels are.

When I was a teenager, still in school, I used to have to purchase the ‘West Highland Free Press’ in secret, and smuggle it into the house. My father had not outright banned it, but he disapproved of its (Labour) editorial bias. I didn’t exactly love it for that myself, but I adored the opinion columns, and the feeling that even local politics here in the island were important.

And now, in this one week, it feels as though all those strands are somehow weaving back together. While I was thinking about this blog, and letting the ideas percolate in my brain, I listened again to ‘Recovery’. It is just as I remember it, raising past wrongs and the small acts of heroism which brought about change. Its closing track, ‘Dust’, brought something else to mind as well, particularly the line that runs, ‘Oh deep the faith and pure the light that shines inside and guides your people’.

You see, my upbringing wasn’t just one of social politics and the plight of the Gael. I, like everyone else of my generation, was steeped in the history of another people whose relationship with land was also a bit complicated: the children of Israel.

It was in connection with them that I was startled to hear the minister use the term ‘security of tenure’ in church recently. Being the central plank of the 1886 Crofting Act, it brought the horror of eviction without just cause to an end. We can scarcely appreciate its importance today, however, if we do not know what went before. That was very much the point that Runrig made so well.

The children of Israel received security of tenure in their covenant with God. Land apportioned to them as part of this was a blessing and only became otherwise whenever the fifth commandment was breached. In other words, when familial relationships broke down, that land of promise became nothing more than a mere commodity to be fought over.

Land is frequently the focus of division – challenged wills, unseemly squabbling over croft tenancies, sibling rivalry carried to the extent of litigation. It is no coincidence that, when you look at the archaeological record, fortifications developed very swiftly after man ceased to be a wanderer on the face of the earth, and began to lay claim to particular territories. Homes were reinforced against marauding intruders; smiths fashioned swords as well as ploughshares.

We are fortunate in Lewis to have so much control over our land, and it is appropriate to celebrate that fact with a special week of events. It would be quite wrong to take the blessing for granted because it is not actually ours by right, but by providence.

Stewardship of God’s providence is not a task to be undertaken lightly, and it is reassuring that it is being done more and more by people who are well-informed, and who genuinely care for the land.

My only worry is when I see attitudes manifest that would suggest land somehow takes precedence over people, which it ought not. Conservationists wish to protect the wildlife and its habitat, even at the expense of human society. Crofting has done much to shape who we are – it has formed the landscape, to an extent, and it has maintained a population where there might otherwise be only ruins and cold hearths. And, in its turn, crofting has been afforded legal protections which allowed a little security, a little breathing space and, eventually, the chance to develop and grow.

I want what is best for the place in which I live. Most of the people here do. We may differ in our opinion on what that is, or how to get there, but we ought to be able to do that respectfully, and without malice.

It was Runrig, channeling the prophet, Isaiah who said it best, I think, in the one song of theirs that I never really liked – ‘Alba’. They sang the prophet’s words in Gaelic, about the accumulation of wealth which so often comes in the form of land:

‘Woe to those who join house to house, who add field to field, until there is no more room, and you are made to dwell alone in the midst of the land.’

This week, and all the time, community is every bit as important as land.

 

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