A House Divided

There is an amusing scene in the Scottish film, ‘The Bridal Path’, when the naive protagonist goes to withdraw some money from his bank account, and is asked ‘what denomination’? He replies – of course – ‘Church of Scotland’.

In my own part of Scotland, denomination has been all too important, time out of mind. I wonder how many of us feel that we belong to the Church of Scotland, or the Free Church, or the Free Presbyterian Church before we belong to the church of Christ. And I equally wonder how Christ, the head of the one church there is, feels about denomination. 

How have we come, in a town like Stornoway, for example, to have two Free Church congregations, three Churches of Scotland, a Free Presbyterian Church, a Free Church (Continuing), an Associated Presbyterian Church, a Reformed Presbyterian Church, and sundry other congregations?  It would be nice if the answer to that was that no one building could contain all the worshippers. That, after all, is the only acceptable justification to have the saints of God distributed across a multitude of churches.

I know this is an awkward topic, and some people don’t approve of it being aired – but we are bound to review our own conduct in light of God’s presence. And like the adulterous woman at the well, we don’t need to hear any accusing words from Him to be convicted of this sin.

Because that’s what this is. It’s pride. Resentfulness. Self-righteousness. It’s putting ourselves and our traditions first. 

Now, I’m as guilty of this as the next person. I like the plain worship style of the island Free Churches, with no accompaniment to our Psalms-only liturgy. Heck, I even like the pews. But, if the necessity and blessing of online church has taught us anything (as I believe it was meant to), it’s that the building isn’t the church. And if the building isn’t the church, the denomination with all its committees and rules and manmade fol-de-rols sure as fate is not the church either.

Yet, we cling to these divisions as though they might be important or worthy. With no outward embarrassment, with no attempt at unity of even the most superficial kind, we have our own separate rule books, our own General Assemblies, our own identities.

As if the identity conferred by belonging to God is somehow less than that of some combination of the words ‘church’, ‘Presbyterian’, ‘Reformed’ and ‘Free’. We declare ourselves freed in Christ – free indeed – and yet, still, we entrench ourselves, not for Him, but invariably for some ‘principle’ that has us standing on our dignity. And while we bicker amongst ourselves (the children of God, mind you) about how to worship, He not only goes unworshipped, but the banner of His beautiful cause sags into the mud. The unsaved watch, open-mouthed, as those of us who profess Christ act like we have never even heard His name.

You think I exaggerate, perhaps – that I’m being harsh and judgemental?

There are four seats on Comhairle nan Eilean Sitar’s Education Committee, which are allocated to faith representatives. One, by statute, is occupied by the Church of Scotland and two, by custom, by the Roman Catholic and Free Churches as being together representative of the islands’ faith profile. The fourth has in the past been filled by the Free Presbyterian Church, but the Chief Executive of the council this week told members that he’d had representations from another denomination, suggesting that they should provide the fourth representative instead because – and I quote – they have a larger membership. 

Let that sink in: Christians – Reformed Evangelicals between whose confessional positions you could not slide one page of the KJV – trying to best one another for a seat on the Education Committee. 

Thanks to their unlovely one-upmanship, it looks like that seat will be shared with other faith groups, including some that are non-Christian.

That, folks, is an object lesson in what denominations do for the cause. The sad truth is that we show no intention of dwelling together in unity, and actually pour more energy into preserving superficial difference than pursuing the one thing needful: togetherness in the Church of Christ.

What a witness we are for the Saviour; what an example to the unsaved. My advice to the council would be not to let any of us near an Education Committee until we grow up.

Keep A Thing Seven Years

There’s a Gaelic saying which suggests that if you keep a thing for seven years, a use will be found for it. Sometimes, though, it doesn’t take that long.

This Sunday, I will have kept my grief for seven years. Like many new possessions, I carried it with me everywhere for the first while, moving it around as self-consciously as a child walking in stiff, leather shoes. When it was worn in a little, I started to forget for minutes at a time, only to be assailed by the reality of it when I least expected. In the last few days of Donnie’s life, I had been painfully aware that some time very soon I would no longer be a wife, but a widow.

I didn’t like the word and still less the idea that it represented.

Yet, in seven years, I have been taught to wear the mantle with something approaching acceptance. Instead of being allowed to push the garment from me, God has gently shown me that it IS mine to put on, every day. Traditionally, it also took seven years to train a piper, before they would be allowed to perform in front of an audience. There was no such apprenticeship for me, though – just straight in at the deep end.

I often think how this might all have been, had but one thing been different.

These seven years would have seen me grow bitter, perhaps, or reckless. I might have spent my time in wishing my husband back, or wishing I’d never met him – anything, in short, to remove the excruciating pain. The memory of his suffering could have tormented me to who knows what depths of anguish.

The one thing, though, which saved me from all of that was the hand on my shoulder. It wasn’t simply Christ saying, ‘I’m here, you can lean on me’. That would have been wonderful enough. In fact, his message was subtly different. He was actually telling me, ‘Remember I’m here. You know what to do’. This wasn’t the beginning of a wonderful new relationship, but a life-changing development of one that I hadn’t truly known I was in.

While I have carried – and will carry – Donnie in my heart, it is not loss which dominates my reflections over these seven years without him. It is gratitude. I had such a marriage that I didn’t think I could live without him. But God used that blessing to show me a much deeper and more enduring love. He has fulfilled me in the years of my widowhood, and shown me that, in Christ, all situations are an opportunity to know blessing.

I have profited from his teaching. It goes without saying that I have benefitted in more ways than I can count from his love and mercy. From the very beginning of this journey, though, God has laid it on my heart to share my providence with you. He did that, and then he made it possible.

Most miraculous of all, he took what might have destroyed me and blessed it to the extent that I can say that the Lord gives more than he takes away. Last Sunday, our minister used the sermon time to remind us of the glory and holiness of this God. And, right at the end, that devastatingly beautiful flourish of truth: ‘Remember, though, he is also your Father’.

Glorious, holy, perfect – of course; but tender and loving to the last. Not ‘also in our hard providences’ but especially. If you don’t believe it, I will take you to see a man who told me all things I ever did, and loved me just the same.

The Compassion of the Christ

Today was a communion like no other. The old traditions had all been peeled away, and only the essentials remained: the bread, the wine, the table, and a gathering of God’s believing people.

It was enough.

And the words that called to mind the loneliness of Christ’s suffering could not have been more apt for such a time as this. Many of us have gone through a protracted period of aloneness over the last two years. Families and friends have been separated, people have met death without loved ones to hold their hands. I cannot imagine what it must be like to have been bereaved during the pandemic, especially in communities which normally show their support by drawing alongside those who mourn. Who could forget those images of our newly-widowed monarch, sitting quite alone in St George’s Chapel? In that moment, she symbolised the loneliness of many across the nation.

Yet, she cannot feel your grief or mine, anymore than we can experience hers. For that, there is none but Christ.

Not only is he acquainted with grief, he has borne the unimaginable loneliness of being cut off from God. He chose to take that into his own experience in order that he might obliterate it from ours. Listening to the minister today, speaking of the peculiar loneliness of the Saviour on the cross, I was reminded of Derick Thomson’s poem, in which he speaks of peeling back the Lewis sky to behold:

‘the Creator sitting in full view of His people
eating potatoes and herring,
with no man to whom He can say grace’.

No man to whom he can say grace. No man to have compassion upon him in his pain. No man he can send.

Even in my more cynical or despairing moments, when I think there is no one to whom I can turn for advice, no one I can trust . . . there is. In these two years, during which I have been much alone, I have not been lonely. There are friends, there is family – but better than any of those, there is Christ. His advice never fails, his presence never departs; he has plumbed the depths of his own loneliness and so he is the soul of compassion in ours.

We are a society in sad need of compassion. I see a strange set of parallel phenomena creeping in. The more we say, ‘be kind’, the less able we seem to be able to apply that – as Christ does – to everyone. There is a drive to stand with victims of all kinds, which is as it should be. More understanding and not less can only be a positive development. But, are we unable, or simply unwilling, to offer a second chance to people who have gone wrong? Our world sends some into the wilderness forever, guilty of unforgivable falls from grace in our eyes.

That’s not how Christ deals with anyone. It’s not how he dealt with me; it’s not the example he set his followers.

He hung on a cross and endured the ultimate loneliness, to an extent we cannot begin to understand, in order to save us. To take that legacy of love to ourselves, we have to imitate him – he has always known the very worst and darkest details of our hearts, yet never abandoned us. Accepting his gift means sharing it abroad.

Sharing it abroad, means peeling back to the essentials as symbolised in those elements today. The death of Christ accomplished our salvation, but not so that we would keep it to ourselves.

Who am I?

We live in a world and in a time when perception is everything. Reputations can be destroyed and lives ruined by a word. Rumour, gossip and hearsay are the enemies of truth. It is not enough to have integrity; you must wear it on your sleeve for all to see.

Sadly, the kind of integrity that the world values is not always the Biblical variety. People urge one another to ‘be kind’, but that really means that we should comply with the prevailing view. You are deemed unkind if you hold to principles which are unpalatable to even one other person.

How, then, can you please such a world? It’s impossible to do and say what will keep everyone happy, and still remain true to yourself. So, you must step back and measure your belief against the one true plumb-line: Christ.

In Luke 9, he asks Peter that well-known question, which he is also putting to you and to me.

Who do you say that I am?

If our answer is the same as the disciple’s, then we have to be prepared to take up our cross. That will, most likely, mean being hated for his sake, and being misunderstood. I have noticed that it is the first thing people point out in criticism of me: ‘what kind of Christian does ___?’ 

Never mind what they call you; forget what they say. Ignore their barbs. You have answered the Saviour’s question, and you store up in your heart all the promises that go with the name of Christ. 

Think of this, if you put the same question to him, what would he answer? Ask Jesus, ‘who do you say that I am?’ If your identity is in him, then his reply is the only one that matters.

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.

 

 

 

 

 

Your Gender-fluid Granny

There was some difficulty in ascertaining what species I was, the day my parents brought me home from the hospital. My brother – a mere 20 months old at the time – was held up to peer into the carrycot and hazarded three guesses. I was, he mused, either a bird, a kitten or a hen. In my defence, I must say that he had a limited vocabulary and life experience, and it was that, more than any weird fur or feather arrangement on display which led to this misapplication of ‘isean’ ‘piseag’ or ‘gog-gàg’.

And then, when I was a little older, my father seemed to be labouring under some misapprehension that I was a collie. He worked myself and my brother like a brace of sheepdogs, every time he wanted some of the woolly halfwits moved from one part of the croft to another. We always had an actual dog, but never one that was helpful in the usual ways one might expect. Seonaidh Mòr was adept at wearing hats and escaping; Tim was the king of intimidation and burying things, but neither canine cv had ‘working with sheep’ as a life-skill.

Finally, however, I settled on just being a girl or, as modern parlance would have it, ‘the gender I was assigned at birth’. It’s the use of ‘assigned’ that amuses here. Whose decision is it? I imagine the midwife approaching my mother and saying, ‘Well, Mrs MacLean, regardless of what biology seems to be suggesting, we’re making this one a boy, because we’re out of pink blankets for the moment’. To think the future course of my life may have depended upon the laundry efficiency at the Lewis Hospital . . .

Thankfully, however, there must have been a good supply of the apropriate colour of blankets, and I was, according to the hospital wristband, ‘Baby MacLean – Girl’. Born the day before my granny’s birthday, but arriving early, as is my wont, there was really nothing for it but to name me after her.

Naming children for their relatives is a practice that seems to have fallen into disuse, unless I have misread the situation and there actually are a whole lot of bodaich on the Taobh Siar called Dylan. There was a time, however, when it was de rigeur, and when a family dispute could well be sparked by parents’ failure to honour a sensitive relative in the naming of their child. Regardless, that is, of whether said child was of the same gender as the relative who expected this honour.

Yes, those of you who think we islanders so narrow in our outlook, and so unsophisticated in our response to contemporary issues, read this and consider: gender fluidity started in the Hebrides.

Amongst our older generation, it is not difficult to find legions of women named Angusina, Murdina, Duncanina, Kenina, Hughina, Willina . . . Each one of these is testament to two things: their parents’ commitment to family honour; and a complete lack of chauvinism. Some people will jokingly say that it’s tantamount to saying to your daughter, ‘we really wanted a boy’ but I think you have to look at it in its social and historical context.

The really important social custom being observed here was the preservation of traditional names, and the giving of due place to senior members of the family. It is not about gender at all really, and it is certainly not about the superiority of male over female.

There is something else as well. The number of firstborn girls who were named for male relatives testify to the fact that parents were well aware that this might be their only such blessing. My sister was named for our great-grandfather – my father’s seanair, and the only father figure he ever knew – because, I imagine, my parents sensibly accepted that there might be no siblings and, even if there were, there might be no boys. As it happened, two boys followed, but neither of them had the name ‘Donald’ bestowed upon him. That distinction belongs to my sister, Donna.

I used to think that it was only we islanders that had this obsession with genealogy, and with naming. But many other civilisations have the same interest. God, in His wisdom, placed our Saviour within a human lineage, so that even prophets like Isaiah knew that the Messiah would come through the house of David. The name of David remains linked inextricably with that of the Lord, giving Him that identity which was so necessary for our understanding of Him, and for Him to experience fully what it means to be human.

I think that there is a lesson for all of us in the fact that our Lord’s identity was not something that could be neatly summed up in one word. There were many facets to the only perfect man who ever lived, but that did not diminish Him one bit. And even we, who are made in His image – albeit now like a shattered looking-glass – are greater than the sum of our parts.

In my case, I am happy to be the gender I was assigned by my Creator. And I am happy to be nighean Mhurdanaidh Catrìona Dhòmhnaill Iain Ruaidh. Or banntrach Dhòmhnaill Chaluim Sheonaidh. Some people know me as Post Tenebras Lux, or the woman who taught their kids in Sunday School, or their Gaelic tutor, or that blone on the Trust. Catriona Murray, nee Maclean is a daughter, sister, auntie, friend, lecturer and widow.

But, in any and all of those things, I am who I am, what I am and where I am because God ordained it so. It is, like everything else He does, fixed and secure. And, contrary to what modern wisdom will tell you, this does not box you in – it liberates you in ways that doing as you please, and being who you think you are, never will.

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.

 

 

 

The Real Lewis & Harris

The minister crept up behind me and took the bottle out of my hand. ‘You’re going to need water in this’, he lectured, ‘or this stuff will burn right through’.  I was caught off guard.

It’s not that my fondness for the Laphroaig has got the better of me, in case you’re wondering. No, it was screen wash. And before you think, ‘mo chreach, how far she’s fallen’, it actually was intended for the reservoir under my car bonnet. Not to be trusted with such a masculine endeavour, though, I was rapidly surrounded by a quorum of the Session, and the task taken out of my daft wee hands. They probably thought I wouldn’t manage the child-proof lid.

Sometimes, though, I have to admit that it’s nice when someone comes along and says, ‘shift, you handless clown, I’ll do it’. Not that I’m suggesting for one minute that those were the minister’s words. (Actually, I believe his exact opener was – in Gaelic – ‘what are you up to now?’). That other kind of impatient takeover was more the style adopted by my brother two weeks before when, on communion Sunday, heading to church, my tyre blew out.

It was good to have someone capable – though crabbit- to sort it out, to hand me the keys of his car and to save the day. And it was good to see the minister pour an entire bottle of concentrated screenwash into the windscreen washers because if, as he suggested, it destroys the rubber on my wiper blades, I can blame him. Sort of.

But then there are those things which we have to do ourselves, which no one else can do for us.

I have been to many wakes and funerals simply because, although no one would have missed me if I hadn’t been there, I needed to do it for someone else’s sake. Friends, colleagues, neighbours who have all done as much for me too. Life teems with obligations that we don’t want to fulfil, but are constrained to. We do these things because they are the right things to do, because they are part of life in a community like ours.

A community like ours. Lately, I have been wondering what that is. If you are to believe half of what you read about it in the press, it’s the kind of place where ministers creeping up behind you are most likely planning to influence your vote. Or intimidate you into standing for council.

I have been speaking to a growing number of people who feel that something very precious to them has been trampled underfoot by a vocal minority making this kind of claim. There are, I appreciate, those living in Lewis who do not necessarily share my love for the culture, nor indeed my positive experiences of being an islander where, every six days, the pace is dialled right back.

This, it has been widely suggested, is old-fashioned, embarrassing, anachronistic, a disgrace, and an all-round poor show. Those of us who value all aspects of our heritage have been mocked or lambasted by turns and  told repeatedly that there is nothing so very unique about this island.

Oh, but yes, there is.

tarbert-2001

This island – the Long Island of Lewis and Harris, that is – when the chips are down, will never cease to amaze. It is a community with a mind of its own and a fierce pride in its identity. Don’t ever try to second-guess what we islanders will do because we sometimes don’t know ourselves until we’ve done it.

I did not know what the reaction would be to the creation of a pro-Sunday group on social media. Three of us had spoken about it before, but during my lunch-break on Wednesday, I had one of those dangerous, ‘what the heck are we waiting for?’ moments.

I had just re-read a ludicrous interview in a national newspaper in which one resident compares life in the islands to the experience of those under Sharia Law in Saudi Arabia.

Perhaps it was an off-the-cuff comment, exaggerated by a canny journalist; I don’t know. But, if people are going to persist in the fiction that says this island is under an oppressive regime run by men in black suits who rig elections, but are still not too big on it to notice whether you’ve left a blouse on the line on Sundays, well, there has to be a counter-narrative.

It hardly needs saying that there is a world of difference between an existence under the Sharia regime and the maintenance of a much-loved traditional way of life, which contributes greatly to the winsome character of Lewis and Harris.

But ‘hardly needs saying’ can no longer equate to us remaining quiet. If we value it, if we want to keep it, we have to be prepared to say so.

Our group has started off well and, within 48 hours, had a membership of 1700 and rising. People are sharing reminiscences, photographs, gentle jibes; the group has Christians and those who are not; there are island-dwellers, island-lovers, and emigrants; there are born and breds and here by choices. It is, in short, a microcosm of the Lewis and Harris we recognise and love.

And it has done something that we have not been able to say in a long while – it has united this community behind a common purpose.

That common purpose is, itself, unity.

Standing up for what we believe, and for what we hold in high regard, is a duty that no one else can fulfil on our behalf. But, as I always knew they would, the islanders have risen to their obligation admirably.

This, I can say with some confidence, is the Lewis and Harris we want the world to see.

None So Secular As Those Who Will Not See

I haven’t read one article from within Lewis which supports the plans of An Lanntair to open on Sundays. There have been several ill-informed ‘national’ contributions, of course, but I think we can safely discount those. After all, what do they know of this community, or what shapes it? And, more pertinently, what do they care?

It takes the arrogance of imperialism to say to a minority cultural group that they are wrong about their own identity. This is not me saying to people who have moved into Lewis that they have no right to an opinion, or a voice. Of course they do. But I am saying that they have no right to tell me that they understand my heritage better than I do. They generously permit tweed and Gaelic (by which they mean the language only, not the other stuff that no one can teach you) and music . . . but not God.

God came here on a magic carpet of stories from the Middle East. He’s the only kind of immigrant the Western Isles Secular Society disapproves of. We’re allowed to call Him an ‘incomer’, or anything else we want.

But they’re not anti-religion. They are vehemently denying that accusation all over social media this weekend. Frustrated by our native ignorance, they keep asking why no one understands that secularism is not against Christianity. If only we would read their mission statement, we would know that they are not against the faith of many in this island.

Oh, aren’t they?

Still, if their Facebook page says so, it must be true. It’s not as though they ever have a go at Christians, or mock their beliefs. They expect us to ignore their sometimes defamatory remarks about individuals, the fact that disgraceful profanity and utter disrespect goes unmoderated, their consistent targeting of the Lewis Sabbath, their blatant lies about the behaviour of local church people . . . and just accept their definition of secularism?

I’m sorry, Western Isles Secular Society, but we Christians are going to need more evidence. We can’t just blindly accept this kind of thing.

What I do see, this week in particular, is a group which cannot tolerate the views of others when they fall contrary to their own. Local blogger, Hebrides Writer, was okay when she was vocally supporting their Sunday swimming campaign, but she has suffered a catastrophic fall from grace by coming out against An Lanntair’s arrogant stance on Sunday film showings. Some have tried valiantly to be measured in their response, but in their own discussion group, she has been pilloried in ways that are utterly unwarranted by anything she has written.

She even has the temerity to be related to someone with connections to An Lanntair. In Lewis! Smaoinich!

And, most defamatory of all, she now stands accused of being ‘anti-secular and pro-faith’. Horror of horrors.

No WISS moderator has stepped in to remove this comment, nor have any of the other members pointed out the obvious. Well, I mean, it contradicts their claim that secularism and faith are not at odds, doesn’t it?

But we don’t need them to tell us what secularism is. We know what it is. God knows what it is.

Actually, the only people who don’t know, are the secularists themselves.

They have long pitied the likes of me in my blind ignorance. Now, they fear for the safety and the sanity of Hebrides Writer because she has deviated from what the cult expects.

I wish they would try to understand, not Christians, but Christ. How I wish they would open their Bibles and read, and find there a man who will tell them everything they ever did.
Just this week, I saw their likeness in His book. On Wednesday evening in church, we read the account of the Israelites and the golden calf they made to worship. When they had built an altar to it, they declared the next day a feast day for the Lord.

They thought, you see, that they could have everything. Their idea was to give themselves over to doing what they wanted, and offer a sop to God to appease Him. It was their way of pretending that there is room for following Him, and for pleasing yourself.

Or, like one of the anti-Sabbatarians put it, ‘before long it will be the new norm and the culture of the quiet Sunday will continue as usual’.

No, I’m afraid that just isn’t how it works. You have to pick a side. And it has to be the right side.

Forget your movies, people, I know how this ends.

I’ve read the Book.

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.