The land, the language, the people

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Churches, caravans and being apart

It is not untypical of either Lewis or social media that the weekend just past fairly bubbled with two controversies: the persistent influx of visitors to the islands, and the failure of some churches to heed government guidance on social distancing. These, of course, are not two issues, but one. The reason for both is simply that we have been spoilt, we have been used to everything turning out okay without much inconvenience to ourselves.

We humans, on some deep level, believe ourselves to be invincible. Bad things happen to others, not us.

A generation untouched by war or privation of any kind, we have grown hard-hearted. Oh, yes, we speak of social justice and helping the poor; we appease our own consciences with donations and sponsorships – but it is, too often, a cold charity. All this time we have been thinking our duty dispensed with a standing order here, and a retiring collection there.

Witness, though, how we conducted ourselves in the early days of impending crisis. A mad dash for food and soap, for toilet paper and anti-bacterial spray. Ransacking shops and leaving little for those who live from week to week. Retail assistants have been verbally abused, and even threatened; the elderly and poor abandoned to fend for themselves.

Whither now the social media virtue signallers or the ‘be kind’ brigade?

This disease is a great leveller. We are all at risk, and any one of us might die. Shame on us all, therefore, that the response has been so selfish. Not by everyone, of course, but by many. It is hardly surprising. Be in no doubt: here, we are reaping the foolishness we have sown. Like no previous generation, ours is drunk on the rights of the individual. When life was bumping along as normal, this meant that the poor and the elderly were trampled over, but no one noticed.

Now, the selfishness affects us all, and we are concerned. But we cannot figure out what to do.

Just as well there is an answer. There is even an example we can look to.

King Nebuchadnezzar famously hit a bit of a problem. He was, like ourselves, persuaded of his own sovereignty. Other people – his subjects – were equally sold on it. But then his sense of power kept smacking up against the true omnipotence of the God of Israel.

So do we. Only the most determined atheist can deny that God is speaking to us in a clear voice. Are we going to heed it?

Nebuchadnezzar was like us before Corona Virus hit. He walked on his palace ramparts and congratulated himself as the author of his own greatness and wealth. No sooner were the sinful words uttered than God spoke to him. The King would descend into mental illness and lose the kingdom for a period of seven years, at the end of which he would acknowledge God’s sovereignty.

We were walking in arrogance and pride until now. The world seemed inebriated with its own stolen power. Our first parents ate the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil – and since that day we have persistently chosen evil. All that he gave us, including our very own selves, we have warped and sullied with sin.

Where, even, to begin? Rampant consumerism, yet homelessness. The power to end life when it becomes inconvenient. God removed from public life, from education, and even from some of our churches. Unbridled reinterpretation of his ordinances. Truth made a lie, and lies accepted – enforced, indeed – as truth.

And, yes, a faithless, cold church. We have been too comfortable for too long, islands of complacency set amidst a sea of sin. We don’t love one another as we ought, and therefore, have nothing to offer the poor, lost world by way of a compass.

We have this providence now that surely will turn us back to the Lord. He has scattered his church, but then, his people were always thus. Occupying the same building is not what makes us a church, and perhaps he has removed that comfort blanket so that we will truly seek out what binds us – fellowship in him, strengthened by worship in spirit and in truth.

If he has to break us somewhat, it is only to build up his own church again. And that light, set upon a hill, should be a lamp to the feet of those who have wandered far from him, to bring them home.

Then, all this generation might say with Nebuchadnezzar that the Almighty is God indeed, ‘and none can stay his hand or say to him, “what have you done”?’

What he has done – is doing – ought to call us all to prayer. There is still time.