Planting, Prayers and Trench Warfare

This week, people in Lewis came together to plant trees in memory of the 201 men who lost their lives on the ‘Iolaire’ in the early hours of 1919. Fittingly, these have been planted on the road that leads to the war memorial, officially opened in 1924 by Lord Leverhulme – his last public act in Lewis.

Despite the tensions that have been evident in some parts of the community lately, over who has the right – or the wherewithal – to develop wind farms on a particular patch of moor – it was possible for unity to reign during the few hours it took to create this living monument to bravery and loss. I think the Lancashire soap magnate would have liked what he saw. We were largely united in our common purpose: to create something dignified that will serve as a reminder for many years to come.

The Lewis war memorial was built on Cnoc nan Uan, because it overlooked the four parishes which had sacrificed their men in the cause of freedom. From somewhere in each, this barional-style tower can be seen, pointing skywards. It is constructed of Lewissian gneiss, dressed in Aberdeenshire granite.

And, when it was officially opened by Lord Leverhulme, the watching crowd must surely have believed that this was a memorial, not just to their dead, but to war itself. This had been the conflict to finish all such. Weeping widows and bereaved mothers could comfort themselves with the thought that they were looking upon the last edifice of its kind.

Only, of course, we know that this was not the case. They were not really laying war to a peaceful rest, because it rose again – bloodier and more terrible than before.

Planting my first tree on Wednesday afternoon, I thought about the symbolism of the wych-elm. The first element in its name has nothing to do with ladies who cast spells, and everything to do with pliability – so an eminently suitable species for one such as myself to be planting, biddable creutair that I am.

More importantly, it is a crucial quality if we wish to avoid unnecessary conflict. We have to be prepared to bend a little. Too much rigidity and we are liable to simply break under stress.

I remember going out in a neighbour’s boat as a child. His advice for avoiding seasickness has remained with me, and can be applied to other areas of life too: go with the movement; don’t resist it by holding yourself taut. Given that he would insist on nosing the vessel in between the Beasts of Holm, with all the mythology surrounding them in my young mind, it was quite hard to relax.

This does not mean, of course, that you allow yourself to be buffeted by every prevailing wind, changing your mind on a whim. What I suppose I mean is that you should never be so uncompromisingly devoted to your stance that your treatment of those in opposition becomes less than it should be.

What we have today –and what fortunate Leverhulme did not have – is social media. It can be a useful tool for communicating, and for disseminating information. But, misapplied, it can become a battle-ground of bad manners and bad attitudes. There are those who use it to address others as though they were inferior beings, using the sort of belligerent, barracking tone that would never be countenanced in real life.

The result is something not unlike trench warfare. People become so identified with a particular point of view that everything else about them recedes into the background. We have to work very hard so that this does not become our attitude.

I appreciate very much all the good advice I have had over the years in this regard. It was useful to one so dangerously liable to veer into sarcasm when under duress.

My mother taught me many years ago to avoid putting myself in situations where I would have to apologise. I try, therefore, to think through the consequences of my words before I utter them. Once they are said, they cannot ever be taken back.

Even my years of political campaigning taught me something very valuable indeed – the vast majority of people are turned off by negative rhetoric. Slandering and smearing your opponent says more about you than it ever could about him.

Being a Christian, more is expected of you than to sink to the gutter-level of mud-slinging which can become the modus operandi of Facebook and other such platforms. Titus says: ‘To speak evil of no one, to avoid quarrelling, to be gentle, and to show perfect courtesy towards all people’. It is a challenge that I could never meet on my own poor strength.

Sometimes I have to draft and redraft my written responses so that they are tempered with the humility and courtesy that ought to be my portion. And I thank God that He has surrounded me with people who are of that same mind, and who make me want to walk as I should because of their example.

Just for balance, he has also surrounded me with a few hotheaded crazies who would thoroughly approve my ranting first drafts . . .

I need prayer to keep my speech seasoned with salt, to not defile myself by what comes out of my mouth. And our community needs prayer – for unity, for perspective, for proportion.

Standing in the shadow of that tower, hewn from Lewis rock, I realised that the remembrance needed most is the petition that goes heavenwards; prayer for unity, and for the ability to disagree without stooping to revile.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

David, Goliath and the Hub of My Universe

On Friday, I stared into the abyss. Well, it was more of a pit, really. Or, to be totally accurate, a quarry. This was not an existential crisis; just a trip out with the coves of the Stornoway Trust . . . although, come to think of it, the two can be remarkably similar (don’t tell them I said so).

Since I started hanging out with these guys, I’ve been to some unusual – for me – places: a couple of wind farms, a fabrication yard, and, this week, a quarry. Now, if I can just persuade one of them to take me along to a lamb sale next year, I will be well on my way to completing the bucket list.

It continues to be a steep learning curve. The Trust area – including, as it does, the town of Stornoway – has a much more diverse composition than many other community-owned estates. That’s why so much of our time is spent concerned with industrial development, and the employment opportunities it will create. We have a responsibility to what James Shaw Grant, one-time editor of the ‘Stornoway Gazette’, called, ‘the hub of my universe’.

He was inspired in this reference by the large maps which Lord Leverhulme had printed, showing Stornoway as the natural centre of the North Atlantic fishing grounds. The landlord’s ambition for the area’s potential chimed with Grant’s own warm feeling towards Stornoway, and for many years he kept one of the maps on the wall of his own office. For those of us who live in and around it, and who love it because it is home, the town remains indeed the hub of our universe.

I was first acquainted with James Shaw Grant’s book of the same name when I was a young teenager, rummaging in the library during the summer break. He had the ability to evoke a bygone era with his well-chosen words; and his descriptions of both people and places were always infused with equal measures of affection and respect. What a different place this community would be if commentary on public life was as measured now as Grant always made it. Although he was an astute observer of people and situations, he seemed capable of maintaining a line of integrity that was uniquely his own.

You get the feeling that he was well aware of the shortcomings which were part and parcel of community and municipal life – but he was too much of a gentleman, and a local lad, to make it personal.

He was still just a boy when he used to overhear his parents talking about Lord Leverhulme’s ongoing hostilities with the land-raiders. From a child’s perspective, it appeared to be an argument over milk – the landlord not wishing to see farms split into crofts, lest it compromise the town’s supply of the white stuff.

To those looking on, it was a ‘David and Goliath’ (the cliché was young then) battle between oppressed crofters and a thrawn landlord. They were determined that he would hand over what had been promised to them by the government. Single-minded in their goal, they seemed not to be interested in the landlord’s schemes for development. These would not benefit the crofters, of course; only the wider community.

That wider community showed its support for Leverhulme’s plans in the form of a nine thousand signature petition.

However, neither history nor these petitioners judged the crofters too harshly. Theirs was widely seen to be a cause with some merit. It was also acknowledged that the landlord had tried his best in difficult circumstances. At no point did he become a hate figure. William Grant – father of James – was the editor of the ‘Stornoway Gazette’ during the Leverhulme period, and evidently reported on the whole affair with fairness and dignity, permitting both sides to emerge with their reputations intact.

If you read the accounts of that period, as I have – many times – you get a sense of a world which has largely vanished. We are not the better of its passing. Nowadays, the kind of difference of opinion which divided Leverhulme from some of his crofting tenants can very quickly become personal and ugly.

The advent of social media has a lot to answer for. We have all become familiar with the concept of the ‘keyboard warrior’ – the person who becomes awfully brave removed to that distance, and who will type things they would never say in person.  Such individuals don’t care about community; they care about point-scoring. They build up hatred, resentment and all manner of conspiracy theories in their fevered brains . . . and treat the rest of us to its toxic run-off.

This can be destructive to the person themselves, to those they target and, in a place like this, to community.

Given last weekend’s news regarding the fate of the ‘Stornoway Gazette’, James Shaw Grant’s intelligence, and genial demeanour is often on my mind. We are badly in need of a balanced, good-humoured, intelligent and gentle voice of our own.

This is the hub of our universe, as it was his. ‘We won’t have it said’, a wise man remarked to me recently, ‘that we sank to a level that demeans ourselves’. Or, he might have added, that demeans the place we love.

In fighting for it, we need not fight with each other in ways from which we cannot come back.

 

Give a Blone a Bad Name?

A week is a long time in politics – even when your involvement is pretty low-level stuff. Speaking to a fellow Stornoway Trustee following our Monday evening meeting, he correctly identified me as being the ‘holy lady’ mentioned by a fellow columnist in the ‘Record’ this month. Ignoring the doubt in his tone as he verified this with me, I chose instead to be pleased that neither adjective had completely thrown him off the scent.

However, by Friday, I was being described in much less flattering terms for my involvement in the aforementioned organisation. Not only have I succumbed to the much talked about ‘culture of secrecy’, I was told, but apparently ‘everyone’ knows that there is cause to call my morals into question as well. No wonder people keep asking me how I
find time for ‘everything’. Perhaps if I’d realised what ‘everyone’ thinks ‘everything’ involves, I might not have been so blithe in replying that sleep is for wimps. And maybe I’d better stop winking
when I say that too . . .

There’s a serious point to this, though, and I’m afraid it’s one I make with no little disappointment. And it’s this: these things would not be said to or about me if I were a man. I very much doubt if any of my eight fellow trustees – all of whom are fellows – have been on the receiving end of these kinds of insinuations.

Right there, then, is one good reason why many women may feel they don’t want to put their name forward for elected office. When – for the sake of a seat on a community landlord’s board of trustees – your sexual morality and the death of your husband are considered fair game, who would hold these people back if there was something greater at stake?

I have learned over a long and sometimes challenging year not to pay reviling with reviling. There have been many times when the preaching I have sat under seemed tailor-made for my situation. It has reached out and strengthened me when I have faltered; it has rebuked me when I was tempted to try fixing things on my own. The prayers and the fellowship of God’s people have all upheld me when the going was far from smooth. But isn’t that why He has provided His people with a church – so that by attending the means of grace, we would be fortified against suffering of all kinds?

Except, I have come to believe that suffering is, itself, a means of grace. It teaches us to turn to Him in all things, because only His strength is adequate for every situation.

Hearing my own reputation casually sullied might, a year ago, have sent me after my accuser, fuming with rage. Or to my big sister, crying hot tears of hurt and indignation. But, this week, it caused me
to speak silently to God.

It occurred to me afterwards that this is proof of spiritual growth. I don’t boast for myself, because I didn’t actually do anything, but I DO boast of the sufficiency of Christ. He has picked me up from this
kind of situation so many times now that I no longer need to be taught that my first reaction should always be that of the injured child: hold up my arms to my loving Parent, and He will do the rest.

Small-minded gossip cannot harm the part of me that God prizes most – my immortal soul. But it can, of course, damage my good name. Many people better than me have been sunk under the weight of unfounded slander and rumour. It does not alter your stock with God one iota, but it may still harm your integrity in the eyes of your fellow human
beings.

That’s how fragile a thing your reputation is. All it takes, in a place like this, is for someone to say, ‘oh, yeah, Catriona Murray, she’s a  . . .” and whatever adjectives they insert miraculously take
on a life of their own.

So, the crucial thing for me is always to care more about how God sees me, than how I am viewed by other people. He looks at me and sees His Son’s perfection; He looks at my heart and He knows what is true, and what is not. As long as I keep my eye upon Him, going before me in
everything, what can anyone say to bring me down?

Outside of God, where there is no safety, though, these kinds of things are being said of others. Women are castigated simply for being women. Nudges and knowing looks can destroy their credibility in a moment. Don’t assume, either, that the people bringing women down are always men.

So, although I read about progress and liberal agendas, and even feminism, I don’t believe in them; they’re like creatures from folklore that may once have lived in Lewis, but are long since gone from our midst.

I am deemed an easy target for all the bile and vitriol because I am a woman who follows Christ. This makes me a cùis-mhagaidh and a hate figure by turns. The ‘progressives’ don’t want the likes of me
speaking for the likes of them. They are the enlightened ones – and they are prepared to use whatever mediaeval tool at their disposal to bring me down. Once it was the ducking stool; now it’s the internet.

But I am not the easy target they suppose. They cannot see the armour I wear, nor the encircling army that protects me. Nor indeed – most ironic of all – how they have trained me to look for strength in the one place it may be found.

And no one should underestimate a woman who likes to have the last word. With that one word, I dictate how yet another ‘progressive’ having a go makes me feel.

This week, thanks to God, that word is ‘seadh’.

Somewhere Under the Rainbow

All eyes are on Stornoway this weekend. It is hosting its first ever ‘Pride’ march, and the usual suspects are waiting, with baited breath, to see what ‘the church’ will say. Here and there we have seen the anticipatory wee asides – ‘what will a certain institution say?’, or ‘time tolerance came to Lewis’. And that, far more than the march itself, makes me sad.

If we are to retain community – not ‘religious community’, or ‘gay community’, or any other subsection, but the really integrated kind – we have to stop defining ourselves in opposition to what we are not. 

I have to hold my hand up here and admit I don’t understand what ‘Pride’ is meant to achieve. Modern society in the west can hardly be accused of not knowing such lifestyles exist. It surely is not about raising awareness, then. Neither can it be about rights because people who fall in under the LGBT banner have all the legal rights they’ve ever campaigned for. So what is it for? 

The only thing I can think of is that they’re marching for acceptance, to be normalised by people like you and me. But you cannot demand that people approve of you – you cannot foist a change of heart on total strangers.

As a Christian in the modern world, I know this very well. I am not entitled to liberally share my opinions wherever I please, nor to demand that others ‘tolerate’ my beliefs. In fact, where my faith comes into conflict with contemporary society, it is always I who must moderate my behaviour. If I was being honest about my opinion on this march, then, I’d have to say that human beings, marching under the banner of ‘Pride’ – for anything they are or have done – is utter anathema. An encounter with Jesus is enough to tell the haughtiest, most self-satisfied of us that pride is the last emotion we’re entitled to feel in regard to ourselves.

But, as I said, the march itself is far less of an issue than the opinions it has brought to the fore.

Some Christians in our midst have chosen to speak out against the lifestyles ‘Pride’ celebrates. I don’t think that’s particularly helpful. The condemnation of the world never brought one lost soul to Christ; but His love can reach anyone. Showing forth that love, and its influence in our lives, that’s what we can do for those who feel they live life on the periphery. It was the condemnation and judgement of her neighbours that kept the Samaritan woman from the well. But it was meeting Christ there that brought her true liberation, and made her free indeed.

She couldn’t have known that following Christ also makes you an outsider in this world. I don’t call myself persecuted, because I am still allowed to carry a Bible in public, to worship openly, and to speak to others about my Saviour. However, being a Christian does make me an object of some people’s hatred, and many people’s misunderstanding.

Just last night, I received an email from someone, via this blog. They were responding to my most recent post, and suggested that no Christian should have any involvement in public life here in Lewis. Every time they used the word, ‘Christian’, it had inverted commas around it – the inference being that those communicants holding any kind of elected office cannot genuinely belong to Christ. 

As a believer, I am repeatedly judged by unbelievers. They will pronounce on the falseness of my faith, the impropriety of my conduct, the tone of my debate, my lack of grace, my lack of love, my ignorance, my unfitness to hold public office, my unkindness and my intolerance. I do not meet their standard of what a Christian ought to be, because I am not perfect; and also because sometimes, I have to disagree with the things that they do.

Mercifully, for them and for me, God is not so unreasonable. He doesn’t expect perfection from sinners like myself; He only asks that I follow Him, and tell others to do the same.

So, for the marchers today, I pray for a removal of groundless pride. Not to be replaced by shame, though, as they might expect; only God’s love and grace, which cover a multitude of sins. The rainbow of His promise belongs to everyone who claims it as their own.

Lies, Daft Lies and Social Media

Say what you like about the coves of the Free Church, but at least they’ve never placed an exclusion zone around me. Despite all the very many reasons I’ve given them, they will manfully shake hands, and ask how I am every time we meet. Not so the gentlemen at the Stornoway Trust, where news had preceded me to Monday evening’s meeting that I might be harbouring a few germs. As I took my accustomed seat, they all cowered around the far end of the table, and I sat, marooned, in a sea of empty chairs.

As secret societies go, I have to question now whether it was really worth all that effort from the Kirk Session to get me in.

But, no, I can’t do it. I can’t go on letting the Session take all the blame for putting a dim-witted blone in against the people’s will. Besides, the people aren’t fooled, as at least . . . oh, I’d say three or four of them tell us almost daily. They know, you see, they know where the connections are.

I am compelled, therefore, to admit that I lied to the electorate. Someone – a stranger to me – has used the hashtag, ‘lies for votes’, and she’s right. It was, you might say, a sin of omission. You see, I failed to declare that I’m related to another trustee.

Now, don’t despair. I’m not a Soval. Surely you’d know – the moon would have turned blood red at the merest hint of that about my person. Nor am I connected to any of the Rudhaich, not even the one with whom I share a surname.

The surname is the clue, you see. But I’m devious and, back in 2003, concealed my true identity by getting married. I have hidden from the electorate that I am a MacLean, just like Calum. Well, not exactly like Calum – he spent many years of his working life in Point, and I’m simply not that strong – but vaguely related.

So, yes, I concealed our connection. It is just another fib in the tissue of duplicity that I have apparently woven about myself. Actually, while I’m at it, I should say that it’s also possible that my granny once gave up her seat on the Achmore bus to a third cousin of the Factor.

That’s full disclosure now, honestly.

Oh, wait, no, there’s more. I was once married to the Convener of the Comhairle. He won’t remember; he wasn’t really involved – it was very brief and, I suppose you’d call it a marriage of convenience. Actually, it was a lie I told a persistent fellow in the Ness Social Club to get him off my case. When I told him I was married, he asked who to, so I simply pointed out a nearby Mr MacDonald. A convenient untruth.

People used to accept this about Lewis, though: it used to go without saying that folk would be related to one another, and it certainly didn’t used to be a problem.

However, if people want to throw hissy fits about people being related to other people, so be it. They will find that there’s really very little they can ultimately do about it. We’ve all heard the adage, ‘you can choose your friends, but you can’t choose your relations’. It being so much a matter of providence, then, are we supposed to live our lives around those with whom we happen to share a bit of DNA, or a big nose, or a tendency to be a bit rag? Must I avoid any and all walks of life where relatives might have preceded me?

That’s plainly ridiculous, and ought to be treated with the contempt it deserves. In mediaeval times, certain families were recognised as having particular skills and they became the hereditary pipers, physicians, bards and so on, to the Lordship of the Isles. Not nepotism: dùthchas. But people weren’t so paranoid then, because they knew their community better.

Social media will turn a mountain into a super quarry, though, given even half a chance. And that, my friends, is where we do need to pay a bit of attention. There are reckless individuals who think that it’s acceptable – even as they talk community – to defame others with vocabulary like ‘corrupt’, ‘liars’, ‘brown envelopes’ and ‘lining their own pockets’. Not one shred of evidence is offered for any of this, and the lie is gleefully shared by others for whom it’s expedient.

The danger in all of this is that we lose sight of what’s actually important. For my own part, I support projects for our island that I believe have the best chance of being delivered and actually benefitting the greatest number of people.  Does my mere belief in a particular way of doing things make me a liar, or corrupt? Is anyone entitled to throw those kinds of accusations around about a fellow member of the community, without a jot of proof? And is defamation now an acceptable substitute for reasoned debate?

What has gone wrong in our midst that neighbours can dehumanise one another to the extent that feelings and reputation don’t matter? Or, indeed, that the truth doesn’t get in the way of a good story? If your case is sound, you don’t need to defame other people to make it.

I’m afraid that saying ‘community’ over and over does not necessarily mean you have its best interests at heart. Not when you’re prepared to tear it to pieces in pursuit of what you want. The word itself originated not as a noun, but as a verb – we would all do well to remember that before we speak, or write, a single syllable.

 

 

 

Tilting at Windmills

Before my first meeting at the Stornoway Trust, I imagined a wood-panelled room, thick with pipe smoke and whisky fumes, where crotchety betweeded men would growl at me from behind broadsheet newspapers. Or, perhaps some kindly, avuncular figure might pour me a sherry and offer me the comfortable chair, while they and the other fellows got on with the important business of the day.

And, it seems that I’m not the only one who thought this was how it would be. I have actually lost count of the number of people who have asked me things like, ‘is it awkward being the only woman?’ The answer would really have to depend on what you mean by ‘awkward’. There was a meeting recently, which the Chairman rounded off with, ‘right, gents, I think that’s us’, whereupon they all left, while I sat politely, waiting to be dismissed. When the staff arrived the following morning to find me still sitting there, that was quite awkward . . . But it’s more than made up for by all the times we’re having sandwiches, and I get the only side-plate.

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It isn’t the awkwardness of my femininity that worries most onlookers, however, but the weakness of it. There are many, many people who tell me that I have quite obviously ‘had the injection’, ‘taken the pills’, or – most intriguingly hi-tech of all – ‘had the microchip implanted’. Clearly, I am incapable of reaching any sort of mature conclusion myself, without being somehow led by these overbearing fellows at the Trust.

While this is very insulting to the gentlemen in question, I know they are quite capable of defending themselves, given their years of practice at the faing. I take exception, however, to being painted as someone so weak-willed, so stupid, and so negligent of my responsibilities as to let others tell me what I believe.

But, the sad fact is that I do feel much more self-conscious about being a woman since joining the Trust. Its not just that I’m asked to leave the room whenever indelicate matters like drainage are discussed. Nor is it the fact that I’m the only one carrying a handbag to meetings. Indeed, it’s really nothing to do with what goes on in the boardroom at all.

No one around that table disagrees with my views simply because I’m a dame – they may disagree because I’m wrong, or because they’re wrong, or because our priorities differ. They may try to persuade me to change my mind, and they may bombard me with opposing views. But I have never felt bullied or dominated. And I’m not such a simpering half-wit that I feel the need to please them by sharing their every opinion. 

After all, I was married to a Tory for nearly twelve years, who stood quietly by, and watched while I campaigned for independence. It may have evaded Scotland, but I like to think something of it has rubbed off on me.

That’s why, if I thought larger-scale, developer-led windfarms were a bad idea for Lewis, I would bloomin’ well say so. I would say it to the other Trustees, I would say it in public, and – as my regular readers know – I would go on saying it until everyone took the complete buidheach. 

But, I’ve done that thing which some social media watchers seem to believe me incapable of: I’ve read, I’ve listened and I’ve learned- and come to my own  conclusion.

I would urge everyone else to do the same. Please don’t assume that, just because some voices are louder and more strident than others, that their confidence comes from being right. And don’t be fooled into thinking that repetition equates to truth.

The village I live in has a falling school roll. Our local shop has struggled for many years. We are home to an ageing population. For most of the eleven and a half years we were married, my late husband lived out of a suitcase – back and fore to his job at Dounreay because Lewis had no prospects to offer him.

Forgive me, then, if I am not overly moved by any argument which places environment above people. They are what makes a community – not bare moorland, not birds, not even tourists. 

I ran for election to the community landlord because I was tired of hearing this place being incessantly run into the ground. Of course, some people persist in the belief that I was pushed into it by those other overbearing men in my life: the Kirk Session. But the real truth is that I wanted to be part of something positive – something that would move us forward. 

And now, that’s exactly where I find myself.

We have a chance to create real economic and social opportunity in Lewis. I’m not talking about greed here either, or promises that Cromwell Street will be paved with gold. This is our first proper chance to create a sustainable future for our people, right here where they belong.

But don’t take my word for it. Do your own working out, and then decide: progress and a future here in Lewis; or more of the same – a suitcase that’s never unpacked.

My mind is made up. And yes, I did it all by myself.

(Was that alright? Okay, switch me to standby, boys).

 

 

Casting Providence on the Minch

I was sitting in church a couple of weeks ago when one of the elders came in with a mixing bowl on his head. Not balanced on his head either, like a graceful woman of Biblical times heading to the well, but worn like a tin hat, as though auditioning for a budget version of ‘Dad’s Army’.

Now, in case you’re thinking our services must be very visually entertaining in the Free Church, I should clarify something. This was a weekday, and the church was empty. The gentleman in question was running a pop-up charity cafe in the Hall next door, and I was there to welcome visitors and show them around our place of worship. None of which really tells you why he was wearing a bowl on his head, I confess. It was mine and had, originally, contained potato salad. He was, I can only assume, trying to be creative in his manner of returning it. These arty types are all the same, and we must simply let them have their wee foibles. Although I’m not sure that’s what the Blue Book has to say on the matter.

We may make allowances for it being a busy time, the weather being warm, and even sensible folk going a bit . . . well, doolally.

When the Hebridean Celtic Festival is on, the population of Stornoway doubles. That is, the town which is the catchment area for our church, becomes even larger. A few years ago, this was not an issue for us: what did a music festival on the Castle green have to do with Stornoway Free – or any other – Church? Now, however, it has become very much a matter for our consideration. This year, we opened our church every single day of the Festival week, we had the two-day cafe (where most people managed to resist wearing the crockery), and, on the Sunday, we had our annual Free Breakfast @ The Free Church.

I don’t feel the need to explain any of this as I did a year ago. Feeding the hungry, welcoming the stranger, getting alongside people where they are . . . these are surely well-understood facets of the Christian faith. But I will say this: it was an absolute privilege to be involved, and I gained a new perspective during all this activity.

On the Friday following the Celtic Festival, a couple who had come to Lewis for the whole fortnight, accompanied me to an outdoor service in Uig. For me, this was a refreshing in the midst of what had become a tremendously busy time. To sit on that beautiful hillside and be reminded of God’s promises in the context of our own island history, well, that was something special. I love Lewis, I love my church, I love our heritage.

And that was when it dawned on me.

Those summer weeks of sharing who we are, and what we believe, had taught me something. This is not just for us. So many visitors to the church had said to me that Lewis ‘still has something special’. They urged us to hang onto it. ‘Don’t make the same mistakes we did’, one lovely lady from Suffolk urged, ‘don’t let them chip away at what you’ve got here’.

She’s right; we mustn’t. For whatever reason, God has given us a precious heritage here in Lewis (and Harris). Every summer, He brings visitors to our shores. Those two facts are not, I believe, unconnected. I have long been convinced that our personal providences are not merely for ourselves. My experiences of grief and of secret discipleship and of spiritual attack, I share, because they may profit more than me. Likewise, then, our corporate providence, surely?

This is why we must, as Christians, be more open. It is why our churches have to be more welcoming. And – contrary to popular opinion – it is why we must resist the drive to make places like Lewis and Harris carbon copies of everywhere else. We are not a reservation, we should not live for tourists. Going on valuing God’s providence, however, and casting our precious bread upon the water, I think we will have something to offer our visitors all the more worth having.

Just because there has been a little time of apparent calm, however, please don’t think our island slumbers in peaceful waters. The eyes of the enemy are still upon us. This heritage we have from God, the evil one covets for himself – and he will use, indeed IS using, whatever means at his disposal to destroy it. We must be in prayer, not only for revival, but that we ourselves would not be the instrument by which, nor the generation in which, Satan achieves his goal.

Casting Providence on the Minch

I was sitting in church a couple of weeks ago when one of the elders came in with a mixing bowl on his head. Not balanced on his head either, like a graceful woman of Biblical times heading to the well, but worn like a tin hat, as though auditioning for a budget version of ‘Dad’s Army’.

Now, in case you’re thinking our services must be very visually entertaining in the Free Church, I should clarify something. This was a weekday, and the church was empty. The gentleman in question was running a pop-up charity cafe in the Hall next door, and I was there to welcome visitors and show them around our place of worship. None of which really tells you why he was wearing a bowl on his head, I confess. It was mine and had, originally, contained potato salad. He was, I can only assume, trying to be creative in his manner of returning it. These arty types are all the same, and we must simply let them have their wee foibles. Although I’m not sure that’s what the Blue Book has to say on the matter.

We may make allowances for it being a busy time, the weather being warm, and even sensible folk going a bit . . . well, doolally.

When the Hebridean Celtic Festival is on, the population of Stornoway doubles. That is, the town which is the catchment area for our church, becomes even larger. A few years ago, this was not an issue for us: what did a music festival on the Castle green have to do with Stornoway Free – or any other – Church? Now, however, it has become very much a matter for our consideration. This year, we opened our church every single day of the Festival week, we had the two-day cafe (where most people managed to resist wearing the crockery), and, on the Sunday, we had our annual Free Breakfast @ The Free Church.

I don’t feel the need to explain any of this as I did a year ago. Feeding the hungry, welcoming the stranger, getting alongside people where they are . . . these are surely well-understood facets of the Christian faith. But I will say this: it was an absolute privilege to be involved, and I gained a new perspective during all this activity.

On the Friday following the Celtic Festival, a couple who had come to Lewis for the whole fortnight, accompanied me to an outdoor service in Uig. For me, this was a refreshing in the midst of what had become a tremendously busy time. To sit on that beautiful hillside and be reminded of God’s promises in the context of our own island history, well, that was something special. I love Lewis, I love my church, I love our heritage.

And that was when it dawned on me.

Those summer weeks of sharing who we are, and what we believe, had taught me something. This is not just for us. So many visitors to the church had said to me that Lewis ‘still has something special’. They urged us to hang onto it. ‘Don’t make the same mistakes we did’, one lovely lady from Suffolk urged, ‘don’t let them chip away at what you’ve got here’.

She’s right; we mustn’t. For whatever reason, God has given us a precious heritage here in Lewis (and Harris). Every summer, He brings visitors to our shores. Those two facts are not, I believe, unconnected. I have long been convinced that our personal providences are not merely for ourselves. My experiences of grief and of secret discipleship and of spiritual attack, I share, because they may profit more than me. Likewise, then, our corporate providence, surely?

This is why we must, as Christians, be more open. It is why our churches have to be more welcoming. And – contrary to popular opinion – it is why we must resist the drive to make places like Lewis and Harris carbon copies of everywhere else. We are not a reservation, we should not live for tourists. Going on valuing God’s providence, however, and casting our precious bread upon the water, I think we will have something to offer our visitors all the more worth having.

Just because there has been a little time of apparent calm, however, please don’t think our island slumbers in peaceful waters. The eyes of the enemy are still upon us. This heritage we have from God, the evil one covets for himself – and he will use, indeed IS using, whatever means at his disposal to destroy it. We must be in prayer, not only for revival, but that we ourselves would not be the instrument by which, nor the generation in which, Satan achieves his goal.

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 Trust, the Well and the Council Clock

‘You may lead a Lewisman with a hair, but you won’t drag him with a cable’. Thus spoke Lord Leverhulme, the proprietor of the island in 1920. A mere two years into his tenure, he had already seen enough of the people to know that they were versed in the art of subtlety, as well as masters at being thrawn.

I’ve always been interested in this hard-headed northern businessman. He thought he knew what was best for the crofters of this island – and perhaps he did, in economic terms – but he also reckoned without the strong attachment the Hebridean feels to his land.

It is hugely to his credit that he was willing to gift the very terrain that caused such dispute, back to the people who had opposed him. I wonder how a successful entrepreneur managed to set aside ego to this extent; his financial worries notwithstanding, it was a magnanimous gesture.

Attending meetings of the Stornoway Trust, which manages the estate of the same name, I frequently look upon his portrait, which hangs on the boardroom wall. I think he would find the plans and projects, the obstacles and objections strangely familiar. And I imagine him rubbing his hands with relish, and getting stuck in, bluff wee northerner that he was.

The Trust is guardian of his legacy, yes – but his intention in gifting the land to the community was that the community should run it, not Leverhulme’s way, but the Lewis way.

Just last week, I took a tour of the Castle policies with the man who is responsible for the day to day management of the estate. He definitely has a name, but is known to everyone simply as ‘the Factor’. With him, I got a palpable sense of the way that history is a living thing for us in Lewis. Conversation flowed seamlessly  around which was Lady Matheson’s favourite picnic spot, to a Second World War bunker, to the Millennium Forest project, to a prehistoric chambered cairn, to the Castle School, to Mac an t-Srònaich, to speed bumps, to Lord Leverhulme e fhèin.

I think we generally have an easy relationship with our past. Modern kit houses sit on the site of, or even alongside early white houses and, sometimes, the tobhta of the family blackhouse. We incorporate patronymics into our identity, so we are part of a line which stretches back through history. And the different names we go by – our forefathers’ – inhabit and shape history at different times.

My maternal seanair helped build the iron water well, a landmark in the Castle Grounds. It commemorates a sensitive individual who used to moor his yacht in Stornoway for the peace and quiet. How very strange that he should be memorialised here in that way, and that generations of Lewis children should know the name of the reclusive Robert Alfred Colby Cubbin.

Whatever the plaque says, though, for me it is a monument to Alex Hearach, my grandfather.

Following the Lewis way means guarding our identity. It involves maintaining a relationship with the past in order to move forward. The more I contemplate our close connection with history here in the island, therefore,  the more fiercely I am determined to see all of our heritage protected.

We cannot say ‘yes’ to Lady Matheson, or Mac an t-Srònaich, and ‘no thanks’ to our Christian legacy. There is something incomplete in our understanding of Stornoway’s history if we believe that it includes Lord Leverhulme, but excludes Rev Kenneth MacRae; if we embrace Latha na Dròbh but, frankly, find òrduighean Steòrnabhaigh a bit of an embarrassment.

You cannot separate our civic and religious past, you see. Literally, sometimes. When the Town Hall was razed to the ground in 1918, the clock was lost and folk had no way to tell the time, unless they visited Sime’s shop on Church Street. So, the Town Council came up with an ingenious plan – they erected a public clock on Kenneth Street Free Church.

The building belonged to the Free Church, and the clock to the Council, but the time that moved its hands, that belongs to God. We so seldom look beyond what is right in front of us; we accept the face that history presents, and we do not question.

But we should. I have always thought of that graceful stone monument in the Castle Grounds, built in part by Alex Hearach, as the iron water well. Walking there last week, though, something that now seems rather obvious was casually alluded to: the actual well is some feet away, anonymously supplying the man-made structure with pure, clean water.

That, I think, is as good a metaphor as any I’ve found for what Christianity has been to the history of this place. It is always there, feeding us living water, and giving real meaning to all the events that we foolishly believe are authored by ourselves. While we are busily cleaning up and repointing the facade, the water continues to spring forth and give us life.

We need have no fear that particular well will ever run dry. But equally, it’s important that no one should ever be permitted to stop its mouth.