Erase your Ebenezer?

If you are ever tempted to believe that the Free Church in Lewis has become less hardline of late, consider this: one of our ministers waved a bayonet at the children during a recent Sunday morning service.

Context is everything, however. He was using an ancient (and very blunt, health and safety fans) family relic to illustrate a spiritual truth. This wasn’t learn your catechism with menaces. He wasn’t threatening, or intimidating – and he was safely on the far-end of a camera anyway.

But, if I merely told you that he had wielded a bayonet at the children of the congregation, and left it there, might you not get the wrong impression? We human beings are terrifically adept at picking the erroneous end of any given stick, anyway. Sometimes, of course, we do it wilfully. It suits us to think the worst of those we don’t like, or those of whom we are envious. In such situations, it is all too easy to cherry-pick our facts and dwell on those that paint the blackest picture of all.

When I stood for the Stornoway Trust, I was accused of being ‘ashamed of my Saviour’ because I had not mentioned in my election address that I was a Christian. Now, my reason for omitting this information was simple: while I don’t deny that many people voted for me because of my profession of faith, I would never ask for anyone’s vote on that basis. Being a Christian doesn’t automatically qualify you for (or disqualify you from) public service.

What my accuser failed to take into account was the fact that I patently was not hiding my allegiance; far from it. However, he looked narrowly at my conduct in this one area and judged me – harshly, I feel – based upon it. For him, because I had not explicitly declared myself a church member, I was ashamed and guilty of denying Christ.

We are, all of us, guilty of something. Not one living person can claim perfection in this world. I freely hold my hands up and admit that I do not always speak up for Christ when and as I should. Worse still, my conduct is often far from what it ought to be, so that I am not even a silent witness for him. People can rightly point to Catriona Murray and accuse her of saying and doing plenty that is at odds with her profession of faith. And how much more evidence they would have against me if they could read my black and venomous thoughts. Let me be frank: I am cynical, sardonic, frequently lax in my prayer life, slow to forgive, self-righteous and narrow-minded. If I witnessed in proportion to what I owe, I would be a paragon; but I am not. What I am is a sinner, saved by God’s grace, and a work in progress.

Mercifully, other people’s opinions of me are none of my business. I have no control over them or interest in them. People will try to remind you of what you are at your worst – how many converted Christians are still spoken of in terms of their youthful excesses. ‘There was a day and he was in the pub every weekend, not the church’, and that sort of thing. The world doesn’t permit us to be changing and improving. It freezes us at our very lowest point.

That is why memorialising the past has become such a vexed question. Do we retain the statue of a man who made his money on the back of slavery? Are we right to permit the Duke of Sutherland’s image – ‘erected by a grateful tenantry’ – to remain, looking down upon the broad lands decimated by his plans of improvement?  The boardroom of the Stornoway Trust, too, is dominated by a portrait of our benefactor, Lord Leverhulme, a man whose exploitation of forced labour in the Belgian Congo does not cover him with glory.

So, what do we say about such people? Can we use the rather odd defence someone made of Knox recently when they accused me of judging him by modern standards: he was of his time? Being ‘of your time’, though, is surely a euphemism for just following the herd, being of the world. Knox was not falling short of my standard by being a misogynist; he was falling short of Christ’s. If we let Knox off the hook so easily, then we must make a similar defence for the Duke of Sutherland and Lord Leverhulme.

And that just will not do. Otherwise, we have to look around us, at modern slavery, at child labour, at homelessness, at abortion, at eugenics, at sexual exploitation, at the wilful warping of the education system, at the censorship of free speech . . . and we must wink at it, saying, ‘ah, it’s just the modern way’.

That’s the world’s defence of sin.

I would not remove the memorials. Leave the mannie on top of Ben Bhraggie, and keep the portrait of Leverhulme above the boardroom table. Remember them, though, not as stainless paragons, but as people in whom there was the capacity for both darkness and light. Make sure generations to come see them as three-dimensional.

And, more importantly, let’s think about what this controversy teaches us regarding image. Not the stone, marble or canvas variety, but our own fractured selves – made in the likeness of God, and marred by sin. We too, even if we are being restored, bear the hallmarks of fallenness. Somewhere about our person is the Maker’s thumbprint; it is this, and this alone, which preserves us from destruction.

For, if we were dependent on one another’s mercy, or on our own perfection, who would raise a memorial to any of us?

Politics, prayer and my inner Pharisee

Last Saturday, I had coffee  with an incredible young Christian who, less than a week later, would find herself presenting the Scottish budget to Parliament at very short notice. Cometh the hour, cometh the woman and all that.

We talked about the challenge of being female and Christian in any kind of public role. I think it’s safe to say that she has demonstrated that these need not be obstacles to acquitting yourself well. While the jury (including the one in my own head) is still out on me, even in my much more local role, I struggle with the big questions, so any believing politician of national stature certainly has my sympathy and – much more usefully- my prayers.

The Bible is full of people in leadership roles who walked with God and still went wrong. So, if Solomon in all his wisdom could have his heart turned to idolatry, then I’m pretty sure that should serve as a warning to all Christians in public office today. How much easier, indeed, for the devil to get his way when believing leaders are in the minority, and apostasy is the norm. Anyone might succumb to following that particular crowd with the greatest of ease.

And how do you avoid the pitfalls of being a Christian in a democratically-elected position? Here in Lewis, organisations like the Comhairle and the Stornoway Trust customarily open their meetings with prayer. Whenever this comes up in conversation with other believers, they react positively. For the Christian, there is a view that anything of the slightest importance should be put in God’s hands, where all things rightfully belong. Beginning the business of local government in this way, therefore, reassures them that leadership is as it should be, deferring to the Lord.

So, local Christians breathe a little more easily.

Except, I’m a local Christian and it doesn’t do a whole lot to reassure me. Not even considering my own position as an elected member of one such group.

Now, please don’t misunderstand me: I am not opposed to prayer in the Trust or anywhere else. Quite the opposite, in fact. But I DO worry that those of us who are Christians in elected office, and those of us who are voting Christians, tend to content ourselves with very little. ‘Prayer’ can end up being as formulaic as any other standing item on the agenda.

And the prayerfulness often ends with ‘amen’. I speak from personal experience here. There have been many occasions where I have gone seamlessly from bowing my head in contemplation, to venting my spleen in exasperation. My thoughts, my utterances, my conduct, my motivation often fall short of what they should be.

But never mind: at least we’ve said the words. Who’s to notice when they get stuck on the ceiling and rise no further?

I am not criticising the people who pray; not at all. What I’m saying is that we cannot content ourselves with opening petitions, if our subsequent conduct doesn’t testify to our faith. We cannot keep on expecting God to bless our endeavours if we aren’t really giving them into his keeping at all.

Recently, I was party to a conversation about a public servant whose conduct had been dubious to say the least. ‘But he’s a Christian’, someone protested. Their subtext was not that we should, therefore, expect better of him, but that he was actually beyond reproach.

There is a real danger here, that Christians will fall into a trap of thinking their faith guarantees all their actions to be righteous. We are at risk of the arrogance displayed – albeit to fictional extremes- in James Hogg’s ‘justified sinner’. If I call myself a Christian, if I pray in public and speak out for Sabbath observance, well, I’m doing my bit for the cause.

And that’s my challenge. I worry about becoming a Pharisee if I haven’t already. Many people voted for me in the Trust election, I am quite sure, purely because they knew where I stood on ‘The Sunday Issue’.

Here’s the thing, though: I want to keep the Lord’s Day myself because I love him. I want other people to want to keep it for the same reason. Is it the role of Christian trustees, councillors, MSPs or MPs to impose such things on an unbelieving people? Or is it our responsibility to earnestly pray for guidance ourselves, to show forth the love of Christ in everything that we do, and give it all to God?

We often hear complaints that there are too few Christians in public life. That may well be true, but God has placed some there. Instead of worrying about packing the debating chambers with more believers, let’s pray for those who are already in place, that they would learn to act in his wisdom and in his guiding. And God, I am sure, will give the increase.

Dead in the Water?

There was a day when every village had its taibhsear: someone who could foretell future events. Inevitably, the visions were limited by the boundaries of his world – that is to say, he saw what would befall the local and the domestic sphere only.

To predict national and even international developments, however, that was the province of the true seer. Think of Coinneach Odhar, lifting that circular stone to his eye and telling Lady Seaforth that her husband, abroad in Europe at the time, was enjoying the company of other ladies. She had insisted on knowing where he was and yet, Coinneach faced the ultimate punishment for ‘speaking evil of dignities’. Legend has it he was put to death, simply for humiliating the lady before her people.

It’s the lot of the prognosticator, I suppose, to risk their own reputation by voicing what has not yet come to pass. Today, in all but the most despotic regimes, making a mistake will not cost your life . . . though it may well damage your credibility. Witness, if you will, the present silence of political pundits on the likely outcome of Mr Johnson’s election. Who wants to put their head above that increasingly unpredictable parapet?

In the Gaelic world, it is a tradition which some think was born out of a purpose other than ACTUALLY seeing the future. The filidh, according to ‘The Textbook of Irish Literature’, tended to combine ‘the functions of magician, law-giver, judge, counsellor to the chief, and poet’. Elsewhere, the word ‘filidh’ is sometimes translated as ‘seer’. So, this person originally was more than the mere poet we have come to consider them. Those other roles were obviously separated off at various points in history, but nonetheless, our poets were at one time also our seers.

Or were they?

In fact, I think it very likely that our poets were more in the order of cheerleaders. You know the kind of thing: ‘we will win this battle and crush the Campbells and their blood will stain the heather while we dance on their graves’. Sort of latter-day locker room pep talks for the clan. And then, full of vim and vigour, with the filidh’s words ringing in their ears, the men would do battle – and win. Thus, poem becomes prophecy and the filidh a seer.

It’s depressing, therefore, that while this tradition appears to be alive in Lewis, the would-be seers are using their dubious gift for a purpose other than cheerleading. For the last few months, we have had something resembling a Greek chorus emanating from parts of our island regarding the prospect of real development. The latest sad chapter of this prognostication reared its head – bizarrely- last Sunday evening.

The PR consultant for Point & Sandwick Trust released another of her copious blogs on the topic of how bad outside investment is for these islands. Sorry, no, not for these islands – for the shareholders of four crofting townships near Stornoway. In this extended piece of writing, we are told (repeatedly), that the interconnector is ‘dead in the water’.

Perhaps the intention behind this singularly morbid article, then, is that it should be regarded as self-fulfilling prophecy, a sort of anti-pep talk for the Comhairle, the Trust and Lewis Wind Power. Is superstition so strong with those behind the blog that they believe repeating the message again and again gives it some sort of power?

And, crucially, why does a small number of people derive such pleasure from the dashed hopes of the islands entire? If you haven’t already, ask yourselves who should be gleeful at the prospect of no cable, no renewables industry, no community benefit, for a place so in need of all these. What delight is to be had at the thought of Lewis continuing to lose its young people because we have failed to provide opportunities for them?

We have an unparalleled wind resource here in the islands. What we need now, in order to exploit that for the future good of all our people, is unity.

There has been talk – a lot of talk – about unfairness. It does not lie where some say, however. We would do well to remember the old Stornoway burgh motto: God’s providence is our inheritance. He placed these islands where he placed us and we cannot change geography. Working as one, speaking to the government as one, however, we could definitely mitigate against its disadvantages.

It’s apparent to almost everyone that the case for the cable, far from being ‘dead in the water’, is there to be made. How impressive it would be, how laudable, if those who have stood against progress thus far would add their voices to the clamour for what the Western Isles truly deserve.

Coinneach Odhar’s final prophecy was the desolation of his master’s broad lands, and the destruction of his line. I can’t – despite much evidence to the contrary – believe that this is really what anyone wants to see in Lewis. I hope we don’t forsake this one great chance to secure a future for these islands, simply because we failed to work in harmony.

That would leave more than just the cable dead in the water. 

Glory in the glen . . . or anywhere

‘These are our Castle Grounds’, I found myself thinking on Thursday night as I watched the little tent in the glen fill up with people. There was something special about seeing them arriving in knots of two and three – intentionally leaving their homes to come and gather under canvas in worship of the Lord. Psalms, songs of praise, prayers and Scripture readings. It was all about ascribing to Him the glory that is due and, nestled there in the hollow of God’s hand, we were not several denominations, but one church.

And I feel that this kind of event is all the more important in our day. Just as, last summer, a couple of hundred of us gathered in the glebe at Baile na Cille, for worship, this too felt like a statement. It is primarily an opportunity to spend time in adoration of our Lord – but it is also a witness to a world that seems blind to His glory. Being outside, though, is not just important because we are more likely to be overheard than when we are closed up in a building.

No, there is something else; there is as much of reclamation as there is acclamation in our al fresco praise. Every place where God’s name is spoken with reverence, I feel a flag is planted for His cause. Where two or three gather in His name, He is in the midst to bless. And so, on Thursday night, in Willowglen, God was undoubtedly present.

I do not pretend that certain places are more sacred than others, because that would be to confine our boundless God, and make Him small. Nonetheless, it is difficult to see how a place where His spirit has moved can ever be mundane again. Will I be able to pass through Willowglen and not remember with joy the night it became a place of worship for its own Creator and mine? Hopefully not.

This lovely corner of God’s handiwork has been abused lately. Instead of a protective instinct for all this beauty, something much uglier has been in evidence. Many have chosen to vandalise and sully the Castle Grounds in a fit of pique about policy. It is too petty for words. But it is a stark reminder of where we are.

I reflected on the harsh words of the last few weeks, even as I listened to these much more attractive ones drifting out of the tent:

Ach mise molar leam do neart;
gu moch a’ seinn do ghràis,
Airson gur tu mo thèarmann treun,
‘s mo dhaingneach fhèin ‘s gach càs.

God is the defence of my life. With every passing day I am more conscious of my need for such a refuge. And why? You have no use for protection except when you are in enemy territory. But, then, that’s what this is, even the beautiful Lews Castle Grounds: made perfect by God, but marred by man. From this enmity against the very Creator stems the mistreatment of what His hands have made, whether that is earth, trees, water . . . or humanity itself.

Nothing is sacred: not even life, and certainly not places like Willowglen.

On Thursday, though, there were all the elements assembled that we might need to recreate Psalm 137. We had a river to sit down by, and boughs of willow in which to hang our lyres. Here we were, being required to praise the Lord’s song in the midst of hostility.

I felt, however, that it was not a time for weeping – not for ourselves, anyway. Gathered under that canvas shelter, we testified to the impermanence of our sojourn in this world. We pitch our tent for a while, yes, but the house of many mansions is home. What God makes, what God provides – whether it is a garden, or a temporary place to gather – we should esteem, because it is by His grace and from His hand, the hand His children love, that we receive it.

That evening, for a few hours at least, we remembered Zion. It’s a particular kind of memory, though. Just as the prophet Isaiah spoke of the coming Christ in the past tense, we sing for joy at the recollection of Glory that awaits

Meantime, we have to rise up to our feet on that riverbank, and take down our lyres from the willow branches. I am more certain than ever that this strange land is crying out in its captivity to hear the Lord’s song; and who shall sing it for them, though they try their utmost to quench the sound with mocking?

That’s why Grace on the Green matters. The world does not believe that we are free, that we are filled with joy that no amount of their hostility can kill. We usually worship shut away from them; we politely contain our praise for God in buildings from which little sound escapes.

Those confining edifices are not the church: we are. And our oneness with Creation is never more apparent than in praising the Creator’s name in the midst of all He has made.

The least we owe Him, then,  is to sing His song for those whose eyes remain blind to amazing grace, and the immeasurable glory of God. It isn’t found in a place, but in a person. And they might find Him anywhere – but  certainly wherever His church gathers to adore Him.

 

The Way To Go Home

He didn’t look like a threat of any kind, this visiting minister. Taller than what we’re used to, certainly, but of otherwise benign aspect, I unwittingly settled into my pew and surveyed that Sunday morning’s ‘Bulletin’ – and there it was: undeniable proof that we were actually dealing with a dangerous radical. Psalm 118, right enough, but the Sing Psalms version, to be sung while the elements were laid for the celebration of the Lord’s Supper.

Trying to quell my panic, I looked up at the pulpit, and saw our own minister leaning forward, whispering something to the visitor. Ah, I thought, he’ll be pointing out the mistake; he’ll sort this out. Imagine, then, my feeling of betrayal, of abandonment – which I’m quite sure the rest of the congregation shared – as we rose to sing the modern rendering after all.

He had mentioned in his sermon about our tendency towards ‘Jesus plus’. We’ve all heard this before, this human propensity to complicate the saving truth of the Gospel, and to believe salvation requires some input from ourselves. Of course, it doesn’t; God saw what our efforts were worth back in the Garden of Eden. But this radical visitor elaborated on the theme. Adding to Jesus can take many forms, including – he said – our own preferences.

These words came back to me as I sang 118, not to the old, familiar Coleshill, but another tune entirely. Did it matter? Or was I just taken a little bit outside the comfort zone of tradition? I like what I’m used to, but it’s hardly the end of the world if something happens a little differently.

In my folklore classes, I try to teach students about the notion of motifs in traditional tales. There are many versions of, for example, ‘Cinderella’, from a lot of different cultures. Some aspects of it vary from place to place: the characters’ names, perhaps, or their occupations. These things don’t matter very much to the integrity of the story, however. What remains the same becomes a motif, an essential ingredient that cannot be removed without altering the whole message and nature of the narrative.

Well, so it is with celebrating the Lord’s Supper. If he is the host, and we are his people; if we are there to remember his death and be strengthened in faith by meditating upon who he is and what he has done, does it matter which version of a psalm we sing? He is the author and finisher of our faith, not us.

Why, then, would we think that Christ needs our help? This same Jesus who, our visitor pointed out, had been subject to all the traps of this world, yet evaded them in order to present Himself, blameless and clean to God as a sacrifice in our stead – what could we possibly add to Him? I know that I am still liable to be trapped by sin, and even to willingly permit myself to be when it comes to certain of my pet failings. Contrary to what the world thinks we believe of ourselves, Christians do not esteem themselves perfect; it’s just that we recognise sin but – sadly –still sometimes do it anyway.

I suppose that’s one of the main differences between Christians and the world. Having had that meaningful encounter with Jesus, the absolute of truth, you can see where your life is out of true. After all, a line will only be recognised as squint when it’s compared against one that is perfectly straight. If you have not met and been changed by Him, however, you have absolutely no chance of knowing just how far your life has departed from the right road.

So, when we are witnessing – actively or passively, through our conduct – the first, last and most important thing we can do is show people Christ. Otherwise, we risk repeating the mistakes made by the Kirk Session at Cramond who tried to impose godliness on the people of the parish. I’ve been reading Alison Hanham’s book, ‘Sinners of Cramond’, based on the minutes of the Kirk Session over two centuries, and it offers a black and white account of just how futile this is.

It is why, despite much criticism, I stand by what I have said previously about picketing Pride marches or other worldly gatherings. Unless we are telling people about Christ or – better still – bringing them to Him, we are simply exercising our own vanity. We are, whether we intend this or not, being perceived as saying, ‘I’m better than you; I would never live as you do’.

This is why we have ongoing debate about Sunday opening in Lewis. People like me have unwittingly given the impression that the day is the thing that matters; it isn’t. What matters is that people would know Christ for themselves. Then, neither golf nor swimming, nor coffee, nor films would seem all that important – because life would no longer be all about pleasing themselves.

But we have to get better at communicating that fact. I love Sundays in Lewis because they are, for me, an oasis in a frantic week in which I can spend proper time in prayer, in reading, in worship, and in rest. It isn’t my job – or my right – to prevent others spending their Sunday as they wish. It is, however, my privilege to do everything in my power to change their minds so that they will submit freely to the power of Christ.

Others did as much for me. I was not won over by the suggestion that it was sinful to stay away from church, but I was drawn in by the irresistible message of salvation. Christ is enough. And, after last weekend, I am more persuaded than ever that all He requires of us is to point to Him, to His beauty, and to His sufficiency. Show them the Way, and He will bring them home.

 

 

Votes for women – as long as they’re ‘progressive’.

Our local council is all man . . . and not necessarily in the swoon-inducing, gosh, have you been working out way a girl might wish. Of the thirty-one elected members, a nice, round number (zero) are women.

This week, some of the more hysterical sections of our community – and well beyond it – have been getting all bent out of shape about the Stornoway Trust, co-opting three men to replace . . . erm, three men. I am having to get used to being referred to as, variously, ‘only one female’ or ‘the token woman’.

Gee, thanks, none taken – are any of you still wondering why women don’t stand for election here?

I recently invited a friendly local councillor in to the college where I work, to talk to my (mostly female) Democracy students about why local government needs the likes of them. It does. 

The last time I wrote about the council election results, I was fairly sanguine, feeling that men of sense ought to be able to represent women perfectly competently. And so they ought. However, I am no longer sure that the question is actually one of representation.

In fact, I’m a raging complementarian and simply believe that we reflect God best when men and women work together. The point of women on the Comhairle, or anywhere else, is the same as the point of men – to be themselves, and bring their own unique skills to bear on the situation. 

Speaking to my class, though, the golfing (but not on Sundays) councillor put his finger on one aspect of the problem, when he mentioned the ‘p’ word, and women’s lack thereof.

He was referring, of

course, to profile. But absence of profile is only half the issue. There are plenty women currently serving their communities in all kinds of ways, who would not require Saatchi or even his partner, Saatchi, to boost their well-kentness to election standard. I went from being a shy, retiring unknown to being electable enough for the Free Church to collude with me. In my weaker moments, I fool myself that it was my skills and character that stood me in good stead, but ‘everyone knows’ it was really the suidheachan mòr that swung it for me.

See, ‘profile’ can be a burden. That’s the other, thornier half of the problem. It is also the uglier part.

If the baying mob doesn’t like your profile, they will try to dismantle it as best they can.

For me, the onslaught began as soon as I put my hat in the electoral ring. ‘Does she have a chance?’ the small-minded secularists sneered. Then, when they began to fear what they are pleased to call ‘the tyranny of the majority’ (that’s ‘First Past the Post’ to the rest of us), the nay-saying became more vicious and predicated upon hatred of Christianity. It took them places that still make me shudder on their behalf. 

But it has not gone away. The same names pop up repeatedly on social media, desperately clinging to the handle, ‘progressive’. That is, to their way of thinking, everything that is unbiblical, and against what the majority supports. If you were to ask them to define what ‘progressive’ means to them, I feel their truthful answer would be ‘anything but this’.

Now, I don’t care that much what some stranger thinks of me, when that assessment is based on a caricature of my faith and nothing more. I do, however, despise the negativity, spite, and downright lies which some are prepared to tell. And I am angry that this negative, bitter faction is polluting the atmosphere for others.

My own feeling is that, if we are truly serious about overhauling democracy in the Western Isles, we have to remove the toxicity. What example do we set our young people when we behave like the closing chapters of ‘Lord of the Flies’? Is it not rank hypocrisy to talk about eradicating bullying in our schools, while gleefully embracing it everywhere else? You can talk about progress, you can set up feminist networks, you can even pretend that, because you’ve worn a rainbow badge, you’re all about the tolerance.

But if you are complicit in the defamation of innocent people because you disagree with their way of doing things . . . well, then, you are a bully, my friend. Verbal abuse and unfounded accusations of criminality should have no part in public life. If you’ve never met me and yet you hate me, ask yourself why that is.

And then, ask yourself why more women and younger people are reluctant to stand for election. 

I have lost count of the number of capable women who have said they couldn’t handle the hatred that comes my way. No, I’m not surprised – and I couldn’t handle it either, ironically, were it not for the very faith which attracts it like a magnet. But is that really a proud boast for us as a community? We’ve lowered the tone of public debate so far that good people are afraid for their reputations.

Shame on us if we let it continue.

Buns, Fences and Self-belief

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

Tolerance Goes Over the Rainbow Bridge

‘That modern deamhais has killed the art of conversation’, one of my gentleman friends at the Trust remarked last week. ‘That’s a bit rude’, I thought, ‘does he not know I can hear every word he’s saying?’

Turns out he wasn’t talking about me, but the actual electric shears used on sheep these days. Not as easy to talk over as the old metallic clippers, with their distinctive sound. The new ones are probably more efficient, but they lack the evocative charm of their manual predecessors.

We are less free to speak in other ways as well, it would seem. This very week, in a shameful display of bullying, the local chapter of Pride attempted to no-platform a politician for his religious beliefs.

Yes, those same champions of ‘love and tolerance’ who demanded the right to march in Stornoway last summer, tried to shut down several public meetings. The reason? They didn’t agree with the views of the speaker. And what are those abhorrent views? Who does this man’s thinking align with – Hitler? Stalin? Genghis Khan?

God. He’s a Christian. Therefore, to try denying him a voice because you disagree with his views is no more and no less than to indulge in religious hatred. That is what it is. Dress it up any way you like, Hebridean Pride should hang its head in shame for displaying the very thing it claims to despise: bigotry. 

It’s part of a wider trend in our society, though, to silence what offends you. Silence it by belittling, silence it by demonising, silence it through mockery: but at all costs, do not permit its voice to be heard. 

We have seen attempts to take the Bible out of school, to stop the utterance of public prayers in classrooms and assemblies. And there has been heavy criticism of church representation on education committees. Christianity, we are repeatedly told, is a private indulgence, and must be kept out of education, out of politics, out of the public sphere altogether.

Christians have consistently argued back that it shouldn’t be banished from politics or education, that the influence of the Bible is necessary and positive. 

But, more than that, I would argue that Christianity CANNOT be kept out of those places. It is an impossibility to filter out Christian influence from public life unless you are prepared to actually debar believers themselves from those spheres also.

If you are a follower of Christ, then, where you go, he goes also. A Christian cannot temporarily suspend his beliefs in order to vote, or teach a class. I love the Lord all the time, and his influence shapes how and what I think. So, if I am asked to vote on euthanasia, on abortion, on Sunday working, on stem-cell research, I will take my direction from him. And if I am asked to teach a child that he can choose his own gender, or that two men can marry, or that this complex world just happened out of nothing . . . well, I can’t do it.

So, that takes us to a place surely no right-thinking, tolerant, loving human being can condone: Christians must not be teachers, or politicians, or policy-makers. That, though, is what we are being told, in essence.

Not long after I joined the Stornoway Trust, some people tried to make a case against us regarding our abuse of ‘religious privilege’. They took the OSCR guidelines on acting in your own interest and made a crude attempt at reinterpreting those. The charities regulator is very clearly talking about people who abuse their position for personal financial gain; not religious gain, whatever that may be.

What they were suggesting was impossible – that we should separate our Christian principles from our actions. So, where does that leave us?

Are we saying that people like me cannot be councillors, or primary school teachers, or MPs because we subscribe to the Bible? I cannot influence policy, or young minds because I hold to the view that marriage is between a man and a woman, that there are only two genders, that no one has the right to kill another person at any stage of life? Because I will not join the populist throng that says ‘anything goes’, I am to be silenced?

If that is, in fact, what we are saying, we have taken a very dark turn. While our society talks about love, it practices hatred. Where tolerance is writ large on rainbow coloured banners, persecution is just around the corner.

Its names are legion: humanism, secularism, pride, tolerance, diversity . . . but its aim is clear, and it should concern every one of us who truly values freedom. Any ideology or philosophy that thrives on the silence of dissenting voices is a sinister one.

Jesus met his enemies gently, with questions that challenged their misplaced certainties. Could it be that this is what those who march for tolerance while silencing debate truly fear?

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.