‘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.