No sheilings in heaven

I recently took my dog – a gangly, daft collie named Mr Roy – for a walk out to the Pentland Wind Farm. He loves it for pretty much the same reason it appealed to the developer: Wind. Mr Roy loves to feel the breeze rumple his hair. Sniffing and lolloping about, he barely takes any heed of our surroundings, wherever we go.

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On the other hand, I find the place conducive to much thinking. Its solitude promotes meditation.

My mind went back to a conversation I had with my father many times, about his grandfather’s sheiling, out beyond Loch Lacsabhat Àrd. He talked about it often to me, saying that it had a special, peaceful atmosphere. It was evident that, for him, the site of that àirigh had an almost spiritual significance. It held, of course, the sweet fragrance of memory – of people he had loved, and a departed way of life.

I understand that better now. His own passing was the first breach in our small family circle. And I nurse special recollections of places that were dear to him, and where we were all happy together.

Place, and people, and love: they are impossible to separate from one another.

As I walked along the road with Mr Roy, I thought about that day, twenty-five years ago, when my father and I drove out to the Pentland Road – an impromptu spin on an evening in late summer.

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We used to spend quite a lot of time together. A walk here, a drive there, evenings on the croft at Doune. Our conversations were real – about the place, about our history . . . and always, in the end, about spiritual things. He lived his Saviour for long years before he professed faith as an old man. I see that now too. At the time, it was just part of who he was, and I was too blind to see why we both always longed to talk about God while out in His creation.

On this particular day, however, there was something different. Even as he parked the car, I could see that his thoughts were gathering in a particular direction. At long last, we were going in search of his grandfather’s sheiling.

It was no more than an hour’s walk into the moor. Being early August, it was warm, dry and full of midgies. They hastened our steps and made conversation difficult, but did nothing to dampen my anticipation.

Eventually we reached the place where the àirigh had once stood, marked by a few stones scattered across the green sward. We paused just long enough to take some photos and to get our breath back. As we both surveyed the scene, our eyes met, and I could read the question in his. I nodded. Yes, I could feel what he had described: peace and tranquillity of the best and simplest  kind.

All these years it had been a memory to my father, and an enticement to me. We had spoken of it so often that I felt I too had been there. He was obviously afraid that we might go there only to find an ordinary moorland glen, just like countless others.

It was far from it. These many years later, as I took an easier route through the moor, along a road built by progress, I recalled that other walk. With my father going before me, the way had been easy, and the destination absolutely sure.

Afterwards, we talked frequently about the evening we found the sheiling. Our conversation had changed because now I had seen for myself all he had sought to describe. It had been so beautiful in my imagination, but its loveliness was enhanced once we were able to share that memory.

I know that we talked about God a lot. My father clearly felt His presence in the places that he loved. Sometimes, even now, when I sit in church, I remember when we would go there together, and the talks we had afterwards. It’s only human, I suppose, to regret that I didn’t tell him then what the Lord was to me too. Of course, I didn’t really know myself that He was precious, or that I was His. But I know it now; I know that He walked with us out towards the old àirigh. He witnessed the conversations on which His own presence lingered and, as we stood in contemplation of the place, God held us in the hollow of His hand.

At my father’s funeral, a woman I didn’t know said to my mother, ‘he’s in the happy land’. Her words stirred something in me. I knew she was speaking of a place that my father had longed for; that he was standing there at that moment, looking around himself and swathed in peace.

I realise now that this was the beginning of another journey for me – towards assurance. It took almost four years, and another loss, before my eyes settled on that green sward of memory. Then I saw what had been true all along: God leading me on a walk, not to a transient summer dwelling, but homeward to my Father’s house, in which there are many rooms.

 

Men in Black and Other Legends

There was a loch in the moor near where I grew up, and it held a strange fascination for us.  Quiet Sunday walks with my siblings often drew us in that direction. But we always went with warnings from our parents ringing in our ears, regarding mysterious lights and a certain eeriness about the place. My grandfather had warned my mother of its uncanny nature, and she, in turn, was warning us of the same.

Stories abounded throughout the islands, of the each-uisge, the water horse. This mythical creature could assume the form of a handsome man, to entice an unwary maiden, and once she was totally taken in by this charming stranger, he would assume the form of a horse and carry her back into the depths of his watery home.

It is not difficult to understand what the true social function of the each-uisge story was – it performed the dual role of warning children against lurking strangers, and of hanging about near water.

The each-uisge belongs to a world of Gaelic folklore which has largely been consigned to books and the archives of local historical societies. It is part of that great corpus of ‘dualchas’ which the Calvinists destroyed in a rush of evangelistic fervour. St Patrick may have banished the snakes from Ireland, but John Knox went one better and drove the eich-uisge out of the Highlands.

All my life I have been hearing that the Free Church did away with our colourful traditions – our ghosts, and our fairies, our witches, our evil eye and our eich-uisge.  Then again, I have also been hearing how it oppresses women and no one has put a gag on me . . . yet.

It amuses me to think that, if it were not for the Disruption of 1843, and all the hard-line fellows in black hats and collars, we would all still be putting out a dish of milk for the fairies before going to bed. Perhaps the local secularists would be mocking us for pouring our beer into the Minch to appease the sea-god, Seonaidh, instead of deriding us for our Christian beliefs. They might even be calling for the closure of pubs on Sundays to prevent us from indulging the superstition.

In the middle of the nineteenth century, the Free Church was born out of a great act of faith. Ministers and congregations turned their backs on the security of manses and stipends for the uncertainty of a new denomination, loosed from the bonds of patronage which had so stifled their spiritual freedom.

Of course, it was not uncertainty as the world knows uncertainty: they had put their trust in God and knew that He would prosper their endeavours for the furtherance of His kingdom.

This church taught a people hungry for the good news of the Gospel how they might be set at liberty. In the context of forced eviction, of emigration, of famine, of grinding poverty and of disease, the Gaels were hearing something that really does change lives. It was this: none of those things, no earthly suffering, can actually steal the peace from your soul that comes from placing your faith in the risen Christ.

And sometimes, I think we see Him most clearly against a backdrop of fire and pain.

Fire and pain, of course, are not things we desire for ourselves or our loved ones. And atheists will tell you that the idea of suffering outside of Christ is just a story invented by theologians to keep us all under control.

Hell is the Calvinist each-uisge, a story told by ministers so that they can keep the population subdued.

To what end, though? Ministers trudge up the pulpit steps in order to rain down fire and brimstone on the heads of their congregations, threatening them with hell and damnation so that . . . what? So that they can keep their unearned reputations as control-freaks? So that they can be caricatured and vilified by turns? Or, is it really as the more hysterical elements in our midst suggest, all about the fact that they are in a secret pact with the Comhairle to ensure that no one enjoys themselves more than is strictly necessary?

Of course, it isn’t any of those things, as even the people saying them surely know deep down.

The Gaelic folktales warned of theft by the fairies, or drowning by water-horses because people could not see past the threat of sudden death. This is why Christianity displaced superstition, because once people had their eyes lifted to the true horizon, they would never again be in thrall to a fable.

And the only fable we have left is the one which tells people that the Wee Frees are angry and narrow-minded men in black, oppressing the daft women who follow along in their wake.

Saying it over and over does not make it true; telling it to the gawping national media does not make it true. Unlike the traditional tales, this one loses something with every retelling.

Meanwhile, those who think themselves simultaneously wiser than, as well as put-upon by, the power-hungry Calvinists, are at risk of being borne away by a legend of their own making.