Twenty-five is Silver, but Wisdom is Gold

A quarter of a century ago, I took a life-changing opportunity. It came in the form of the fledgling University of the Highlands and Islands, and its very first degree. It turned out a BSc in Rural Development really was for me.

I was a young Gaelic-speaker whose interest in her own culture was finally being validated. The eclectic obsessions and tangents that had never quite added up to anything clicked satisfyingly into place. Photos by Gus Wylie, a lecture from James Shaw Grant, articles written by Prof Donald Meek, all saying that the ‘rubbish’ I’d amassed in my head was not rubbish at all.

This mattered. And now I was beginning to have the tools to say what ‘this’ was.

Tertiary education ought to be a turning-point, and it was in my case. I learned so much about life, myself, and the Gàidhealtachd. It was then that I found out about the Highland famine, about people starving right here in the islands, about the 1872 Education Act, and the warped way that schooling had turned a people from its own culture.

In the quarter-century since Lews Castle College set me on that path of discovery, much has happened. There are, for instance, many more degree programs available, two of which I now teach on. Before coming back to the alma mater to work, in 2002, however, I spent four years in Ness working as a development officer, learning from, and about, people.

It was there I picked up two valuable life lessons: working for a committee is tough; and serving a community is thankless.

Fool me once and all that, but I have recently gone headlong back into the world of community development. By coincidence, the Factor of the Stornoway Trust estate –who works for the committee of which I’m now a member – was appointed twenty-five years ago too, the same year that the BSc Rural Development was validated.

I encouraged him to write me a guest blog to mark this milestone, and then swiftly gave up, because I’m not one to nag a Lewismen, and besides, I also know when I’m beaten. Like a lot of folk who have worked for committees, he has built up a natural resistance to being steered. Nonetheless, like a lot of folk who have worked for committees, I am a stubborn blighter, and will make a wee nod here to his silver anniversary, ge b’ oil leis. With any luck he’ll be sorry for not taking up his own pen instead.

The role of Factor has been fulfilled by some fairly monstrous figures – Patrick Sellar, Dòmhnall Munro – but our fellow’s name doesn’t really belong with those. Faint praise, you may think, but he’s an understated kind of cove, and I don’t want to make him blush.

Oh, alright, then. You’ve twisted my arm.

He’s funny. Not funny-peculiar. Well, yes, maybe a little peculiar. It wouldn’t make for sanity, would it, working with the likes of . . . well, me. But he’s mostly funny-ha-ha. A sense of humour and – if possible- a sense of the ridiculous, make working for a committee bearable.

Come to think of it, there is actually one similarity between himself and Dòmhnall Munro – Matheson’s hated Factor, known variously as the Shah or the Beast.

I don’t mean his infamous treatment of widows. Despite some provocation, he’s managed not to oppress me much anyway.  In fact, I was thinking more of his influence in local life here in Lewis.

Munro was chair of the Parochial and the School boards of all four parishes; he was vice-chairman of the Harbour Trustees; Director of the Stornoway Gas Company; Director of the Stornoway Water Company; Deputy-chairman of the Road Trust; Baron Baillie, and much more besides.

Our Factor is Chair of Lewis Crofters, he is grazing clerk in Laxay, he is a committee member of the Lewis & Harris Sheep Producers, of the Lochs Show; he is a director of the Lewis & Harris Auction Mart, and much more besides.

That is largely where the similarity ends, though. One took all that he could out of Lewis and its people; the other puts all that he can back in.

He (mostly) quietly puts up with a lot. I know, because I’ve worked for a committee and for a community. People don’t count the long hours, or the extra miles; they only want to criticise. They don’t tend to value your point of view, or knowledge, because they’re too busy imposing their own.

And this is the real lesson I have gleaned over the past twenty-five years. No matter what area of life you find yourself in, look to the experience and wisdom of others who have been treading that path longer than you have. A course of study is limited in what it can teach you; but human example is boundless. This island is full of people with much to teach – and most of them are not in classrooms or lecture halls.

I have learned, and am still learning, from people who are usually older, but always wiser, than I. Wisdom can sometimes simply be the art of deferring to someone who knows more, or knows better.

Our society, though, is becoming increasingly hostile to that concept, seeing it as weakness to admit that you don’t know everything. Opinion is pushed into the vacancy left by knowledge and understanding. Youth is exulted over the sagacity of age, despite all the warnings from history that this is rank foolishness.

Well, here I am going on record, twenty-five years on, neither young nor old, and admitting that I am still very much on a learning curve. My favourite writer – Neil Gunn – put it perfectly, as ever, when he wrote:

‘Knowledge of ignorance is the end of so much knowledge, and the beginning of wisdom’.

Come back in another quarter-century and maybe, just maybe, I’ll have something to say that’s worth the hearing.

A Highland River of Life

If I had to pick just one day out of my life to relive, I might choose the first time I walked the Dunbeath strath with the man who was, the following summer, to become my husband. It was May holiday, 2002: warm, sunny, just one of those perfect days that stands out in my memory for reasons too insubstantial to put into words: you had to be there; and of the two who were, I am the only one left.

Part of the magic was that this was Neil Gunn’s strath. He has been my favourite writer for many years now and I can still recall the delight I felt as I recognised places mentioned in his novels – the meal mill, the House of Peace, the Prisoner’s Leap. Most of all, it brought to mind his 1937 novel, winner of the James Tait Memorial Prize – ‘Highland River’. Ever since reading that unique book, I found it impossible to walk beside any river without thinking of Kenn, the central character, making his journey towards the source: the source of the river, the source of his own identity.

Gunn believed that the Gaels were united by more than a mere language, that they were bound together by common experience, and by landscape. He was a great believer in the collective unconscious: Jung’s idea that people may share a second-level consciousness which cannot be related to their own direct experience. It describes what we might otherwise call ‘instinct’.

Calvin was a proponent of instinct in a way too. He argued that the light of nature – natural man’s awareness of God’s existence – is in each one of us, however distorted by sin. This was, and is, not to be confused with the light of the world in the person of Jesus Christ. In no way was Calvin suggesting that the sensus divinitatis, this awareness of God, was sufficient in itself; without the Spirit’s illumination, we cannot know God savingly. As the Westminster Confession of Faith has it:

‘Although the light of nature, and the works of creation and providence do so far manifest the goodness, wisdom, and power of God, as to leave men unexcusable; yet are they not sufficient to give that knowledge of God, and of his will, which is necessary unto salvation.

As Kenn nears his final destination, the source of the river, he feels a strong sense of his own abiding solitude:

‘That was his destiny. He saw its meaning in his people, even in their religion, for what was the Calvinist but one who would have no mediating figure between himself and the ultimate, no one to take responsibility from him, to suffer for him.’

Well, true in part: Calvinists do not place their trust in priests, or bishops, in confessionals or man-made absolution. Calvinists, however, do believe in the great and only mediating figure. He has already suffered and taken responsibility for our sins. If, knowing this, we choose solitude and suffering for ourselves, we are not Calvinists, but fools.

Far be it from me to disagree with Calvin – that’s not how I was brought up. There is, I believe, an instinctive awareness of God in us, which the Creation further demonstrates. That, however, is surely as far as one can go with that. You can be aware of the existence of the Creator by witnessing the work of His hand, yes – but you cannot know Him apart from the Son and the Spirit. To truly know Him, you must know how He has dealt with mankind, how He has dealt with you. You must know the sacrifice He has made.

When I go back now, in my mind, to that strath, and to that day, I see Him there. Yes, in the beauty of the river, in the brightness of the sun and in the fragrance of nature. All of that, but this too: He planned that day, we two, and all that would become of us. Not just planned, but ordained, brought into being: authored and finished.

The mere, dim light of nature is not enough. It will leave us like those poor Greeks at the Areopagus, with an altar ‘to the unknown god’. If He is unknown to us, that is not because He is unknowable, but because we have not yet traced the river of our life back to its source.

‘For with You is the fountain of life; in Your light do we see light.’