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.

Bibles, Burials and way-out Wee Frees

I was in Ness again recently, and visited the spot in the old cemetery where the community buried 400 worn-out Bibles in 2006. They had been donated to the local charity shop but were unsalable because of their condition. Yet, people could not quite bring themselves to place the books in a bin. And so, just as the Hebrews used to do with their tattered, sacred scrolls, the Nisich held a funeral for the Bibles.

It seems to me like rank superstition. The Bible – by which I mean the tangible, paper object – is not in itself Holy. God’s word is holy, but the physical form which contains it is nothing more than a shell. And crucially, the Bible gives us no instruction on its own disposal.

Our unenlightened ancestors also treated the Bible in this talismanic way, using it as an amulet to protect them from fairies, witches and visions of death. Not the Word, you understand, but the book itself – carrying it in their pocket, or placing it under a pillow to ward off evil.

At the beginning of my day in Ness, our guide explained to the 45 Americans with whom I was sharing a spiritual pilgrimage, that my denomination did not believe in sacred places. He somewhat took me aback by adding, ‘because everywhere is sacred to them’.

I remember sipping my tea and wondering if I’d fundamentally misunderstood the Free Church, or if this was something adopted at the most recent General Assembly and not fully understood by anyone who doesn’t regularly use words like ‘anent’ or ‘crave’, or indeed realise that stamping one’s feet might still signify agreement in polite society.

Or, did this lovely, gentle Quaker simply not have the heart to tell our guests that I was an unreconstructed Calvinist of the type that burns fiddles and catechises innocent passers-by? Was it just nicer to say everywhere is sacred to us, rather than explain that we don’t have any of the . . . well, the soft window-dressing that people expect of the ‘Celtic’ church?

Sometimes, it’s kinder to chuck the violin on the bonfire than let someone keep trying to torture music out of it. But island restraint dictates that I didn’t contradict this description of my theology. It is not so much that I disapprove: just that I do not understand the need for places to be deemed holy. They are the work of a Divine hand, yes, but any holiness originates with Him and may be imputed to people. Just not places.

It would have been more honest of me to share this with them. Instead, my innate politeness (yes) forced me to nod and smile benignly as folk shared their perceptions of the spirituality of place. Perhaps it doesn’t matter though. After all, when some of my fellow Wee Frees say after a service, ‘there was a lovely spirit in the church tonight’, I tend to think that it accompanies them wherever they go, that they have – unwittingly – brought it with them. Might the same not be true of others, who mistake it as belonging to the place in which they find themselves?

I had hoped they would be able to come to church with me in Stornoway the following Sunday, but they were all leaving the island that day. It might have helped them to see the pared-back character of our building, which I think reflects the pared-back character of our people.
What would they have made, I wonder, of the simplicity of our worship style? To preserve this picture I would, of course, have had to steer them well clear of any tambourine action that might or might not be happening in the church creche. But anyone who keeps to the church will see something quite  lovely in its truthfulness.

The Bible is foundational to our worship. It seems to me that when you fix your eyes on Jesus, through the Word, there is absolutely no need for any other ornament. Read, sung, exegeted: it is all that we require.

You could say that the Bible is, as an object, quite similar to the Christian. In and of itself, it has no spiritual value; but used by God, and transformed by the Spirit, its effect is boundless. This book has crossed continents; it has transformed lives; gone into prisons and war zones; entered hospitals and schools; spoken to the bereaved, the lonely, the frightened, and brought them comfort.

In physical terms, the Bible is just a book. By the same token, we are just bodies. It is our lot to eventually be buried in the ground, just like those tattered Bibles in Ness. But there are two very important differences.

At the latter day, all the human graves will open, and give up their dead, while the Bibles will remain buried forever.

And the other difference?

God will require the presence of His people in Heaven; but there will be no further need of His book.  By then, the Bible can also rest in peace, for its work will be over and done.

So Good I Thought It Was Dead

The thing about Ness is its unpredictability. It is the sort of place where Dr Who’s Tardis could very well choose to land. After all, no other district of Lewis manages to tread that line between loyalty to the past and faith in the future with quite so much aplomb. If I had to sum it up in one word, it would be, ‘authentic’. On the other hand, if I had no such restriction imposed upon me, I’d also add ‘crazy’ and ‘unpredictable ‘, but would be forced, on balance, to include ‘fabulous’ and ‘inspiring’ too.

Last Wednesday, I visited. Or, I should say, revisited. It was there I had my first proper, grown-up job as development manager for Iomairt Nis, a community-run company. For four years, I worked in the wee office behind the stage at Ness Hall.

When we held our millennial Gaelic-Gaeilge link event, Ceilidh san Iar-Thuath, my office served as a dressing room for Danu, a young Irish band.

Another day, a man breezed in and introduced himself to me as, ‘Wylie. I’m a photographer’. I gaped stupidly at him. ‘N-not Gus . . . Wylie?’ I stammered and, when he answered in the affirmative, I responded with, ‘you’re so good I thought you were dead’.

You never really knew what was going to happen from one day to the next in Ness. Inevitably, it was there I got my first taste of infamy.

When I agreed to rent the community hall to the newly-formed Free Church (Continuing), I naively failed to foresee any hassle. I don’t think I’ve ever been called ‘silly’ by quite so many different people in such a short space of time. Even the media wanted to know why I had done something so ‘controversial’.

If it was now, I would probably agonise, consult, pray . . . but I was young and could only see in black and white. I had the management of an underused and decrepit community facility; here was a community group in need of a temporary home. To me, there was no need for fuss. Nor was there any call for me to side against a group of people who simply wished to gather and worship God in much the same way that I was used to doing myself.

It turns out that I was right, though my method of dealing with the situation might have been less than sensitive. Eventually, the dust settled. Those who spoke against such use of the hall probably also regretted doing so. We are human, we all do things in the heat of the moment which we might wish undone a second later. The thing to remember is that our feelings, our opinions and our egos are not all that important in the grand scheme of eternity, or even in the small scheme of community.

True community is resilient, like family. There may be disagreements, hurts and rivalries but ultimately, when the chips are down, everyone clings together. Ness was like that.

And it’s still the same.

In the Comunn Eachdraidh cafe, people breeze in and out. Gaelic is spoken, patronymics are used. Casual conversations take place, and are often about who such and such a person’s family is, or what someone did for a living in Swainbost in 1922. They are comfortable and easily confident in their identity as Nisich because they know and value their roots.

Annie MacSween, who founded Comunn Eachdraidh Nis – the first of its kind – in 1977, is once again its chairperson. I wanted to use the adjective, ‘irrepressible’ in front of her name, but everyone who knows her will mentally insert it anyway, so I needn’t trouble. She told me that their meetings are still conducted in Gaelic. This is not an organisation which commemorates or even reenacts something which is gone, but one which is naturally and easily protecting something very much alive.

The wee dispute of 2000 did not break the palpable sense of community that one gets in Ness. It was, like all family rifts, weathered and then absorbed into the mythology of the place.

In the few hours I spent in Comunn Eachdraidh Nis last week, I spoke to blog readers from Dowanvale – fellow Christians, indeed fellow Wee Frees whom I had never met. Annie received a phone call while I was there from another gentleman I have also got to know through the blog, though we have not yet met either. We spoke, and I agreed to get involved with a pilgrimage he is organising. To Ness, obviously.

I emerged from my day in Ness, blinking in the light of reality, like Lucy tumbling out of the wardrobe from Narnia.

This is a district for which the past is not a foreign country at all, but part of the here and now. Those who died in the wars are not commemorated as names on a stone tablet, but remembered as vital links in the patronymic chain.

And Ness’ secular and Christian heritage co-exist unselfconsciously. For me, this is Lewis at its best: unadulterated by alien notions about identity and inclusivity. There, being a Christian and a Gaelic-speaker did not make me feel odd; it reminded me that I belong to something with roots and longevity.

Community is so good I thought it was dead. Ness proved me wrong.