Another Man’s Croman

(A belated tribute to the late Eachann Dòmhnallach)

I like a laugh as much as the next miserable Calvinist, if only to take my mind off the doctrine of predestination for a minute. Any longer would be too long, even in the context of eternity. Unfathomable immortality may lie before me, but it’s still a sin to waste any of it on frivolity. 

It was in this grudging spirit that I dislodged ‘A View from North Lochs’ from the bookcase where it had been languishing, and took a flip through. Well, it fairly brought me back to the days when I would, as a geeky teenager, eagerly buy my illicit copy of the WHFP purely for Hector Macdonald’s offbeat look at island life. I had seen him once, shaking his fist at an SNP election cavalcade of which I was part, but he otherwise maintained – for me – an air of mystery and legend. He was smart and funny, with a voice that was nothing if not authentic.

Also subversive. A radical, if you will. And even if you won’t. Indeed, especially if you won’t, for isn’t that the way with radicals?

One of my favourite things about him was the way he managed to be a voice for the maws. Any Leòdhasach over a certain age knows that for long enough particular things ran unquestioningly along established lines. Certain roles were to be fulfilled by townies of a specific caste – it was not merely enough to be born within the samh of taigh nan guts and òcrach Bheinn na Dròbha, but it was a start. You certainly couldn’t have the country Maoris with their turned-down wellies traipsing into the town hall or clarting the carpets of Amity House with  anything unmentionable.

Eachann poked fun at this attitude without mercy. He feigned an exaggerated humility and tugged his forelock in such a way that one knew, somehow, exactly what he really thought. Don’t imagine, however, that this was wanton iconoclasm. In those heady days before the faceless nastiness of social media, this man had the art of satirising without giving gratuitous offence. 

And, as I reread the collected columns, published by Birlinn a number of years after his death, something else came back to me. Last week, in the course of my day job, I had to garner a view from Kinloch. (They will honestly do anything to try and provoke my resignation, but I stand firm). This latter-day Lochie commentator had useful insights to offer on the past and present of the crofting community. One thing really stood out, however.

We talk of schemes to regenerate the crofting community and the Gaelic community . . . and in the process, we overlook the common denominator. All these earnest attempts to revive the language and keep an historic system of land tenure alive, they fail to take account of the way in which community has changed.

One of the proofs that what I say is true is the ebbing away of island humour.
Not long ago, I tried to persuade a neo-crofter that he should keep his hens (I may have called them ‘chickens’ to ensure he understood me) to himself, and that if I was the kind of deviant who wanted hens, I’d get some of my own. He has taken the notion of ‘free-range’ to include my weed-killer infested property, so if the egg consumers of Tolsta start to display odd traits (sorry, odder), you’ll know why.  Not totally au fait with the notion of personal responsibility, he replied unconvincingly that he’d try. I, in turn, suggested that a man who is outwitted by hens probably shouldn’t have any in the first place, lest they overpower him with their superior intellect.

This gentle rejoinder was greeted by apoplexy of the sort normally reserved for hauliers ringing the Calmac booking line. He didn’t get island humour. Of course, why would he? And clearly he thinks that’s the worst I’ve got, so I’ll try to be gentler. Any crofter who wears a safety helmet on a quad probably should be handled with sensitivity, right enough.

I’d have had more respect for him if, instead of throwing a hissy fit, he’d replied as the other fellow did when his neighbour complained of a similar feathery invasion.

‘Tha na cearcan agaibhse staigh an seo a-rithist agus ag ith biadh nan cearcan againne’, the first maw complained.

‘O, tha mi a’ creids’ – tha iad glè bheag umhail mar sin’.

People don’t think of others like they used to, relate to others like they used to or, dare I say, know one another like they used to. It’s ironic that when it was merely ‘sa bhaile againne’, we were more of a community; and now that we no longer know or care for each other as we did, we just can’t stop using the word, ‘community’. 

I’m not all that sure who it is we’re trying to convince. What I do know is that most of the wisest people I’ve ever met had the same answer for dealing with the common or garden amadan – laugh at him. Whether he is an amadan sporting the chains of high office, an amadan with a pen, or an amadan on a grazings committee, he is underneath it all, just an amadan. 

And in a community like ours, we’ve all been the amadan at some point. Some come from a long line of amadain, others strike out for themselves. It would be nice if we could remember that, and learn how to laugh at ourselves – and each other – without it causing a fence.

Singing my Sorrow in a Strange Land

The night before my public ordeal by presbytery last Tuesday, I got a message from a friend saying they were praying for me. They didn’t know that I was nervously facing my first gig as a male impersonator (well, you know, sort of), but that only makes it lovelier in my eyes, that these Lochies would pray for me, while I was miles away, sitting by my stove in Tolsta.

On Thursday, after a moving and thought-provoking service of thanksgiving, I went off to Isles FM – our local community radio station- to do a live show, called Glow. It’s a mix of Christian conversation, music and readings. The host is an easygoing Siarach with a pleasant, laid-back style. He manfully endured my ramblings about the Reformation for the entire show, and we parted company late on a very wintry night.

The midnight drive home over freezing white roads was unpleasant. I registered with surprise the unfamiliar sensation of being glad to see Tolsta: I was home. Back within wi-fi range, my phone pinged out messages. Laid-back Siarach doing his ‘mum thing’ and checking I’d arrived safely. A very dear friend reminding me of something so lovely from that evening’s sermon. And a new friend joking that I seemed to be everywhere, but that he’d enjoyed the show.

The road home had been a challenge, but there was light and warmth and kindness at the end of my journey.

It caused me to reflect on other things that had happened this week. Someone who is researching for a documentary about loneliness called on Monday to discuss it with me. And, just yesterday, a friend very perceptively said that she realised how difficult it must be to have no one to talk to about my day when evening falls.

Yes, that silence has got a particular quality to it. There is no one asking about how work went, or telling me I look tired. Donnie was a generous man and gave of his love and concern liberally. He cared in a very practical way because his heart and his conscience were both larger than was sometimes good for him. And, just when I was most tired, or at my lowest ebb, he would do something unexpected. Our life together was one of small kindnesses – and great ones – which I miss very much.

But, even this is something from which I can learn. I know that this life I find myself living is part of something intentional in God’s scheme. So, with His help, I am trying not to follow it as though it’s some kind of plan B.

By extension, then, the inherent loneliness that accompanies my widowhood is something of which God is aware and which He knows will be the lot of anyone in my situation. He supplies much which alleviates it. I am blessed in having a supportive and loving family, good friends and no shortage of activity to keep me distracted.

Which is fine if all I’m supposed to do is survive. One of my initial thoughts after he died was to wonder how many years I might have to ‘get through’ alone on this earth. But that was transient, something borne of the acute despair I felt at the thought of living without him.

Until I remembered that my strength had never come from Donnie. That was a mistake I had made many times before. When it really mattered, though, God gently showed me who it was that had taken me through.

Three things occur to me, then, inspired by what I have heard and where I have been this week. First of all, I believe that being distracted from grief and loneliness is not what God wants for me, nor is it why He has placed so many incredible people along my path. I think he wants me to see my widowhood, and yes, even the loneliness, as a gift through which I can experience more of His love. That was one message in last Sunday evening’s sermon.

And on Tuesday, discussing the Reformation solas, we were reminded that soli deo gloria, or ‘to God’s glory alone’ may sometimes be overlooked. It is a personal challenge to remember in everything I do and, though I try, of course my efforts frequently fall far short. After all He has done for me, how can I even think of keeping the smallest bit of credit for myself?

Reflecting on all He has done was the theme on Thursday as we gathered for a service of thanksgiving on an icy cold evening. Even in sorrow – perhaps especially in times like these – the minister said, God wants His people to sing their sadness to Him. In singing to Him, they remember His name; His name is wedded to salvation; and so in the midst of their sorrow, they remember all that His grace has accomplished for them.

That song of desolation becomes a song of praise and thanksgiving because they are no longer looking backwards at the night, but forward to the eternal daybreak.

It has been a busy week, one in which I have rarely been alone. Now that I am, my mind does not dwell on the silence, but on all the love He has shown me in these last few days. How can I sing the Lord’s song in this strange land? When I think of all He has done – His steadfastness, His forbearance, His mercy, His love towards me – how can I be dumb?

 

Hallowe’en is coming, and the Clocks Are Going Back . . .

Someone – and I’m not prepared to say who – created a bit of bother in Stornoway Free Church last weekend. They posted a flippantly captioned meme onto the church Facebook page, featuring a photograph of our two ministers. This flagrant misuse of the image was bad enough, but to compound the felony, it was heavily implied that one of the reverends could not be trusted to put the clocks back.

Which is ironic, really, because we all know that the Free Church has been setting this island back centuries since its foundation in 1843. What would one hour more have mattered?

I am a little bit obsessed with time myself. In the normal course of things, I like to be early. Sometimes ridiculously early. This is why I don’t like going to things with my less punctual friends and relatives. Walking into an early morning prayer-meeting once, after the door had been shut almost caused me a nose-bleed. It is my uptight side coming out. And there’s not a lot I can do about it.

On Hallowe’en night, I was due to give a talk on the Otherworld. So, I duly press-ganged my sister into accompanying me, and she wrong-footed me by being at our appointed meeting place early. We both arrived at the Leurbost Community Centre a good forty minutes before I was expected to utter a single word about witches. As we sat in the car park until a more respectable hour, hordes of children dressed as ghosts and witches (well, I assume they were children) rushed past. It brought back many happy memories of similarly dark and cold evenings, when a crowd of us would go from door to door, singing for a donation to the party fund.

And nostalgia was the tone for the whole evening. There was something about it . . . talking, as people did long ago, about superstitions, about mysterious lights and unexplained noises, and women who were suspected of being a bit uncanny. Woven into it was Gaelic, and genealogy, and laughter, and scones. My more eccentric granny was from Achmore, and the previous generation from (inevitably) Ranish. All North Lochie genes seem to emanate from Ranish. And there were lovely ladies there who had worked with my parents in the Old County Hospital, or knew my mother, or were related to a neighbour.

It was an old-fashioned evening. People wanted to ‘place’ me, and I in my turn had to figure them out. There was darkness, cold and an atmospherically howling wind outside. Inside, though, I felt like some magic had indeed taken place, and that, in talking about the tales of da-shealladh and taibhsean, I had unwittingly conjured up the past.

The tea and baking that followed my rambling was preceded by a grace. It makes me glad to know that some communities still continue with this, and some still open all their meetings with prayer.

But it makes me sad to think of the people who would see this humble gratefulness to God for His unwarranted goodness to us as just so much more superstition. There are those who would place the dignified words of blessing and thanks in the same category as charms to ward off the evil eye, or rituals to protect a child from felonious elves.

People are interested enough to come and hear about Hallowe’en, and the things that our ancestors believed. They were, I think, afraid of what might come out of the darkness to harm them. It wasn’t really spirits of the dead, or witches bent on evil that threatened them at all, but the nameless fear of things they could not comprehend. Illness, infant death, loss of all kinds . . . if these come at you unexpectedly and without explanation, perhaps you just have to create your own framework in which to understand them.

And people who dismiss God as superstition are just the same. They have built up their own version of the Otherworld, just a lot less plausible than the one populated with fairies and witches.

Their imaginary realm is the one they inhabit now. And they think it is all there is. The atheist thinks that when he closes his eyes on this world, he simply ceases to be. They do not waste time speaking to an imaginary deity now, because they do not expect to meet him later.

But they will. We all will.

I don’t like to dismiss the beliefs of our forefathers as mere superstition. They believed the things that they did in good faith, but also at times out of ignorance. Some of our good old Highland ministers (not at all the sort to forget to wind the clocks) believed that second sight may have been an example of hierophany – God communicating directly with a rural population which was largely illiterate and unable to read Scripture for itself.

The truth is, however, we don’t know. There are indeed, as the Bard (nope, not Murdo MacFarlane, the other cove) once said, ‘more things in heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy’.

‘Philosophy’ here might well refer to all of learning – whether that is astronomy, biology, or some daft creutair from the local college who has learned a few things about witches and wise women.

But the really wise women are not waiting for revelation in dreams or visions. They are setting their clocks to spend time with the Lord. His book is better than magic, and in His presence you will find more things than are dreamt of in any philosophy, I’m sure – even in the fondest prayers of the Christian.