Life Should Mean Life

My employers, in their wisdom, decided that I should learn the dark art of genealogy, believing that it would augment the other subjects I teach. They would not listen as I protested, tears streaming down my cheeks, and they turned aside from my plaintive cries of, ‘my grandfather was a Hearach, I don’t need to know any more’. Nothing else would do but that I should be forced to gaze upon the full horror of my own private gene pool, without so much as benefit of clergy.

The clergy, as it turns out, would be no good anyway. I confided in the minister on Sunday that I had been wading in the murkiness of my ancestry. He told me that he had discover a forebear of his own was someone fairly horrifying. My best guess was Genghis Khan, but he shook his head solemnly, ‘worse, even, than that’.

And so, if the person I might otherwise have turned to for counselling is, himself, traumatised by the past, what am I to do? I am left to confront the worst that Miavaig, Achmore and (whisper it) Ranish, have to offer.

To be honest, I had approached this research with some trepidation and not because of my mother’s bizarre network of Deasaich and Lochies. Sometimes you just have to accept that you’re descended from werewolves and move on.

It was my father’s side that was causing the real concern. He was the product of my granny’s liaison with a man she met while working at the herring fisheries in Fraserburgh. All my life, he had been a taboo, an unmentioned and unmentionable shadow; he was a gap in the family tree and likely to remain so.

Still, I had a few clues. Armed with those, I went looking in earnest last week, and found more than I ever expected. He married six months before my father was born – another lady who was also expecting his child. Tracing back from there, I discovered that his own mother had a child to another man before finally marrying my great-grandfather.

So much personal and social turmoil in one line – and so many repetitions of that hateful word: illegitimate.

I realise that it was a legal term, but it carried so much weight of disapproval in society that the child could be forgiven for thinking that he or she was indeed ‘not lawful’. But, then, that all depends on whose law we are following.

When I try to imagine how hard it must have been for my granny to tell her parents of her condition, in Doune in 1927, my heart goes out to her. She had to face their disapproval and disappointment, while also facing up to her own fear, and the heartbreak of finding out that the man she had hoped to marry was married to someone else.

And I wonder, if it was now, whether she would just quietly book herself into a clinic, and end the life she was carrying. Would she be crushed by her mother’s anger, devastated at being made unwelcome in the family home? Or, would the thought of gossip in the small village where everybody knew each other drive her to blot out the mistake as quickly and as cleanly as she could?

See, there are many who would say that, had that option been open to her, it would have been my grandmother’s right to take it. Her body, her choice.

But, she did not have the option, and so she had to suffer all those things I mentioned. It could not have made for an easy life, but neither did it kill her. It’s said that, when she bravely went to seek baptism for her baby boy, the minister was kind. The fact that I even know that speaks volumes. There would have been precious little kindness, little softness in how she was met, as someone who had so spectacularly breached the rules of society.

She weathered the storm. My father not only survived his upbringing, but grew into a man that any mother could be proud of. He was a good father to his sons and his daughters, a good husband to his wife, and a very kind human being. It was not unusual for people to turn up at our house, just to thank my father for how he had dealt with their loved ones when they had been in his care.

He was actually, for me, the epitome of human dignity. Not just because of his own character, but because of how it was formed. Unplanned, illegitimate, inconvenient – but a life, with all the potential that holds. My granny could probably only see the heartbreak of her own dashed hopes, her ruined reputation, and the expense of another mouth to feed. Who knows what all that pressure might have led her to do, had she been due in 2018, instead of 1928.

Nobody knows what the child in the womb might become.

John the Baptist recognised his Saviour, and leapt for joy, though they were both as yet unborn. Life is precious from the moment it is conceived, and its destiny belongs only in the hands of its Creator. It may be inconvenient, it may be frightening, it may be painful, it may be difficult.

But, then, that’s the point of this wonderful life – in God’s hands, it may be anything.

 

 

 

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.