Now the Precious Years are Gone

I was not part of the exodus from the Gàidhealtachd last weekend. The crowds making their way over land and sea were a mildly interesting sideshow – a filler at the end of the Gaelic news, a spectacle from which I tried hard to avert my eyes. It is certainly not that I don’t care for the music of Runrig, because they have been the soundtrack to my life since I can remember. These guys made a song of my outlook and experience over four decades and, all things being equal, I should have been there for the last dance.

Some things are just too much, though. Apart from that long-ago concert in the hangar at Stornoway airport, I shared every other Runrig experience with my husband. If I had gone to listen to them once more, I would only have spent my time looking for him in the crowd.

And so, I spent Saturday and Sunday in an island that seemed emptied of half its population. Sometimes, I would hear a snippet of their music on the radio, or catch a glimpse of them on television, and I would remember . . .

My mind goes back to the year that I turned fifteen, when they came to play in Stornoway, and I was just so excited at the prospect. And then, horror of horrors, a controversy broke out: their gig was going to clash with the preparatory services for the Stornoway communion. With any other band of their reputation, that would have been brushed aside. Runrig, though, were different. The date was changed, plans remade, and the Free Church minister in Stornoway received an apologetic phone call from Donnie Munro.

You are never too big, or too important to be respectful. This, after all, was the band that sang, ‘cum ur n’ aire air an Iar is air an àite a dh’ fhàg sibh/keep remembering the west, and the place you left’.

When I say that I grew up with them, I don’t merely mean that they were there as the years went by. I have already alluded to their part in forming my political consciousness, and for articulating the dumb love that I felt – feel – for home. Every year, when I speak to students about our history as a Gaelic people, I can do no better than quote Runrig’s ‘Fichead Bliadhna’. It expresses far better than I ever could the disgrace of successive generations kept in ignorance of their own past:

I learned many things
The English language, the poetry of England
The music of Germany
The history of Spain
And even that was a false history

Twenty years for the truth
I had to wait
I had to search
Twenty years of lies
They denied me knowledge of myself.

It was because of Runrig I took an interest in the Highland clearances, because of Runrig I cared about politics, because of Runrig I first read Carmina Gadelica, because of Runrig I discovered the land wars, because of Runrig I understood that Gaelic was more than just a dying language.

They sang more than merely big songs of hope and cheer: they were the singers in my bloodstream who have stayed mainline all my life.

Everything that matters to me about being a Gael, about being an islander – I can find it somewhere in the canon of this band’s work. Their polite and deferential approach to the Rev Murdo Alex Macleod in 1991 was indicative of something that owes much to the soil in which they were nurtured. Every word I ever heard them sing was shot through with love of place, love of nature, love of people and that matchless Gaelic spirituality that shaped our best lyricists. So many of their melodies recall congregational worship, with the psalms at its centre:

Song, sacred, eternal
Lift on high the voice of the people
Song, I am reconciled
Let it rise up from the moorlands

One of the most memorable evenings I spent in their company was at the now infamous gig on the banks of the Ness, when the deluge threatened to sweep us all away. We were, Donnie and I, soaked to the skin, shivering and muddy. It took hours to get back to the hotel, to get showered and warm, but we agreed that it was the finest of all our Runrig experiences. Until, that is, they came back to the HebCelt and we watched the sun set over Stornoway to their unmistakeable sound. Home, Runrig, and the man I was sharing my own last dance with, though neither of us knew it then.

Many have paid their own tributes to Runrig; most had the courage to be there with them as they said that aching goodbye. Mine, however, happened that night, out on the castle green. But Runrig’s own words, as always, speak for me more eloquently than I could ever do for myself:

But now I know and I don’t want to believe it
Where does it leave you now
That the precious years are gone

I know you well, you’ll be nothing but grateful
Never let it be said they were spent in thoughtless ways
Warm winds blow ‘cross the ties that bind forever
For a place in the sun and for the hearts of love a home

(Photo credit: Marie MacDonald)

 

Gaelic Rock, Gaelic Soil and Community

Next Saturday will be a valedictory one for Gaelic rock, as Runrig perform for the very last time. The week preceding promises to be good for Gaelic soil, marking as it does, the fact that so many acres of this beautiful land are now under the care of those who love them best. This, in case you hadn’t heard, is Community Land Week.

It was probably Runrig who contributed most to the awakening of my consciousness of the land issue. When, at age ten, in the centenary year of the Crofting Act, my eyes were first opened to the fact that I lived at the very edge of political power, I began to see the importance of knowing the hand which history had dealt my people. But my love for the music of this band directed my questions – most of which they had asked before me.

In the song, ‘Fichead Bliadhna’, we have the very real anger of young Gaels, demanding to know why they had learned the history of every civilization on earth but the one to which they belonged. Nothing else Runrig has done, however, compares to the album, ‘Recovery’, for making this very valid point. It is filled with an awareness of how much land and crofting have shaped who the Gaels are.

When I was a teenager, still in school, I used to have to purchase the ‘West Highland Free Press’ in secret, and smuggle it into the house. My father had not outright banned it, but he disapproved of its (Labour) editorial bias. I didn’t exactly love it for that myself, but I adored the opinion columns, and the feeling that even local politics here in the island were important.

And now, in this one week, it feels as though all those strands are somehow weaving back together. While I was thinking about this blog, and letting the ideas percolate in my brain, I listened again to ‘Recovery’. It is just as I remember it, raising past wrongs and the small acts of heroism which brought about change. Its closing track, ‘Dust’, brought something else to mind as well, particularly the line that runs, ‘Oh deep the faith and pure the light that shines inside and guides your people’.

You see, my upbringing wasn’t just one of social politics and the plight of the Gael. I, like everyone else of my generation, was steeped in the history of another people whose relationship with land was also a bit complicated: the children of Israel.

It was in connection with them that I was startled to hear the minister use the term ‘security of tenure’ in church recently. Being the central plank of the 1886 Crofting Act, it brought the horror of eviction without just cause to an end. We can scarcely appreciate its importance today, however, if we do not know what went before. That was very much the point that Runrig made so well.

The children of Israel received security of tenure in their covenant with God. Land apportioned to them as part of this was a blessing and only became otherwise whenever the fifth commandment was breached. In other words, when familial relationships broke down, that land of promise became nothing more than a mere commodity to be fought over.

Land is frequently the focus of division – challenged wills, unseemly squabbling over croft tenancies, sibling rivalry carried to the extent of litigation. It is no coincidence that, when you look at the archaeological record, fortifications developed very swiftly after man ceased to be a wanderer on the face of the earth, and began to lay claim to particular territories. Homes were reinforced against marauding intruders; smiths fashioned swords as well as ploughshares.

We are fortunate in Lewis to have so much control over our land, and it is appropriate to celebrate that fact with a special week of events. It would be quite wrong to take the blessing for granted because it is not actually ours by right, but by providence.

Stewardship of God’s providence is not a task to be undertaken lightly, and it is reassuring that it is being done more and more by people who are well-informed, and who genuinely care for the land.

My only worry is when I see attitudes manifest that would suggest land somehow takes precedence over people, which it ought not. Conservationists wish to protect the wildlife and its habitat, even at the expense of human society. Crofting has done much to shape who we are – it has formed the landscape, to an extent, and it has maintained a population where there might otherwise be only ruins and cold hearths. And, in its turn, crofting has been afforded legal protections which allowed a little security, a little breathing space and, eventually, the chance to develop and grow.

I want what is best for the place in which I live. Most of the people here do. We may differ in our opinion on what that is, or how to get there, but we ought to be able to do that respectfully, and without malice.

It was Runrig, channeling the prophet, Isaiah who said it best, I think, in the one song of theirs that I never really liked – ‘Alba’. They sang the prophet’s words in Gaelic, about the accumulation of wealth which so often comes in the form of land:

‘Woe to those who join house to house, who add field to field, until there is no more room, and you are made to dwell alone in the midst of the land.’

This week, and all the time, community is every bit as important as land.

 

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