Secure Tenure in a Better Country

There is a line in the Runrig song, ‘Flower of the West’, which says that ‘the breathing of the vanished lies in acres round my feet’. For me, that articulates something that I feel very much here in my own community – the almost palpable sense of history everywhere. I know people who claim no interest in the past, who dismiss it as irrelevant. We are here, now, they will say, what’s the point in looking back?

Well, the point in looking back is to see how we got here. I am firmly with William Faulkner on this, when he said, ‘The past is not dead. The past is not even past’. How could it ever be, in a place like this?

That’s why I think it is a tragedy that Gaels do not learn their own history. For many years, the only formal access to it was through the Higher Gàidhlig course where, if you studied the poetry of the 18th and 19th centuries, you would also be taught about the Jacobite cause, the clearances, the famine, emigration and the Land War. And that knowledge is so empowering. When you know about these things, you can see where your community, your family, and you as an individual fit into the bigger picture.

That is where I derive my identity from.  I am a Gaelic-speaking hybrid of Maclean and Macdonald. My father’s people were cleared from Mangersta and settled at Doune: that’s Doune Carloway of the Iron Age broch. And my mother’s folk were from Harris on her paternal side: na Fìdhlearan, hereditary foresters to the Campbells of Scalpay, in the deer forest of Amhuinnuidhe, before relocating to Ardhasaig, via Taransay.

Today, I work in the very college from which I graduated in 1997. Our pretty campus is situated in the grounds of Lews Castle, built by Sir James Matheson in 1851 and gifted by Lord Leverhulme to the people in 1923, when the Stornoway Trust Estate was created – the first community-owned estate in Scotland.

I sit on the board that manages the Lancashire soap magnate’s legacy. Despite all the talk, the iconoclasm, and the liberal sprinkling of meaningless words like ‘progressive’ throughout public rhetoric, I see at least part of my role there as being to maintain the dignity of such an historic organisation. Stornoway Trust has always had a sense of its own historicity, and that’s why I feel an affinity with it: knowing your roots will always strengthen your sense of identity.

Of course, there are other aspects of my identity too. On a Sunday, I worship at the Free Church on Kenneth Street  – itself a relic of that great chapter in our history, when ministers and congregations walked out of the Church of Scotland to form a denomination free from the power of patronage, and outside interference.

Its establishment precipitated other radical acts. Described as ‘the crofting community at prayer’, it is believed that the community cohesion and leadership provided by the early Free Church, contributed to the events that followed, culminating in the Napier Commission and the Crofting Act of 1886, which finally granted security of tenure. Beyond that there were – here in Lewis – the raids which saw crofters clashing with landlord and government in their thirst for land on which to subsist.

I grew up in the relatively new village of Newmarket, where there is a mixture of crofts and of allotments, rented from the Trust. Our home was built on one of the latter, but my father still ran the croft at Doune, shearing and dipping sheep within the tobhta of his old home.

Land, you see, runs through it all. The soil under our feet, and the landscape before our eyes, seem to form the boundaries of our being. We ache for places we have left, and love those in which we make our homes. It is a universal experience, but always rooted in a familiar landscape – one whose form and history is meaningful to us.

And yet, however strong my sense of self is, however anchored here in Lewis, and however much the past whispers to me as I move through the landscape of my life . . . this is not really home. Yet, this is not the contradiction that you might think, because – like many other refugees – I have a dual history and a dual identity.

As much as the Fìdhlearan of Ardhasaig are my people, I would claim kinship also with the Israelites. Their yearning for the land of promise speaks to me in my own geographical and historical context. Because I know who I am as an islander, I can recognise in myself that desire for true belonging.

The most famous articulation of this, unsurprisingly, comes from Paul in 2 Corinthians 5: 8, when he says that he would prefer to depart this world to be with Christ. In a letter he left for us, his family, before his death, my father expressed his love for us all in just those terms. Though he said that another lifetime with us would be wonderful, he was prepared to go and be with his Saviour, which – he wrote – was far better.

Is that not an extraordinary witness? When we are blessed to have family and friends for whom we care deeply; when we are intimately tied in to the landscape and history of a particular place; when our identity here on earth is made of something older and finer than ourselves . . . what a testimony, then, to be able to say that there is something more awaiting us beyond those limits.

I believe that the privilege of heritage and history is there to teach us about this greater gift. God placed each of us within a particular lineage, a particular culture, so that we might identify with that international movement of refugees towards our ultimate home.

Knowing who my people are, and where I came from does not tie me faster to this world, as you might expect; it heightens my expectation of what God has prepared in eternity that is richer even, than the security I enjoy now. There, the father who once walked with me over the acres at Doune, was happy to go; there the husband who loved the vista of Traigh Mhòr was happy to go.

One day, I too will finish my journey, and find true security of tenure.

 

 

 

 

 

The Crook for all Lots

‘You’ll have been picked up by the CCTV’, the elder informed me solemnly on Sunday. I had tiptoed past his gate early on Saturday morning, glad rags from the previous night’s carousing in my hand, and thought that I might just get away with it. The confusion of waking up in a strange bedroom in Stornoway had probably been at fault; after all, experience should have taught me by now that wayward women cannot fly under the surveillance system of the Free Church: EL-DAR.  There are Wee Free drones everywhere, and they can’t all be watching clothes lines.

I had gone out at the respectable hour of 6.30pm on Friday evening, to enjoy a meal and some speeches in a local hotel, to mark the occasion of the Estate Factor’s 25th year in post. We were doing so a year after the actual event because . . . well, they had been waiting for a blone to be elected in order to remember stuff like anniversaries, and organise parties . . .

A good time was had by all. Appropriate gifts were presented, including an inscribed shepherd’s crook, upon which the gentleman of the hour proceeded to lean in a rather too-settled manner as he articulated his thanks. I imagine there will be many future occasions when he leans similarly upon the stick, and regales his audience with wisdom from his considerable store.

Aside from providing the owner with a prop upon which to lean, however, the shepherd’s crook has a much wider variety of functions.

In fact, for those tasked with the management of sheep, there may be a requirement to travel over rough ground, and it is an aid to them on the journey. Anyone who has ever walked the moor will know the value of any prop which will help you stay upright, and out of the bogs.

Of course, your crook may well come in handy as a weapon too. Your flock can easily fall prey to predators – especially the lambs – and it makes sense for the protector of the flock to have a stick that he can wield in their defence.

And, the curved end of the staff is perfect for hooking a sheep around the neck in order to catch or move it to where you wish it to go.

While any and all of these functions might well be exercised by our Factor – either in his private capacity as a crofter, or his professional role as Estate manager – I am going to resist the temptation to speculate here on how he might use the crook to steer wayward Trustees. Far be it from me, either, to suggest how he might deploy his new weapon against . . . but let’s just leave that there.

A couple of weeks ago, the Factor put me right on an important point of theology. (I should point out that, though his duties are surprisingly wide-ranging, this is not normally considered one of them). He reminded me that sin could be committed in the thought, just as much as in the word or deed and, thereby, threw a carefully-constructed view on a given matter into total confusion. I have still not resolved that particular inner conflict.

But then, the Truth does not exist in order to make us comfortable with sin.

Theology, in fact, might well be seen as performing the same role in our lives as that shepherd’s crook, if it is deployed dextrously and for the purpose for which it was intended. And, make no mistake, by ‘theology’ here, I do not mean man-made rules, or academic theory: I mean the Scripture proofed truths which meaningfully direct our lives towards God.

When I have found myself in the terrain that, sometime or another, meets all Christians, I have been – on occasion – slow to reach for the supporting staff of theology. At this point, I am tempted to lean on another one altogether: that of my own wisdom. Let me tell you, though, nothing is guaranteed to sink you in the mire quicker than your own faulty reasoning. That is why Proverbs 3: 5-6 says,  ‘Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding.  In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths’.

At those times when I have failed to do this (and they are many), the next thing that happens is I leave myself vulnerable to the enemy. When I miss the means of grace, when I let my prayer life weaken, when I fail to open the Word as often as I ought . . . of course the enemy senses that I am distant from the rest of the flock. He moves in slowly, preparing to pick me off. But God has given his people the crook to use as a weapon also; Scripture has so many reminders that there is nothing the enemy can do against the power of Christ. For me, the battles with Satan have been won many times through the strengthening of Psalm 27, and its triumphant reminder:

The Lord is the stronghold of my life;
of whom shall I be afraid?

But, sometimes I find that the Shepherd still has to hook me around the neck, and pull me to himself. Wherever I am, however, no matter how far, his reach extends there, and he will draw me gently and lovingly back. It may be that he achieves this through the preaching of his Word; but more often, it is actually through the love that he communicates via his own people who are, of course, my people.

Like the shepherd’s crook we presented last weekend, then, God’s Truth is lovely, but its real beauty lies in its purpose: to support, to protect, and to draw us to Himself. If we make use of it, then it will uphold us in any situation.

 

 

 

Tilting at Windmills

Having spent a fair bit of my teens and twenties campaigning for the SNP, I was on something of a sabbatical in 2005. Not long married, my life revolved around making a home for myself and my husband. But I was delighted, and on a Red Bull/coffee-induced high the night Angus Brendan MacNeil took the Western Isles back for my party. He visited our home the next weekend, and I was glad that supposedly Tory Donnie had quite literally hung out the flags in celebration.

There were others, less nationalistic than I, who were – nonetheless – delighted with our new MP, simply because he had ousted Calum MacDonald. After eighteen years, the sitting MP had fallen foul of the anti-wind farm lobby, with his vociferous support for developer-led projects in Lewis. Like most rural politicians with any vision at all, Mr MacDonald had a desire to see inward investment come to his constituency, and said of the proposed Barvas moor wind development:

‘It is the equivalent of oil coming without the problem’.

Ah, Calum, without the problem . . . if only.

Scroll forward to the present day, then, and what do we find? Angus MacNeil, now an MP of fourteen years’ standing, making an urgent plea for the 600mw cable that can only be justified by . . . yes, you guessed it, developer-led wind farms.

And, isn’t politics a funny old business, but it seems that Calum MacDonald agrees with the man who replaced him. He is quoted as saying, ‘we certainly need one big development in order to finance the interconnector’.

Before you start getting a warm, fuzzy feeling, and begin to believe that the two of them are pulling on the same oar for the good of community over party politics . . . well, na bi cho gòrach. Did you just come down the Creed in a fishbox?

Calum now supports wind farms developed by communities. Wee communities, like Aiginish, Sandwick, Melbost and Branahuie, that is. He thinks that four grazing committees have more right to represent ‘community’ than, oh, say, Comhairle nan Eilean, or the Stornoway Trust. Perhaps it’s having fallen foul of the ballot box himself that leaves his attitude to democracy so jaded; we will probably never know. Somehow, though, the folk from those four committees have been persuaded that they, and they alone, have the right to derail something that elected representatives of the whole community have worked for years to bring to fruition.

I sympathise with Calum; it can’t have been easy seeing his career as MP being taken away in one evening. He must have wanted to stay where he was and see the Barvas project – and, later, its successor, the Stornoway Wind Farm – to completion.

In 2008, three years into Mr MacNeil’s tenure, the Barvas Moor development had been rejected; four years after that, the Scottish Government gave the thumbs-up to LWP’s Stornoway project.

Had he still been our MP, I wonder how Calum MacDonald would have received these tidings?

We can only know what his response HAS been, as a member of the unelected public. It has been to try, most cynically, to drive a wedge between one iteration of community and another. He has attempted to paint legitimately elected organisations, representative of the Western Isles in the case of the Comhairle, and of the Stornoway Estate in the case of the Trust, as somehow infringing the rights of crofters.

How? In acting for the greatest possible good, for the widest possible interpretation of the word, ‘community’, how has the Comhairle or the Trust acted to the detriment of anyone? No one can answer that, except in the usual way – by bandying about words like ‘corruption’ and ‘cronyism’; sentiments that are beneath contempt and, incidentally, far more detrimental to the integrity of our community than any decision made by elected members.

There has been a coming together in the last few days, I am delighted to see. The Stornoway Trust, Comhairle nan Eilean Siar, the MP, the MSP, and even the First Minister, are all united in their desire to see the 600mw interconnector awarded to the Western Isles. One councillor, claiming that the entire Comhairle was out of step with him, received a letter from the Council Leader. I shared the copy that came into my own possession, not mischievously, but because I felt the public needed to see it too.

You can only make decisions based on the information available to you. I believe that Lewis Wind Power has been very conscientious in supplying that; I know that the Trust has also made a great effort in that regard; and yes, perhaps the local authority could do better. If you are too quiet, you allow misinformation and propaganda to fill the vacuum. Roddie MacKay’s missive to Councillor MacCormack, however, says everything that needs to be said.

The community, in every measure that we have of that quality, has now united behind the common good. Calum MacDonald has – once again – found himself on the wrong side of the debate. But there is a spirit of consensus in the air, and he could still be part of that – himself and the so-called ‘four townships’.

A few people have got dewy-eyed over the idea of ‘the crofters’ being mistreated by the nasty Comhairle and the wicked landlord. Some have got carried away with the idea that this handful of people, from four unelected grazing committees, are heroically standing up against the might of a French multinational.

But, in reality, they are simply tilting at windmills.

We Can’t Go On Together With Suspicious Minds

This time last year, I was wrestling prayerfully with a decision that I thought I had already made. I had concluded – entirely on my own flawed wisdom – that people like me did not have any business seeking election. Campaigning for others, yes, that was fine, but never chucking my own Free Church hat into the ring.

The idea of being a candidate for anything actually made me feel a little panicky. But, God often asks us to feel the fear and do it anyway, trusting that he will keep us.

I am not going to bore anyone by revisiting the way in which the ensuing campaign lived up to all my horrified expectations, and indeed, exceeded them on many occasions. Suffice to say that I saw both the best and worst of human behaviour, and still find it incredible how much vitriol five (unremunerated) seats on the board of a community landlord can provoke.

It has been an interesting year and I have achieved one personal goal at least: I have learned an awful lot about the Stornoway Trust and the community it serves.

And I can say without flinching, without fear, and definitely without favour (unless you count the brown envelopes, back-handers and holidays to France) that I am glad to have been persuaded into the fray.

I am proud to have been elected by the community I love, onto the board of an organisation that, no matter what the keyboard warriors may say, has consistently retained its dignity.

These keyboard warriors are, in many cases, the same ones who have been baying for a wicker man in which to put the Lewis Sabbath.

As a dyed in the wool Wee Free, it is with no small sense of irony that I say this: they are iconoclasts. Is it old? Has it been a long-established tradition? Can we say that it’s unique to Lewis? Might it even be classed as a local ‘institution? Yes? Oh well, destroy it. Stamp on it, smash it, burn it, change it – rebuild it in the image of something better. Modernise it, copy what they’re doing elsewhere . . .

Or, and here I make a suggestion which I know is doomed to fall on deaf ears: find out a bit more about it; try to understand it, even value it for its idiosyncrasies.

Please, though, before you do, understand one thing: it is completely unique. It is not like the post 2003 Reform Act community trusts – they were welcome political developments; Stornoway Trust was an ahead of its time oddity, which has had to run as a business since 1923.

It’s idiosyncratic as only an organisation of its vintage, and one-off constitution can be. The governing deed is, nonetheless, a pretty robust document and it permits the Trust quite a bit of latitude in terms of the kinds of activity permissible to – and please forgive the brutish, modern parlance about such a graceful old lady – keep the business afloat.

Folk obsessed with denigrating the Trust (yes, it appears to be a hobby for some and, of course, a paid enterprise for others) are falling into the usual trap that seems to dog the more negative Leòdhasaich: comparison. No, the Stornoway Trust does not conduct itself like those younger community-owned estates: it is not a membership organisation and therefore, has never held an AGM. However, and I know I’m repeating myself here, but it bears repetition:

Just because something is not done in the public gaze, that does not necessarily mean it is being purposely hidden from sight. And even if it is being purposely kept under wraps, why ascribe sinister motives?

I am more sorry than I can say at what is being fed to the public here in Lewis as news. This past week, we have seen gossip, hearsay and – at times – slander being elevated to the status of investigative journalism. The local paper even seemed to suggest that personal attacks on trustees are justified because people don’t know what happens at Trust meetings.

Well, I’ll tell you what happens. We are a board of nine volunteers. Many of us have full-time jobs, spouses, families, and additional voluntary commitments. On the last Monday of every month, we meet in the estate office. At 5.30pm, in fact, lest you suspect me of being evasive. The agenda contains a minimum of twenty eight items. (Obviously, the hidden agenda has quite a few more, but that’s the sort of thing I only discuss with my cronies).

The meeting may go on until fairly late. Several of the staff, therefore, have to work a very long day, but they don’t complain. Just as they don’t complain about the unforgivable way some people speak to and about them; or the nasty letters and snide online remarks, all of which conveniently forget that the recipients are actually real, live, human beings.

Once a month, we come together as a board – but it doesn’t end there. In any given week, there may be two or three additional meetings of our sub-committees, or with other organisations. Again, the trustees have to come away from their other commitments to be there; and the staff have to slot all of this into their own tightly packed schedules.

Four of us are rookies, all coming up to our one-year anniversary. I cannot speak for the others, but I can tell you that my learning curve, which I alluded to earlier, has not been of my own making. Yes, I certainly have committed time and effort to picking up the moves – but I have had good and (usually) patient teaching from more experienced trustees, from the ladies in the office (for whose presence I am eternally grateful) and from the only occasionally eye-rolling Factor.

So, as I reflect on all the challenges which we undoubtedly face as a self-financing community landlord, and on the historic legacy of which we trustees are custodians, do I resent the time commitment of which I speak? No, not one bit; at least, not when I’m allowed to get on with what I was elected to do.

The biggest frustration is all the energy wasted on responding to the negative and bitter narrative which consists of repeating sweeping generalisations like ‘the Trust is corrupt’, and other equally ill thought out remarks. But, as I have said before, and will go on saying, those who are bent on destroying the reputation of others only succeed in damaging their own.

I opened my campaign for the Trust the same way that we open our meetings – with prayer. When I was persuaded that this was the right path for me, I committed to it utterly. ‘Whatsoever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might’, as Ecclesiastes says, which does not, however, give me licence to indulge in corruption or any other sin that Perceval Square might have on offer.

Of course I am not beyond doing wrong, nor can I claim to be immune to temptation. But – and I really don’t mean to sound disappointed – there has been precious little outlet for either at the Stornoway Trust.

Transparency, Truth and Trusting Each Other

I hardly have time to sit in my accustomed chair at the Stornoway Trust before a brown envelope is slid across the table to me. It’s such a regular occurrence now that I barely even notice. Wordlessly, I stow it in my bag, alongside my equally ill-gotten gains from the Free Church (two crumpled newsletters, a Bible study guide and an uneaten pan drop).

Normally our meetings commence with us bowing three times to a portrait of Lord Leverhulme, but if there are enough Trustees present from the Free Church (and, I mean, how many is enough?), all that idolatrous stuff goes right out the window. I make the tea, while the men take snuff and talk about the price of bales.

‘A vote of thanks to the little lady’, the chairman will say, patting me on the head, and the others chorus, ‘Well done, a ghràidh – did you not do any baking?’ Then I cry and they don’t know what to do, and it all becomes fairly awkward for a bit.

We usually perk things up by discussing how to further sell the estate down the river to a French multinational. This is actually the raison d’ etre of the Trust, and although we haven’t yet seen a single turbine go up, our French vocab is coming on a treat. When we next go on one of our wee jollies to the mainland, I’ll be able to tell reception, ‘excuse me, there’s a naked man in my room’ in three languages if necessary.

When we’ve finished guffawing (the men guffaw, actually, I simper) about everything we’re inflicting on the poor peasants, the rent book is brought out, and we decide which widows are up for eviction. Last month we put a woman off her land for a range of infractions, including the heinous charge of looking at the Factor the wrong way, and failing to face Soval when saying her prayers.

It’s usually at this point I manage to settle them down with brandy and cigars, so that we can talk about which lies I should circulate on social media that week.  Once, when I was very green, I suggested that we could maybe just tell them the truth.

‘Don’t be daft’, one of the older hands said, ‘who’d believe you?’

And, do you know what? He was right.

In fact, I don’t really understand why Lewis has not got a thriving film industry. There are more improbable conspiracy theories flying around than even Oliver Stone could cope with. I have had people demand to know what the truth is about a particular issue . . . oh, say, turbines, just plucking an example out of thin air. Yet, when they are presented with the facts, there are howls of derision, and cries of, ‘liar!’

It’s frustrating, to say the least. This, though, is the sad world that we are living in. There is little trust of our fellow human beings, and even less respect. That people imagine you are corrupt and a liar simply because you hold some kind of elected office – however humble – speaks volumes about what we have become.

The stick of choice with which most keyboard warriors now beat their councillors, MPs and even the lowly trustee is ‘transparency’. If you are doing something away from the public gaze, it naturally follows that you are wilfully – and with malice aforethought, as all the best courtroom dramas have it – concealing your actions. My own, undoubtedly flawed, understanding of representative democracy, however, led me to believe that we elect people to do a particular job on our behalf so that we don’t have to be troubled with it ourselves.

It may be a matter of personal taste, of course, but I have heard enough public sector jargon to last me a lifetime. I don’t want my councillor, or member of the local health board knocking on my door to show me their working-out. Just give me the bottom line, fellas, and I’ll trust the rest to you.

But not wanting to know every detail of every decision made in my name does not extend as far as some council members seem to think it should. Those of us discussing our very valid concerns about the underfunding of Bethesda, our local hospice, on open forum this week, were chided by an elected member. His reproof ran along the lines of ‘we’re sorting it in our own way behind closed doors; you’re not helping matters by discussing it here’.

Now, I know that Facebook is cynically used by some for blatant rabble-rousing. You know how they operate: chuck a verbal hand grenade, sit back and count the ‘likes’, pretending their own hands are clean. Must we assume that every discussion which takes place there will descend to that level of puerile insult and name-calling?

In fact, I think that social media, used responsibly, can highlight concerns which go unnoticed – in this case, for a worryingly long time – by public and politician alike. I would like to see it being used in this way more frequently. Every contribution to the thread on Bethesda was respectful and measured, but I cannot blame the councillor in question for blanching at the sight of it, because many local people have discredited Facebook as a forum for rational debate by using it mainly as a space in which to defame others.

We have to be able to talk over the things that concern us as a community, but not in ways that demean ourselves – which is all we do when we resort to character assassination in place of reasoned argument. Everyone is entitled to his or her opinion – but not to bandy them about like weapons to the detriment of truth and reason.

I think we need to show less tolerance of such behaviour. When it comes to our use of social media, how about we show a little less imagination, and a little more respect?

 

 

Who Should Inherit the Wind?

This week, I have a guest blogger. He is originally from the village of Sandwick, and has strong connections to crofting and farming, with a particular interest in sheep husbandry. I decided to let him air his views on the debate over wind farm developments, just to provide a little bit of balance to my own. Hopefully he won’t bite the hand that feeds him.

His name is Mr Roy MacDonald Murray – over to him . . .

I thought the Blone understood that I would always be a Sandwick dog. After all, she’s the one who said that, when you adopt outside your own culture, it’s important to respect the adoptee’s heritage. That, I think, is why she and the late Cove allowed me to keep MacDonald as a middle name – a wee nod to my origins on Sandwick farm, before the Boss died, and I came to live in North Tolsta, of all fleeking places.

Anyway, we got on okay. The Cove wasn’t that well, but he used to buy me sausage rolls. He wanted me to restore a bit of gender balance in the house – the Blone and the two cats are all . . . well, blones.

Even when the Cove had gone too, myself and herself did okay. We kept each other sane.

Then, last March, it all changed. I couldn’t figure out what was going on, but the cat took a lot of pleasure in telling me. She said that the Free Church had got the Blone a seat on a Truss. Now, I may be a bit dopey, but even I know that sitting on a truss is pointless  – and I informed the cat of this. After staring at me in disdain for what seemed like an eternity, she finally suggested that I read all about the Blone’s new hobby for myself.

So, I went where all the right-thinking people of Lewis go for their information – the interweb.  And I have never read such a catalogue of betrayal in my life. Well, to be fair, I hadn’t done much reading at all up until then, apart from the odd report from the Wool Marketing Board, and the labels on my Pedigree Chum.

The Blone and her Trust (that cat really needs to work on its diction) have, apparently, sold the people of Sandwick (and other, lesser villages) down the river.

Now, I know I live with her, and I’m biased – according to one of the blogs I read, it’s actually against the law for people to be related in Lewis – but in this case, she came late to the party, when most of the betrayal had already happened. The wise people of the interweb are saying that she’s either stupid, or a liar, and I haven’t yet figured out which. ‘Both’, the cat says, but she’s very judgemental, so I’ll keep my own counsel on this one.

Either she’s been duped by the Bad Men of the Trust, or she has become One of Them. I had no idea that living in this island was quite so exciting – it’s like a Cold War thriller, but with tractors instead of submarines. It’s also very hard to work out who the Enemy is, and who the Good Guys are. The internet says the Crofters are the Good Guys, but that doesn’t make total sense.

I mean, a lot of the Bad Men of the Trust are also Crofters, but then people say the Crofters are poor, yet heroic, truaghans, so how can Crofters and Bad Men be one and the same?

I also find it a bit rich that the Blone is suddenly so interested in wind power when she’s always been very scathing about my flatulence. She says that the landlord is doing what’s best by letting the Big Developers come in. Apparently they’re French. I don’t know what the late Cove would have to say about her consorting with them; he wouldn’t buy French wine even years after the BSE crisis. The Blone would tell him not to be so racist and illogical. . . but that stuff must be okay now.

Crofters are allowed not to like the French: coming over here, putting up wind farms, taking our debt . . .

The lease was signed in Trustees’ blood, and will last till all the seas gang dry, or Scotland wins the World Cup – whichever is soonest. And the Chairman’s soul, along with that of his firstborn, also belongs to the French now too. That’s what social media says.

Anyway, the people of Sandwick (and other, lesser villages) simply want to override democracy and run the estate themselves. I’m sure the voters of North Tolsta, Gress, Back, Coll, Tong, Newmarket, Newvalley, Stornoway and most of Point, would be quite happy if we binned their votes and told them they’re now under The Crofters of The Four Townships (which I actually thought was a sequel to Lord of the Rings).

The Blone might be good to me in lots of ways, but I am unamused at what she and the Bad Men are doing to my homies in Sandwick. If they want to overthrow democracy, put themselves into a lot of debt, jeopardise the interconnector (no idea – the cat says it’s like a big extension lead, but what does she know), scupper years’ of development, against the will of the majority . . . well, that’s their right.

It’s very simple, the web says. The Crofters are good; the Trust and the French are bad. Getting stuff done free is evil; debt is virtuous – because it would be OUR debt, apparently.

I’m a black and white kind of dog (geddit?), and a loyal son of Sandwick. So, I say we just let four grazing committees take over from the Bad Men (also the Bad and/or Stupid Blone). What could possibly go wrong?

And if the whole plan does start to fall apart, maybe we can put a Truss around it, to keep things together, like before.

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.

David, Goliath and the Hub of My Universe

On Friday, I stared into the abyss. Well, it was more of a pit, really. Or, to be totally accurate, a quarry. This was not an existential crisis; just a trip out with the coves of the Stornoway Trust . . . although, come to think of it, the two can be remarkably similar (don’t tell them I said so).

Since I started hanging out with these guys, I’ve been to some unusual – for me – places: a couple of wind farms, a fabrication yard, and, this week, a quarry. Now, if I can just persuade one of them to take me along to a lamb sale next year, I will be well on my way to completing the bucket list.

It continues to be a steep learning curve. The Trust area – including, as it does, the town of Stornoway – has a much more diverse composition than many other community-owned estates. That’s why so much of our time is spent concerned with industrial development, and the employment opportunities it will create. We have a responsibility to what James Shaw Grant, one-time editor of the ‘Stornoway Gazette’, called, ‘the hub of my universe’.

He was inspired in this reference by the large maps which Lord Leverhulme had printed, showing Stornoway as the natural centre of the North Atlantic fishing grounds. The landlord’s ambition for the area’s potential chimed with Grant’s own warm feeling towards Stornoway, and for many years he kept one of the maps on the wall of his own office. For those of us who live in and around it, and who love it because it is home, the town remains indeed the hub of our universe.

I was first acquainted with James Shaw Grant’s book of the same name when I was a young teenager, rummaging in the library during the summer break. He had the ability to evoke a bygone era with his well-chosen words; and his descriptions of both people and places were always infused with equal measures of affection and respect. What a different place this community would be if commentary on public life was as measured now as Grant always made it. Although he was an astute observer of people and situations, he seemed capable of maintaining a line of integrity that was uniquely his own.

You get the feeling that he was well aware of the shortcomings which were part and parcel of community and municipal life – but he was too much of a gentleman, and a local lad, to make it personal.

He was still just a boy when he used to overhear his parents talking about Lord Leverhulme’s ongoing hostilities with the land-raiders. From a child’s perspective, it appeared to be an argument over milk – the landlord not wishing to see farms split into crofts, lest it compromise the town’s supply of the white stuff.

To those looking on, it was a ‘David and Goliath’ (the cliché was young then) battle between oppressed crofters and a thrawn landlord. They were determined that he would hand over what had been promised to them by the government. Single-minded in their goal, they seemed not to be interested in the landlord’s schemes for development. These would not benefit the crofters, of course; only the wider community.

That wider community showed its support for Leverhulme’s plans in the form of a nine thousand signature petition.

However, neither history nor these petitioners judged the crofters too harshly. Theirs was widely seen to be a cause with some merit. It was also acknowledged that the landlord had tried his best in difficult circumstances. At no point did he become a hate figure. William Grant – father of James – was the editor of the ‘Stornoway Gazette’ during the Leverhulme period, and evidently reported on the whole affair with fairness and dignity, permitting both sides to emerge with their reputations intact.

If you read the accounts of that period, as I have – many times – you get a sense of a world which has largely vanished. We are not the better of its passing. Nowadays, the kind of difference of opinion which divided Leverhulme from some of his crofting tenants can very quickly become personal and ugly.

The advent of social media has a lot to answer for. We have all become familiar with the concept of the ‘keyboard warrior’ – the person who becomes awfully brave removed to that distance, and who will type things they would never say in person.  Such individuals don’t care about community; they care about point-scoring. They build up hatred, resentment and all manner of conspiracy theories in their fevered brains . . . and treat the rest of us to its toxic run-off.

This can be destructive to the person themselves, to those they target and, in a place like this, to community.

Given last weekend’s news regarding the fate of the ‘Stornoway Gazette’, James Shaw Grant’s intelligence, and genial demeanour is often on my mind. We are badly in need of a balanced, good-humoured, intelligent and gentle voice of our own.

This is the hub of our universe, as it was his. ‘We won’t have it said’, a wise man remarked to me recently, ‘that we sank to a level that demeans ourselves’. Or, he might have added, that demeans the place we love.

In fighting for it, we need not fight with each other in ways from which we cannot come back.

 

Give a Blone a Bad Name?

A week is a long time in politics – even when your involvement is pretty low-level stuff. Speaking to a fellow Stornoway Trustee following our Monday evening meeting, he correctly identified me as being the ‘holy lady’ mentioned by a fellow columnist in the ‘Record’ this month. Ignoring the doubt in his tone as he verified this with me, I chose instead to be pleased that neither adjective had completely thrown him off the scent.

However, by Friday, I was being described in much less flattering terms for my involvement in the aforementioned organisation. Not only have I succumbed to the much talked about ‘culture of secrecy’, I was told, but apparently ‘everyone’ knows that there is cause to call my morals into question as well. No wonder people keep asking me how I
find time for ‘everything’. Perhaps if I’d realised what ‘everyone’ thinks ‘everything’ involves, I might not have been so blithe in replying that sleep is for wimps. And maybe I’d better stop winking
when I say that too . . .

There’s a serious point to this, though, and I’m afraid it’s one I make with no little disappointment. And it’s this: these things would not be said to or about me if I were a man. I very much doubt if any of my eight fellow trustees – all of whom are fellows – have been on the receiving end of these kinds of insinuations.

Right there, then, is one good reason why many women may feel they don’t want to put their name forward for elected office. When – for the sake of a seat on a community landlord’s board of trustees – your sexual morality and the death of your husband are considered fair game, who would hold these people back if there was something greater at stake?

I have learned over a long and sometimes challenging year not to pay reviling with reviling. There have been many times when the preaching I have sat under seemed tailor-made for my situation. It has reached out and strengthened me when I have faltered; it has rebuked me when I was tempted to try fixing things on my own. The prayers and the fellowship of God’s people have all upheld me when the going was far from smooth. But isn’t that why He has provided His people with a church – so that by attending the means of grace, we would be fortified against suffering of all kinds?

Except, I have come to believe that suffering is, itself, a means of grace. It teaches us to turn to Him in all things, because only His strength is adequate for every situation.

Hearing my own reputation casually sullied might, a year ago, have sent me after my accuser, fuming with rage. Or to my big sister, crying hot tears of hurt and indignation. But, this week, it caused me
to speak silently to God.

It occurred to me afterwards that this is proof of spiritual growth. I don’t boast for myself, because I didn’t actually do anything, but I DO boast of the sufficiency of Christ. He has picked me up from this
kind of situation so many times now that I no longer need to be taught that my first reaction should always be that of the injured child: hold up my arms to my loving Parent, and He will do the rest.

Small-minded gossip cannot harm the part of me that God prizes most – my immortal soul. But it can, of course, damage my good name. Many people better than me have been sunk under the weight of unfounded slander and rumour. It does not alter your stock with God one iota, but it may still harm your integrity in the eyes of your fellow human
beings.

That’s how fragile a thing your reputation is. All it takes, in a place like this, is for someone to say, ‘oh, yeah, Catriona Murray, she’s a  . . .” and whatever adjectives they insert miraculously take
on a life of their own.

So, the crucial thing for me is always to care more about how God sees me, than how I am viewed by other people. He looks at me and sees His Son’s perfection; He looks at my heart and He knows what is true, and what is not. As long as I keep my eye upon Him, going before me in
everything, what can anyone say to bring me down?

Outside of God, where there is no safety, though, these kinds of things are being said of others. Women are castigated simply for being women. Nudges and knowing looks can destroy their credibility in a moment. Don’t assume, either, that the people bringing women down are always men.

So, although I read about progress and liberal agendas, and even feminism, I don’t believe in them; they’re like creatures from folklore that may once have lived in Lewis, but are long since gone from our midst.

I am deemed an easy target for all the bile and vitriol because I am a woman who follows Christ. This makes me a cùis-mhagaidh and a hate figure by turns. The ‘progressives’ don’t want the likes of me
speaking for the likes of them. They are the enlightened ones – and they are prepared to use whatever mediaeval tool at their disposal to bring me down. Once it was the ducking stool; now it’s the internet.

But I am not the easy target they suppose. They cannot see the armour I wear, nor the encircling army that protects me. Nor indeed – most ironic of all – how they have trained me to look for strength in the one place it may be found.

And no one should underestimate a woman who likes to have the last word. With that one word, I dictate how yet another ‘progressive’ having a go makes me feel.

This week, thanks to God, that word is ‘seadh’.

Drawing Out the Poison

I recently gave a talk on the power of words to heal and to harm. It was an exploration of the role played by incantation and charm in the field of folk medicine. This harks back to a time when our forefathers – and, more usually, our foremothers – used all their native wisdom in curing sickness with nothing to hand but nature’s own bounty.

They might chop up the root of lus nan laogh and boil it into a horrible brew which, despite its unbeguiling appearance, could soothe various stomach complaints. The leaves of this common bogbean might, on the other hand, be used to make a poultice for the drawing out of toxins.

I am no wise woman. Although I know a little about the use of plants and seaweeds to cure sickness, my understanding is purely cerebral. There is no instinct, no practical magic. It is possible for me to speak and write about such things because others before me have recorded their wisdom on how to use God’s providence in healing the sick.

God’s providence, as I have frequently observed here, is rarely for the individual alone. He neither gives nor takes spuriously, and we should not see His dealing in our lives as random. 

Right back at the beginning, when I started this blog, I wanted to share my experience of being a young widow in the Free Church in Lewis. Tired of hearing the worn-out, sellotaped together stereotypes of Wee Frees, I have tried to tell it like it is from the inside. I am not an official spokesperson (the men wouldn’t let me) and so I am free to say how things feel from where I stand.

I write for myself first. If I am struck by something, or chastened, or inspired, or filled with righteous indignation (everyone’s favourite), then I pick up a pen. Words are healing for me and it is my prayer every day that mine would never cause harm to others. Many who know me probably won’t believe it, but the last thing I would ever want to do is hurt anybody’s feelings. This is not because I am particularly good, but because I know for myself how the words even of  strangers can cut, and I have no desire to be the one inflicting that pain.

Sometimes, though, my writing seem to act more like a poultice, drawing poison to the surface and revealing just how toxic a situation is. When I have discussed social issues and attitudes which are contrary to Biblical teaching, I have brought the full venom of anti-Christianity down on my head. We live in a society, you see, which is pleased to call itself ‘tolerant’ but has way more rigidity and rules than a Wee Free could dream of in a hundred lifetimes.

I do not presume to pass judgement on lifestyles and experiences which are alien to me. Naturally, when I see something that is evidence of a life lived out of step with God, I am moved to pity. Not condescendingly or patronisingly, I hope, but as the person in the lifeboat spotting a man still drowning.

A lot has been said – much of it unjustly – about Christians and their ‘intolerance’ of anything at odds with how they perceive the world. I would like to see the balance redressed a little, and make a plea here for a bit more respect to be shown towards Christ, and the people who follow Him.

It would do my heart good to go a whole week without being exposed to the phrase ‘so-called Christians’. I received an email recently, peppered with those loathsome inverted commas and all that they imply. Then, there are those casual, yet incredibly arrogant value judgements from non-believers: ‘if you were any kind of Christian’. In the same week that I was threatened with being reported to the minister for being on the Stornoway Trust (he knows, he rigged the vote), I was told that no ‘good Christian’ would be involved in public life.

I wonder what the world thinks a ‘good Christian’ is? One who smiles all the time and helps old ladies cross the road? A bland, simpering person with no opinion on anything? It is my belief that those looking on from outside the resurrection expect their Christian neighbours to be perfect.

But in a world where there are no absolutes of good and bad . . . what does perfect look like? 

Well, I think I know. You are to agree nicely with everyone, even if their words are like shards of metal in your eyes. Never tell anyone they are wrong, or that their actions are an offence to God. In fact, the perfect Christian the world wants to see would never mention God at all. He spoils all the parties, all the marches, all the little lies we tell ourselves in order to make sin acceptable.

That’s why, whenever I write about our sin-sick society, there is a renewed outpouring of venom. It is the reason for the anonymous messages, and the belligerent emails. No one wants to hear that there is another, better way.

But it doesn’t matter. God’s truth has always acted like a poultice on us – as individuals, and as a society. We may rail against the remedy He offers, but when the greatest of all physicians chooses, He will cure all our maladies. 

The poison always has to be drawn up before healing can begin.