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.

 

Lies, Daft Lies and Social Media

Say what you like about the coves of the Free Church, but at least they’ve never placed an exclusion zone around me. Despite all the very many reasons I’ve given them, they will manfully shake hands, and ask how I am every time we meet. Not so the gentlemen at the Stornoway Trust, where news had preceded me to Monday evening’s meeting that I might be harbouring a few germs. As I took my accustomed seat, they all cowered around the far end of the table, and I sat, marooned, in a sea of empty chairs.

As secret societies go, I have to question now whether it was really worth all that effort from the Kirk Session to get me in.

But, no, I can’t do it. I can’t go on letting the Session take all the blame for putting a dim-witted blone in against the people’s will. Besides, the people aren’t fooled, as at least . . . oh, I’d say three or four of them tell us almost daily. They know, you see, they know where the connections are.

I am compelled, therefore, to admit that I lied to the electorate. Someone – a stranger to me – has used the hashtag, ‘lies for votes’, and she’s right. It was, you might say, a sin of omission. You see, I failed to declare that I’m related to another trustee.

Now, don’t despair. I’m not a Soval. Surely you’d know – the moon would have turned blood red at the merest hint of that about my person. Nor am I connected to any of the Rudhaich, not even the one with whom I share a surname.

The surname is the clue, you see. But I’m devious and, back in 2003, concealed my true identity by getting married. I have hidden from the electorate that I am a MacLean, just like Calum. Well, not exactly like Calum – he spent many years of his working life in Point, and I’m simply not that strong – but vaguely related.

So, yes, I concealed our connection. It is just another fib in the tissue of duplicity that I have apparently woven about myself. Actually, while I’m at it, I should say that it’s also possible that my granny once gave up her seat on the Achmore bus to a third cousin of the Factor.

That’s full disclosure now, honestly.

Oh, wait, no, there’s more. I was once married to the Convener of the Comhairle. He won’t remember; he wasn’t really involved – it was very brief and, I suppose you’d call it a marriage of convenience. Actually, it was a lie I told a persistent fellow in the Ness Social Club to get him off my case. When I told him I was married, he asked who to, so I simply pointed out a nearby Mr MacDonald. A convenient untruth.

People used to accept this about Lewis, though: it used to go without saying that folk would be related to one another, and it certainly didn’t used to be a problem.

However, if people want to throw hissy fits about people being related to other people, so be it. They will find that there’s really very little they can ultimately do about it. We’ve all heard the adage, ‘you can choose your friends, but you can’t choose your relations’. It being so much a matter of providence, then, are we supposed to live our lives around those with whom we happen to share a bit of DNA, or a big nose, or a tendency to be a bit rag? Must I avoid any and all walks of life where relatives might have preceded me?

That’s plainly ridiculous, and ought to be treated with the contempt it deserves. In mediaeval times, certain families were recognised as having particular skills and they became the hereditary pipers, physicians, bards and so on, to the Lordship of the Isles. Not nepotism: dùthchas. But people weren’t so paranoid then, because they knew their community better.

Social media will turn a mountain into a super quarry, though, given even half a chance. And that, my friends, is where we do need to pay a bit of attention. There are reckless individuals who think that it’s acceptable – even as they talk community – to defame others with vocabulary like ‘corrupt’, ‘liars’, ‘brown envelopes’ and ‘lining their own pockets’. Not one shred of evidence is offered for any of this, and the lie is gleefully shared by others for whom it’s expedient.

The danger in all of this is that we lose sight of what’s actually important. For my own part, I support projects for our island that I believe have the best chance of being delivered and actually benefitting the greatest number of people.  Does my mere belief in a particular way of doing things make me a liar, or corrupt? Is anyone entitled to throw those kinds of accusations around about a fellow member of the community, without a jot of proof? And is defamation now an acceptable substitute for reasoned debate?

What has gone wrong in our midst that neighbours can dehumanise one another to the extent that feelings and reputation don’t matter? Or, indeed, that the truth doesn’t get in the way of a good story? If your case is sound, you don’t need to defame other people to make it.

I’m afraid that saying ‘community’ over and over does not necessarily mean you have its best interests at heart. Not when you’re prepared to tear it to pieces in pursuit of what you want. The word itself originated not as a noun, but as a verb – we would all do well to remember that before we speak, or write, a single syllable.

 

 

 

Tilting at Windmills

Before my first meeting at the Stornoway Trust, I imagined a wood-panelled room, thick with pipe smoke and whisky fumes, where crotchety betweeded men would growl at me from behind broadsheet newspapers. Or, perhaps some kindly, avuncular figure might pour me a sherry and offer me the comfortable chair, while they and the other fellows got on with the important business of the day.

And, it seems that I’m not the only one who thought this was how it would be. I have actually lost count of the number of people who have asked me things like, ‘is it awkward being the only woman?’ The answer would really have to depend on what you mean by ‘awkward’. There was a meeting recently, which the Chairman rounded off with, ‘right, gents, I think that’s us’, whereupon they all left, while I sat politely, waiting to be dismissed. When the staff arrived the following morning to find me still sitting there, that was quite awkward . . . But it’s more than made up for by all the times we’re having sandwiches, and I get the only side-plate.

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It isn’t the awkwardness of my femininity that worries most onlookers, however, but the weakness of it. There are many, many people who tell me that I have quite obviously ‘had the injection’, ‘taken the pills’, or – most intriguingly hi-tech of all – ‘had the microchip implanted’. Clearly, I am incapable of reaching any sort of mature conclusion myself, without being somehow led by these overbearing fellows at the Trust.

While this is very insulting to the gentlemen in question, I know they are quite capable of defending themselves, given their years of practice at the faing. I take exception, however, to being painted as someone so weak-willed, so stupid, and so negligent of my responsibilities as to let others tell me what I believe.

But, the sad fact is that I do feel much more self-conscious about being a woman since joining the Trust. Its not just that I’m asked to leave the room whenever indelicate matters like drainage are discussed. Nor is it the fact that I’m the only one carrying a handbag to meetings. Indeed, it’s really nothing to do with what goes on in the boardroom at all.

No one around that table disagrees with my views simply because I’m a dame – they may disagree because I’m wrong, or because they’re wrong, or because our priorities differ. They may try to persuade me to change my mind, and they may bombard me with opposing views. But I have never felt bullied or dominated. And I’m not such a simpering half-wit that I feel the need to please them by sharing their every opinion. 

After all, I was married to a Tory for nearly twelve years, who stood quietly by, and watched while I campaigned for independence. It may have evaded Scotland, but I like to think something of it has rubbed off on me.

That’s why, if I thought larger-scale, developer-led windfarms were a bad idea for Lewis, I would bloomin’ well say so. I would say it to the other Trustees, I would say it in public, and – as my regular readers know – I would go on saying it until everyone took the complete buidheach. 

But, I’ve done that thing which some social media watchers seem to believe me incapable of: I’ve read, I’ve listened and I’ve learned- and come to my own  conclusion.

I would urge everyone else to do the same. Please don’t assume that, just because some voices are louder and more strident than others, that their confidence comes from being right. And don’t be fooled into thinking that repetition equates to truth.

The village I live in has a falling school roll. Our local shop has struggled for many years. We are home to an ageing population. For most of the eleven and a half years we were married, my late husband lived out of a suitcase – back and fore to his job at Dounreay because Lewis had no prospects to offer him.

Forgive me, then, if I am not overly moved by any argument which places environment above people. They are what makes a community – not bare moorland, not birds, not even tourists. 

I ran for election to the community landlord because I was tired of hearing this place being incessantly run into the ground. Of course, some people persist in the belief that I was pushed into it by those other overbearing men in my life: the Kirk Session. But the real truth is that I wanted to be part of something positive – something that would move us forward. 

And now, that’s exactly where I find myself.

We have a chance to create real economic and social opportunity in Lewis. I’m not talking about greed here either, or promises that Cromwell Street will be paved with gold. This is our first proper chance to create a sustainable future for our people, right here where they belong.

But don’t take my word for it. Do your own working out, and then decide: progress and a future here in Lewis; or more of the same – a suitcase that’s never unpacked.

My mind is made up. And yes, I did it all by myself.

(Was that alright? Okay, switch me to standby, boys).

 

 

No Nudity Please, We’re Leòdhasaich

Accompanying six Lewismen on a road trip this week, I met a work colleague at the airport. She said she had been trying to work out what manner of group we were. I could see her point. Too late for the General Assembly, too early for the AGM of the Crofters’ Union, and altogether unlikely that they were mature students on a field trip . . .
It was actually a delegation from the Stornoway Trust, heading for the mainland as fast as Loganair’s usual two-hour delay would allow.

We were going to be spending the best part of two days together in a car, and so I had a stack of questions ready, designed to flatter the Leòdhasach male ego, and based around what I assumed to be their main interests. Can you explain the offside rule? Which is your favourite brand of sheep drench? Have you really got your own tractor?

But, on the very first day, the unprecedented levels of nudity drove all such conversational niceties out of my head . . .

Returning to the hotel to change for dinner, I discovered my bed to be occupied by a scantily clad (well, naked) couple. The hotel had somehow managed to check me and them into the same room, and it seemed we had radically different plans for how to spend the evening.

As I explained my predicament to the horrified and ashen—faced receptionist, she offered me all manner of restitution. A room upgrade, free drinks, a unicorn . . . anything and everything to provide metaphorical bleach for my eyes.

Because that’s what we do with mistakes, isn’t it? If we can make everything look the way it should, and if we can make everyone happy again, somehow the bad events can be swept away, as though they never were at all.

In this case, my part in the whole business was sorted very quickly. A much nicer room, in a better location and with a prettier view, bought my silence. Well, not silence, exactly – what’s a blogger to do – but my temporary contentment, at any rate. Not so my roommates, I would imagine. Their grievance is greater than mine, after all.

They had their privacy breached, and I suppose, they feel some sense of shame. The grovelling required from management towards them must have been quite spectacular. Perhaps they will never feel secure in a hotel again. Indeed, I took a deep breath before entering my own replacement accommodation, lest there should be a family of gipsies encamped there. But it was fine.

Mistakes happen, and no one – not even this sensitive Wee Free widow – was materially harmed. The Trust has, of course, offered me counselling, but I don’t think I will accept. Not every mistake is so very easily swabbed away, though.

As fallible human beings, we can all too easily make the wrong choices, and be in a position where it is we who have to make restitution. Some good friends will forgive our worst excesses, whereas others will hold it all to our account. We are not, as a species, terribly forgiving.

Yet, we except to be forgiven. Nothing we do is ever so bad in our own eyes that we should be made to pay.

And I’m not talking now about the sort of professional lapse committed by the hotel management. I am talking about being at odds with our Creator.

The day after the debauchery, I stood on a hill with a quite breathtaking view of the surrounding countryside, including a large herd of red deer. All that, the work of His hand. And, all that in the hollow of His hand.

He made it, and He made us. No, correction: He made it, including us. We tend to see ourselves as something apart, something above. Even those of us who know that a Divine hand created the world and everything in it, we still see ourselves as being distinct from His other handiwork. And we see ourselves in that light, not because we actually are superior, or special, but because we’re out of sync. We fail to realise that God made everything as one functioning system. It was not the hills, or the trees, or the birds that caused the perfection to stall; it was us.

In fact, we failed far more catastrophically than any hotel booking system ever could. That glitch, however humiliating for several of the parties involved, was easily smoothed over. For us as a species, however, the perfect Son of God had to die. Nothing less would do.

Yet, we act, in all manner of petty situations, as though we’re something special. We withhold forgiveness from our fellow creatures – as if it was ever ours to give in the first place. I am not good at letting go of grudges, and my displeasure, once provoked, is hard to turn away. But, turn it I must.

Just as I reassured the tearful hotel receptionist that there was no real harm done, I need to look to the pet grievances that I harbour. I have been forgiven everything that ever mattered by the only One who could truly be hurt by my sin; who am I to stand on my injured pride?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wee Frees & Defective Hunks

’This hunk is defective’, the minister said, gesturing to one of the elders. Not wanting to agree too readily, I pretended not to have heard, and mumbled, ‘pardon?’ He sighed deeply, and repeated, ‘In hunc effectum – the meeting is in hunc effectum’. Really none the wiser, I nodded my acquiescence, but I’m sure he wasn’t fooled. After all, how would  a daft wee airhead like myself be as versed in Latin as those fellows who presumably use nothing else at their Session meetings? The point is, I am a mere woman and impossibilium nulla obligatio est.

We use language – jargon, even – according to the situation we are in at the time. My Stornoway Trust life involves talk of wayleaves and resumption, of decrofting and apportionment. And we never, ever approve anything; we just homologate.

I don’t mind admitting I had no idea what on Earth that meant the first time I saw it written.

In my job as a lecturer, I occupy a world of blended learning, of internal and external verification, of validation, of curriculum offer.

There was a day, I suppose, when I didn’t know what any of that was about either. I had come to it fresh and green from a world of grant monitoring reports, of capacity building, and of exit strategies.

Yet, none of this rich and varied vocabulary made much practical sense until I started to use it for myself.

Which brings me back to Wednesday night and the single-item meeting. Or, really, just before it.

Prior to convening our church communication committee, that ‘defective hunk’ of an elder had been part of my Bible study group. We were looking at the wisdom of James (the Biblical one, that is). And we were using a whole lot of words that I feel I’ve always been hearing: salvation, works, faith, justification. When Wee Frees like me were wee, we learned our Catechism, which was brim-full of vocabulary we didn’t understand.

Rote-learning filled our heads with words that were longer than ourselves. And, somewhere along the way I learned the TULIP acronym for five-point Calvinism. Oh, the hours of torture my wee brain has suffered over the years in trying to grasp unconditional election, and averting my eyes from my total depravity.

And then, when I grew older, I thought I could book-learn my way around these words. The Bible is God’s instruction manual for us, I reasoned, so I’d better try to figure out what He’s saying. I thought I could do it with a concordance and a few text books. When that didn’t work, I tried a course of study, hoping to unlock the mystery in the code wrapped around salvation. Surely a course accredited by no less an institution than the Free Church College would set me straight.

But no. All I was amassing for myself was so much head knowledge. I could read every single book ever written on salvation, and every treatise on grace, and never really understand their meaning. Oh, yes, I could have written you an essay. In fact, I recall one such, on the emotional life of Jesus. The brief was to demonstrate that He was indeed a human being with the full range of feelings that implies.

The fact that I wrote enough to pass actually shames me now. How could I calmly write of His joy and His pain, of the depths of His anguish on my behalf – and not be broken-hearted?

Simply, because I had not really learned these two words: atonement and salvation. I knew what they meant, yes; but not yet what they meant to me. And I thank the Lord every day that He, and only He, opened my eyes.

Powerfully, though, as we read what James has to say, I thought of those who have not yet accepted His definition of salvation. The letter runs:

’Even the demons believe – and shudder’.

I know what it is to have a cerebral knowledge of God, to be acquainted with His vocabulary, but not to have Him. Satan knows more of the divine attributes than many who profess to love God. He could, I’m sure, deliver a powerful lecture on justification, and not mean a word of it.

In the lexicon of faith, there is only one word that Christ Himself would place before us,exactly as He did to Jairus: ‘believe’.

He came into the world, taking our humanity – out emotional range – to Himself, in order that He might suffer in our place, wholly and substitutionally.

But we don’t have to define substitution; we merely have to accept it. And the reason for that?

It’s because Christ’s appointment at Calvary was most assuredly in hunc effectum.

 

The Trust, the Well and the Council Clock

‘You may lead a Lewisman with a hair, but you won’t drag him with a cable’. Thus spoke Lord Leverhulme, the proprietor of the island in 1920. A mere two years into his tenure, he had already seen enough of the people to know that they were versed in the art of subtlety, as well as masters at being thrawn.

I’ve always been interested in this hard-headed northern businessman. He thought he knew what was best for the crofters of this island – and perhaps he did, in economic terms – but he also reckoned without the strong attachment the Hebridean feels to his land.

It is hugely to his credit that he was willing to gift the very terrain that caused such dispute, back to the people who had opposed him. I wonder how a successful entrepreneur managed to set aside ego to this extent; his financial worries notwithstanding, it was a magnanimous gesture.

Attending meetings of the Stornoway Trust, which manages the estate of the same name, I frequently look upon his portrait, which hangs on the boardroom wall. I think he would find the plans and projects, the obstacles and objections strangely familiar. And I imagine him rubbing his hands with relish, and getting stuck in, bluff wee northerner that he was.

The Trust is guardian of his legacy, yes – but his intention in gifting the land to the community was that the community should run it, not Leverhulme’s way, but the Lewis way.

Just last week, I took a tour of the Castle policies with the man who is responsible for the day to day management of the estate. He definitely has a name, but is known to everyone simply as ‘the Factor’. With him, I got a palpable sense of the way that history is a living thing for us in Lewis. Conversation flowed seamlessly  around which was Lady Matheson’s favourite picnic spot, to a Second World War bunker, to the Millennium Forest project, to a prehistoric chambered cairn, to the Castle School, to Mac an t-Srònaich, to speed bumps, to Lord Leverhulme e fhèin.

I think we generally have an easy relationship with our past. Modern kit houses sit on the site of, or even alongside early white houses and, sometimes, the tobhta of the family blackhouse. We incorporate patronymics into our identity, so we are part of a line which stretches back through history. And the different names we go by – our forefathers’ – inhabit and shape history at different times.

My maternal seanair helped build the iron water well, a landmark in the Castle Grounds. It commemorates a sensitive individual who used to moor his yacht in Stornoway for the peace and quiet. How very strange that he should be memorialised here in that way, and that generations of Lewis children should know the name of the reclusive Robert Alfred Colby Cubbin.

Whatever the plaque says, though, for me it is a monument to Alex Hearach, my grandfather.

Following the Lewis way means guarding our identity. It involves maintaining a relationship with the past in order to move forward. The more I contemplate our close connection with history here in the island, therefore,  the more fiercely I am determined to see all of our heritage protected.

We cannot say ‘yes’ to Lady Matheson, or Mac an t-Srònaich, and ‘no thanks’ to our Christian legacy. There is something incomplete in our understanding of Stornoway’s history if we believe that it includes Lord Leverhulme, but excludes Rev Kenneth MacRae; if we embrace Latha na Dròbh but, frankly, find òrduighean Steòrnabhaigh a bit of an embarrassment.

You cannot separate our civic and religious past, you see. Literally, sometimes. When the Town Hall was razed to the ground in 1918, the clock was lost and folk had no way to tell the time, unless they visited Sime’s shop on Church Street. So, the Town Council came up with an ingenious plan – they erected a public clock on Kenneth Street Free Church.

The building belonged to the Free Church, and the clock to the Council, but the time that moved its hands, that belongs to God. We so seldom look beyond what is right in front of us; we accept the face that history presents, and we do not question.

But we should. I have always thought of that graceful stone monument in the Castle Grounds, built in part by Alex Hearach, as the iron water well. Walking there last week, though, something that now seems rather obvious was casually alluded to: the actual well is some feet away, anonymously supplying the man-made structure with pure, clean water.

That, I think, is as good a metaphor as any I’ve found for what Christianity has been to the history of this place. It is always there, feeding us living water, and giving real meaning to all the events that we foolishly believe are authored by ourselves. While we are busily cleaning up and repointing the facade, the water continues to spring forth and give us life.

We need have no fear that particular well will ever run dry. But equally, it’s important that no one should ever be permitted to stop its mouth.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Arts Centre with an Inferiority Complex

I turned 11 years old in the centenary year of the Crofting Act of 1886. The social and historical significance of this piece of legislation has never left my consciousness since then – learning about how the Gaels had suffered before security of tenure; of communities broken and scattered; of a way of life halted; of a population depleted; of emigration for want of a better choice. The kernel of truth planted in my young mind in 1986 led me on the path to where I am now, both professionally, and in my concern for this community and this culture.

And the doorway to my own people, to a better sense of my own identity, was opened by none other than An Lanntair.

This was my first awareness that such an organisation even existed. It encouraged schoolchildren all over the island to explore the history leading up to the passage of the Act. The arts centre, operating out of a network of unsuitable rooms in the Town Hall, did a phenomenal job with the iconic Às an Fhearann exhibition. And I cannot have been the only person for whom it was a seminal experience.

It was because of An Lanntair, then, that I set off on a path of discovery which led me to see not just the intrinsic value in Gaelic and crofting culture, but the injustice which our community has suffered down through successive generations.

We were, just a couple of centuries prior to that, a strong, sea-going, Gaelic kingdom. Our laws, our culture, our mindset and, yes, of course, our language, were all thoroughly and completely
Gaelic.

But, by 1886, we were broken, scattered and well on our way to being ashamed of everything that identified us as different.

Different to what, you may ask?

Well, different to the mass culture that surrounded us – the English-speaking, English-thinking, imperialist mindset that could not bear to look upon difference without wishing to homogenise it. They
set about dismantling our language. You have, no doubt, heard tales of
schoolchildren thrashed for using their mother tongue, of the maide-bualaidh, and of the maide-crochaidh.

They didn’t beat our language out of us, though, or our culture – they shamed it out of us. I suppose, they educated it out of us. If you want to get on in the world, you will have to stop being so . . . different. That was the message. And, worst of all, though I say ‘they’, it was more often than not perpetrated by those from inside the culture who had, themselves,been made ashamed of their roots.

Make no mistake, that is still the message. Only now, it is done under a different guise. We are not told to stop being different in order to get on; we are told that preserving our difference breaches equality legislation. And we are told, like before, that our otherness makes us a laughing stock, and an embarrassment to ourselves.

And who is leading the charge against our difference, our otherness?

An Lanntair, sadly, that’s who. Housed these days in an expensive, if ugly, purpose-built centre, the local bastion of arts and culture is turning on the community it was created to represent.

I know the argument, such as it is. It’s all about exploring new horizons, and pushing the boundaries . . . But as a centre for arts in a minority and fragile culture such as ours undoubtedly is, can An Lanntair really look itself in the mirror and say it is doing the right thing? Of course not. This is a clear case of carry on regardless.

We have had two soundings of community opinion in recent times. The Stornoway Trust election showed a real appetite in the community for maintaining the precious remains of our heritage as much intact as we can. And the We Love Lewis and Harris Sundays Facebook group has a membership in excess of 2300 at the time of writing.

An Lanntair has taken no cognisance of what is unquestionably the prevailing
view. It has carried out a frankly bizarre trial, opening one small part of its operation and extrapolating from that to surmise that there will be great demand for its other services. There is no joined-up thinking in evidence here, and there is utter disregard for the culture of the area.

I would support the removal of local authority funding to a different cultural provider. Perhaps the £60k + could be distributed amongst the Comuinn Eachdraidh network, or the Fèis movement to more directly support island heritage. Whatever else An Lanntair is doing, it is not doing that.

Actually, it is complicit in sabotaging a very precious element of who we are, all in the name, not of pushing boundaries, or challenging norms as they pretend, but of appeasing a vocal minority who either understand nothing, or care nothing for the very thing which makes
this place special.

Apologists for this cultural vandalism have tried to invoke equality legislation. Who is being discriminated against? You may well ask.

Well, An Lanntair’s predecessor opened my eyes to who I am, and where I came from, and what is valuable about my history and heritage. My eyes cannot be closed, therefore, to what is being done, or why. This is not about equality; this is not about fairness – it is about shame. An Lanntair is choosing to represent those who are ashamed of this island and its identity, and is disingenuous enough to call that progress.

The shame is all theirs, however. That kind of progress dates back to well before 1886. We fell for it then, but we won’t be falling for it now; we are not ashamed of our heritage, we are not ashamed of who we are.

And I don’t think that an arts centre with an inferiority complex is the kind of thing this community really needs.