A Full Moon Tale of Lewis

It was a dangerous mission, but having had the tip-off, I needed to see for myself whether it was true. Now that I HAVE seen, it’s my duty to share with you the darkness that I have witnessed at the heart of life here in Lewis.

Everything the dissenters say is true. I have been a dupe, but no more. Please, though, if anything happens to me – if you hear that I’ve ‘gone to open a craft shop in Tiree’ or to ‘join the foreign mission’, don’t believe it. The powers that be will say and do anything to prevent the truth emerging.

An operative contacted me via Twitter, and informed me that I am a member of a Calvinist cult, and that I need rescuing and rehabilitating into the real world. He was concerned that I was not only leading a restricted existence myself, but also imposing the same on others. At first, I laughed it off, but then a few things started me off wondering . . .

At the end of last summer, for example, the minister and his wife hosted a barbecue for those of us who indoctrinate young people into our cult via Sunday school and youth clubs. While we sat in the garden, I noticed one of the elders, peering over the wall from the church next door. It was a Saturday evening. What was he doing there, I wondered, and why was he spying on us? Was there something in the church we weren’t meant to see – and was the ‘barbecue’ just a distraction?

I put it to the back of my mind. Months passed, and I was busy stopping people from playing golf on Sundays. But, last week, I realised the true nature of what happens in the church on Saturday evenings.

There is a prayer meeting, but this just provides the brothers with a convenient excuse to gather in the session room afterwards. That is when the real business takes place. And that is where the story takes a sinister turn.

I disguised myself as a cleaner (apron, can of Pledge), and so slipped unnoticed into the building. The door to their meeting room was ajar, and so I hovered, dabbing with my chamois every so often.

They had divided into groups. Some seemed to be devising a strategy for removing washing from clothes lines unseen. An elite group near the window were filling brown envelopes, some marked ‘CnES’ and others with the label, ‘Stornoway Trust’. All perfectly standard and above board. Disappointed at the ordinariness of what I was seeing, I turned to go.

Suddenly, I heard one of the elders calling for quiet. ‘The minister is going to make the call’, he said. I froze, every particle of my being poised for flight, but wanting to hear this mysterious ‘call’. He punched a number into his phone. The room was utterly silent. Peeping through a crack, I could see the anxious faces of the elders, watching and listening. Then I heard the minister’s voice, and his words dropped like heavy, black stones into my heart:

‘Release the sharks’, he said, and hung up.

I looked at my watch. Eleven thirty. Of course, his terrible purpose dawned on me and, sick with terror, I started to move towards the exit. My treacherous foot, however, landed on a creaky floorboard. All at once, the session room door was flung open, and the passage was flooded with light from within. For a brief moment, I thought what a great metaphor this was for the work of the Free Church . . . but something in me rebelled against this indoctrination.

‘What are you doing here?’ the elder asked suspiciously.

‘Just . . . cleaning. There was a bit of dust on the suidheachan mòr’.

Mollified, he nodded, taking in the polish in my right hand. It was as good a disguise as any Wee Free woman could deploy.

‘How much did you hear?’ he asked then. I feigned my best innocent look, the one I use whenever I’m in the presence of the elders.

‘Not much. You know I don’t understand men’s talk’, I giggled girlishly. He seemed satisfied with this, and turned to go back into the room.

My heart hammering, I started to walk towards the outside door, feigning nonchalance. Pursing my lips, I was about to start whistling, when I remembered God isn’t keen on women doing that. Dizzy with relief, I had my hand on the door handle, when I heard the elder’s voice behind me.

‘Wait’, he said, ‘you’re not the cleaner. You’re a different woman. Come here’.

My knees knocking, I did as I was told, and he led me into the session room. The others, still most awfully assembled, looked at him quizzically.

‘She was listening at the door. I nearly let her go, thinking she was the cleaner. But she lied to me; she said she doesn’t understand men’s talk’.

No one spoke. Then, the minister put aside the white cat he had been stroking and rose to his feet. I shrank back.

‘Well’, he said at last, smiling in a deadly,

Presbyterian way – like the glint off the metal plate on a coffin – ‘that was a daft mistake to make. After we put you into an organisation filled with men just like us, after training you to understand how middle-aged Lewismen tick . . . you try to pull that rookie nonsense. Tsk.’

It was true. Everyone knew I had been trained by the Free Church Covert Operations Unit to blend in with men in their fifties, sixties and even seventies. Indeed, it was no secret that my code name was ‘The Bodach Whisperer’. To try passing myself off as any other simple-minded Wee Free woman was just plain daft. Those scones would never rise.

There was only one thing I could say. My training had given me a faultless instinct for uttering exactly the words Lewismen of a certain age want to hear.

‘You’re right’.

He nodded. I could sense that I had regained a little ground, so bravely decided to push my luck.

‘What are the sharks for?’

His steely smile changed at my question. The room was still, except for the sound of sweets being unwrapped. I could see he was weighing up whether or not to trust me. It seemed the balance was about to tip away from me again . . . and then he told me.

I didn’t expect to get away from there after he’d revealed the awful truth. Now I’m on the run, not knowing who to trust, or where to go. There are some people in the Church of Scotland . . . not friends, exactly (well, I mean, they’re Church of Scotland), but they might help me move my lines, teach me some hymns, get a new identity. 

In case that doesn’t work out, though, in case they get to me first, I want to tell you the truth. It’s exactly as a few astute people suspected all along – worse, even. 

We knew about the election rigging, the indoctrination, the application of a six-day contract to every purchase of clothes pegs. But, the extent of the control was revealed to me by the minister that Saturday night.

‘The sharks’, he said, ‘are released now, and rounded up in twenty-six hours. We WILL eradicate Sunday swimming’. As I stared at him, the full horror of his words dawning on me, he laughed coldly, and added – chilling words that I cannot forget – ‘We’re sourcing moles next. They’ll enjoy digging up the golf course’.

It’s probably too late to save me. But you know the truth now. There are people on social media who have known all along, and were dismissed – yes, even by me – as wild conspiracy theorists. Find them. Only they know how things truly are.

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?

 

 

We Are Jolly . . .Honest.

When the minister announced that the theme of the evening would be ‘joy’, I wondered what we were in for. Surely not another lecture about excessive smiling, or raucous laughter in the church stairwell. Surreptitiously, I glanced down to ensure that I wasn’t wearing anything too gaudy. Nope: the usual hodden-grey as befits a Presbyterian widow of a few years’ standing. Oh well, I thought to myself, maybe it’s some other denomination that’s been bringing the cause into disrepute, because it certainly ain’t us.

Only, it turned out that he wasn’t warning against joy; he was actively promoting it. Not in a Ken Dodd, how tickled I am, sort of manner, I hasten to add; he was speaking up for spiritual joy – the real, enduring kind.

Now, Lewis Christians are not widely associated with joyfulness. That, for anyone who doesn’t recognise such things, is a monumental understatement of the type that only a dour Presbyterian can make with a straight face.

Anyone can – and, apparently, will – tell you of the myriad ways that Wee Frees (other denominations are available) have of spoiling your fun. We have taken an integrated approach, restricting not just dancing and the singing of worldly songs, but all forms of audio-visual entertainment and the reading of fiction (which we equate to lying). Thanks to people like me, families are being forced to spend time together at weekends instead of in municipal facilities, with disgruntled local authority employees who want . . . well, to be at home with their families.

It is time, social media tells us, that Lewis moved on and left all this stuff behind.

I have frequently drawn attention to the terrible things that are written about Christians on the likes of Facebook, and I will continue to call out that kind of bigotry for what it is. But, oh, how I wish we wouldn’t keep providing unbelieving folk with an opportunity to drag the cause through the mud. We have to be so careful: as wise, indeed, as serpents, while always endeavouring to be as gentle as doves. More is expected of believers than to simply blurt out the truth uncompromisingly in a ‘take it or leave it’ manner. That way lies the kind of misunderstanding that has caused our own community to think followers of Christ are joyless.

It comes down, however, to a definition of ‘joy’ which transcends the world’s understanding of it.  You will understand that it is not the kind of superficial feeling that is emotionally-led, and tied to our circumstances. My own moments of deepest spiritual joy came in the midst of the greatest grief of my life – because I had assurance of salvation for the first time. And, as the minister reminded us in the course of his unexpected sermon on joy, that salvation comes with a whole host of non-optional bonuses. Two of those – joy and peace – are interrelated and, I believe, feed one another. No matter what happens in my life, I have the abiding joy of knowing Christ, and the peace that comes along with that.

This is true of every Christian, of course, not just me. So, why are we such a poor advert for our faith? Why does the view persist that our ministers are of the I.M. Jolly stamp, and we ourselves a narrow-minded chorus of nay-sayers and lip-pursers?

Well, there are several reasons, I think. Some people just naturally incline towards seriousness, and this is how they will be as Christians too. Our essential personality does not change that dramatically. There is also the division between believer and unbeliever created by the simple fact of our once having been as they are, while they have not yet had the privilege of seeing things from our vantage point.

This divide causes a certain spiritual blindness in the unbeliever, and Christians should be sympathetic to it, because we were all afflicted with it once ourselves. Being sympathetic to it, however, also means that we have to engage a certain amount of emotional intelligence in our witness.

Let me offer an example. In the midst of all the dignified commemoration of the ‘Iolaire’ disaster, there was one discordant note struck. A local minister wrote an article for his district’s magazine, which was subsequently shared to the national press, and dragged back to the lair of Facebook to be torn asunder. I have read what he wrote and – spiritually speaking – there is nothing wrong with it. It was taken out of context, though, and has been most shamefully spoken about in various public forums.

However, he must surely have known that this was a possibility and it was, at best, naïve of him to attach the comments he did to a piece on this very emotive topic. I realise, because I am theologically literate, that he did NOT say those on board the ‘Iolaire’ particularly were all sinners who deserved to die; he was speaking in more general terms. But it’s a nuance that is easily lost on those less versed in Scripture, as well as those who wilfully misunderstand what, deep down, they fear.

This is where we surely have to employ some wisdom. While something may be true, is it necessarily the best thing to present to those who still have not met Jesus? I would contend that the first thing to do with such people is effect that most important of introductions, and all other things will follow from there.

I am certainly not saying that we should hide the offensive truth from them, but I am saying that we should not brandish it in their face at every opportunity. Wouldn’t it work better if we showed them the pleasure we take in belonging to God?

The recent sermon on joy ended with words from the book of Nehemiah on the dedication of the rebuilt wall, ‘The sound of rejoicing in Jerusalem could be heard far away’. That has to be our aim too, if we are serious about bridging the gulf in our community between those who love the Lord, and those who have not met Him yet: let them hear our joy, and crave it for themselves.

 

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.

The Harbour They Longed To See

At this time of year, it is inevitable that we find ourselves looking two ways – forward with some uncertainty into the unknown that lies before us; and backwards at the twelve months just gone. It is easy to become reflective, sentimental, and even maudlin as our minds dwell on other times, and on people no longer with us. Each turn of the year seems, in that sense, to carry us further from them, to blur their faces and fade their much-loved voices a little more in our memories.

New Year in Lewis has a particular resonance this time around, marking a whole century since the loss of HMY ‘Iolaire’, no distance at all from the shores of home. 201 men who should have been returning to the warm embrace of their families that night, instead went to their deaths, leaving countless relatives and loved ones bereft for a lifetime.

On Saturday, I went with a friend to look at ‘Sheòl an Iolaire’, the simple, temporary monument that has been created on the foreshore at pier number one. It is made from wooden posts and has been lit with coloured lights. White paint daubs represent the survivors – including one, on the mast, for ‘Am Patch’, the Nessman who clung there for dear life.

I didn’t know until then that the distance the monument is from the sea wall is also the distance the ‘Iolaire’ was from land when she foundered on the Beasts of Holm.

As I looked, and saw other members of the community come also to stand and gaze upon it, I thought about a conversation I had recently, when we had discussed how the churches coped with the aftermath of loss on such a scale. ‘There must’, the other person said, ‘have been prayer meetings, and church services after this. And there must have been doubt – people’s faith must have been shaken’.

Of course that is perfectly possible. For many people, one stage of grief will be anger, and that may well be directed at God in the absence of anyone else to blame.

However, grief is not really corporate. We are commemorating the ‘Iolaire’ centenary as a community, because we were devastated as a community in 1919, and the ripples from that blow were felt for generations. But the reality of bereavement is that it afflicts us individually. I cannot feel your pain, and you cannot feel mine: only Christ can truthfully empathise with any of us to that extent.

I don’t mean to say that there is no such thing as communal grief, either; I very much believe that there is in this case. It is born, however, of many, many individuals experiencing loss simultaneously. So, dealing with that was not the overwhelming task that we now tend to view it as – because ministers, elders, and all those trying to bring God’s comfort could only deal with one heart at a time.

God Himself deals with us on that level. We pray for revival, we pray for communities, we pray for families – but in each case, His work will be personal, based on a relationship with the individual. And it is in that closeness faith finds its home.

I have experienced painful loss. It did not shake my faith – in fact, it drove the roots even deeper. Faith is nothing to do with me, or my circumstances: my faith is in Christ, who does all things perfectly. What He does, and what He permits – though it slay me – must be for the ultimate good. If that is true even sometimes, of some things, it must be true at all times, of all things. If I make that conditional on my circumstances being favourable, and Him dealing with me as I would wish, well, then, He is not God and this is not faith.

Commemoration of the ‘Iolaire’ has permitted more conversations about faith than has been possible in this island for quite some time. All of the events have incorporated psalm singing, Bible readings or prayer.

January 1st, 1919 dawned on a broken community. Families bereft, hearts torn, and a generation at least blighted by terrible grief.

January 1st, 2019 will witness a Lewis which is probably in a worse spiritual condition than it was that morning, one hundred years ago. While we are remembering an old, settled grief, and giving thanks that this is a generation which has known little of conflict or loss, are we looking to God as they did in 1919?

We have surrounded ourselves with reminders of the ‘Iolaire’ generation – beautiful writing, meticulous research, haunting photographs and paintings, monuments, and exhibitions . . . lest we forget. Like all bereaved people, the community is creating memorials because it fears that faces will blur, and voices will fade, and even that this great weight of pain which reminds us may dissipate in time.

But those who clung to God then, and who look to Him now, know that each turn of the year only takes us further from those painted, printed, fading memories – and all the while we are brought closer to seeing them as they really are now: alive in Christ, safe in that ‘harbour they longed to see’.

 

 

Planting, Prayers and Trench Warfare

This week, people in Lewis came together to plant trees in memory of the 201 men who lost their lives on the ‘Iolaire’ in the early hours of 1919. Fittingly, these have been planted on the road that leads to the war memorial, officially opened in 1924 by Lord Leverhulme – his last public act in Lewis.

Despite the tensions that have been evident in some parts of the community lately, over who has the right – or the wherewithal – to develop wind farms on a particular patch of moor – it was possible for unity to reign during the few hours it took to create this living monument to bravery and loss. I think the Lancashire soap magnate would have liked what he saw. We were largely united in our common purpose: to create something dignified that will serve as a reminder for many years to come.

The Lewis war memorial was built on Cnoc nan Uan, because it overlooked the four parishes which had sacrificed their men in the cause of freedom. From somewhere in each, this barional-style tower can be seen, pointing skywards. It is constructed of Lewissian gneiss, dressed in Aberdeenshire granite.

And, when it was officially opened by Lord Leverhulme, the watching crowd must surely have believed that this was a memorial, not just to their dead, but to war itself. This had been the conflict to finish all such. Weeping widows and bereaved mothers could comfort themselves with the thought that they were looking upon the last edifice of its kind.

Only, of course, we know that this was not the case. They were not really laying war to a peaceful rest, because it rose again – bloodier and more terrible than before.

Planting my first tree on Wednesday afternoon, I thought about the symbolism of the wych-elm. The first element in its name has nothing to do with ladies who cast spells, and everything to do with pliability – so an eminently suitable species for one such as myself to be planting, biddable creutair that I am.

More importantly, it is a crucial quality if we wish to avoid unnecessary conflict. We have to be prepared to bend a little. Too much rigidity and we are liable to simply break under stress.

I remember going out in a neighbour’s boat as a child. His advice for avoiding seasickness has remained with me, and can be applied to other areas of life too: go with the movement; don’t resist it by holding yourself taut. Given that he would insist on nosing the vessel in between the Beasts of Holm, with all the mythology surrounding them in my young mind, it was quite hard to relax.

This does not mean, of course, that you allow yourself to be buffeted by every prevailing wind, changing your mind on a whim. What I suppose I mean is that you should never be so uncompromisingly devoted to your stance that your treatment of those in opposition becomes less than it should be.

What we have today –and what fortunate Leverhulme did not have – is social media. It can be a useful tool for communicating, and for disseminating information. But, misapplied, it can become a battle-ground of bad manners and bad attitudes. There are those who use it to address others as though they were inferior beings, using the sort of belligerent, barracking tone that would never be countenanced in real life.

The result is something not unlike trench warfare. People become so identified with a particular point of view that everything else about them recedes into the background. We have to work very hard so that this does not become our attitude.

I appreciate very much all the good advice I have had over the years in this regard. It was useful to one so dangerously liable to veer into sarcasm when under duress.

My mother taught me many years ago to avoid putting myself in situations where I would have to apologise. I try, therefore, to think through the consequences of my words before I utter them. Once they are said, they cannot ever be taken back.

Even my years of political campaigning taught me something very valuable indeed – the vast majority of people are turned off by negative rhetoric. Slandering and smearing your opponent says more about you than it ever could about him.

Being a Christian, more is expected of you than to sink to the gutter-level of mud-slinging which can become the modus operandi of Facebook and other such platforms. Titus says: ‘To speak evil of no one, to avoid quarrelling, to be gentle, and to show perfect courtesy towards all people’. It is a challenge that I could never meet on my own poor strength.

Sometimes I have to draft and redraft my written responses so that they are tempered with the humility and courtesy that ought to be my portion. And I thank God that He has surrounded me with people who are of that same mind, and who make me want to walk as I should because of their example.

Just for balance, he has also surrounded me with a few hotheaded crazies who would thoroughly approve my ranting first drafts . . .

I need prayer to keep my speech seasoned with salt, to not defile myself by what comes out of my mouth. And our community needs prayer – for unity, for perspective, for proportion.

Standing in the shadow of that tower, hewn from Lewis rock, I realised that the remembrance needed most is the petition that goes heavenwards; prayer for unity, and for the ability to disagree without stooping to revile.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

Coming Home

One of the greatest privileges of writing this blog is the way it has brought me into contact with people who contact me to say it speaks to them, or comforts them, or makes them laugh. Recently, I heard from a man with Point connections (and, despite that, I still got back in touch!) regarding my blog on the ‘Iolaire’ and its place in our heritage.

 As proof of what I was saying about our ancestry, and our connection to the island being an unbreakable chain, a heaving line that brings us home, no matter where we are, I have pleasure in sharing the following with you. It is a story, written by Anna Cumming and published in her school magazine. She was neither born, nor brought up, here in Lewis, yet the ‘Iolaire’ is also part of her identity too. You will agree, I am sure, that what we have here is a fine and sensitive writer – and, hopefully, a future guest blogger as well!

As I fought my way through the bustling crowds in Kyle of Lochalsh, I made my way to the ship that was to take me home  from the War. It had been a long fight, wearisome and brutal. Everyone, from the youngest infant to the oldest man, had  been affected in unspeakable ways. Those who had not lost anyone in this fight were few and far between; over a thousand  men from our island had perished. And for many, the pain of separation from young men going off to fight had been the  hardest sacrifice they could ever have made …

Mother stood in the kitchen, baking oatcakes and humming an old Gaelic folk song as I carried in the fish I’d caught that day while fishing with my best friend Will. Father, I think, was next door with Christine, my younger sister, no doubt planning her upcoming wedding to Murdo.

It was with a heavy heart that I gave mother those fish. Will and I had been discussing the war that day, and in particular the navy. After he had told me of the need for sailors, he had said something that had inspired me. Will wanted to go to war and to fight for his country. I admired him for his bravery. I relished the idea of adventure. And so I had signed up in the town. But how could I tell father? Christine? And how on earth could I break my mother’s heart?

I still remember the look on her face when I told her. All the colour drained from her cheeks, and she stared at me in shock. And then she did something which took more bravery than anything I have ever seen. She smiled. Told me she was proud. Said she loved me.

And that is what kept me going through four years of pain and terror. It was for my mother, the most valiant, strong woman I have ever known. I wrote to her every week from wherever we were, to reassure her. Sometimes, Christine wrote to me about Murdo, who was now her husband, and Mary. Mary was her little two-year-old girl, who had been born to them on my thirty-third birthday. That was the best birthday present of my life, a niece. And I had never seen her.

But the war was over now; I was coming home. It was all going to be so much better. Will and I had written to our families, telling them to be at the docks early in the morning. It was going to be wonderful! And I knew a secret – Will was going to  propose marriage to his girlfriend, Catherine. She would get such a shock!

Sitting in a tight corner on the ship, I watched the stars with Will. He loved the stars. It had become a routine to look up at them whenever the night was clear, and imagine that our families were watching too. I think Will mainly thought of Catherine when he looked at them, but mother was the person in my heart. If I knew her, she’d be turning the house topsy-turvy, preparing for our return. I could already imagine her face when our boat came in. Her joy would be unbounded.

Glancing up as I came out of my reverie, I saw that the stars had disappeared behind a dark cloud, which was covering them like a shroud. I could barely even see my own hands.

“Lights! I can see the lights!” laughed someone, and as I looked out towards Stornoway, I laughed too. All of the coast was lit up with hundreds of twinkling lights, sending out beams as if to cheer us on our way. We were coming home, and it felt amazing.

An uneasy whisper started in the bow of the ship; the Arnish lighthouse was strangely out of place. Will glanced at me, brows furrowed.

“That’s not …”

CRUNCH! What was that? We crashed to a halt, lurching forward on top of one another. A sense of foreboding swept over me, until it engulfed me utterly. I was frightened, frightened in a way that no gun or torpedo had ever made me feel.

A few men yelled, but most managed to stay calm. Will bit his lip, drawing blood, before turning to me, his eyes gleaming in the darkness.

“Roddy, I’m going to go and get the lifebelts and give them out to those who can’t swim. This doesn’t feel good, and –”

As he spoke, there was another lurch. Suddenly, I realised that my worries were about to be realised. Will leapt up and grabbed some lifebelts, giving them out to those who couldn’t swim. Angus, Donnie, Alex, Norman … the list went on and on. I helped him, determined to be as brave as he was, and to do my part. I wasn’t the only one

John, another good friend and stalwart companion, had grabbed a rope and tied it firmly around both his waist and the mast. Nodding briskly at me, he dived into the wintery ocean. I couldn’t see him after that. It was pitch black, except for

the faint, flickering light from the lantern hung from the mast. All I was aware of was the motion of reaching for a lifebelt and giving it out, reaching for a lifebelt and – nothing. We were out of lifebelts. Some men were jumping overboard in an attempt to swim to shore; one began climbing the mast for refuge.

Just then, someone let out a cry: “The rope! It’s tightened! John has made it!”

The now taut rope was evidently secured to something on the rocky shore. Just as I took my place in an orderly queue, I felt a tug at my arm. It was Will. I have never seen a man look as courageous in the face of danger as Will looked that night, his hair wild, his eyes sparkling with a determined fire.

“Roddy! I’m going to swim to shore. No, don’t you dare try and come with me, you know that you can’t swim well.”

I tried to protest, but he held his hand up to silence me.

“Now, now, Roddy. I will swim alone, for that rope is needed for those who cannot swim, and I’ve a greater chance than most. You get on that rope and keep safe. I promise you I’ll be alright!”

I don’t know why I trusted him, I really don’t. Most probably, it was because Will had never broken his word before. Anyway, I obeyed him. As he dived overboard, I gripped the rope and took a deep breath before leaping off the tilting deck.

That passage in the darkness, being tossed by the rolling waves was the most nerve-racking thing I’ve ever done. As the sea crashed against me, dousing me repeatedly with foam and spray, I could hear the shouts of the other men. When I reached the end of the rope, it was all I could do to crawl up on to the shore, safe.

The sun shone in through the window as I blearily opened my eyes. It was bright, and yet there was a coldness in its gleam, as if even the sun could not laugh. As my mind pulled itself together, I shook my head. Where was I?

“Roddy! Oh thank goodness!” cried someone, and I was pulled into a warm hug. From the warmth and scent of fresh bread, I recognised my mother, and nestled into her arms, finding comfort amidst distress. After a moment of this, I released myself. Around my bed were clustered Murdo, Christine, father and a little girl who must be my niece Mary. And then I saw Catherine. She was crying.

“Catherine …” I said, fear stabbing my heart, “Catherine, where’s Will? Catherine!”

“Oh Roddy,” she said, “He’s … gone.”

Mother wept, “And not just him, either. Around two-hundred lost their lives last night. They – they swam the wrong way. Out to sea. Their bodies started washing up on the beaches this morning.”

That was the moment when my heart broke.

Years later, and I stand gazing up at the stars, thinking of Will. How he risked all to give others a fighting chance of survival. His dreams, of children and a home of his own with Catherine. All his goals and ambitions, wasted so young. I sighed. Will really wasn’t coming home.

 

 

 

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’.