Tuesday, 9 June 2009

Sunday Sailings - the Hebridean debate

So quiet in Westminster today that we all feel a bit dazed. The journalistic adrenaline is still running but there is no resignation or reshuffle to feed it into. So we sit, grazing the internet.

On Facebook I came across one of my own articles being flagged on a pro-Sunday sailings site. The ongoing debate on my native island of Lewis about introducing Sunday ferry services from the mainland is coming to a head with Caledonian MacBrayne claiming, in a cowardly way, that they are being forced by Human Rights legislation to run the ferries against opposition from the churches and a large part of the population. Read Ian Jack's sympathetic account if you are not familiar with the background.

The debate has been played out several times before and although there are strongly held beliefs the reality is that there are already Sunday flights to the island. It was when they were introduced in 2002 that I went home to write this piece

This Sunday Herald article appeared on 27th October 2002, the day of the first Sunday flights, but in the seven years that have elasped the arguments have not changed. I recall speaking to the younger ministers at the time, Rev Iain Campbell and Rev MacIver, and forming the impression that a divisive argument over a public transport timetable was not the most vital issue confronting them , and that being released from its shackles they could better engage with the wider community. Maybe they disagree. See what you think and feel free to send some comments.

The Lost Sabbath ~ Sunday Herald 27/10/2002

HE is an old man now, the Rev Angus Smith, although still lean and straight, with bright, glinting eyes behind the trademark spectacles.Retired but still preaching in his 70s, he is the living embodiment of a Calvinist Scotland that may be all but extinguished as the first regular Sunday flights arrive in Stornoway today.

Nearly 40 years ago, in the summer of 1965, a young Smith lay down on the slipway of the first Sunday ferry to the Isle of Skye in a spectacular protest against a secular tourist invasion. To a Scotland shaking off a repressive heritage it was almost as dramatic as the 95 Theses Martin Luther nailed to the Wittenburg church door. It was a reminder of its Presbyterian past still kicking and struggling against its future in one small, distant corner of the nation. Scotland never let Angus Smith forget that.

Images of his undignified removal by burly policemen earned Smith the sobriquet of the Ferry Reverend and ensured that Presbyterianism and the Highlands were, from that time to now, automatically linked to strict and unyielding Sabbatarianism.

Times change and Skye's economy now relies on the seven-days-a-week business of tourism but further out at sea, on the Outer Hebridean island of Lewis to which Smith withdrew, the unbending religion he epitomises has held on. Despite the devil and the odds, and the combined artillery of commerce and globalisation, Lewis remains the last stronghold of Presbyterianism.

Its primary defence, as the fort crumbled from within, was an insistence that nothing moved in or out of the island on a Sunday. Controlling the island approaches allowed Calvinism to halt its retreat from Scotland at the very outer edge.

Smith's struggle against secularism can be viewed as a lifetime of rearguard actions. A few years after his ferry protest Smith left Skye, turning his back on the erosion of the island culture, the demise of its Gaelic language and the secular society that was born under the god of tourism. The Govan Gael went further west, to Lewis, where he became a firebrand preacher, his name and the enduring power of the church ensuring the island became a bulwark against idolatry.

In later life, Smith was central to one of those recurring schisms that beset Scottish Presbyterianism, splitting the Free Church asunder, diminishing its strength before he retreated again to the even more fundamental Free Presbyterian Church.

A prisoner of logic that does not allow him to speak to a Sunday newspaper, he does not much care to recall his moment of glory on the ferry slipway all those years ago. In a recent interview he dismissed the subject, saying it was God's work, and that he had to do it. He said: ''That was the past.''And as the undercarriage of the first Sunday flight to Stornoway touches the tarmac today, the Rev Angus Smith finally does enter Scotland's past.

THE Outer Hebrides, some 40 miles by ferry from the mainland, was the last place in Europe to be brushed by the Reformation. It was inevitable that it would be the last place where it would retain a grip. Beyond here is the wild Atlantic so now this unbowing religion must bend or face oblivion.

When the Roman Catholic Church lost its moral authority in Ireland in the 1990s following a series of scandals, its power over society evaporated almost overnight. Presbyterianism in Lewis, which has kept the ferries in port on Sunday and the windsocks redundant, has reached its own crossroads, its continuing dominance in question. Sabbath observance will become a matter of choice rather than a code of obligation.

The change is being absorbed quietly, the effect as yet unmeasured. After all, on Lewis the other certainties have gone. Crofting and Gaelic are weakened; Harris Tweed weaving hangs by an ephemeral thread; the fishing fleet cannot find crews to put to sea with. The oil industry, which sustained a skilled manual sector, now sucks young men and their families to the mainland and beyond in search of work while the local yard lies idle.

Religion, despite the Presbyterian churches splitting into ever-smaller factions since the Disruption of 1843, has been the only constant to outlast the 20th century. Like the persistent south westerly wind, the Sunday morning and evening services in every district blow about a quarter of the 26,000 island population through the church doors. It is difficult to believe that 200 years of religious tradition will be knocked out by the encroaching aircraft engines.

Each Sunday the airport flight path will take these aircraft in over the strains of Gaelic psalm singing in Back Free Church. The plain building towers above the village which looks across Loch a Tuath to the airport. In its shadow is the manse. Inside the Rev Iain D Campbell, a young, charismatic preacher, brews a strong coffee. He does not, however, serve up Calvinism-lite. He believes that Sunday flights are a straight breach of the Fourth Commandment - to remember the Sabbath day and to keep it holy. Sunday flights are a sin - one of many he must confront.

Sitting in a small television room, with his children's videos on the floor, he is realistic about the future. ''I wouldn't say the church is threatened but the ethos of the island which has given the church a large place in its life is changing,'' he says. ''We've been privileged, now we're in the same position as other Christians who have to worship God surrounded by the trappings of commercial culture.''

Under his preaching, Campbell has seen an increase in those committing themselves to Christianity but he freely admits the church's authority over island life is slipping. ''I'm in no position to control the social patterns of people as my predecessors might have,'' he says.

Campbell's work is cut out for him. In the Criterion bar in Stornoway, island football fans speak of finding £26 airline tickets that allow them to attend Old Firm matches on a Sunday and be back for work on Monday morning. And while the ministers stood in their pulpits, life outside the church door was changing.

ON any given Sunday in Stornoway, an indistinctive Coatbridge-on-Sea kind of town, you can order a weak cappuccino in a cafe, a Balti from a seafront restaurant or a pint in a hotel bar. That confounds some Hebridean cliches but the unspoken social pressure not to partake in these activities was, and still is, quite overbearing. The fear of offending parents, relatives and respected elders curtailed youngsters until they became conforming parents and elders themselves.

Yet, quietly attitudes changed. A BBC/Mori opinion poll in 2000 showed 62% of islanders wanted an all-week air link, with 32% opposing. The figures were completely reversed when people were asked if they wanted shops open on a Sunday, indicating there are aspects of the Lewis Sabbath, the quiet lack of commercialism, they wanted to keep special.

If so, they are kidding themselves. It will only be a matter of time before the local distributors agree to sell Sunday newspapers, then the petrol stations will open, then the shops, then much of what makes Lewis different from the rest of the UK will be gone. Outside one of the town's supermarkets, Murdo MacLennan tells me: ''Nothing will happen overnight but in five years' time the island will become the same as everywhere else. We stand to lose a lot.''

With footballing sideburns last fashionable when he was a 70s teenager, the Rev James MacIver might appear stuck in the past but his thoughts are on change and the upcoming communion season that involves him preaching morning and evening over five days. Communion of bread and wine is an entirely symbolic ritual in the Free Church, performed only twice a year and crucially without the power of transubstantiation attributed to it in the Catholic faith.

Communion is reserved for members of the congregation who have publicly committed themselves to God. Conversion, the curam, has turned many a wild man into a wise preacher but in a small community it creates a religious elite, divided from those who do not partake, are not saved.

MacIver sees the church's task as re-connecting with the broader community. Drugs, alcohol dependency, domestic abuse and divorce - the same social ills afflict the misnamed, tight-knit communities of Lewis as much as the rest of Scotland. MacIver thinks the unwanted Sunday flights will liberate the church from the millstone of Sabbatarianism that has divided it from its own people.

''Maybe people have the wrong image of the church, we are not a one-issue organisation,'' says MacIver. ''This is an opportunity for us to engage in the community, a time for looking at ourselves and taking stock. If they come to pass, Sunday flights won't break the church but it will make us stand and think about how we can better connect with people.''

Ole Petter Krabberod is troubled to his Norwegian soul. His problem is running one of the biggest fish farming operations in Scotland without adequate staff. The boss of Stolt Seafoods, confirms that along with 200 vacancies in the fish processing sector he can't attract people to middle management jobs on the island.''If we don't find the right people our whole operation is in jeopardy,'' he says. ''We urgently need new people, new ideas and new life on the island. We end up defending the quality of life here but that leads us directly to the Sunday issue. People want to play golf or play football with the kids if they come to live here and these things are not possible on Sunday. There is a lot of denial about the economic implications that has.''

Whether Sabbatarianism is responsible or not, what can't be denied is that depopulation is robbing the island of a future. In the last decade, the population fell by 10%, 70% of youngsters leave the island for higher education and do not return although there are a few exceptions.

Malcolm MacSween, a 41-year-old computer entrepreneur, has just moved his family and business to the island he left as a child. He sees a bright future in developing a software company here. ''I like having Sundays off,'' he says. ''We came from London to escape pressure and being on Lewis is like having a protective shield.''

Having the defences stripped away will cause pain for the hundreds who supported the Lord's Day Observance Society's letter-writing protest. At Loganair they may have weighed the objections instead of reading them but Scott Grier, the airline's director, insists the decision was not based on a letter-writing competition.

''We were impressed by the range of support too,'' says Grier, who thinks his 34-seat operation can see off competition from latecomer to the Sunday market, British Midland. ''The demand came from within the island as well as from outwith.''

AND so Loganair's little Saab aircraft will touch down in Stornoway today, either sweeping Smith's legacy out to sea or causing it to flex in the wind of the 21st century. LDOS is distancing itself from any repeat of the civil disobedience that marked the arrival of Sunday ferries on Skye. Nonetheless the Rev David Murray, the son-in-law of Angus Smith, plans his own legal protest in the airport car park, guaranteeing a Sabbatarian stereotype for the media who will disgorge from the first flight.

Other than that, you might think life will go on, people will sleep in, psalms will be sung, roast meats will be cut. But the Sunday flights will alter Lewis and its Presbyterian churches just as setting the clocks back an hour effects a perceptible change of light and atmosphere in the first few days of winter. The place will look the same but the shading of its social fabric will be altered, for better or for worse.

''It authenticates the mission of the church,'' says Iain Campbell, finishing his strong argument as I finish his strong coffee. ''We now have to take our message out into the world as we find it rather than the world as we would wish it to be.''

1 comment:

  1. I don't know - it's getting so I despair now when I hear the word Sabbath.

    I'm a Christian, have been for decades. My wife and I moved up to Lewis about 4/5 years ago because we love the Island.

    I like the fact that very little happens on a sunday, yet equally I resent the fact that services paid for out of my taxes aren't available seven days a week, as they are for the people in Uist - who have the same council as us.

    I also despair at the complete warping of God's message that the current debate shows. The Sabbath should be observed on a Saturday if one is following the OT. If one is following the NT then one should realise it's about following Christ.

    I also think Christianity should be about leading by example, rather than legislating - drawing in rather than drumming out.

    I do hope that the ferries start coming on a Sunday, if for nothing else than the church will be able to start dealing with what it is supposed to be doing.