A common man marvels at uncommon things. A wise man marvels at the commonplace. CONFUCIUS

Thursday, 29 October 2009

That Old-Time Religion: The Opiate Of The People?

I spent my last day on Lewis in Stornoway (Steònabhagh in Gaelic), the burgh where one third of the island's 26,000 inhabitants live. I pitched my tent on Laxdale Lane's small, immaculate campsite, then washed some clothes and hung them out to dry on a line I'd strung between the branches of a nearby tree. Rain had threatened in the early morning but had managed to hold off. Clouds were still massing, but the sun popped out from time to time, and there was a warm, welcome breeze.

I took a stroll across town in the general direction of the harbour. It was Sunday and the place was dead. Not a shop, not a bar, not a café was open. Bizarrely, the only money changing hands in the whole of Stornoway was in the public toilets - where an attendant demanded 20p for the use of his pristine facilities. I roamed aimlessly through deserted streets. Apart from the occasional scream of gulls, the only sounds came from the churches: a congregation's swell of voices, a preacher's hectoring boom.

Religion is big here on Lewis. Strict observance of the Sabbath is still adhered to. Traditions are ingrained, preserved like the bog corpses which are sometimes dug out of the surrounding peatland - proudly-kept traditions such as crofting, turf cutting, speaking Gaelic. A deep strain of Calvinistic Presbyterianism holds sway, particularly amongst the older generation. Even the smallest settlements often have their own church - crude, not pretty buildings, but generously proportioned, dominating the rest of the village. Scottish Presbyterians believe in hard work, abstemiousness, simplicity - the extravagance of ornate, expansive church architecture would offend their moral rigour. In these austere churches the decor must not detract from the business of worship.

The Presbyterian Church of Scotland was founded by John Knox (a follower of Calvin) in 1560 as a consequence of the Scottish Reformation and the break from Rome. Unlike the Church of England, it's completely independent of the 'state'. In its fervent desire that everyone should read the Bible, the Church promoted the idea of universal, public education - and Scotland became the first country in the world to adopt such a system.

Over the following centuries, various splinter group churches formed and reformed, seceded and reunited. There is now a plethora of Presbyterian denominations - the United Presbyterian Church of Scotland, the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland, the Free Church of Scotland, the United Free Church, the United Free Church of Scotland, the Associated Presbyterian Churches... Don't ask me to make sense of it all! Suffice to say that all these churches are united in their belief in education and life-long learning, and put a strong emphasis on Bible study and church doctrine. But they also keenly advocate turning passive knowledge into informed action: there are firm traditions of generosity and hospitality, the pursuit of social justice, and the witnessing of Christ's Gospel.

In the afternoon I took a delightful saunter through the grounds of Lews Castle - the only deciduous woodland on Lewis. This was the country house built for the businessman-philanthropist, Sir James Matheson, in the mid-nineteenth century - and paid for with his profits from the Chinese Opium Trade. (Matheson went into partnership with one William Jardine, and this was the origin of today's Jardine Matheson company - which still maintains such a strong presence in Hong Kong and the Far East. Interestingly, but perhaps not surprisingly, the company's present promotional literature erases any reference to opium, upon which the fortunes of the firm were built.)

Whether the influence of Matheson - who actually owned the whole island before selling it to Lord Leverhulme in 1918 - was baleful or benign is a controversial issue in Lewis to this day. Though I think it's beyond dispute that Matheson did much to alleviate the islanders' one-time starvation and poverty - the result of a potato famine.

There are several water mills on Lewis, and I came across one on Matheson's old estate (now belonging to the democratic Stornoway Trust) at Lews Castle. Its overshot water wheel has been painstakingly restored - the wheel fed by a reconstructed leat which channels water from a nearby stream (see top pic). The mill stones - vertically positioned - were used to grind grain, and the grain was dried in kilns. Other mills (Norse mills, saw mills, carding mills) in the area had horizontally placed grinding stones. Anyone who read the recent post I wrote on my father will not be surprised at my more-than-casual interest in these pre-industrial mills...

Early next morning I took the ferry back to Ullapool. I could have caught one a day earlier - on the Sunday - as Calmac, the ferry company, had just won a decades-long battle with the religiously entrenched authorities on Lewis to allow a Sunday crossing. But I decided to leave on the Monday. Just for old times' sake...


The Weaver of Grass said...

Like the photograph and the text Robert - you really are hooked on Scotland, aren't you? Ever thought of going to live there? Or do you think that might spoil the dream?

gleaner said...

I really enjoyed this post - like Weaver, I wonder whether you are planning a move to Scotland or whether you have some Scottish ancestry calling you back.

The Solitary Walker said...

Weaver @ Gleaner - I could easily live in Scotland and spend the rest of my days there, walking, climbing and exploring. But I still need to work, and jobs up there are few. Also my wife is not so keen. However - no matter. There are dozens of places I could happily live: Devon, Cornwall, Cumbria, Northumberland, East Anglia, France... and Yorkshire, Weaver! Be warned - we may end up there before too long! We've lived in Notts/Lincs for a long time now and fancy a change. In Yorkshire you're so close to such fabulous hilly areas - the Lakes, the Pennines, the Howgills, the Peak District, the Yorkshire Dales and Moors, the Cheviots - and also within striking district of Scotland...

No Scottish ancestry, Gleaner, but there is a little Celtic in me somewhere - I have Irish cousins.

Johnnie Walker said...

Hola from a Scot - I've loved these posts. Thanks. I laughed at the toilet attendant and thought you might like this wee story from June 2009:

Bristol Evening Post: "Outside Bristol Zoo is the car park, with spaces for 150 cars and 8 coaches. It has been manned 6 days a week for 23 years by the same charming and very polite car park attendant with the ticket machine. The charges are £1 per car and £5 per coach. On Monday 1 June, he did not turn up for work. Bristol Zoo management phoned Bristol City Council to ask them to send a replacement parking attendant. The Council said “That car park is your responsibility.” The Zoo said “The attendant was employed by the City Council… wasn’t he?” The Council said “What attendant?” Gone missing from his home is a man who has been taking daily the car park fees amounting to about £400 per day for the last 23 years."

That’s over £100K a year- tax free.

Wonderful :)

The Solitary Walker said...

That's a great story, Johnnie :) Seems a bit of charm and politeness can reap big dividends..!