Wednesday, 11 May 2011

How things are in the Lews (part 5)

That this state of things should continue to exist in our own country, within two or three miles of Stornoway, and within 200 miles of Glasgow as the crow flies, seems almost incredible. Scarcely less astounding is the position and power of the clergy. It may be necessary here to state that out of Stornoway the entire mass of the population belong to the Free Church. Even in Stornoway, the Established Church is gradually emptying, and the new UP Church, though progressing, is small. But over the rest of the island the Free Church is practically the only Church; the Established churches are deserted; their ministers, some of them, like Mr Strachan of Barvas, men of high culture, have little or nothing to do; and I have heard of more than one whose Sabbath ministrations are confined to family worship at their own firesides. For want of Gaelic, I have not been able to ascertain whether the rural population, intensely Free Church as they are, have any real knowledge of the difference between Established and Free Church principles, or whether their ecclesiastical eradition transcends that of the man in one of the mission districts of Glasgow, who, being asked to point out the difference between the Frees and the UPs, explained that the UPs were in the habit of using a hymn book. My private impression is that the people, with true Highland loyalty, followed their ministers out of the Establishment without any very clear conception of the issues involved, or where they were going.
"Theirs not to reason why
Theirs not to make reply"
But whatever may be their knowledge or ignorance of ecclesiastical polity, they see one thing clearly, and that is that the Establishment ministers, though they don't do (because in fact they get no opportunity of doing) the ministerial work of the island, yet occupy the manses and glebes. This is a sore point with the people. I do not know that the Romanists in Ireland feel more keenly in regard to the Irish Establishment. On one occasion, going to visit one of the parish ministers, I observed his gate much injured. I said to him, "there has surely been a bull or some wild animal at your gate?"
"O no", said he, "yesterday was the Free Church communion at ____. The people generally demolish my gate on their way home."
And yet these people, aside from their ecclesiastical antipathies, are a fine race, brave, hardy and intrepid, and hospitable to a degree. If even an Establishment minister was hungry, they would feed him; if a stranger, they would take him in.
To their own ministers, they are generally much attached, and loyal to a fault. I doubt if many people in the South have any idea of the deference that is paid here to ecclesiastical authority, and the extent to which that authority is sometimes exercised. The people are exceedingly religious in their own way; and whenever a communion is held, thousands upon thousands of them flock to it, sometimes from the remotest parts of the island, and even from a greater distance. Under these circumstances one would expect the ministers to be careful, especially at the fishing season, to interfere as little as possible with the brief time during which the fishermen are earning the money that has to support them and their families for the rest of the year. And yet, if I am informed aright, there is a communion held almost every fortnight during the fishing season, sometimes at great distances, causing the fisherman to lose one, two or three days on each occasion from their work. Only last week, when a communion was being held in this quarter of the island, the native fishermen were prevented by their ministers from fishing on the Thursday night, which turned out to be one of the best fishing nights of the season. One gentleman here told me that he had seen the same sort of thing done in the harvest time. He has seen a communion fixed to take place at the very time when harvest work should be at its busiest, and the crofters called away to distant parts of the island and leaving their crops to rot in the fields. If this state of things cannot be rectified, it ought, at least, to be known.
Then fancy a case of church "discipline" like the following, which occurred only a few months ago. One Saturday a person travelling across the island to Stornoway called at a friend's house on the way and was hospitably entertained. Next day the woman of the house, finding that her scanty store of food had been exhausted in entertaining the stranger, went in on the Sabbath forenoon and borrowed a haddock from her neighbour. This reaching the minister's ears, a meeting of session was called, inquiries were made and it was found that the woman on that Sabbath day when she borrowed the haddock had meal and water enough in the house to have kept the family alive till the Monday. So flagrant a case of Sabbath desecration could not be allowed to pass. The minister made it the subject of lengthened comment in his next sermon; and at the close the woman was called upon by name to stand up and receive admonition. The woman did not stand up, not being there to stand. Announcement was then made that the woman's name would be called for three successive Sabbaths, and if she did not make her appearance within that time and stand up to be censured, she would be deprived of church privileges. The affair, however, got wind in Stornoway; influence was brought to bear on the minister, and the matter was allowed to drop. I have heard this case detailed by so many independent witnesses that I have no doubt of its substantial accuracy.
This old practice of calling people up to be rebuked in church would seem still to be common here. It is said that in some parts of the island, when persons are about to emigrate and apply for their certificate of church connection (without which they will not leave the island) they are compelled, if any misdemeanour is still in the books against them, to make public confession of it, even though the offence may have been committed many years before. One case was given me of a man who had become the father of an illegitimate child when a youth, and who, although he had subsequently married the woman, and become the father of a legitimate family, had to stand up with his wife in church and receive censure - some of his family being present.
This sort of discipline, however, is said to exercise in general a healthy influence, and is sometimes employed much more commendably than in the case of the haddock. One of the Lews farmers told me that one season the crofters began to appropriate his turnips, not in ones or twos, but in creelfuls. He went and complained to the minister, who took the matter up, preached a sermon against stealing in general and turnip-stealing in particular; called the people together in different houses to warn them, and finally succeeded in putting an end to turnip stealing, for that season at least. The appropriation of turnips, however, would seem, like the cattle-lifting of old days, and the embezzlement of books and casual umbrellas amongst ourselves, to be regarded by the poorer cotters as scarcely coming within the range of the Eighth Commandment. In other matters they are honest, sometimes to scrupulosity; and you find amongst the poorest of them much of that high principle of honour and that native dignity that belong to the true Highlander.

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