Time Travel: Free Church meets Freethinker

My last view of Lewis.

Angus told me a bit about the Sabbath on Lewis, particularly about the Free Church, the stern Presbyterian offshoot that is the dominant religion on the island. It seemed confusing and, well, kinda grim and anything but free to me, so I won’t attempt to repeat what he explained; I know I’ll get it wrong.  He gave me a tape of the Free Church singing of the psalms, which he said are in a traditional sort-of call and response style, and he told me how this practice was recently found to be nearly identical to the singing in certain long-established southern black churches in the U.S.  He said that there had been a mutual exchange of music between these churches that amazed everyone involved, on both sides of the Atlantic pond.  I liked hearing that story, very much.

Because my bag went missing until a few hours before I left for the Catskills, I haven’t listened to the tape yet, and I’m not sure what, if anything, I’ll be able to hear of it, but I intend to try. I admire and respect people who have strong spiritual beliefs, as long as those beliefs don’t involve harming non-believers in any way, and as long as the believers don’t expect me to adopt their doctrine. As a (Christian) online friend often says,” your rights end where my nose begins”. Amen to that. I have my own strong beliefs, and they are private.  But, after hearing about the strictness of the Free Church, and reading a few things in Stornoway’s many religious bookstore windows, I did begin to wonder if I might be, oh, burned at the stake if I ever attempted to stay there for any length of time.

On the ferry going away from Lewis, near the end of the crossing, I met a fascinating-looking old man.  He was very thin, skeletal, his ruddy, scarred skin drawn tight over his skull and the tough cordlike muscles of his jaw, with an incredibly wide, almost lipless mouth. I could clearly see all the bones and tendons of his hands and wrists.  Yet he wasn’t pasty or ill-looking; his skin shone with the blood pulsing beneath, and there was a fierce, wiry vitality about him.  I was standing on the side deck, sheltering from the wind, watching the distant mainland mountains glide by.  He came out to smoke, expertly hand-rolling his own.

“Did ye enjoy Lewis?” he asked.

“Yes, very much,” I said, “it’s beautiful.”

The inevitable response to my voice came next, “And where are ye from?”

“Chicago; in America.” 

“America!  Hhhmmmmff.” 

There was a pause while he peered at me, probably deciding if I was, in fact, worth talking to. Then, “Yes. Lewis is –“ and here the wind jerked his words out of my ears, but I heard the last two all right, because he thundered them, “ – and Christianity!  (pronounced something like Crrrrresst-chee-yan-ehtay!)

“Oh, great,” I thought, “and he’s got matches, too.” 

But I said, “Um, yes, I could see that it’s very religious. I was, um, in Stornoway on Sunday.”

Another long pause, while he stared at me, smoked, then said, abruptly, “And where did ye go?

“Oh, I went lots of places, a friend drove me — “

“What church did ye go to? On Sunday!”

Gently, I said, “I didn’t go to church. I walked about the castle grounds. All day. And I had a wonderful day.”  He drew himself up and sharpened his gaze so that his clear, pale blue eyes actually did bore into mine. I could feel them. So I stared back, shot him a huge, wide grin and cheerfully said, “I was BAD.”

For 1/1000th of a second, his mouth twitched up and the corners of his eyes began to crinkle, but he quickly got control of himself, put on a sour, dour face, and said curtly, “Ye were.”

“But” I said, “I was told that if I did want to go, I should go to the Free Church.”

“Yes!” He almost smiled. Almost.

I tried again. “My friend gave me a tape of the psalm-singing. I haven’t listened to it yet.”

Another slow drag on the cigarette, eyes still intent on mine. “Hhhmmmmfff. In English?”

I threw down the trump card. “In Gaelic.”

I won a genuine smile!  So I said, “My friend told me that the way the psalms are sung is the same as the singing in some American black churches in the sou–” and his face lit up like the summer sun coming out from behind a supercell cloud, and he trumpeted, in an accent that would astound anyone below the Mason-Dixon line, “Allll-i-bama!

And that’s where we connected; I could share in his genuine, enormous pleasure in his church’s cross-cultural bond, and he knew I truly did, even if I was a weird American, and a heathen at that.  I let him urge me to listen to the tape, because “ye can never be too deaf to hear The Word”, and then we comfortably talked about places on the island, and where Angus had taken me.  As the boat came into the Ullapool harbor, he smiled at me again and asked, “Will ye come back again to Lewis, do ye think?” 

We have now concluded the time travel section of our Blahg, unless for some reason, such as a lot more rain, we feel compelled to flesh out the very sketchy notes that we have remaining.  Please return your seat backs and tray tables to their normal upright positions, and once again: we thank you for choosing Blahg. 



Time Travel: A Bard’s-Eye View

My favourite photo of a Lewis beach; the Carribean meets Scotland.  The color is unenhanced.

I’ve already written a bit about the utterly grand tour of Lewis and a bit of Harris that Angus so generously gave to me, and since I’m time-travel blogging chronologically, and I’m at that day, I’ll show you some of the places he showed me.

The somewhat embarrassing thing is, is that I don’t know the names or exact locations of some of the photos, and that’s the down side of any tour, even an incredible one like this.  Like the Orkney bus driver said, we zoomed from place to place. We were most enjoyably talking, talking and talking the entire day, periodically interrupted by me suddenly exclaiming, “Oooooooohhhhhh!” as we’d round a curve and yet another spectacular view would be revealed, completely derailing whatever train of thought I’d been traveling on.  And, on the other hand, the conversation was so interesting that I didn’t really pay attention to where we were headed; just watched things appear before me, like a film.

Here’s what I know: we went first to Point, to see the house Angus had just built on his father’s croft land.  Then we drove down to Tarbert, in Harris, passing the place where he’d been born in a traditional (but turf-roofed) black house, and several awesomely huge sea lochs, enormous fjords that cut into the island, surrounded by great steep jagged stony mountains.  At Tarbert, we turned back up to Lewis to places where we had astounding views of immense beaches, and to a place where we saw the new green-design houses, and just across from them, we were high over another gigantic beach.  (We could just see two tiny human specks down there, moving, surrounded by vast white sands, and Angus said, “Hmmmm, it’s quite crowded today.”)  Then, we drove down to another beach, and got out again and walked for a bit (and I walked ahead alone for a time and just stood, completely mesmerized). We went on to Callanais, and the Black House village. Those are on the map, so I know where we were, and I’m reasonably certain of the road we took to get to the Butt of Lewis, the northern tip of the island, because we went past the Dun Carloway broch (but didn’t stop).

I took about 20,000 fewer photos than I would have if I hadn’t been with Angus; he was doing something wonderful for me and I didn’t want to wear out my welcome by pestering him to stop (well, at least too often). Poignant abandoned stone houses were everywhere, many of them within yards of the newer concrete houses that replaced them.  And, I saw places where peat had been cut and stacked to dry, and a couple of folks working at that. Though peat fires have been in my consciousness for as long as I can remember, going back to my very earliest memories of my great-uncle Mac’s stories, this was the first time I had actually seen this, other than in photographs (which I didn’t take, of the peat or deserted houses).

I didn’t walk the two-mile circuit around Callanais, deaf, experiencing it in relation to the smaller stone circles that surround it as I’d planned, but that will happen.  I could easily spend many days in any one of the places we visited. That is the largest gift Angus unknowingly gave me with his tour; the certain knowledge that I need to come back and do just exactly that.

On the road to Harris.  You can see some of the rulers of the Harris roads at the side; the black-faced sheep.  They wander free, and in the evenings, will come down to the road and lie on it, for warmth.  You have to get out of the car and chase them out of the way.

Enormous loch on the way to Harris; the rectangle in the water is a salmon fishery.

The other end of the same loch, with boat heading out.

A beach – for scale, look for three farms near the shore.  

On the beach.

The central circle of the Callanais stones.

In the black house village.

Sea stack at the end of the world, near the Butt of Lewis.  There’s nothing to show the scale, but trust me; it’s huge, and I’m standing over a long sheer drop to the sea. (No, that’s not my initial – or rather, I didn’t put it there).

Next stop, Canada and the states.  Again, these are gigantic.

Tapadh leat, caraid.