Day 3, Sunday on the Isle of Lewis

16th June 2013

It is Sunday today. Here on the Isle of Lewis this is a special day.

Alongside the old Celtic beliefs, which still affect the workings of day to day life in the Hebrides, the islands also have strongly Christian communities; in the north predominantly the Free Church of Scotland, and in the south predominantly Catholic.

In Stornoway, the people of the Free Church still hold strong to the principals of rest on a Sunday; time spent with family and at church. All shops are closed, there is no public transport, and it is only recently that the ferry to the mainland has started to run on a Sunday. The streets of town are deserted until suddenly in the middle of the day or the late afternoon they swell with people; church-goers, relaxed and smart in dark suits and colourful hats, gathering to chatter and laugh on the stone steps of the church.

I am heading slightly out of town, along the northwards road from Stornoway, where a smattering of whitewashed houses spread out along the hillside, inboard from the sea.

I have the generous permission of Reverend MacLeod, of Back Free Church, to record the Gaelic psalms sung in his church. As the congregation shuffle and settle into their pews, I ready my recorder in the high, wooden balcony at the back of the church.

The first solo notes of the presenter lift into the air and the congregation lilts and turns in response, coming in at different times, inserting their own grace notes, which float to meet in the high church ceiling and blend in its void to a harmonious, other-worldly Sunday praise. It is said there’s a movement like the movement of the sea, in the singing of Gaelic psalms.

I am told that on a Sunday a thousand people would come together to sing in Gaelic. Today numbers have declined to perhaps a hundred at a Gaelic service, and with the younger generations, the psalms are more commonly sung at an English service.

When historically the education system discouraged the use of Gaelic, it was banned in the schools. However Gaelic remained the language spoken in the playground and at home in the Outer Hebrides. Today the situation has swung around. The use of Gaelic is encouraged by the system, but, suffering from these earlier policies, the language spoken in the playgrounds of the schools has become more commonly English.

It is still hoped that this can turn around. The 2011 census showed a slowing in the decline of the number of Gaelic speakers, with a small increase in the number of Gaelic speakers under the age of 20.

In the 2001 census, it was found around 60,000 (1.2%) of the 5 million inhabitants of Scotland spoke Gaelic as a first language. In the Outer Hebrides it was 15,723 inhabitants, (61.1% of the islands’ population).

These are my understandings but I am open to correction on my facts!

But back at the church … After cups of tea and cake, I take a drive over to Barvas beach, to walk across the Machair bobbing with buttercups and daisies in the breeze, brilliant with colour and the heady scent of pollen; to lie for a while in amongst the flowers and listen to the insects humming by my ears.

Machair is a rare habitat and is found only in the northwest of Scotland and in Ireland, with about half of the Machair found in Scotland being in the Outer Hebrides. Up to 90% of the content of Machair sand is seashell.

Traditionally, machair is used for grazing and rotational cropping and the traditional methods used sustain a profusion of wild flowers, which fill the air with their blossom. Up to 45 plant species can be found within one square metre. The machair is particularly important for the wildlife, birds and insects, which are abundant in the area.

(More information on the history of the Church. Machair and some Outer Hebrides facts can be found in links in the Scotland Digital Resources page)