This is the final piece in my short series of posts about my time on the charming Hebridean island of Barra where at this time of year it is light until midnight and getting light again at three in the morning!
One of the highlights of my fantastic little cycling holiday on Barra was a visit to the quaint wee museum and heritage centre. Initially while scanning the low key exhibit I was struggling to concentrate, still recovering from pedalling slow motion up the hill on the way back from Vatersay, when suddenly I saw the name Cathcart! The discovery of an ancestor focused my attention. Where would my nominal forebear fit into the romantic history of the island? Unfortunately she was not one of the rugged locals fighting to reclaim her homeland but instead a wealthy detached landowner, Lady Gordon Cathcart, who visited the island only once during her ownership. Ah well, guess it figures.
It was fascinating reading old newspaper articles piecing together the lives, faith and politics of the islanders through history. According to the voiceover on the looping documentary on in the background it is speculated that the reason the Church of Scotland on the island has no windows along one side is so that they don’t see the Catholics having fun! I wouldn’t be surprised if there isn’t something to this. Slavoj Zizek refers to a Rabbi responding to the question ‘Did it all happen, is it all true?’ by saying whether or not it did happen ‘It is true.’ There is a tangible sense on the island of the symbiotic link between the churches and the pubs. That sweetly observed moment in The Simpsons where, fearing an imminent apocalyptic threat the people in the church flock to the bar and the people in the bar flock to the church would be rendered obsolete on Barra – firstly because the inhabitants don’t seem to rush anywhere and secondly because there wouldn’t be the same substantive difference.
I am not catholic but I went to mass on the Sunday morning – when in Barra do as the Romans do. Sadly the priest off of the telly was away that week. It was rewarding to observe and participate. Catholic rituals can often maintain a sense of drama sometimes overlooked in reformed traditions that can have a tedency to focus on cerebral propositions. I got a glimpse of something, moving the locus of reformation from the organisational to the personal where individuals are continually forming and re-forming around the dramatic narrative of the last supper and the Cross, letting it affect them anew, reworking the story and re-living it, wrapping themselves up in the mystery time and again.
There was a funny moment when the Canadian guest priest who sounded like a nerdy Harrison Ford (like at the start of the Indiana Jones movies before he’s taken his glasses off) quoted Francis of Assisi’s immortal words ‘Preach the gospel, use words if necessary’ and then followed them with the far more mortal ‘In other words…’
Back to the museum. Something else that struck me was finding out about a chapel that was built out of driftwood because of the lack of trees on the island. How romantic! A fragile shleter made up of washed up fragments of a broken world reconstituted and re-dedicated, set apart for a new purpose.
Sounds like church to me.
I will finish with a poem I wrote on the ferry back. It’s called Trees, A Crowd
Imagine a land without trees where salt hangs thick in the air. There are no trees crowding and yet you breathe well there. You must scramble over sandy roots to reach outcrops of rocks branching out over up top. It is green, but a dark, dark green like a green that has seen but not forgotten. And when you see the ocean
which is often
it is also green and purple and occasionally
The buildings are stoic and hardy, well you guess they had better be with the wind unchecked by trees that flexes and leads where it will. The people though are unhurried, not worried, taking their time like the sun which scarcely has moments enough to leave before returning in a rush. But the jealous moon bides his time saying the ‘The tides are mine’, and he knows when they turn his silver shadow shall fall once again on the people below, with harbours and chapels and pubs, and there’s no need to rush, as all are inviting and relaxed about timing. So whether it’s midnight and the sun’s shining or midday in moon’s
there is always wine in the chapel and prayers in the pub whatever the occasion.
In the land without trees, Newton wouldn’t have seen the seed of an idea but where would there be the need? In the land of green and purple seas, where winds roam uninterrupted where the usual truce between sun and moon is ruptured, where pubs are chapels and chapels are pubs, where the livestock and living and buildings are harsh and unforgiving but the people gentle and singing
as they speak.
So in the land without trees where salt hangs thick in the air
you wouldn’t have it be.
is the need