Saturday, 8 July 2017

Lives in the Lewis Landscape (and elsewhere): Book Review

Saints and Sinners: Tales of Lewis Lives, by Iain Smith with Joan Forrest. Stornoway, Acair, 2017. 180pp. £15. 25 illustrations.

'If there is a thread to the stories in “Saints and Sinners”, the authors have said, it is that they contribute something to an understanding of educational opportunity in late 19th and early 20th century Scotland.' Their method is to use stories, blended with analysis of developments and context based on thorough research in a variety of sources. The main title is not to be taken too literally; it would be stretching a point or two to ascribe either unblemished sanctity or lurid sinfulness to any of the protagonists, although they include examples of the devout – two who made religion their profession, and two who wished to - and the non-religious. The latter does not imply militant atheism but does extend to one ‘bleak description of Lewis religion’: "It regards art and beauty as lures of the devil or at best as profane pursuits unworthy of the seriousness of life."

Smith subverts one or two cherished myths, notably the one about a crofter's son having become Secretary of State for Scotland, which didn't happen, and makes good points about higher educational opportunities being more available to the better-off for a long time, as well as being unavailable to girls. The book is mostly about education (it is evident throughout that he knows this subject, and has a rooted knowledge of the island) with Chapter 4 relating the growth of the Nicolson Institute as a prestigious secondary school. Chapter 5, something of an exception – ‘An ordinary Shawbost family’ – uses family history to illustrate wider social changes across his parents' and grandparents' generations. These include: longevity; occupations; housing, domestic amenities; technology and utilities; the importance of fishing and crofting; and participation in the two world wars.

There are ten chapters, some co-written and revised from previously published versions, flanked by an introduction and conclusions (Ch.11), each ranging widely from its initial starting point, with many interconnections and by-ways. The stories and their sometimes surprising ramifications are, as the sub-title implies, about people. Individuals, most of whom may be characterised as outstanding beneficiaries, sometimes agents, of change in educational opportunity from the late 19th through to the early decades of the 20th century, take centre stage in turn, from a top civil servant and a headmaster, via academics and poets, a missionary, and an autodidact par excellence to a noted ‘Bohemian’ and friend of cultural celebrities. Inevitably the principal protagonists are male, a situation of which the authors are well aware. "The denial of opportunity to their female ancestors and indeed to many of their female contemporaries does not bear thinking about." (p.8)

Nevertheless the method of hunting up connections, including relations, means that if there was an index it would include several female names: the sister who first taught her autodidact brother his letters; the missionary’s mother-in-law (a daughter of explorer David Livingstone) who corresponded with Hans Christian Andersen; the single mother whose son became a Professor of Systematic Theology; the first Dux (Latin for 'leader', meaning top of the top class) of the Nicolson Institute who could not proceed to a degree, only to LLA (Lady Literate in Arts). Other benefits of the discursive but relevant style and collaborative method mean that, short though the book is, the reader is taken to different places, meets interesting people and learns something new about subjects that might not be expected from the overall theme.

At the same time, telling points are made and backed up by scrupulous research in a variety of sources, making this a real contribution to the history of Scottish education. ‘Formidable barriers of socio-economic status and gender’ were lowered thanks to innovations like bursaries and hostels, enabling ‘opportunities not afforded to earlier generations’. It was, however, ‘marginally wrong’ to assume ‘that such things would successively improve for each subsequent generation’. While ‘education as leading to social mobility can be overstated’ (p.169) it is taken to be undoubtedly a good thing, and its positive developments, while not unique to Lewis, are well exemplified there. Smith considers the Scottish school students of the 1950s and '60s ‘uniquely privileged’ but evidently sees hope in new online opportunities which mean that high achievers or the academically ambitious no longer need to go ‘away’ to have a chance of realising their potential.

Fraserburgh 1907:
The couple at the heart of the 'family' chapter
Golden Wedding:
Bain Square, Stornoway, 1957

P.S. This review should perhaps come with a declaration of interest. Not only has the Isle of Lewis been a recurrent theme on this blog*, so also has the writing of Calum Smith, author of Around the Peat-Fire (Edinburgh, Birlinn, 2001; 'Anthology' edition 2010) - a book mentioned in several footnotes and in the text by Iain Smith (Calum's nephew).

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