Wednesday, 24 January 2018

More from the Manse: a sideways look at Lewis social history.

In the more than sixty years since Calum Smith complained of the lack of ‘social history’ of his native island (see below), much has been published to remedy the situation, including his own well-received memoir, Around the Peat-Fire (Birlinn 2001 and 2010). It was not with the intention of adding to this body of work that Kenneth A MacRae kept his Diary or the Banner of Truth Trust published a book based on it, but there is much of general, secular interest to be gleaned from its pages, overwhelmingly preoccupied with the writer's religion though they are. Having looked at MacRae's observations in relation to the First and Second World Wars, here (grouped roughly by theme, not in chronological order) is some of what he noted about other aspects of life in the town of Stornoway and occasionally elsewhere.

(Extracts from the diary are paraphrased rather than verbatim, except when in inverted commas; page references are to editorial material in the book Diary of Kenneth A MacRae).
The Old Free Church manse in Stornoway, from the book of the Diary.
The minister's study was on the ground-floor, on the right here.
Mr (the title 'Rev.' was not generally used among Free Church ministers) MacRae noted some differences from his previous congregations and their environment in Argyllshire and on Skye, Lewis being in many ways distinctive. He was a partisan of the Highlands and Islands and of their inhabitants, believing in encouraging the Gaelic language and culture; his editor (pp.471-472) remarks on his concern with the misgovernment of the region and issues of depopulation and emigration, and on how he opposed the idea of a NATO airbase on Lewis, canvassed in the 1950s, saying that it would be an "absurd decision" to locate it so close to the town (echoing his similar anxieties during the war).

On leaving Skye, he recorded how some men were moved to tears at his departure, and shared their emotion. In view of the grimly unemotional image of Scottish Presbyterianism, it's surprising how frequently weeping and tears, especially those of men (including Lewismen), occur in his pages - usually in connection with religion. (Laughter, not so much, although we are assured he had a sense of humour.)

23-12-31...the case of a man, a proper rascal, who was seen in the Seminary.. with the tears streaming down his face. Should this man be brought in [to join the Church] I am told it will shake the town...

11-10-32 It is very seldom that I see tears after worship when visiting [people in their homes] here. Today i had that experience, more common in Skye... the woman in question was a St. Kildan.  The Lewis people never struck me as being emotional, they are too hard-headed for that.

12-4-34 Feeling homesick... makes this island seem very drab and dull.

29-5-54 'Flowers of the Forest' [traditional song/tune, heard in Australia] upset me entirely, I had to go outside.

He was well aware of issues such poverty, unemployment and housing, while not being inclined to take action outside what he saw as the remit of his ministry:

26-10-31  ... Also in the poorer quarters of the town, how miserable many of the houses are! 
24-11-33 Visit to New Valley [just outside the town]: the houses there are mostly poor and one wonders how they make a living at all.

1-10-33 Service - at the close spoke to the young men against the suggestion in the local newspaper that the ministers should busy themselves in providing employment for the workless.

The fishing industry, in decline since the First World War, was still important:

2-10-33 Tonight the first batch of ["herring"] girls leave for Yarmouth for 3 months [seasonal migrant labour], with two ministers [to cater for their spiritual welfare, and no doubt keep an eye on them].

5-6-32 English service in the church for the first time attended by [among others] some sailors from a warship. and some East Coast fishermen.
(English services had been held in a different building, the Seminary. Gaelic congregations were larger, hundreds-strong. Although not a native speaker, MacRae said he preferred the Gaelic, finding in it "a certain sweetness I cannot get in the English". He preached tirelessly in both languages.)

28-6-32 People are troubled because of the poor fishing.

The fixation on Sunday observance for which MacRae was most celebrated, or notorious, was of long standing but inevitably continued and intensified after his move in 1931 to the Stornoway Free Church (2-9-31 Induction. Church packed). He had already found support on the island, having received a letter in December 1930 from the Lewis presbytery congratulating him on the success of the Sabbath League.

Religious observance was of course not only for Sundays, and Thursdays were sometimes designated to be special too:
                2-11-31 Week of Humiliation and Prayer on account of the state of the country. 
[There were several such Weeks, and Days, ordained by the Free Church at national level].

26-11-31 Thursday. This being Harvest Thanksgiving had services just as on a Sabbath. Was glad to find shops and the school closed. Yet the scholars were too prone to regard it as a holiday and preferred to amuse themselves rather than attend church.

18-4-36 thankful to get the Lochness petition [against Sunday sailing] away last night. It bore 10,251 signatures. [Note, p.300: owners proposed mailboat should leave on Sunday night; petition successful.]

His year out in Australia, 1953-54, and the process of getting there, inflicted some shocks to the system. The voyage out on the Orontes was a sore trial when it came to the Sabbath. He did not go so far as to object to the crew working to keep the vessel moving - "necessity and mercy" probably covered that - but he deplored the Church of England-style service, "mainly music and mummery" (12-5-53) A week later, to make things worse, at Port Said small boats came out to the ship in a "veritable pandemonium of bartering, buying and selling... But the people who bought were more guilty than the sellers .. Sabbath was a miserable day and I was glad when it was over." 
                 5-4-54 Sydney on the Sabbath is a sad place... even worse than Melbourne.

Back in Britain, things sometimes looked not much better.
1957 [Farnborough Air Show disaster, letter:] What alarms is the conduct of the promoters and attendees in carrying on after such a dreadful occurrence. Next day, the Lord's Day, a crowd of up to 150,000 attended. [There are other occasions where apparent 'callousness' at deaths strikes him, but this time the fact of the Sabbath evidently makes it even more reprehensible].

(p.471) Reference to hysterical reception in Glasgow on Sabbath night of American film star. “Britain, in abandoning the Sabbath, has lost her crown.”

Politically, it is no surprise to find that the minister was not well disposed to those of the left. This had been made explicit in his reaction to what must have been a lively election campaign, after the first few months of Labour government:
29-10-24 Cycled in to Uig to record my Parliamentary vote. For the first time on record, socialism is receiving uncommon support in these parts [his ministry was in Skye at this time] but this is mainly due to the activities of a few of the advanced type and to the fact that people have not come in contact with the thing itself. It is a solemn day for the country. May the Lord save us from the hands of the godless schemers who are trying to seize the upper hand in the land!
(A Liberal , Alexander Liviingstone, was elected to the Western Isles in 1924; the constituency had a Labour MP, Malcolm K Macmillan, from 1935 until 1970.)

He took a dim view of industrial action:
19-5-33  A dispute has broken out between curers and fishermen which threatens to have very serious consequences for Stornoway. Last night two trawlers and some of the drifters dumped their catch in the sea, a wicked act which is likely to bring its own punishment. Such a dispute in the present state of the industry is suicidal. May the poor not suffer from it!
(Twenty years later, during his year in Australia) 13-4-54  Sydney. Saw the Radnor which the dockers refused to load because she is going to Indo-China with arms to help the French - now being loaded by servicemen. Communism is active in Australia and the situation calls urgently for firm handling by the government.

Comments on the international situation between the wars are few; one stands out:
5-10-35  The wireless reported... the Italians bombing Adowa (Abyssinia [Ethiopia]). If ever there was an unjustifiable war in history this is it. Apparently it was a sheer massacre on a tremendous scale, and considering what modern weapons are, if the war is to continue it cannot be anything else. It will be a foul blot on the name of Italy for generations, and all to satiate the vain-glory of one ambitious, relentless despot! May Britain be kept out of it!
[Later, however, when Britain was at war, he was to castigate Neville Chamberlain for "betraying" Abyssinia among other places.]

23-10-48 [Another] Day of Humiliation and Prayer on account of the deplorable state of the world.

At national level, he may have been right-wing in some respects but was no respecter of worldly persons, whose behaviour he often denounced from the pulpit, and certainly no royalist:

25-1-36 The King yielded to a Greater on Sabbath..  I fear [Edward VII] will not be an influence helpful to true evangelical righteousness. Yet the Lord may change him.
11-12-36 [Abdication.] It is a great blessing and a merciful deliverance!

6-6-53 [Coronation, when he was on board ship heading for Australia] A day of extra vanity… Nonsensical observances… Country given over to vanity... Port wine, declined… Walked out after dinner. Retired early, heard things went to a great length.
[No doubt he would have had something to say about the announcement in a news item on 7-1-18 that yet another royal event was to be accompanied by extended licensing hours.]

While he was in Australia he criticised the fact that the programme for a royal visit was not affected by a train disaster in New Zealand in which 166 people lost their lives, “sport and pleasure” being paramount.

On the occasion of the royal visit to Stornoway in 1956 he declined to be presented to the Queen, on the grounds that she wasn’t someone he wanted to meet, having persistently violated the fourth commandment (“Remember the Sabbath Day…”) by attending polo matches in particular, and had also received Russian politicians. This principled stance caused “considerable public comment”.
Stornoway, showing part of the inner harbour.
The Free Church is building with the tower and roof on the left.
(The spire on the right would be Martin's Memorial Church of Scotland).
Locally, he had no hesitation in making his views known and asserting his influence beyond his own large congregation, believing it was incumbent on him to do so. (This included periodically testing the scripture knowledge of pupils in the Nicolson Institute, both primary and secondary, and conducting services in the boys' and girls' hostels.)

20-6-32 examined 7 classes in the Nicolson in Religious Instruction.

1-1-46 Peace has come, but the nations are restless and uneasy. Politically and economically the year promises to be a very difficult one. Memo re Sabbath night sailings of the Loch Seaforth. Sent copies of a pamphlet to the Provost and also to one of our Baillies who is a great opponent [this may have been Roderick Smith; Calum Smith was not a Baillie at this time].

16-11-46 Town Council agreed to go to the Free Church... Resolved to set before them their relationship as civic rulers to the law and sovereignty of Christ.
(Diary Editor's note) p.380 It was the custom for every new Town Council to attend one of the local churches in a body.

He later recalled postwar austerity when he met an exiled compatriot (13-2-54):  Miss M A MacRae "who sent so many parcels to us during rationing in Scotland". 

He was no pro-European when it came to postwar develpments:
31-1-63 Britain denied entrance to Common Market [preceding the European Union]. We are full of rejoicing.

One of the more commendable sides to his ministry and social concern, from the point of view of later generations, may be its inclusiveness, extending to the “underclass” of travellers, or tinkers 

9-1-49 Tinker wedding at Marybank. The road to the house was awful and the rain was just slashing down. The house was full, but what surprised me most was the nice appearance of the young girls.In their best clothes they would never be taken for tinkers. The bridegroom, a young man aged 22, could not sign his name. This also surprised me. The best man signed army style, surname first, in great scrawling handwriting. The bride, a pretty young girl of 18 with a delicate pink and white complexion, came of the Newmarket Camp. She signed very readily with a quick running hand, as did her sister, the bridesmaid. They were very raw about matters and an onlooker no doubt would have seen much to amuse him, but they were very amenable to guidance and correction. I asked them to come to church, but I don't expect them. Somehow I feel very sorry for them all - outcasts, almost, from society.

11-10-47 Funeral of a little tinker boy who had died in hospital. In one of the erections of beaten-out tins which today are beginning to replace the traditional tents. Felt somewhat moved at the power of death which at a stroke sweeps away all the distinctions of class and station. Pity for the poor creatures who seemed so patient in their grief. As we returned, the Laxdale schoolboys were lined on both sides of the road to pay their respects to the dust of their little schoolfellow - the tinker boy. I thought the schoolmaster's gesture a very thoughtful and considerate one.

2-1-50 Conducted a meeting in a tinker's shanty on the Barvas road in which a death had taken place... Felt somewhat moved in that strange company, especially when I realised how  these poor creatures had an equal claim with ourselves to the blessings of salvation in Christ.

14-10-50 Weather: only about 390 at Gaelic service. Was surprised and touched to see the poor old tinker woman, who lost her husband some months ago, present in a black dress with a young girl beside her. Oh if the gospel would take root out there - !

Although it’s still a question of “them” as distinct from "us", not all his parishioners would have been equally sympathetic and well-disposed, and the tinkers’ problems are not over even now.

Alcoholism was a long-term problem,which he was not slow to tackle:
20-4-32 Lecture. Addressed the Drink question. 
(p.373) The Curse of Strong Drink: A traditional evil which MacRae was convinced was due to massive promotion campaigns. During the war it had disturbed him very deeply that unlimited quantities of free beer had been authorised for service men and women in Stornoway on Christmas day.
1-1-60 ...Drink has demoralised this generation, men and women.

Health in general was another inescapable preoccupation, and visiting the sick was a duty which he took seriously.
6-9-31 Service in the Sanatorium. (p.283: TB was a scourge on the island, the Sanatorium always full).
26-10-31 How well many of the poor creatures look and how pretty many of the girls are! Also in the poorer quarters of the town, how miserable many of the houses are! 26-12-33 visiting Sanatorium
20-1-32 It is a sad place. (- The Sanatorium, known as the Sanny or the ID, was the hospital for Infectious Diseases just outside Stornoway.)

11-9-31 Hospital; many poor creatures.
6-10 Meeting at Poorhouse (Coulregrein House, the former workhouse); most audience mental defectives.

11-1-34 Sick very numerous... getting beyond me.
18-1-34 Heard my visits to Sanatorium much appreciated by patients there.
20-4-35 Poor dying girl, last stages of consumption.
7-3-36 Town is full of sickness, and flu, complicated by septic throat or pneumonia, is rife... I have to go among such cases...

He had his own health probelms: (p.462) serious illness 1957-58; operation in Lewis hospital: "Treated here like a king. Matron, Sisters and most nurses are very nice; some of the girlies are pure gold."

Inevitably the weather could not always be ignored, although it was not always the worst place to be it was said that the mean temperature in Stornoway was higher than in Cambridge (p.229), and one year there was a drought on Skye (where he was visiting) in early March 1963. He often travelled back and forth to the mainland and to Skye, suffering several storm-tossed crossings of the Minch.

14-15/1-32 flooding; seldom seen such rain, unprecedented.
15/16-12-36 Tuesday might's gale: harbour blocked by masses of tangled nets. 90 mph wind.
14-3-47 (After 8 weeks of wintry weather and heavy snow -) view exceedingly pretty.

Clearing Snow. 
Really snowy winters were unusual, but this is Stornoway in 1955.
The religious preoccupations and logging of Free Church life that make up the vast bulk of MacRae's diary entries during his more than 3 decades in Stornoway may be looked at, selectively, in a later post. 
 Extract from 'As Safety Saw It':- Historian Wanted

I REMEMBER at one time during the troubled years prior to the outbreak of the last war being involved in a discussion on the teaching of history; and to prove a point that I was making my fellows and myself decided to ask some schoolboys a few questions. We found that they could all tell us that Julius Caesar came to Britain in 55 B.C., and that the Battle of Hastings was fought in 1066. None of them could tell us the date of the Russian Revolution and only one could tell us when the late unlamented Adolf Hitler came to power in Germany. The relative immediate importance upon their lives of the events of which they had heard little or nothing was borne out by subsequent events. These boys found themselves fighting Hitler before 1945 and those that survived were involved in a “cold” war after the other one was over.

            The reason why my mind cast back close on twenty years to that discussion is that someone has just remarked to me how little we know of the history of our own island. For it must in honesty be admitted that the majority of us know very little of it. The name of the notorious Domhnull Cam [Macaulay] is almost a household word, but in how many of these households could anyone say in what century he carried out his bold and often nefarious exploits?

            Now if knowledge of history has any value, and if a historical education on a national or international basis bestows benefits – not the least of which can be the benefit of profiting by our predecessors’ mistakes and not repeating them – then surely knowledge of the history of our own community could bestow an equal or even greater benefit. It is even possible that some of the difficult situations that arise in Lewis today had their counterparts in the events of long ago, and that a better grasp of what happened then could help those concerned to decide what to do now. We should know what impacts were made on our island way of life and story by Scottish and even world history. And equally we should know what impact our island made in return.

            If one only considers what a great deal of archaeological research has been carried out in Lewis it is astonishing that so very little of these researches is known to the people who should be most concerned – the people whose history is being unearthed and revealed. What is wanted, in my opinion, is a new history of Lewis; a history that gives us first of all the story produced by co-ordinating and giving continuity to the findings of archaeologists, and secondly gives us the later story as pieced together from all the written material available.

            Dr Macdonald, Gisla, has done a commendable amount of research covering several centuries; and he has written and published tales that are invaluable in giving an insight into what was going on in some areas of Lewis at certain times. For very often one paragraph from an old manuscript or letter dealing with everyday affairs of ordinary men and women can throw more light upon a country and its people than can whole chapters dealing with the speeches of statesmen or the conduct of wars.

            Within the short compass of one small book, G. M. Trevelyan has given us, in my opinion, the most readable and the most educative history of England that is available today – covering six centuries from Chaucer’s time to 1939, and depending a great deal for its illuminating quality on an apparently inexhaustible fund of quotations covering the period involved.

            A book on Lewis, on similar lines, could be produced in much shorter compass than Trevelyan’s “Social History.”  And if it were as readable it would be as much sought after as was “Clarsach an Doire” [“The harp of the Grove” – Title of a book of Gaelic poetry] at the beginning of this century when an almost inconceivable number of people in Lewis knew huge tracts of it from memory, and even the illiterate could “read” poems and stories from it while holding the book upside down!

19 & 22/06/1956

[Dr Macdonald, Gisla, known locally as ‘Dolly Doctor’, also wrote letters to the Gazette on historical subjects; a collection of photographs from his collection has recently been published.]

Reaction: A letter appeared from "MacThomais", Stornoway, on 10th and 13th July (p.7) endorsing and expanding on much of the above. 

[The writer, Calum Smith, who cane of a Free Church family, used to say that he stopped going to church because he couldn't heckle the minister. Perhaps MacRae was one that he had in mind.]

POSTSCRIPT on Opposition to the NATO base:
"I recall asking the late Rev.Kenneth MacRae, when he told me he wanted a chairman for his protest meeting against the NATO base in Stornoway who must be 'generally respected and acceptable to all', where he could hope to find such a figure. He smiled and answered simply 'John Smith.'  And who in our community would have disputed his choice and judgment?"
 - 'A Memory enshrined in the Heart' by M. K. M. [Malcolm K Macmillan, Labour MP for the Western Isles from 1935 to 1970] in a Stornoway Gazette obituary for John, elder brother of Calum Smith. (1970)