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Sundays in Stornoway

  • 23 April 2006

The landlady at my B&B had given me the low-down on everything I shouldn’t do. Quite a list, including some things I’d have thought were necessary to life. A pub that would open mid-afternoon for ‘lunch’ was a recent innovation. Otherwise no shopping, no sport, no music, no work not of ‘necessity and mercy’, no being outdoors for no good reason. No canoodling either. This was Stornoway, soul of the Outer Hebrides, and Sundays were not to be trifled with. Saturday night had not been wild, but a few rowdy drunks had milled around the town’s latest-opening bar. In contrast, everyone I met the next morning was well dressed and carrying a Bible. They smiled at each other and at me. I made my way to the local Free Church, as recommended by my landlady. I was half-expecting a tirade on social issues. But although the tone of the sermon was admonishing, and we learned that ‘even the smallest sin is worth a crucifixion’, the minister was calm and poetic. His words drew out effortlessly in the respectful silence, filling a plain but elegant wooden nave. Looking about the congregation I was surprised how many were women on their own. I was later told they were a mix of singles and ladies whose partners were not churchgoers. I was more surprised at the number of people asleep, especially on the upper floor, heads on the back of pews, mouths agape. When the minister began to sing, in a sonorous vibrato, they awoke with a rush. Immediately after the service the socialising began in earnest. The minister laughed and joked with the parishioners he’d been admonishing moments earlier. The single women mingled. For people from outlying villages, this was the social event of the week. A fortnight before, a friend in Edinburgh had warned me that even ‘going for a walk’ might be frowned on, at least if I did it ‘ostentatiously’. My landlady scoffed at this and I wasn’t sure how to ostentatiously go for a walk anyway. It would be some hours before food became available so I thought I might get in my hire car and find some ‘rambling’ territory. Roads on the Isle of Lewis are generally one-and-a-bit lanes wide. Pile-ups are prevented by ‘passing places’. I followed the custom of waving when someone pulled into one to let me through. You can tell how tired a person is by the extent