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Sundays in Stornoway

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 of their wave. A driver who has come up the long ribbon road from South Uist will barely raise the pinkie. I’d learned to appreciate this roadway connection though today there were only a few cars ferrying people home from church. The traditionalism of the Outer Hebrides is sometimes ridiculed on the Scottish mainland but at least on Sundays Hebrideans are years ahead in car-pooling. Most were packed to the roof and I enjoyed the communal sense this gave to the day.

Another feature of island life is the almost unnerving imprint of early humans. I’d spent much time searching for neolithic sites, buying books on neolithic sites, and photographing neolithic sites. When I turned into a gravel lane and stopped, ready to ramble, I wondered if I’d find more.

A farmer was standing outside his gate. With instant ‘I’ve never lived in London’ friendliness, he asked if he might accompany me. As it happened, he was an expert on neolithic sites. It felt like a documentary, where local historians materialise whenever the presenter asks a rhetorical question.

He showed me some recently uncovered graves on the beach behind his croft. ‘No one except the archaeologists knows about them yet,’ he confided. I didn’t tell him I worked for a 24-hour news channel.
I asked him what he thought of Sundays. ‘Dull. You can’t do anything. I used to work in the fields but the neighbours gave me a hard time about it.’ He’d stopped going to church years ago. One neighbour continued to give him a hard time about that.

We drove to some standing stones, picking up along the way two of his friends, who were also bored. They confessed that they had been walking along the road in the hope of meeting someone. The farmer admitted he had been standing outside his gate for the same reason. ‘Bloody Sundays. Must be hard for a tourist?’

When I returned to Stornoway I felt the observation of the sabbath had been attraction enough in itself. The next day the shops would be open again, the traffic would be more than it should be for a town of 6000 and rowdy drunks would spill from the late-opening bar.

My landlady, who had spent the day weaving a tapestry, welcomed me into the sitting room. How did she feel about Sunday? ‘Without it, there’d be no difference. Every day would be the same.’ Did she feel that obedience to the rules was waning? ‘Yes, but it will be a shame if it goes altogether. You’ve got six days to do everything. Surely you can have one day off.’ I thought I could drink to that. 

Martin Elliott is a freelance writer living in Melbourne.


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