The northern part of the chain of islands forming the Outer Hebrides has, since the Reformation, been staunchly Protestant. The Reformation must have run out of steam half-way down Benbecula. Benbecula has both Protestant and Catholic churches, and then South Uist and Barra (at the southern end of the chain of islands) are predominantly Catholic.
In most parts of mainland Scotland, the Church of Scotland is the main Protestant church. However, the main Protestant church in the Islands and parts of the Highlands is the Free Church. (There are now two Free Churches, due to recent schisms, but I will leave it at that.) In Tarbert, the Church of Scotland is nestled down by the shore, best seen from the ferry. The church that dominates the town square is the Free Presbyterian Church.
The Protestant islands have traditionally had a strict practice of observing the Sabbath. This means that no businesses, apart from hotels, are open on Sunday. The Harris golf course is shut on Sundays, and the playpark on Scalpay is likewise closed on Sundays. When we rented our holiday cottage, we were careful never to hang washing on the line on a Sunday, so as not to cause offence to our neighbours. I know of non-Free-church residents of Harris who observe these same practices, for the same reason.
I have, over the years, heard a number of complaints from fellow visitors about the strict observance of the Sabbath on Harris. I won’t repeat some of the comparisons to other religious regimes, but you can imagine them.
My recent three days on Harris included a Sunday, and I thought quite a bit about the question of the Sabbath while I was there.
First of all, I should say that things are slowly changing. For a few years now, the ferries and planes have run on a Sunday – after years of protests, including people lying down on the slipway at the pier. I presume that modern ways of life will continue to influence the islanders and that things will continue to change over time.
Secondly, I have to say that I have always felt offended when people dismiss Sabbatarian practices as fascistic. As a tourist, I have always accepted the islanders’ desire to keep a day apart. I am the visitor to their community, and I have come to experience something different. It’s their island. I would be just as offended if someone came to stay at my house and complained that we don’t have a personal parking space on the street, nor do we have a microwave or a tumble dryer. It’s my house, my life, and that’s the way I like it. If you want those things, go somewhere else!
My trip to Harris this time was made in order to find rest and respite from my caring responsibilities. I wanted to reconnect with a place I love, and also with myself. While I was there I read Sue Monk Kidd’s book firstlights, a compilation of essays about spirituality and religion. She writes very eloquently about the importance of stopping, of taking time out of our frenzied modern lives. I certainly felt the truth of this on my trip.
I’ve gone through periods of my life where I haven’t found a church to attend, but I’ve always tried to keep Sundays a bit apart. When we came to Aberdeen in 1992, shops weren’t allowed to open on Sundays. We often took Sunday walks along the River Don, near where it joins the North Sea, to see the seals basking on the sandbanks. Once “Sunday opening” came into force, the seals disappeared. The traffic going across the bridge into town for Sunday shopping had driven them to quieter places, as on the other days of the week. The seals felt the change, and I felt it too. I personally avoid shopping on Sundays, and try not to do things that are too much like hard work on that day. I try to make it a day of rest for myself, because I find that taking some time out of the usual headlong rush helps me to start the new week with a feeling of freshness and renewal.
I’ve also noticed over the years that when we have visitors from the States, they comment on how incredibly relaxing it is not to live in a 24/7 society. They might feel frustrated that most shops in Britain close at 5:30, but they also appreciate the rhythm of Time for Everyone to Go Home for Supper. When I thought back to my own mindset of living in Illinois in the early 1990s (10:30 pm – need milk – off to the supermarket!), I could see the benefits of some things in life being limited. There is a plus side to having UHT milk on hand and not being able to rush out at all hours. We could see that benefit in the response of our American visitors. Whether or not life in Britain gradually succumbs to the 24/7 culture remains to be seen. I personally think there’s much more to be lost than to be gained by it.
Also, part of me likes the idea of an entire community joined in worship. I mentioned in my post about the Isle of Scalpay how the Scalpay fishermen were known for their singing of psalms on the fishing boats, and how morning and evening prayers used to be a common practice in many island (and Highland) households. One older lady in Harris told me about how when she was a teenager, she and her friends used to stop outside a certain cottage to listen to the evening worship held in that household. “We weren’t laughing,” she said. “We listened respectfully to the singing and the praying. The old man is gone now but I never walk past his cottage without thinking of him. The dead are gone, but they still speak.” I love the idea that the ritual of worship from long ago continues to ring in her ears. And it isn’t just community Christian worship that intrigues me. My friend Leila Aboulela, the Sudanese writer, has several times spoken about what a shock it was to come to secular Britain from a culture where a belief in God was an unquestioned given, where everyone was called to prayer at the same time. Part of me wonders what it would be like to grow up in such an environment.
The other part of me knows that it’s very easy to romanticise. For one thing, as I mentioned above, the Free Church itself has recently split. So even in rural communities such as those on Harris, there is no longer a religious consensus. Religion (which is not the same thing as spirituality) can cause pain and damage. As Iain Crichton Smith‘s stories show so well, religion can be like a cold iron hand. I refer you also to a poignant comment from a reader, left on my post about the Amish. He wrote that he was raised Amish, and that “shunning is very difficult”. Clearly, he is speaking from personal experience. Life has never been without judgmentalism and division, and churches are no different because they are human institutions.
Nevertheless, I personally appreciate sharing in a day where almost everything has a different rhythm, a peacefulness that sets it apart from the other days of the week. And the Isle of Harris is a place where Sundays are still like that.