Posted by: christinelaennec | April 27, 2014

The Sabbath on the Isle of Harris

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 Church of Scotland, Tarbert, Isle of Harris.  April 2014.

The Church of Scotland, Tarbert, Isle of Harris. April 2014.

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.

Playpark, Isle of Scalpay.  April 2014.

Playpark, Isle of Scalpay. April 2014.  “Closed on Sundays”  Note the church overlooking!

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.



  1. Beautifully said, Christine. I wholeheartedly agree with the value of setting aside one day as different from the rest. You’re right, though – it is more difficult to do in the States. In France, as in Scotland, life took a slower pace on Sundays – it was a family day. I really enjoyed that. xo

  2. A beautifully written post, I feel like you that as a visitor to the Islands you should respect the views of those that you are visiting. I love that the shops are not open 24/7 and that there is an inner peace there on a Sunday whatever church you attend.

  3. Very nicely expressed, and I agree with you about respecting other people’s way of life when you’re in their community. I’m reminded of how strictly observed Sundays were in my youth. Not only was I not allowed out to play with friends in the street, but they weren’t allowed into our garden. We got round this by playing through the hedge, with me inside and them outside the garden. I also recall being in Princes Street Gardens one Sunday afternoon with my dad. It was an unusually hot summer’s day and people were sunbathing, while I was done up in my Sunday best. There were ice cream salesmen touting tempting looking iced treats and I was very hot. I begged my dad to buy me an ice cream but he absolutely refused because it was a Sunday. I don’t have many unhappy memories of my childhood but that one stands out as a dreadful experience! I’m glad to say he’s bought me plenty of treats since then that make up for that isolated trauma. 🙂

  4. Lovely post, I am so enjoying this travelogue! xxx

  5. I also avoid the shops on Sundays out of habit. I don’t stick to it strictly, but I have absolutely no problem with the idea of a day without commerce. I must say it was with guilty pleasure one summer, though, that I realised our 5.30pm arrival on a Saturday in Benbecula would still enable us to stock up on food when we arrived, as the Co-op had started opening as late as 8pm. Joy! Life in the islands is indeed changing.

  6. A very interesting post. I had absolutely no idea of this degree of religiosity in this region, and (as you distinguish), spirituality. Further, the idea of being a visitor to a place and respecting the local traditions is one that I found to be very relevant, despite not even possessing a passport myself. I live in a highly multicultural society – one in which the cultures often form enclaves within the broader community/state. Sometimes these are formalised but much more likely not, and it’s a challenge to find the appropriate behaviour which both respects the local community and yet maintains personal integrity.

    How many blogs would I find that provide the combination of scenic beauty, personal history and growth, and cultural analysis that I’ve found here? (Not to mention literature review…note to self: Add firstlight to The Secret Life of Bees and The Mermaid Chairon your bookshelf)

  7. Lovely, Christine. I, too, enjoy the concept of “sabbath” in all its meanings. In my life, though, it’s hard for me to rest on that day. Himself and I spent yesterday painting the kitchen (after church)! But the idea of a day for rest, restoration, and family appeals so strongly to me.

    Also, I found myself nodding when I read your thoughts on visitors’ reactions to their perceived deficiencies of a place. I am not what I’d call well-travelled, but I’ve been a few places, and I find it a joy and an adventure to embrace the lifestyle wherever I am. It’s part of the experience!

  8. Once again you have transported me! I could feel the peaceful “sabbath” on the island. I too try to keep that day special and slow paced – but it is a challenge in this busy world. In my traveling beginning as a teenager I was always put off by those whose did not embrace the ways of the places we visited. Isn’t that why we travel to experience and learn new things? My heart yearns to spend some quiet time in special place like this.

  9. There are other places where, in living memory, playgrounds were locked on Sundays. A colleague of mine, who arrived in Aberdeen in the 1960s, saw it as a place of liberty compared to Northern Ireland where he grew up. In his childhood there, he told me, swings were locked up on Sundays in children’s playgrounds.

  10. Thank you all for the thoughtful comments! I’m glad you’re continuing to enjoy the travelogue. I do really enjoy getting away to Harris because of these special qualities of the life there.

    Stacy, my French friends complain that life there is becoming “Américanisée,” particularly in regards to the daily and weekly rhythm of life. In particular, the long lunch break seems to be going the way of the dodo…

    Lorna, that does sound traumatic. A shame your father couldn’t “Do as the Romans do” on that occasion, eh?! Glad you have since recovered.

    fifona, I meant to say re. an earlier comment you left, that your ears must have been ringing as A and I had a good catch-up on the ferry to Ullapool! Glad you had a fun trip to Paris.

    oldblack, thank you for your extravagant praise – particularly unjustified re. literary reviews as that is one area I don’t usually attempt in my blog. I’m just so happy that there are other people somewhere in the world who are interested to read about things that interest me!

    Flora, yes I can well imagine that the iron hand ( Iain Crichton Smith) of strict Presbyterianism gripped Northern Ireland tightly in years gone by.

  11. Loved this post. Although I grew up in a Christian household, the idea of “the Sabbath” was never taught to me until I came to the Reformed Presbyterian church in my teens. Since then it has been a particular study of mine as I seek to understand what God means for us when he asks us to set aside one day a week to “be more in heaven than on earth”. The more books I read on slowing down, relaxing, etc. the more I think — what these people are talking about is a Sabbath and they don’t even know it! I know I have so much to learn but I can testify that keeping this day as different from the others has reaped a multitude of benefits for me. I don’t think I would be able to cope with my life if I didn’t have this one day to leave my to-do list and pressures behind and refocus my life on heaven. I do think it is dangerous when it becomes a legalistic practice and the spirit is gone out of it, which I know is a danger, as is judging others who keep it in a different way. But, I think the Sabbath is a day God meant for us to love more than any other.

    • Yes, I think it’s true that people are having to re-invent or re-discover the Sabbath for themselves. I also agree that it’s not good for it to be too legalistic. But resting and reflecting is so important. I like “to be more in heaven than on earth”!

  12. The Sundays of my youth in the rural Midwest were much more practiced rest then they are now in the Pacific Northwest, but I am grateful to have a choice still of how I will spend my time! xx

  13. This is an interesting reflective article. While many in the secularised GB mainland might scorn the sabbath, it was quite literally a godsend, and during the industrial revolution provided poorer people with some protection against being worked to death 7 days a week. It is really interesting that some continental europeans, I am thinking mainly of Germany, hold to a definite ‘day of relaxation’ and restrict commercial activity or noisy activities. Like so many dimensions of the truth revealed in the bible the sabbath makes both supernatural and natural sense. As was famously said ‘the sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath’.

    There is one minor error in the article. The larger church in the centre of Tarbert is Free Presbyterian not Free Church.

    The secular media, who sometimes knock the W Isles sabbath, would do well to reflect on the poem ‘One Solitary Life’.

    • Hamish, thank you for that very interesting comment. I hadn’t thought of the Sabbath as protection afforded to workers – though I remember the outcry about people being made to work on Sunday when Sunday closing was overturned. I also hadn’t known that about Germany. And thank you for alerting me to the mistake about the church in Tarbert – I’ve corrected it now.

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