Thou Shalt Not.. challenge the status quo

Some stories write themselves. They’re usually the biggest stories, with an obvious who, what, where, when, how and why.

Then there are the ones that take longer to come together. You might even try to ignore them but they prey on your mind, gnawing away at you, until eventually their form appears.

A few people have asked me recently when my next blog would be coming and the truth is I haven’t been able to blog for weeks. I have been caught up in political matters and, to be honest, been struggling with my stress levels as a result.

It all began with a discussion I had with a friend about whether we should try to set up some sort of Facebook page to allow candidates in the forthcoming local elections to interact directly with voters as part of their campaigning strategy.

We saw it as the creation of a democratic space and so the Hebridean Hustings page was born. The number of members rose quickly. It’s now pushing 800 but we noticed that when it passed the 600 mark we started coming under increasing pressure. Our credibility was questioned and the page was accused of having an agenda.

A lot of this was because my co-founder, Iain Campbell, is also heavily involved with the Western Isles Secular Society, and it’s fair to say that’s earned him a few enemies locally (sorry Iain).

Also, anyone who lives in Lewis will know that the issue of Sunday swimming — whether it should or shouldn’t be allowed — is a hot topic here and, as the Hustings page was a place for debate around local issues, it was inevitable that it would come up.

When it did, the debate exploded and so did the attacks on our credibility.

Stornoway sports centre pictured across an empty car park on a Sunday
The sports centre, across the car park, pictured on a Sunday

Lots of people in the islands, particularly our elected representatives, regularly claim to speak for “the majority”. So I imagine it is a bit inconvenient when a multitude of voices are given a place where they can gather together and pipe up in disagreement.

To my mind, that’s the main reason why there was such a concerted effort to derail the Hustings page as its numbers started to grow.

As this election campaign has progressed, it’s become increasingly clear that the question of Sabbath observance is at the heart of it. Some see it as the fight to preserve our traditional way of life while others feel the time has come to be more progressive.

Before I say anything else, I need to make it clear where I stand. I am not anti-church. I am not anti-Christian. I am not an atheist.

I was brought up in the Church of Scotland and feel at home there, although I would most accurately describe myself as agnostic.

I have many friends with strong Christian faiths. I respect them and their beliefs and can see the wonderful transformation in many of their lives since they became Christians.

Also, there are many aspects of living in a faith community that are to be welcomed and there is a lot of amazing charitable work done in the name of God, such as the end-of-life care given in the Bethesda Hospice and the work on addiction recovery by Hebrides Alpha. The Shed, run by Martin’s Memorial, is another fantastic project.

I have no problem with any of that. What right-thinking person would?

What I do have a problem with is how much political control the church machine wields behind the scenes in the Western Isles.

This has precious little, if anything, to do with faith. It’s about power, control and domination.

The current trouble kicked off when the council voted against a 12-month trial opening of the sports centre on Sundays. It is not difficult to argue that the vote lacked transparency.

Our swimming pool in Stornoway is the only one in UK that is not open on Sundays and the councillors who voted against this trial included a number of church elders, mainly from the Free Church, which is known for its strong position on Sabbath observance.

Front entrance to Comhairle nan Eilean Siar council offices
Headquarters of the local council, Comhairle nan Eilean Siar

When a councillor holds a position as an elder, it is noted on their record as a non-financial interest and according to the Councillors Code of Conduct any interests should be declared during votes.

But no elders declared any interests in this vote. Instead of abstaining and leaving the chamber for the debate — as many people felt they should — they stayed and voted against the trial. Although none of them, on the face of it, did so for religious reasons.

They refused the trial on financial and operational grounds. But when the campaigners successfully crowd-funded the £11,400 to finance the trial, the council refused it.

Cue howls of outrage and unfair dealing.

When campaigners get angry over the Sunday swimming pool argument here, they are not angry merely because they don’t have the same access to leisure services as people elsewhere in the country. They are angry because they believe they are not equal under law to people whose religious beliefs they don’t necessarily share.

They believe the church is still pulling the political strings and guiding decision-making when we should be governed by laws such as the Equalities Act and the Human Rights Act and of course the Councillors Code of Conduct.

It was bound to come up on the Hustings page and that attracted the attention of John MacLeod, who wrote about it in his most recent column for that right-wing rag, the Daily Mail.

“In the Western Isles, there is growing community anger over a vocal and vituperative minority (largely though not exclusively incomers) clamouring on social media for the opening of the local sports centre on Sunday and denouncing anyone who dares demur,” he said.


He said there were “infuriating” aspects to this and hit out at “the insolent stance of atheists that they alone stand for sweet cold reason, against irrational God-botherers who persist in annoying everyone else with their superstition”.

He talked at length about atheists but completely glossed over the secularists — who can quite easily also be Christians — and their current relevance.

As people have been repeating locally until they are blue in the face: “Secularism is a principle that involves two basic propositions. The first is the strict separation of the state from religious institutions. The second is that people of different religions and beliefs are equal before the law.”

He then accused this ‘infuriating’ lot of “flash-mobbing, grandstanding and sheer nastiness”.

Flash-mobbing, grandstanding, nasty, incomers, outsiders, ‘sad sacks’… whatever. It’s all the language of denigration and delegitimisation.

FiSH Sunday swimming campaigners at attempted handover of funds for the trial
Pool campaigners as they attempted to hand over the funds for the trial

What fascinates me most, though, is John MacLeod assuming the position himself as the voice of reason on anything to do with Sabbath observance.

Remember Soham?

“Had the parents of Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman kept the Lord’s Day, their daughters would still be alive,” he wrote in his Herald column in 2002.

“They would have spent the day at rest or the private and public worship of God, and not been wandering the countryside, prey for whatever evil finally befell them.”

Public outrage was so great that he lost his job.

In Thursday’s article, John MacLeod failed to make any mention at all of that real story engulfing the Free Church this week; the findings of the investigation into the misconduct of the late Rev Dr Iain D Campbell, which were reported on extensively in his very own paper.

The late minister tragically took his own life in January.

But we don’t talk about that.

Going back to the news as he saw it, MacLeod displayed an impressive persecution complex and no small amount of paranoia.

“More and more people, and increasingly people in powerful places, long for our annihilation.”

It chimed with something else I read, from another writer, a few weeks ago.

“There is a witch hunt going on in Lewis right now, and – ironically – the victims are not enemies of God, but followers of Christ.”

Sometimes I think I’ve stumbled into a production of The Crucible.

It’s all making for a pretty gnarly atmosphere out there on the doorsteps for some of the election candidates.

One of them told me how difficult it was to campaign when you’re not standing on a church ticket.


He said: “Every candidate is constantly looking over their shoulder, constantly worried, constantly trying not to say the ‘wrong thing’, lest they incur the wrath of the kirk.

“They know that by mobilising their very powerful troops — for they will get out and vote whilst the apathetic don’t get too worked up about what is, after all, a fairly trivial issue in the grander scheme of things — that the church vote can irreparably damage anyone’s campaign.

Opening hours information on sports centre door
Our opening hours

“But I’m not going to lie, compromise my principles or not support someone I encouraged to stand just to pander to religious paranoia over swimming on a Sunday.

“Everybody needs to be represented; not just the religious element. It’s quite surreal.”

The lesson seems to be that in Lewis you must not challenge the status quo and you must not criticise the church, no matter what.

You are to remain disenfranchised, disempowered and silenced.

And if you don’t like it, you know the way to the ferry.

Anyone would think we could afford to behave like this — but the Western Isles are experiencing the fastest rate of depopulation anywhere in Scotland right now.

The latest statistics from the National Records of Scotland, reported comprehensively on welovestornoway, paint a bleak picture.

As for me, I know I won’t get away with having written this.

There will be a stoning and it will be done on social media, as is the modern way.


Comments 13

  1. A well thought out piece. Thank you for your hard work on the HH page which has provided a useful and informative forum and has also revealed more about the communities in Lewis than contributors may have anticipated. Thanks again for your efforts on behalf of everyone.

  2. Fine article, Katie. My position is of a Christian secularist. My view is in favour of Sunday opening on condition that staff would not be forced to work on that date. I hope the negative comments are not too hurtful.

  3. This is well-written and courageous. It surfaces issues we should be talking about instead of brushing them under the carpet in the vain hope they go away. They won’t go away.

    “One day everything will be well, that is our hope. Everything’s fine today, that is our illusion” ― Voltaire

    1. Thank you Iain. I do like a bit of Voltaire. Another: “I do not agree with what you say, but I shall defend to the death your right to say it.” x

  4. Theoughout my life I have benefited so much from Sunday observance although some would perhaps with good reasonsay that I have fallen short of the standard required.
    10 years ago I bought a business near Stirling which was open on Sunday and was vilified for immediately closing it. You would think I had committed the unpardonable sin! You would also have thought that I had no right to choose my opening hours.
    Interestingly all the staff despite not having any religious conviction were all absolutely delighted to be guaranteed a day of rest.
    As a society we have thrown something very precious away by scrapping that day of spiritual renewal and ignoring one of the 10 commandments given for our benefit..

  5. Not a local, not even a Scot but just a little input from the outside world. My kids are at school five days a week. Saturday is for shopping and seeing friends and family, Sunday is for taking my son for a swim, and taking my daughter for a game of underwater hockey. This is their “day of rest”, their hobby, their fun.
    My daughter plays at Guildford Spectrum, where on Sunday the leisure pool is always busy, the learner pool is used for birthday parties, the main pool is used by two swimming clubs and underwater hockey, the diving pool is also used by a diving club. In addition 2,000 people attend ice hockey matches ! (Yep, gets pretty busy !)
    Would your church leaders want to stop all this, people (many of who are religious) enjoying their day off ?.

  6. Katie, you say, “I have many friends with strong Christian faiths. I respect them and their beliefs and can see the wonderful transformation in many of their lives since they became Christians.”

    I’m astonished that you know a plurality (“many”) of people becoming religious. The trend is for people to leave religion.

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