Folks — I have my first guest blogger. Many of you reading this right now will have already seen my recent post, ‘An Lanntair must not become a beacon for the Secular Society‘, exploring the problems surrounding the opening of the arts centre in our home town of Stornoway. I have had a lot of reaction to that post. A lot. Some of it has been pretty hot and also seems to have missed the point, with people retreating to their usual battle lines regarding Sabbath observance.
One of the main issues I raised with my piece was that some artists of faith from the Gaelic community are withdrawing support from the Lanntair and no longer feel able to collaborate on arts projects because of its moves over the Sunday cinema trial. What concerns me most about some of the reactions to this was the apparent willingness to let these artists go from our arts community. As if, somehow, they are acceptable casualties in our march forwards.
I was very glad to see the people who did take it up, though. Much of the support I’ve received — in private messages mainly compared to the bulk of opposition which has been public on Facebook — has come from the arts community, mainly from local musicians, but other journalists and writers, politicians, academics and thought leaders have also expressed concern.
One person who wrote to me about it was Donald S Murray (author, poet, playwright, Hebridean and Gaelic speaker), who has explored the idea of faith and art in this guest blog which I am very pleased to share with you here. I think it is a valuable contribution to the debate, I think it moves that debate forward and I think it does raise some further questions that we need to explore.
Without further ado, let me hand over to DS Murray (who also wrote the headline)…
In much of European art, literature and music, to quote the rock singer, Paul Simon, ‘God comes up a lot’. Christian faith, after all, has been an important part of the output of artists as diverse as Van Morrison, Bob Dylan, Tolkien, T S Eliot – all the way back to the likes of Michelangelo. It has inspired the likes of Leonard Cohen, Bach, Beethoven, even the many Gospel artists that feature on the annual Hootenanny with which Jools Holland introduces the New Year. This is true even over much of Scotland. Shetland, where I stay now, is a place where Christian musicians play and espouse their faith at both Christian and social events.
Over the years, there has been one exception to that general rule – my home town, Stornoway.
There is little doubt that, historically, the form of Christian faith we have often had in these islands bears much of the blame for that. In my youth, some of its proponents were – to put it at its kindest – intrusive, telling the likes of me on more than one occasion that the drama which I enjoyed was the work of Satan, that the books I read were not exactly beneficial to my soul. It is not for me to justify or excuse these attitudes. They were indefensible and had a huge and negative effect on many in our community.
But that was then and this is now. Over the last few decades, I have met many Christians who value their creativity, believing it is their greatest gift. There has, in short, been a sea-change in their attitudes. They value both their faith and their imaginations, believing both are necessary for their personal fulfilment.
It seems to me that one of the tragedies of An Lanntair over the decades is that it has largely failed to recognise that change, rarely attempting to bridge the gap between faith and art. There have been occasional events, such as Ballantyne, a celebration of the Gaelic psalm, and a few recent sessions devoted to the Reformation, but, given the decades the organisation has been in existence, such approaches have been even more rare and infrequent than a calm winter’s day in Stornoway.
Instead, its attitudes have often widened that divide. The chairing, in particular, of the Dawkins debate which I witnessed in Stornoway was illuminating in the open and blatant nature of its bias. (Listen to it. I am sure recordings are still available.) I am aware of suggestions of ‘faith events’ being turned down, sometimes without explanation. (One local celebration was even performed in Edinburgh instead.) I have not been conscious of any ‘gospel groups’ ever being invited to perform there. Given the size of the Christian community in the island, one would have thought this would have been a sensible proposition – even on financial grounds.
It is in this context that the organisation’s suggestion to open An Lanntair on a Sunday should be judged. All this will serve to do is stretch and deepen a gulf that is already much too wide. Instead, the organisation would be well advised to spend time listening and responding to its community – those who express themselves both in Gaelic and English.
Even for someone for whom creativity and the arts is a passion, one thing is all too evident.
It has done too little of that in the past.
Donald S Murray was a teacher of English for 30 years. Since leaving that profession, he has written full-time. His non-fiction work includes ‘The Guga Hunters’, ‘Italian Chapel, Orkney’, (Birlinn) and ‘Herring Tales’ (Bloomsbury). The latter was widely reviewed – from the Daily Record to the Economist – and like his book, ‘The Guga Stone’, chosen as one of the Guardian’s Nature Books of the Year.
He has received the Jessie Kesson and Robert Louis Stevenson Fellowships in recent years. His forthcoming book is ‘The Dark Stuff – Stories from The Peatlands’ (Bloomsbury) which is to be published in April 2018. His Gaelic play ‘Sequamur’ was performed throughout Scotland, including the Edinburgh Festival, and also in Belfast, London and In Flanders Field Museum in Belgium. He was chosen as one of Scottish Literature’s representatives in the Pisa Book Festival, Italy (2016). His poetry has been widely published and several of his works chosen among the Scottish Poetry Library Poems of the Year.