Christian Life 

Sunday Sailings to Lewis

A way of life which has been preserved in the face of 24/7 trends is under threat (again); it is a typical battle of tradition and culture and religious views coming up against the pressures of the 21st-century world.
Major-General Douglas Wimberley, Colonel of the Queen's Own Cameron Highlanders, commanded the famous 51st Highland Division from 1941 to 1943.
Speaking as Chairman of the Annual Piping Competition of the Uist and Barra Association on February 16, 1957, General Wimberley, in a reference to the establishment of the guided missile range in the Uist Islands, said that:

these Islands were the acknowledged last stronghold of all that was best in Gaelic culture, and it would require all the Islanders' resolution to hold on very lightly to their culture, their Gaelic, their Highland ways and their ceilidhs in the days that lay ahead.

(What follows has been written for an audience which is much wider than the North-West Scotland.)

CalmacA FIERCE BATTLE for and against Sunday sailings presently being fought on the Hebrides (see map at foot of this article) is reminiscent of a similar campaign many years ago over ferry links between the Scottish mainland and the Isle of Skye. At that time a certain West Highland clergyman was dubbed ‘The Ferry Reverend’ by the media when he reportedly lay down on a slipway in an attempt to prevent Sunday ferry sailings between (mainland) Kyle and Klyeakin on the south end of Skye. The minister’s best efforts proved unsuccessful, and were ultimately and completely subverted by the building of the Skye Bridge which now crosses the water on which the ferries once sailed. (The main matter of contention following the construction of the road crossing centred on a subsequent campaign for the – eventually successful – removal of the toll charges which were initially imposed.)

Now a similar controversy has broken out over proposals by main ferry operator Caledonian MacBrayne (CalMac) to introduce a 7-day service to Stornoway (the island capital). And this move is a response – the operator states – to both public demand and commercial and economic imperatives. However ‘public demand’ is very much divided over the issue as a very substantial proportion of the Western Isles population is strongly and vociferously opposed – on theological and/or sociological grounds – to such a prospect. ‘We appreciate our way of life and a bit of peace and quiet one day in seven.’

Most recently the dispute has prompted the resignation of a senior Western-Isles councillor who strongly supports Sunday sailings. Donald John Macsween has quit his post as vice-chairman of transportation as he could not support his Council's (Comhairle nan Eilean Siar) policy opposing seven-day sailings. (Macsween intends to stand for the Labour party at the next general election against the incumbent Scottish National Party MP Angus MacNeil. The Member of the Scottish Parliament for the area is Alasdair Allan.)



For those who might be unfamiliar with the north-west of Scotland, the Hebrides is a chain of islands lying around 30 miles off the mainland coast; the archipelago extends over a distance of around 120 miles in roughly a NE/SW direction. The islands are separated from the mainland by a (sometimes fierce) stretch of water called ‘the Minch’. In a westward direction the next stop is North America. Stornoway on the Isle of Lewis is by far the biggest settlement with a population of around 6000 people - representing around 30% of the total population; the remainder of the total of around 26,000 are scattered throughout over 280 townships and settlements. On large tracts of land there can be more sheep than people. Stornoway is the only population centre that could be described as ‘urban’. The capital is the main shipping port and airport. (Smaller harbours and airports serve the other islands and range, respectivelhy, from substantial car-ferry terminals to slipways for small boats; and from runways for larger aircraft to a beach which serves as a landing spot at low tide.)

Topography and lifestyle


StornowayThe Hebridean features can change dramatically – and over very short distances – from soaring and majestic mountains to tree-less and barren marshlands and peat bogs. There are beautiful sandy beaches within short distances of inhospitable and rocky moonscapes. A rugged coastline exposed to a mighty Atlantic storm can – with rapidly-changing weather – be transformed within hours to a calm and beautiful serenity which soothes the soul. Modern life in Stornoway dissolves into remote settings which have a changed little over hundreds of years. Modern bungalows sit alongside the ruined croft houses of earlier generations; and the pressing calls of the modern workaday world take second place to the seasonal demands of lambing and shearing and peat-cutting and fishing and crofting (a croft is much more than an allotment but less than a farm). Ceilidh’s (informal parties and social gatherings) can be found in local hotels, village halls and in homes. And work (and leisure) patterns are conditioned more by season, weather, tide, caring for sheep and church and pub opening times than by the position of the hands of the clock.

Cultural, social and ideological affiliations


Many years ago a young man from the East coast headed for a spell of detached duty working in a west-coast township. The advice he was given was that he would have to decide on whether to become a member of the church or the pub. Religion or alcohol was the choice on offer and by and large this socio-religious demarcation line serves as a convenient shibboleth which runs like a fault-line through the communities. Although it serves as a very significant divide it is countered by the effects of geography, climate, culture and the widely-spoken Gaelic language which enforce a shared set of values within the social milieu. Peat (fossil-fuel) which require to be ‘cut’ (dug out) and sheep that need to be lambed and sheared do not pay too much attention to which day of the week it is or whether or not the crofter spends his discretionary time in a place of worship or the local hostelry.

HarrisParadoxically (and this anecdote captures some of the love/hate relationship that many have with one of Scotland’s principal exports) a senior Reformed minister from the mainland was once invited to officiate at an island church sacrament being conducted by an ultra-conservative denomination. (These periodic ‘communion seasons’ are held in extremely high regard and last for 3-4 days.) When shown into the guest bedroom in the manse/residence of the host minister, the visiting clergyman was interested (certainly) and surprised (probably), but not shocked (necessarily) to be greeted by a full bottle of whisky and crystal glass adorning the bedside table. After all….he was in the Western Isles. Nowadays ‘en-suite’ refers mainly to washing facilities rather then the ready availability of a ‘nightcap’ (a late-evening libation).

Religious diversity


PeatThere is a quite remarkable divergence of religious affiliation across the string of islands. The north is staunchly Protestant whereas there is a marked crossover half way down the chain whereby the southern-most parts are strongly Roman Catholic. In the north, a clergyman would be de-frocked for playing football (or any other sport) on a Sunday whereas in the (Catholic) south the priest might be seen as letting the side down if he didn’t support the local team on a Sunday contest. (It is rare, paradoxical and quixotic even to evidence two adjacent and very religious communities so amicably spanning the Reformation divide which otherwise tore whole continents apart.) The reformed and conservative north have apparently long-forgiven the (rather more free-wheeling) Catholic south for assisting Catholic ‘Pretender’ Bonnie Prince Charlie’s escape from the British Isles



Regarding external influences on the Hebridean way of life these have increased dramatically over the latter half of the 20th century. Until well after the 2nd World War, the Hebrides – because of the geographic isolation, inclement weather, and poor and often-unreliable transport links (everything had to come in by sea or air) the communities were fairly isolated regarding national trends, traits and fashions which flooded into Western societies in the 60s/70s. If mini-skirts (remember them?) ever did reach the Hebridean shops, the strict codes of modesty (and chastity) would have required a considerable degree of courage on the part of any mini-skirt wearer to appear in a public (or even in private) in scanty apparel. Even in the latter part of the 20th century the relative isolation and the intimacy of small communities meant that drugs took that bit longer to arrive in any significant quantities. And the local grapevine would quickly identify any ‘user’.

Whisky and Rockets Galore

As an interesting ‘aside’ the Hebrides were the settings for two well-known screen productions in the post-war years; and this has been augmented by a more recent film about rocket technology

Whisky GaloreThe film ‘Whisky Galore’ captured a war-time incident when the lack of the alcoholic spirit was remedied by a freighter, bound for America, but sinking with its cargo of Uisge Beatha (Water of Life) just off one off the small island of Eriskay. The locals (island residents) got to the precious cargo before the men from the Customs an Excise, and considerable ingenuity was brought to bear to conceal the salvaged liquor from the plundered wreck from His Majesty’s officers.

RocketHowever even earlier in the years prior to WW2 a German rocket scientist conducted an experiment on the Isle of Scarp (off Harris) in an attempt to send mail by rocket. Gerhard Zucher’s efforts failed and he was ‘re-patriated’ to East Germany when the war broke out, but the episode was captured in a film Rocket Post (released 2006) which carried great shots of the coastal scenery around Harris.

Later, as the development of rocket technology was trialled in the 60s an army base was built on one of the main islands in the southern group to house the Royal Artillery personnel who test-fired their anti-aircraft munitions into the watery Atlantic wastes – secure in the knowledge that the casualties of any explosive mishap would be confined to that of a local rabbit or seagull.) However, the future of the missile-testing programme on the Uists is currently under threat; and the loss of jobs would be significant if the army withdraws.

To quote the Bob Dylan lyric: ‘The times they are a-changing’.

In terms of the population, easier access and modern facilities have attracted ‘incomers’ to take up residence in the Hebrides. And those who have come from other parts can be both unaware and unconcerned about local customs, and what is and isn’t allowable behaviour. So with the rest of the world moving towards a 24/7 society and life-style the pressures to renounce Sunday prohibitions have increased. And given that a substantial section of the indigenous population want to be able to shop and play sport on Sundays so we find a significant movement for change.

Added to all of this there are factors relating to livelihood and income generation. Given that a significant slice of the fragile economy depends on tourism, there is a strong economic case (some argue) to cater for those holiday visitors who are more concerned to have easy access to shops and public transport every day of the week than they are to conform to local traditions.

A Big Domino – and everyone knows it


DominosThe situation is a ‘big domino’ for a way of life that has fought to preserve the traditions of centuries.  What is a stake is a whole way of life. And with all such weighty matters the politicians are brought into the fray.
Whilst the politicians (Scottish and Westminster) who represent the islanders have been and continue to be pressed for their respective views, these men are obviously very aware of the spread and depth of division amongst their supporters, and continue to be extremely reticent in their publicly-expressed views. This ambivalence demonstrated by the incumbent party-politicians has – in the context of the above dispute – prompted, or at least strengthened the call for a future political candidate to stand as an independent at the next (UK) general election.

The Hebrides, in contrast to the Highland mainland, has historically been ‘party political’ rather than independent and non-aligned. However the advantage of having the backing of one mainstream party or another has never been divorced from the status of the local candidate(s). In recent history the vote – in party terms – has swung between Labour and Scottish Nationalist. (These parties respectively reflect the general ‘socialist-but-separate’ component of the islands’ corporate identity.)
At the last Scottish elections (in 2007 and for the Scottish Parliament) the fledgling Scottish Christian Party fielded a popular and respected candidate for the Highlands and Islands constituency (which included the Hebrides).

A local Christian in the process...

murdomurrayMurdo Murray is a former Technical Director for the Hebridean local authority and lives and works on the islands. He is a committed Christian and would, in this regard, be expected to fight to ‘keep Sunday special’ (as a UK-wide campaign became known). Needless to say anyone standing on this ticket would have the strongest support from the very active Lord’s Day Observance Society.
In speaking to Christians Together, Murray observed that the supporters of Sunday sailings are using the ‘human rights’ arguments which in turn have been taken up by the ferry company in support of the case. He asks: 'Why the clamour for 7-day sailings from Lewis when the elected representatives in the local authority have been asking for a late Saturday-night sailing which has never been granted.'The company should be more responsive to issues that are raised by elected representatives rather than raising issues that are creating division.'

Working now as a private consultant, the Lewisman outlined some important points from socio-political and economic perspectives which tend to undermine the ferry company's case.
But illustrating that he is not entrenched in his views he pointed out that whilst serving with the Council, he was responsible for implementing the transport policy which introduced Sunday sailings to the Uists (which make up the southern half of the string of islands). When asked how the churches responded on that occasion Murray responded: ‘I don’t think the LDOS were too perturbed about it because that was what the community wanted.’  And ‘mercy’ sailings on humanitarian or medical grounds have always been permitted throughout.

Over the years Murray has himself pressed CalMac to introduce later Saturday-evening sailings which would allow returning islanders longer on the mainland to participate in family gatherings and social or sporting events.  However Murray feels that the publicly-owned transport company has resisted these calls as to respond would have weakened the organisation’s case for Sunday sailings.
Although CalMac are endeavouring to support their intentions using 'human rights' legislation, the LDOS have also taken legal advice which rejects the company's claim.

The debate continues…..feel free to join in

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Christians Together, 16/06/2009

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Editor 16/06/2009 17:55
Murdo Murray has kindly offered to respond to any questions on this topic (but let's not get bogged down on the 'one day/every day special' or 'Saturday or Sunday sabbath debates' - but happy to do that elsewhere if required).

There are a number of issues (community/economic/religious/lifestyle/etc.) and I will be putting some questions to Murdo, but it may be that there are some questions 'out there' that others would like to ask first, so please feel free to 'fire away'.
Peter Carr 18/06/2009 13:09
Ed, is it possible to have a debate/discussion running alongside this with regards to the Sabbatarian approach? I for one am confused as to the biblical arguement on this one! So, some clarity and balance from God's word would be welcome.
Editor 18/06/2009 14:42
Can do Peter (as I indicated in my note above). And I will transfer a response on this thread to a new Debate thread on the subject of Sunday/Sabbath (which day, any day, etc.)
Meanwhile I would like (again as indicated above) to reserve this thread (for the time being at least) for question/answers to Murdo Murray.
Editor 18/06/2009 14:50
Hi Murdo,

The subject of Sunday sailings has kicked off the (related) question about Sunday/Sabbath and I have opened a "Debate" thread to allow that discussion to take place.

Meanwhile, could I ask if you (by that I mean 'those in the community') are opposing the Sunday sailing on (i) religious or (ii) sociological/traditional or (iii) economic grounds; or maybe all three or maybe some others?
Murdo A Murray 20/06/2009 12:47
Murdo Murray 20/06/2009,10.40
Hi Colin,
There are different reasons why many in Lewis and Harris are opposing Sunday sailings and I will deal with these in the order of your question:-

1.Religious - Personally I believe that we have a duty to pay attention to what God says to us in His Word and I believe that the 10 Commandments were given to mankind for all time and not just to the people of Israel in the Old Testament times.The Commandments are a moral code which God has given to us for our good (Akin to the instruction manual you get with most products that you buy and clearly if you do not follow the instructions don't be surprised if the product fails.)
One of these Commandments(the 4th) tells us to remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy and not to work.
I believe that the Christian Sabbath is the Lord's Day and that we should only undertake works of necessity and mercy and it is on this basis that I am against the introduction of sailings on the Lord's Day.

2. Sociological/Traditional - It is also important to remember that so much of the Constitution of our country was based on the Bible and in most of Britain from the time of the Reformation until the middle of the last century there was a respect for the 4th Commandment which permeated society.Sadly that has been lost and the result has been to the detriment particularly of family life.

Traditionally families were able to be together on the Lord's Day because it was a day off and just as at an individual level it enabled people to switch off and recharge it also provided a building block for the development of the family unit.

The pressure to work on the Lord's Day has in many instances meant thet children have very little family interaction and may be left to fill their time in ways that are less beneficial to their wellbeing.
I am concerned that the introduction of Sunday sailings would add to the pressure for people to have to work in hotels and other accommodation providers which would have a detrimental impact on family life.

It is also the case that for the most part the people involved would be the least able to stand up for themselves or their families.
A ferry service would also bring commerce which over time would mean pressure for shops and commercial establishments to open on Sunday with the ensuing loss of traditional values.

3.Economic - At a fundamental level God is the provider of our economic prosperity and this is recognised in the Stornoway motto "God's Providence is our Inheritance".We ignore His Commandments at our peril "I am the Lord your God, who teaches you to profit, who leads you in the way you should go.Oh that you had paid attention to my commandments! Then your peace would have been like a river, and your righteousness like the waves of the sea;.." (Isaiah 48:17-18)
Having Sunday sailings doesn't necessarily improve the economic situation and I would make a few points to illustrate this:-

(a) There is a cost to the introduction of Sunday sailings and because there will tend to be a spreading effect the numbers travelling on other days could be less.Additional sailings do not of themselves necessarily increase overall patronage.

(b)As well as encouraging people onto these islands Sunday sailings would encourage islanders to spend more time and money in centres like Inverness thereby reducing the viability of the local shops which are already struggling with the advent of e-commerce.

(c)The fact that the ferry vessel "Isle of Lewis" is in port on Sunday with its engines having cooled down allows for essential maintenance to be undertaken which I believe improves the effectiveness of the vessel in terms of running time schedules etc when it is operating.
Penny Lee 20/06/2009 13:59
Thank you Murdo for your well-balanced response. I do agree with you that it is for our benefit, both personally and socially, to have a fixed day off each week. Society has really paid the price for being always on the go. Many people are now being forced to work on a Sunday when they don't want to, else they lose their job. Also, as you quite rightly point out, there is still the same demand on services whether it is spread out over six or seven days, so often it must not even make economic sense.

I think we all accept that some services have to be available all the time, such as medical, police and energy companies etc. Then we enter a grey area. Some others depend on whether or not you personally need to make use of them and support for them will vary accordingly. Many people will have no choice but to use public transport to get to church. What do we do in these cases? This will obviously involve others having to work on a Sunday to enable you to attend church. Do we then try to suggest that only those using the transport to get to church are excused but others sitting on the same bus have no right because they are going to their local DIY store. Of course, if we obeyed scripture, the DIY store wouldn't be open in the first place, so there would be no need for others to travel there! However, does that still excuse us?

Then there is the issue of what the community actually want and I think it has to come down to numbers here. The service shouldn't be forced on a community if more than half of them don't want it, particularly if some opponents will actually have to work on a Sunday as a result.

My own personal feeling on this subject is that, it is preferable that there is no Sunday sailing if the community have been surviving perfectly well without it.
However, if more than half the community want it, then the rest simply have to exercise their choice to not use it.

Peter Carr 22/06/2009 08:19
Thank you Murdo for your reply, can you clarify serial 1 of your response with Matt 12: 1 - 8 and what that means for us as individual followers of Christ?
Editor 22/06/2009 09:02

Could you keep this question for the 'Debates' thread please (see my notes of 16/8 and 18/8 above). Thanks for your help.
Eddie Hallahan 22/06/2009 10:12
Hi All,

Firstly can I say that I feel it is a bit disingenuous that Murdo is allowed to state views about the Sabbath/Sunday that we are unable to respond to in this thread - it would give the impression that the views Murdo stated abovein point 1 are completely settled whereas in fact they are not.

However onto the rest of his response.
Economics - At the moment the ferry is frequently over-subscribed, as in there are more people wanting to travel on the ferry than can fit on it. Given this economic fact I'm sure that people can see how having extra capacity is a good thing and not a bad thing.

Also the reason many of the local shops struggle is quite simply because they try and put on too much markup. Shoppers these days are much more informed about what prices should be and while most of us will tend to pay a little extra to cover the hassle of getting things up here we tend to not support those businesses that are just plain greedy.

Also I think the sad fact of the matter is that if you have to try and legislate people into following God then you have already lost the battle.

If the Church was doing the job it is supposed to then people would quite happily be filling the churches rather than the pubs - all of which are currently open on sundays. When we tell people you can't do that because we think God says you can't then it automatically sets their heart against God whereas we should be showing them the better way by example.

We should lead and not legislate.

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Christians Together in the Highlands and Islands > Christian Life > Sunday Sailings to Lewis