Norrie T opens up on Sunday

As was entirely predictable, the knee-jerk reaction to the announcement that An Lanntair in Stornoway plan to open on a Sunday for a trial period contained all the usual clichés.


“An attack on the historical and traditional values of these islands”… “a Hebridean island noted for its stern-faced Sabbatarianism”… “a spiteful attempt by secularists”, and even “involved in strangling a culture”.

The responses came, as is so often the case, from the usual local quarters (which at least gives them a certain degree of credibility). But some also came, surprisingly, from off-island ‘exiles’ who hanker after their pined-for byegone Lewis where even whistling was forbidden on a Sunday that they sadly no longer are forced to endure (sorry, enjoy).

Safe in the relative comfort of their seven-day, heathen existences, I can just imagine them penning their ‘wish we were there, but… ’ diatribes as they sip their lattés at a pavement cafe, whilst leafing through the supplements.

One of the more bizarre arguments promulgated is that had An Lanntair been a ‘commercial operation’ it would be perfectly reasonable to ‘go ahead’. This where ‘the line’ appears to be.

What can be ‘influenced’ in the last few places where it matters (the Stornoway Trust and Comhairle nan Eilean Siar: golf, swimming, the museum), and where, despite there being no obvious religious agenda either in the constitution/articles or stated intent of either organisation, there is, like it or not, a fairly obvious bias.

So what? We live in a democracy. We all need to participate in it and accept its conclusions, arrived at (hopefully) fairly and after due discussion, diligence and process. The fact that ‘commercial’ activities have opened and prospered has turned on its head the old, discredited defence that ‘there’s no demand for it’.

Yet when it comes to the crunch, and they are asked to defend any decision taken, ‘commercial’ and/or ‘operational’ reasons can be hastily invented to maintain any historical precedent.

Therein the confusion lies.

Most of us have no qualms with anyone objecting to the Sunday opening of anything on the grounds of their faith and the fourth commandment. Indeed you’d fully expect them to do so.

But trying to remain ‘objective’ whilst legislating on decisions which affect the same, have seen several councillors referred to the Ombudsman (the complaint was not upheld) and the constitution of the trust, via its own election process, heavily influenced by the vexed issue of Sunday golf.

The first wrong assumption made by those who argue against any change to the status quo is their spurious claim that people who would like to be able to go to the cinema (or swim at the local pool, play golf on the local course or, michty-me, enjoy the local museum) have some kind of anti-religion, anti-church or anti-anything-at-all agenda.

To conflate the primary objectives of a group of parents wishing for their children to live healthier lifestyles with a hatred for the church is completely disingenuous.

Their second assumption, although not quite so overtly pronounced, is (and let’s be blunt about this) that the folk who are trying to promote any changes have no legitimacy because they are all ‘white-settlers’. They point to the link between the secular society/FiSH. and the upper management of An Lanntair as being some kind of conspiracy, whilst failing to spot the glaring similarities on the ‘flip side’.

Ask yourselves about the constitution of your local organisations (community councils, hall committees, youth clubs, drama groups and sports clubs) and check the contributions being made by folk with ‘off-island roots’. Bloody ‘foreigners’, coming over here contributing (disproportionately) to our socie

ty (and culture). Pfft! Their third, and perhaps the most conceited assumption, is that Sunday belongs only to them, that theirs is the only interpretation of the bible that holds any relevance, and that any contrasting opinions hold no legitimacy at all.

THERE ARE very many differing opinions on the ‘sanctity of the traditional Lewis Sabbath’. Some secularists (people who advocate the separation of the state from religious institutions), atheists, agnostics and many folk of no obvious religious commitment are very much against any changes to the tranquillity they enjoy.

I also know Christians who (mostly in private, it has to be said) see nothing wrong with enjoying the full gamut of ‘experiences’ available to most of the rest of the UK on a Sunday. That they dare not express these opinions in public is a sad indictment of the degree of subtle control exercised over us all.

Despite my support for a more ‘progressive’ Sunday, I ‘watch points’, try to not to be too disrespectful, and would genuinely hate to offend any of the (very many) Christians I interact with on a daily basis and admire and respect. But in writing this, I’m probably doing so.

Trust me: it’s hugely complicated. More so when all of us are aware that what people do, or don’t do, on a Sunday whilst on Lewis can be 180 degrees at variance with what these same people will happily engage in on the other side of the Minch.

When people talk of boycotting certain establishments because of their position on Sabbath trading, then conveniently turn a blind eye to Tesco and the Co-operative (fully stocked on Monday morning and ready to go) as well as the bakers and newsagents, then they display a horrendous double-standard very conveniently applied.

I don’t want to go into examples of hypocrisy (the Stornoway Trust opposing Sunday golf whilst building a cycle track where no Sunday policy applies; the comhairle opening leisure facilities in Barra and Linaclete, but not in Stornoway due to ‘operational difficulties’; or the combination of the two overseeing the renovation of the Lews Castle whilst simultaneously allowing the hotel, restaurant and cafe to ply their trade on Sunday yet the fabulous museum remains closed) to score cheap points. But the obvious needs to be stated.

It’s not about anybody being right or wrong. There is no ‘right or wrong’. What people want to believe is entirely up to them.

Nobody (and I include myself in every instance) can, with any degree of certainty, claim to know the ‘truth’, the ‘bigger picture’ or ‘why we are here’. The arguments over who knows best have seen our churches split, congregations torn asunder and even families at loggerheads over ‘interpretations’.

But the notion of a section of society wishing to prohibit the use of publicly-funded facilities, because they don’t wish to avail themselves of them, is as absurd as it is dangerous. It creates what none of us wish to see, and what divides us at the most fundamental level – a ‘them and us’ scenario where people are asked to take sides.

There will always be religion in society and therefore it will obviously have a legitimate place (even if some have to stretch a bit to accommodate this notion).

Several thousand years of idols, sacrifices, worshipping natural phenomena, spectacular leaders, holy books and accepting (or not accepting) differing philosophies should have taught us something. If only a bit of tolerance of each other. Sunday ferries, planes, pubs, petrol stations, restaurants and takeaways have not, I would respectfully suggest, seen the ‘rocks melt wi’ the sun’, ‘the seas gang dry’ nor the Isle of Lewis change in any hugely-meaningful way. Society and ‘culture’ evolves whether we like it or not.

A cinema, swimming, golf or the museum, similarly, should not be of any concern to the faithful, unless they choose to be faux-offended on behalf of those who think differently. I would ask why anyone from outside the metropolis, with any degree of temerity, should be so bold as to suggest any impact on their Sunday observance.

When you have a situation where the comhairle give a school hall to a group of worshippers on a regular basis (despite there being no written policy on the charges they can level on a Sunday — only Monday-Saturday) yet will refuse to hire the same, or indeed any other, hall to any other group for whatever other purpose on the same day; you have an ‘awkward’ situation which smacks of some kind of inferred, automatic, privilege.

Yet we turn a blind eye and Sabbatarians still complain that the clamour to open council facilities is being done through some kind of ‘spite’. How does ‘spite’ find its roots?

When An Lanntair first proposed Sunday opening, councillors were given the figure for the degree of (monetary) support the council provided. The inference was obvious then, and still is (if not more so) today.

I hear people talking of ‘never setting foot through its doors again’. Spite?

When Sunday golf was first mooted some ten years ago, one of the reactions from a Stornoway ‘trustee’ was that they (the trust) would “rather give the course over for houses to get built on it than let play commence on the Sabbath”.

They have since modified their stance. Apparently they are now talking about a 10-20-fold punitive increase in rent and a condition that no competitions be held on Sundays, should the vote, miraculously, change to be in favour. Spite?

The management of the sports centre, too, are very acutely aware of who holds the purse strings and where the hard decisions get made. But they would be made for commercial or operational reasons. Surely not “spite”?

Despite, allegedly, having several more (evidently) suitable and convenient sites offered to it; the Stornoway High Free Church couldn’t quite get around to the notion of joining their fellow Christians on Kenneth Street and have, bizarrely, applied to build their new place of worship on a swamp across from the busiest commercial enterprise in the town on every single Sunday (Engebretsen’s Filling Station). The cost of the foundation alone, apparently, is in the region of £600,000.

I told you it was ‘complicated’.

The subterfuge, the shady influence being exerted behind closed doors, the subtle and not-so-subtle pressure(s) being applied in places where they matter most… None of this is news to anyone who has been born and brought up, lived and worked here, all their lives.

I’m only try to convey my version of the many ‘truths’ of the Sunday ‘situation’. The real truth is that Sunday swimming or not, Sunday golf or not, Sunday museums or not, outside of Stornoway nobody will notice a blind bit of difference. Common sense tells us all that.

I realise that this issue is divisive and controversial. It should never be so. It’s all about freedom of choice. The sacrifices many have made in order that we can enjoy that freedom of choice should not be lost on any of us – least of all on Lewis.

In my time as greens convenor at Stornoway Golf Club I used to rail against the skiing, sledging and snowboarding that would, inevitably, ruin my golf course.

Funnily enough, every time the spring came around, my fears had proved to be entirely ungrounded. The grass still grew, golf prospered and our most diehard faithful simply got on with their core agenda.

Norrie T MacDonald is a regular WHFP columnist