By John White
I was brought up in a small village in Lancashire but closely bordering both Yorkshire and Cumbria.
It had a church with a tower, a primary school, three farms and a pub, but no shop.
It wasn’t quite the quintessential English village as there was no green, but plenty of woods, a river and streams, and fields and lanes for a boy to run feral.
We lived in the first ‘new’ development, nine houses built in what would have been the grounds of the ‘big house’ now the pub.
Not much has changed to look at in the village since unusually there has been no more house building except all the barns we used to play in are now fancy homes, and I have no idea where the bales of hay are stored.
I guess they are now big bales of silage wrapped in plastic piled up on the edges of the fields until needed.
One day when walking with my best pal to primary school (I am not sure if the children do that now) we named every inhabitant in every house in the village. There were probably sixty or seventy houses all told, and we knew everybody.
I am not sure if anyone living in the village could do that now, let alone two ten-year-old boys.
It was the same on Skye, when my wife Anne was wee, she knew everybody in Kilmuir and on going up to High School and through choirs, drama, ceilidhs and community events got to know of a fair proportion of those from the wider community.
Last year she was at a ceilidh in the hall, “how are you enjoying your holiday?” she asked two strangers “…erm we live here.” they replied..
Communities have changed.
We can all make a stab at the reasons, from kids being less feral, and not getting to know their old neighbours, everybody being more frightened, enveloping children with cotton wool and many being timetabled to within a second of bedtime, both parents working often in the nearest bigger place, people generally spending less time in the locales they live in, many often only returning home to sleep.
As our way of earning money has developed, perhaps our need for the neighbour changes. We don’t borrow, we buy, and we don’t need help with the hay, we don’t need a cup of sugar.
Emails, computer games, Netflix and Facebook, as well as more traditional screen fayre, all vie for attention, but as technology sucks away our time it also fills the void of a local disconnection, it is perhaps not all detrimental, it is about connectivity.
My son could no way name all the people living in Kilmuir, but when he was 14 we visited my dad and my ‘home’ village. Within an hour of arriving, through snapchat, messenger and maybe even a traditional text message, he had contacted friends he knew from bike racing who lived in the north of England, and arranged a ride.
It did necessitate an hour’s drive to a pickup /drop off at a motorway service station (I think he ended up riding in Wales but that is another story).
His virtual community became real for the day.
Our spread of family across country and continent can seem a little closer through video conversations, and now is much easier than the old annual and often tearful Christmas day phone conversation to relatives in Australia.
But as our community spreads geographically, what is in danger of being lost are the rooted local links, the ceilidh round the kitchen table is perhaps being replaced with a zoom conversation to New South Wales.
During these eight weeks of lockdown for many the screen has been a saving grace, allowing vital contact with friends and family, but perhaps more importantly, the pandemic has also mitigated a reimagining of physical local community, with the huge growth of support networks and people wanting to help.
Skye Community Response has been exemplary – logistical precision with military style efficiency – in linking to more local organisations.
Prescriptions delivered, food vouchers given out, cooked meals provided, messages picked up, money raised.
But also conversations, the Ducati is great for that, (who wouldn’t want to discuss their medicines being delivered on such fine Italian engineering…) when I deliver prescriptions, most people want a chat too.
And it is “community” who may know who is in need, and more crucially the subtle ways of facilitating that help.
People are proud and we have lost the way of asking for help. There may be a fine line between nosiness and general interest, but it is often our neighbours who will know if we are struggling.
Nosiness in community is often borne out of concern and compassion.
The old vulnerable gentleman living alone might need some help, but so too that young family whose wage earner missed out on furlough or self-employment grants, or the single person who would normally be working in a hotel, but hasn’t had an income for months.
It might not be obvious.
On my last prescription run, one lady asked me “Is this service just for the crisis?”
I was suitably vague in my reply, as we don’t know how long measures will be in place, and as yet how it will all end, but perhaps community has been reawakened.
As we move to “the other side” perhaps we should be mindful of the benefits to the community of community.
We should keep a balance of global and local, virtual and physical, and make sure they complement each other symbiotically.
We are likely to continue Zoom meetings with distant friend and relatives, why shouldn’t we continue delivering prescriptions.
The irony is that organised committees are creating the infrastructures that used to exist organically in the past. Buses used to deliver papers and prescriptions, although you might have only got your paper once the person picking it up for you had read it.
If you were sick food would appear.
A lot of community never went away, but perhaps became less evident and more fragile as we all became busier and more money and work driven.
In a cash rich, time poor society, it is maybe community that suffers.
We might not need help with the hay, or a cup of sugar, but we do need our local community. I may challenge P7 children to learn who all their neighbours are, and on the other side, maybe at the next ceilidh, we will know everyone in the hall…
Our community has now lost Ina Beaton, possibly its oldest inhabitant, and almost daily we seem to be losing others.. My condolences go to all their families – Mairidh gaol is ceol.