God, Kate Forbes, Scalpay, and you lascivious dogs who are now seeking to find ways to square the circle. Fear not, I am a story teller that some love and some hate, and I am here to help you.
Scalpay is quite possibly the most beautiful of all the islands in the Outer Hebrides. It is certainly the most productive. Over the generations, it has produced pro-rata more merchant navy skippers, priests and people of faith and education than any other. I am immensely proud to have had relations who have hailed from its dainty perfection.
It is rightly shaped like a star, making dozens of tiny harbours into which the good folk have carved peedie sea huts and havens to teach their young the ways of the seas and tides, and how to listen to the weather as they gaze out from its headlands and taste the rain.
Let me tell you its most famous story. At its heart lies a Free Church, not just any old social centre, but a throbbing heart of that faith where each week the Gaelic psalms rise up like natural smoke embued with every colour of the rainbow to meet and mix with an Almighty God that most of it's citizens believe in with unerring faith. And if they don't, then they usually go with St Paul's doctrine that faith is the substance of things hoped for. I might not be prepared to die for Scotland, but I would certainly put myself in harm's way for Scalpay.
It is often recounted that a temporary priest was sent to take the weekly service there and went for a walk on the beach after he had performed his duties. At this blasphemy an elder was sent to inform him, and it's always a him, that the good people of Scalpay would not like their priest taking a walk on a Sabbath. 'Don't be ridiculous,' he responded. 'Jesus himself went for a walk on a Sunday.' 'Ah yes, maybe so,' responded the elder. 'But Jesus wasn't on Scalpay.'
Now all this talk of God and independence and not having sex before marriage and being repulsed by abortion is rationally madness. Yet I would be loathe to stand on a soap box on Scalpay pier and preach such a doctrine as the good folk of Scalpay peeled from their worship all sharpened and ready for another terrifying week of harvesting the deep. For there is something in that seeming madness that whispers to me of truth.
And so to Kate Forbes. I have a dear friend who once told me that whilst he felt he would never believe in God, he would prefer to have his children raised by someone who did, and I knew what he meant. Now Forbes may espouse a political doctrine and religious faith that I find irrational, but I have read her statements and consider them misrepresented by the granite-eyed hacks. They have never understood Scalpay and never will. And I hold it dear.
Tomorrow I will be 71 years old. I have a heart condition and am diabetic. My travel insurance is becoming alarmingly expensive. As I live out the last chapter and say goodbye to the land that I love, I think I would rather leave it in the hands of a young mother of obvious intelligence who felt more comfortable in the Free Church of Scalpay than the cynical boozers of Leith. This is more of an instinctive evaluation than a ration one, and I still feel more international than national. The trouble is, I've been to Scalpay.
Respite in the wee swamp. The easting wind continues to be a deterrent as far as al fresco
living is concerned, but within the ancient sturdy walls the stores are well provisioned and there is even a turnip. Quiet optimism prevails while the remote control maintains a disconnect between the wee swamp and the world beyond the parapet where the shouty people live. Why waste any time wondering what they may find to talk about – beyond themselves, that is.
It's over. The party's over; it's time to call it a day. We could do worse than reminisce and croon along to Nat King Cole's smooth, honeyed tones, replacing the rather more prosaic mutterings so widely broadcast in recent days: 'The end of an era'.
Little doubt about that, but what might it actually mean? That was yesterday. So what's next? The party goers, poopers and revellers all, are positioning themselves in the lobbies and corridors, before the mics and the cameras; hoping beyond forlorn hope that the clicks from 1,000 mobiles might conjure up a fleeting miracle in the shape of a flattering image; casting about for something to talk about, someone to talk to who, come the dawn, will not turn into an adversary with a better line of patter. The anxiety is palpable as the horrible truth sinks in that they will, in due course, be expecting to attend another bash and carry on. This, we are left to understand, is what it means: the party's over but the party goers are ready with their paper hats and trumpets to gather at a new shindig. To be arranged. The venue as before: minders and bouncers strategically placed to deal with any hooligan behaviour; tactical watchers and bean counters lurking in the wings, movers and shakers busy rehearsing as if their careers depended on it. There will be, perhaps, calls for a new playlist, bobbing and weaving to a different rhythm for the old numbers, a tweak here and there to the volume. Image makers on hand, ready to quash any hint of martyrdom, heresy or humbug.
So far, so predictable. The raison d'être r
eiterated in measured tones, never to be doubted or denied. Carry on! Tired and weary but still resolute, received doctrine will live to birl and shimmy for another day, jostling with core values, shifting alliances, solemn promises and pledges, messages cast in stone. Revised edition but the same cast, same old stage hands shuffling the props around.
That is the meaning that we are invited to accept. Really? Is that all there is? Peggy Lee suggested that if that's all there is my friend then let's keep dancing. There is, indeed, an overwhelming and utterly human assumption that after such a tried and tested programme all that needs to be done is to take her advice, take the line of least resistance, turn up the volume and carry on – not quite as before, perhaps, but at the console there will be a new face chosen from amongst themselves, a similarly selected revamped chorus and another round of telly chatterfests to provide context and analysis, comment and opinion. Reassurance. That should do the trick. Stick with the agenda and all will be well in the best of all possible worlds. Spruce up the makeup, step out for the masquerade, disguise the terrors attendant upon making an interesting speech with a photo-op nod towards sincerity, authenticity, commitment.
Well, on the other hand, now that a gap has emerged between the bash just ended and the next one, time permits a period of reflection, a stirring of the brain cells, wondering if there might not be another meaning. After all, diminished fortunes and dwindling resources tell their own different story, and it is worth reminding the exhausted revellers that selected morsels of their goings on, sooner or later but usually pretty soon these days, find their way into the public domain: recorded, for posterity – nay, history – and the rolling headlines. There is an audience. They, one day, will have their say. They know that the party just ended is unlike the Friday hoolie after the pub, the office away day, the graduation ball or even the funeral wake. The party just ended has been the party of government. Time, surely, to stop the undignified dance, pause before ordering another round, and practise singing along to Jim Morrison of The Doors. The End
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