(2018 April 18) – People can forget how to spell bigot but remember how to be bigoted. I was reminded of this when I read a recent article by Harriet Sherwood, religion correspondent for The Guardian. Members of the Muslim community in the Scottish town of Stornoway are building a mosque. Good for them. If they feel they need one, which they do, and have raised the money to build it, which they have, they should have their mosque, and they will.
Stornoway is on the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides. It has a lengthy history of bigotry. It is normally exercised against the members and institutions of the Catholic Church, but other groups are always welcome to take their place in the cross-hairs of intolerance.
For the record, before I succumbed to the siren song of atheism I was one among a legion of failed Catholics. I never grew to hate it the way some have done. I just couldn’t be bothered. Sunday morning obligations were too much of a damper on Saturday night celebrations.
I was surprised to learn that there was even a Muslim community in Stornoway. It has been bolstered recently by the relocation of Syrian refugees. According to the article, Muslims have lived there since the 1950s. Not many, but some. They kept a low profile. That’s also what Catholics did while they were on the island. Invisibility can have its benefits.
Greg MacDonald is the moderator of the Outer Hebrides presbytery of the Free Church of Scotland(Continuing). Members are colloquially known as “the wee frees”. MacDonald is secure in the knowledge of three things. First, he knows that God is on his side. Second, he knows what God wants, and that is to have more wee frees in the world. Third, he knows what God does not want, and that is Muslims and Catholics in the world.
When my family relocated from Glasgow to London in 1948, my father worked as a radio mechanic for the Ministry of Civil Aviation. One of his assignments was an extended posting to the radar station at Mangersta on the western edge of the Isle of Lewis. The hot war had ended and the cold one was getting underway. Britain wanted an early warning system in case low flying Soviet bombers attacked.
We won’t even think about the tangled karma of a job transfer from Glasgow to London resulting in a work assignment in the Outer Hebrides.
My mum took my older brother for a weekend visit to the radar base. At the time, there was no Catholic church anywhere on Lewis. For Sunday Mass, the few families so inclined would find their way to someone’s living room where a priest from away would officiate.
On that particular weekend, my dad borrowed a car and drove it into a ditch on the Sunday morning. The streets of Stornoway were as quiet as a grave. Townsfolk soon began emerging from their homes, dressed in blacks and purples, to make their way to the Kirk. None would help push the car back onto the road because it was the Sabbath and they were on their way to Salvation. Nothing cures a Sunday morning hangover like a healthy breakfast of fire and brimstone. My mother didn’t dare ask which home was hosting the priest that week for fear of unleashing the wrath of the wee frees onto her comrades in prayer.
Lewis wasn’t the only island in the north west of Scotland where Catholics had to tread carefully. Skye was almost as bad. The first time I went to Skye was in June 1967. Glasgow Celtic were getting ready to play in the European Cup Final against Inter Milan. The game was to be played in Lisbon. I found myself in a pub near the Armadale ferry terminal where everyone but me spoke Gaelic. They would speak English to me, but not among themselves.
The cup final was at the centre of attention, with the locals expressing their hope that Inter Milan would win. They could never cheer for the Celtic, even though there were more Catholic players on the Italian team. The deep-rooted bigotry on the island had long been the stuff of legend in the Scottish half of my ancestry but this was the first time I had looked it in the eye.
The first Catholic church on Skye was built in 1960. The first resident priest didn’t get a home there until 2000. The island thrived on intolerance and the wee frees held sway.
We all know that no one is born a racist or a hate monger. There is not a bigoted one-year-old child anywhere in the world. It is a learned behaviour, passed down from parent to child and reinforced by community standards, or lack thereof. Of all the things we learn in our youth, we can forget how to solve an algebraic equation, but we can remember to mistrust the people our parents mistrust.
The people of Stornoway haven’t met enough Catholics or Muslims to be able to form an educated opinion of them. The followers of Pastor Greg MacDonald, adherents of the Free Church of Scotland (Continuing), have not suffered any injuries at the hands of a Muslim or a Catholic. They have no reason to fear them. Yet they do.
Hatred is not a passing fad. It has been with us for centuries and it isn’t going away any time soon. There are too many pastors and politicians making too much money to ever let it go away.