What could be better than a day trip to Uig?
This is the time of year when many take the opportunity to take a day out to the beautiful beaches and wonderful scenery of the Uig area of the Isle of Lewis. Guides, Brownies , Sunday schools , youth groups, families as well as many holidaymakers make for the white sands of Traigh na Berie at Reef, or Uig sands at Ardroil. I was in Uig for a different reason. I spent the whole of yesterday, in Uig Lewis assisting at Communion Season meetings. It was a joy and privilege for me to come back to a place and a people that were so familiar to me and so much part of my formative years.
I have very fond recollections of the church at Miavaig, from my youngest days as a Christian. This was my mother’s home church, known as Uigen or Ceann Langabhat. Although the congregation is now sadly depleted I have to say that I enjoyed the day tremendously, and found it a real blessing to be in the fellowship of Christian brothers and sisters. We shared together in the word and in the sacrament, and enjoyed the warm hospitality of Hugh and Joanne Stewart at the manse in Bernera. I preached two sermons on Christ as King, in the morning ‘ The Splendour of the King’ based on the text from John 19:19
‘Pilate also wrote an inscription and put it on the cross. It read, “ Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.”
In the evening our theme was ‘ the Return of the King’ from the text in Revelation 19: 16 “ KING OF KINGS AND LORD OF LORDS” . What made the day special as well was not just the renewing of old acquaintances, but also making new acquaintances, and we were truly blessed to meet and have fellowship with Richard and Sue Uglow from Cornwall who happened to be holidaying at Ardroil beach. We were humbled and challenged by Richard sharing with us at the evening after church fellowship of God’s work in Cornwall, as well as in Pakistan.
Until recently the June Communion Season in Uig was held in the now closed church at Baile na Cille. These were special days meeting in the old church, in the height of summer, in one of the most stunning locations in the islands, listening to wonderful preaching, and Gaelic exposition and testimony of the men speaking to the Ceisd on the Friday morning. The first time I was asked to speak to the Ceisd ( question ) was a trial. As a fairly new convert ,I was the last of those to be asked to speak, and I followed a series of redoubtable stalwart speakers, including two or three I think from the Congregation of Tarbert. These were men of spiritual experience and ability. Whilst they spoke in Gaelic, I spoke in English, and felt that I had no liberty at all in speaking. After the service I like others before me I am sure, wanted nothing better than to run and hide in a corner, so I kept away from fellowships and houses and went back home to mope. That evening a dear Christian Lady telephoned me out of concern and to tell me “ your journey to Uig was not in vain” , relaying the news that a young man had professed faith that evening. He had taken encouragement from my few lisping, stammering words, and professed faith in Jesus that evening.
Things in Uig as elsewhere are so different now, the numbers worshipping have declined dramatically , as the community itself has declined in terms of population drastically too. The latest census figures show that the entire population of Uig AND Bernera together was 773 in 2011. By way of contrast mr John Macleod OBE of Carishader Uig in his excellent “ A brief record of the church in Uig ( Lewis ) , records that in April 1899 the very same congregation, at that time Uig Free Church, had the mind boggling total of 929 members and adherents , which were unfortunately spilt down the middle over the call to the Rev Roderick Maclean ( 485 in favour – 444 against . so church disputes and schisms are nothing new !)
I find myself though challenged as to how to respond to the decline in so many of our rural communities and parishes. Uig has known better days, and indeed times of genuine revival on several occasions. But where does that leave us now? Is it the case that nostalgia is all we have left ? On several occasions I have heard people talking about past revivals and blessings, and winsome longing for such days again.The past is past, and we cannot live on yesterday’s blessings, no more than the children of Israel could live on yesterday’s Manna ( Exodus 16:20). Nostalgia makes us feel good for a time, but it is deadly to the church, as it prevents us from embracing the present, and reaching out into the future. I am afraid to say it but nostalgia will consign the church to become nothing but a museum or relic of past glories, instead of a living witness to the work of God .
As on other occasions I have to start with myself, and critically examine what it is I do, and how I respond to the challenges of the present? Was my trip to Uig simply a nostalgic road trip ? Was I just looking back at where God was in the past, but also where I myself was in my past too ?
On the way to Uig the main road took me through what is still officially the Bernera Hill grazings, where the Crofters of Bernera would graze their sheep throughout the summer months. This moor had to be cleared of sheep at least twice a year, in early summer for shearing, and in autumn prior to the tupping season . As I motored on to Uig, my mind went back to early summer and autumn Saturday mornings, meeting at Bernera bridge to gather the sheep off the hill. I still remember vividly where the minibus would drop me off on the main road to Uig to begin the long walk to the fank at Earshader. Mostly the Breaclete and Kirkibost crofters would gather sheep from the area of the lochs on the Grimersta estate, south of the road and then walk up into the hills to the north of the main road. My mind went back to those who accompanied me most times, many of whom are no longer with us. The Hacklete and Tobson crofters would generally gather the sheep further to the west near Scaliscro lodge , and then walk in past the Sron Mhòr, round Beinn Breaclete to the shoreline at Strom and then strike to the East along the side of Beinn Drobhinish . Those of us to the East would normally wait for the area down at Caultrashal to be cleared by two seasoned veterans, usually Iain ‘Tom’ Mackenzie 8 Breaclet, and Angus Macaulay ‘ Aonghas an Seana Bhaille’ 4 Hacklet. Then we would sweep up to and over the main road over the heights of Griosamol and Conostom towards the fank at Earshader near the shoreline where ‘Mainland’ Lewis meets Great Bernera. The idea was that by the time we got to the North of Beinn Drobhinish we would have flushed most of the sheep ahead of us towards the fank.
As I journeyed I reflected on these days, and thought how different things are now. Active crofting has all but died out in Bernera, and very few of the 72 shares in the Bernera hill grazing are actually being used by any of the resident crofters. Very few of the young people will know anything about the location and names of hills and lochs on the moors of Lewis and Harris, and I have to admit that my own generation’s knowledge was pathetic in comparison to those who went before us. Yet we hated these early morning starts, we dreaded the lung bursting walks over the hills, in midges and rain, and being shouted at by angry crofters.
That is the thing about nostalgia, it convinces one that the past is always better than the present, and keeps us in a sentimental longing for a supposed golden age that did not in reality exist, as an antidote to the rapid change and uncertainty of the present.
However sentimental we might become about the past, it more important to look forward in faith , for the sake of our children and all our communities. The book of Ecclesiastes puts it like this ‘ Do not say, “Why were the old days better than these?” For it is not wise to ask such questions.’ ( Eccles 7:10 NIV)
We cannot turn back the clock. We sometimes wish we could to a time when things were better . The question is were they really better ? The challenges facing places like Uig and Bernera just now, will be the challenges facing the larger and more populated districts of these islands tomorrow. I have no answers ! But I do know that without economic revitalisation fragile communities will continue to die, there will be no point in going on about revival, when there are literally no people to be revived. Our islands and our communities are resilient. They have faced starvation, clearances, disease , war and mass emigration. In God’s grace and mercy these islands have survived all these challenges, not through a sentimental longing for the better days of the past, but through a faith in the God who was their only refuge and strength. Nostalgia will get us nowhere, however faith in God is our communities only hope. Only then, will any community, any people prosper (2 Chronicles 7:14) . I wish the Church and communities of Uig and Bernera God’s richest blessing in the time ahead. And I would encourage them to recall the word of God through Isaiah the prophet ‘Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the desert and streams in the wasteland’. (Isa 43:18)