How to do things

It is no secret, at least from me, that I have spent an unconscionable amount of time lately reading everything I could get my beady eyes upon, about the Uists. They are Isles from where such as my own maternal ancestors were launched upon the New World, in waves slapped by the Highland Clearances. The North American obsession with genealogy is not quite my thing. Rather it is an enchantment with these Isles themselves, which to this day aren’t entirely “modern.”

My (Presbyterian) people were from North Uist (as mentioned, here). Had they lived a few miles to the south — a short walk, but some of it across dangerous tidal quicksands — they would have been the other side of the Hebridean demographic frontier into Roman territory. And I, as a consequence, might have been a Cradle Catholic, instead of the Zealous Convert I became. Or rather, I couldn’t possibly have existed, nor my parents nor my children, so particular is the action of Providence.

On the faith-notion that anything which allowed me to exist were a Good Thing, I might as well take the history as it stands, and even the vicious Clearances as felix culpas. (Catholics were often targeted. The detested absentee landlady of South Uist, Emily Gordon Cathcart, prim Protestant of Aberdeen, when she ran out of sheep, had the Catholics of Askernish evicted for a golf course at the world’s end; others elsewhere cleared from family tenancies they had held since MacAdam to make hunting parks, where there was no game.)

Nothing can justify the evils of the past, let alone the fresh ones. Nor can history authoritatively guide us on how to do things, for the best.

Or perhaps it can. Perhaps there are good ways to put things in God’s order. Perhaps sometimes we get an example. For here is one that has come to my attention, thanks to my idle reading and correspondence.

In the ’fifties, the British Ministry of Defence proposed to turn most of the Hebridean Isle of South Uist into a missile testing range. This was naturally opposed by its Catholic inhabitants, who had resentments enough stored over the centuries, yet were only a couple thousand left, against the monstrous power of a centralized, bureaucratic State. They convened informally, in prayer and discussion, until they hit upon a response.

Putting all their small moneys together, they commissioned an immense granite statue (30 feet high) of Our Lady of the Isles, from the sculptor Hew Lorimer. … (Brilliant!)

The face he chose as his model for Our Lady was that of a local crofting woman: a magnificent face, conveying love, and defiance. And the baby Jesus rising in her arms, making a sign of peace which, from the rear, might be mistaken for a rude gesture. It was erected on the west slope of the mount, Rueval, to face down the site of the MoD barracks. … (Take that!)

We cannot know what the bureaucrats thought. We can only know what they did. The missile range was adjusted, to preserve ancient local villages and habitats, but still went ahead. Many soldiers were brought to the Isle (which had a man shortage, as many fishing communities do) for the missile testings. But many of these rough, unwanted tommies fell in love with Uist, and with its maidens. They married, settled, Poped, learnt the Gaelic (the Uist accent is exceptionally soft and musical).

They still test missiles there, but politely. And the word gets out so the people can gather, and watch, and have a big cèilidh. Everything turned out well for everyone.

In the words of my informant, “Our Lady did as she was asked.”