Has highland evangelicalism had its day?
"After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb." Revelation 7.9
A 19th century folklorist gleaning fragments of traditional culture in the Hebrides was given short shrift when he came to Lewis: "You won't find much interest in these fables here nowadays" he was told in no uncertain terms.
The Evangelical Awakening came relatively late to the Hebrides but, when it arrived, it came with a vengeance. There are good reasons for its enthusiastic reception. A population traumatised by the shock of the breakdown of the "old order" in the aftermath of the Jacobite Rebellion and betrayal by its custodians, the clan chiefs, needed something to fill the void of leadership and hope. But at what cost?
The poem 'Am Bodach-ròcais' ('The Scarecrow') by Ruaraidh MacThòmais (Derick Thomson) describes how a missionary gate-crashes a traditional ceilidh-house and purges it of the games and stories and songs which were being shared. And he concludes:
"Ach cha do dh'fhàg e falamh sinn: But he did not leave us empty-handed:
thug e oran nuadh dhuinn, he gave us a new song,
is sgeulachdan na h-àird an Ear, and tales from the Middle East,
is spruilleadh de dh'fheallsanachd Geneva, and fragments of the philosophy of Geneva,
is sguab a 'n teine à meadhan an làir and he swept the fire from the floor,
's chuir e 'n tùrlach loisgeach nar broillichean. and set a searing bonfire in our breasts."
To begin with, Gaelic benefitted from an injection of passion and biblical imaginary which enriched the language but, as social developments rendered Gaelic less useful in the dissemination of the Gospel, it dropped out of favour so that in most Hebridean churches it is no longer heard.
As the tide turns for the language and secular materialism envelopes the last frontier of Christendom in crossing the Minch, where does that leave the particular brand of faith which has dominated island society over the past two centuries? Though written for a totally different context, might the words of South African minister Allen Goddard resonate here:
"Have we fully known the Creator's self-expression and joy in aspects of every African language and tradition? What have we remembered of our discarded folklore, or disregarded proverbs, and our maligned African wisdom? What has become of the best African sagas and tales? Have we ended up exchanging real African life stories transformed by the Father's unconditional love..."