Alexander MacLeod, Christian, Christianity, Gaelic, Gearrannan Blackhouse Village, Harris Tweed, Isle of Lewis, King Arthur, Lewd Man, Lewis and Harris, Scotland, Scottish Nationalism, Sheela Na Gig, Sheep, St. Clement's Church, Stornoway, Tourist, Tourist Review
[Last year, Tourist Review weighed up the merits of Rosslyn Chapel, the Tron pub, and Tantallon Castle. This lazy and unfocused feature now resumes its sorry work at St. Clement’s Church on the Isle of Lewis. In this review “Lewis” often refers to both Lewis and Harris (the latter is a region in its own right). Ed.]
St. Clement’s Church is waiting over the moor. Forget Stornoway – with its rich gloom and wild stone figures, St Clement’s is the cultural heart of Lewis and Harris by any reckoning. But to reach this pearl, one has to cut through a lot of dank oyster. Desolation has its charms, but one can only wonder at the mentality of those who can manage to dwell day-to-day on such a forlorn island. It would be easy to attribute the obstinate Presbyterianism of the islanders – and their bizarre obsession with the Sabbath – to the harsh climate, as if their zeal was akin to the webbed feet of those who live too near to dumped industrial waste. Yet the islanders whom we met were all stoutly cheerful and as innocent as children, which made me immediately suspect that most of their public life was an act – loud singing to cover up the groans from their black Presbyterian souls.
The whole island has a sort of artificiality about it. Can they really make money from those sheep, who all look very handsome and distinguished, and trot daintily around fields strewn with their own faeces, but who seem aristocratically aloof from the grime of real agriculture? Or that quaintly stuffy and cumbersome Harris tweed, which may have seemed modern to Queen Victoria’s generation? Like so much of what is most Scottish, the rich rural detail of the island – farmhouse after farmhouse with a sheepdog watching the courtyard and ponies in the meadow – appears to have been made in the imagination of Walt Disney. One begins to search the façade for indicators of modernity – junkies around the war memorial, Polish delicatessens, or office fodder snapping down their espressos – but the taxi driver boasts that the island has one nightclub, and that it is even open on both Fridays and Saturdays.
The Gaelic language seems to have been dug up from the dead just to annoy people and it is really not amusing. Most of the Gaelic names sound like the English version pronounced after a few drinks. And so Stornoway becomes Steòrnabhagh, Lewis is Leòdhas, Scalpay is Sgalpaigh, and sheep farmer is sheip fa mharr (well, probably). Despite the embarrassing lack of variation between the two languages, every road sign has to feature both names, as if there would be anybody on the island who could not understand the English version. Some scholars learn Latin in order to appreciate Cicero in his native tongue, but they do not insist on plastering such an obsolete and geekish language over the nation’s infrastructure. With my Derridean literary schooling, I have to assume that human beings are their language, and so what hope is there if one’s very language is a tiresome affectation, or something sprinkled about like tinsel in order to decorate a fatuous political point?
Out in the countryside, the peat moorland grows equally tiresome. Entire landscapes seem to frown. In the sunshine, the yellow-brown turf is bare and frayed like the skin of an old teddy bear. There are miles of lochs, as if gigantic moths have nibbled holes in the landscape. Why cannot a truck full of men turn up, set to work on the land, and install fields of oilseed rape – just to interrupt the droning of the terrain?
Only on the coast does the landscape come alive. The coastline beyond the Gearrannan Blackhouse Village is monstrous, horrific, and seems to be the work of a madder and mightier god than the dull chap responsible for inland. A frothy sea hits the rocks like beer sloshing over the great teeth of an ogre. One is transfixed by the cathedral gloom and almost-perceptible growling of the cliffs – their sheer, soaring detail seems to demoralise the vision. My young Spanish companions are crazy – the emotion has gone to their heads – and they are leaping from rock to rock, yelling – a misjudged footing could leave them shattered horribly on the rocks below – but I am subdued and humble, like a little peasant quaking before his icon.
Perhaps I was wrong about this island. There is something wild and rather fruity to its character – an eccentricity with some reality to it. A reluctant affection for Lewis is affirmed at St. Clement’s Church: a cruciform structure with a stumpy tower and a fortress sturdiness, but one which has been a ruin, and at times a cowshed, since the Reformation. Without a minister or a congregation, Clements’ is truly a crypt rather than a church, and both the interior and exterior are given over to tombs. It looks like the sort of building which I could have made – a load of rocks piled into the shape of a church – but it has stood here on the moors since the fifteenth century, like those Arthurian knights who are supposed to sleep enchanted in a lonely region until the world is once again worthy of their attention. And there are knights asleep in this church; stone figures who lie fully dressed and armed and facing upwards. The quiet utterance of their names could cause them to awaken in an instant, sling a leg from their tomb, and clatter back into the world.
We climb the tower, but the ladder to the top floor is missing. My Spanish friend tries to get up anyway, and tittering assistants hoist him up by his ankles, but it is too much – too high – and groping for the beams, he ends up suspended desperately in the air like a hanging man or an angel. Later, I am alone in the nave – trying to fill myself up with panic at the eeriness of this church, which is now half in darkness – and I am struggling to imagine the centuries of islanders who dragged their grim, rabbity lives through this building. Yet it is pleasantly warm, I can hear the voices of my Spanish friends out in the churchyard, and the beauty and novelty of the stone carvings reduce any Gothic horror to a pale and uninsistent ghost.
Stuck up on the wall outside is a Sheela Na Gig – an ungainly hag clutching an unspecified familiar (possibly a dog?), her sprawling cunt powerfully sexual – and an accompanying “Lewd Man,” who seems altogether more modest. These gargoyles are not quite the medieval equivalents of a Page 3 girl as their positioning discourages easy appreciation. To me, their significance is that they are expelled from the church – perhaps their purpose is to distract passing devils from the church’s entrance with their lust. They were probably some sort of joke, but one is soon saddened upon encountering the tombstone of an eleven year old boy who was “drowned in the ice” early in the last century. One imagines the Sheela gnashing her teeth over the funeral, furious at having never gotten her hands on the boy. Maybe the drowned boy joined the sleeping knights as a squire, but the churchyard is falling into darkness, the knights will soon be restless, and let us leave the church to its enchanted sleep.