Sunday, February 14, 2010

The Living Past

Donald Macleod, the author of a number of well-used theological works, such as The Person of Christ and Behold Your God is of course the Principal of the Free Church College in Edinburgh. He is a remarkable preacher and teacher, someone who teaches as he preaches and preaches as he teaches, and who does both with authority and passion. I don’t recall this book of his, The Living Past (Acair, Stornoway, 2006), being noticed, though it has already been reprinted. I would have not known about it except that Donald himself mentioned once that he was writing it, and then kindly sent me a copy.

The book takes the form of a series of twenty-eight letters from Donald to a Canadian lady who is seeking information about her own mother’s background and education as a native of the Isle of Lewis , where Donald himself was born and grew up. The daughter was a native of Uig, but Donald was born in Ross and for the first five years lived in Laxdale, spending his holidays back in Ross. (One of the striking features of the culture of Lewis is that the topography of the Isle differs markedly from place to place, but for a child growing up in the 40’s and 50’s places five miles away were utterly remote.) She and Donald met on the steamer returning from the mainland, she a student in Aberdeen, he in Edinburgh. They had previously been students at the Nicholson Institute. There are a number of unusual literary features about the letters, which I’ll leave for any reader to discover. If you are unfamiliar with the Western Isles then it’d be useful to get hold of a map, to discover where Stornoway, Laxdale, Uig, Ross and other places that figure here are in relation to each other.

The letters he writes to Jacqueline Quessaud provide Donald with the opportunity to describe many features of his early years and upbringing, his schooling, the character and ways of Gaelic-speaking and Gaelic-influenced evangelicalism, (the evangelcialism dated from 1820, through the labours of a layman, John Macleod), of how it decayed and has now largely been supplanted. Just as much a source of his concern is the marginalisation of Gaelic, and especially of Gaelic identity as expressed in its history and traditions, by the very English character of his education, especially in history. It may not be too much to say Donald would describe this process as an act of ‘colonialisation by the English’. As far as I can see he writes everything he touches without bitterness, but with great fondness, with affection for his roots and his folk, and with considerable humour. He says that his childhood on the Isle defined him, but is now lost beyond recovery. At one point he reckons that he has had a childhood, and an old age, but not much in-between.

Radicalism, the true radicalism of roots, is very much a theme; the radicalism of semper reformanda of the Reformation against tradition and legalism, of which he gives many curious and some amusing examples in this supposed uniquely Reformed church. Holding on to these traditions come what may have precipitated a legalistic attitude and a mere traditionalism, as in the multiplication of all sorts of meetings. And he links this also with the radicalism of appreciating the true Gaelic culture. But he is clear-eyed and unsentimental.

Interspersed are observations of a general nature, such as this

Having spent my strength insisting on the primacy of doctrine and judging other communions and other Christians merely by their creed (or the lack of it), I learned that the highest orthodoxy could co-exist with undiluted wickedness, and, conversely, that a Christ-like attitude could be found among all shades of theological opinion. It became my fixed view that humility without orthodoxy was infinitely more biblical than orthodoxy without humility, (although lack of orthodoxy is not in itself a guarantee of humility. Heresy has its own orthodoxy, and can often be as arrogant and intolerant as the most rigid bigotry).

As you would expect, he writes also with considerable knowledge of the history and of the people of his childhood, and with insight and skill and humour. About The Clearnings, and emigration, and sheep . About, depopulation, the sea, food, the changing landscape, dying and mourning, ‘wakes’ and ‘bundling’, the regulative principle and Christmas, communion seasons, children, their parents, and the church. He provides a vivid description of what it was like to live in a ‘black house’. He writes about education, its standards and values, its harshness, the beatings, the cold. Sometimes there are passages of great detail, about neighbours, and precenters, and various ministers, but equally often he offers sharp general observations.

There are moving, vivid passages

In the days before motorcars people had no option but to walk; and very often they walked in company. Going to church on Sunday morning, for example, was almost like a pilgrimage. People spilled out of every house to join the procession. My maternal grandfather’s house in Habost (Ness) had its gable-end on the very edge of the road. When we were on holiday there we used to go upstairs to watch. The road would be black with people……I can still hear the clip-clop of hundreds of feet striding along on the way to church. These were lively, animated walks, the old women often arm in arm, teasing, sharing and questioning. No doubt the whole of human life was there; gossip, malevolent and benign. But there would also have been such religious and theological discussion as would have graced the table of any seminary.

On a number of things Donald seeks to put the record straight. Was the Isle of Lewis a sort of Presbyterian theocracy? By no means. Ministers had very little influence on education, for example. Were the ministers all-powerful in the churches? By no means. He points to a strong streak of anti-clericalism in the church culture, and speculates as to why this might be. Were those who aspired to participate in Communion services actively discouraged from doing so? Not usually, and he has interesting remarks on the ‘fencing’ of the table. Originally, fencing meant establishing, maintaining. Only later did it come to connote ‘defending’, and only then were there active attempts by somw ministers to discourage participation. Was the introspection of these people due to an over-emphasis on the decrees (a claim routinely made by the late T.F. and J.B. Torrance, and by others)? Not at all, this author claims, they were concerned a not about whether they were elect, but whether they had the marks of saving grace. The two matters are connected, but by no means the same.

These letters meander, and their author more than once apologises to his correspondent for this, but he meanders on. Much of the charm of the book lies in this formlessness. I found it an engrossing read. I’ve mentioned a few of the many things that engaged me, but it would not surprise me at all if other readers were taken with some of the many other things.