Sunday best

Early on in our Highlands life there were of course some things of Hampshire that we missed. These were not necessarily important things; the Sunday newspaper for instance. There were no local shops open on the Sabbath, therefore no Sunday Times. It was some while before we discovered that the Sundays did in fact reach the area and that you could order yours for collection in the public bar of the Aultbea Hotel. However to pick up your order you needed to run something of  a gauntlet. I remember very well my first Sunday morning collection .As per every day we loaded the dogs and our backpacks into the Jeep, ready for our walk on the hills. On the way  I popped into the hotel for the paper leaving Dee waiting in the car - only to find four Wiseman brothers aligned along the bar (and their one sister, the lovely Pat serving behind it) all of them turned to examine this sassenach incomer. Obviously finding him fairly harmless the eldest brother, Johnny, offered me a pint of  '80 shillings' - the local bitter beer. To be fair it was more an order than an offer. To decline would not have been a good idea in a village that the Wisemans sometimes seemed to think theirs by right, by strength and by ancestry. That's when the problem began, for I was clearly expected to reciprocate the hospitailty. Now, I have never been more than what you might call an enthusiastic though slow beer drinker of modest capacity. To buy pints for the brothers without one more (x four!) for myself would have been discourteous verging on combative! Besides, I found the company increasingly interesting, almost forgetting one wife and two dogs waiting outside for their daily walk. After more than an hour said wife reminded me. She came into the bar as I was in the middle of a risky joke, surveyed the scene in a new and frosty silence then demanded the car keys and turned on her heels. Delia walked the dogs over the hill by herself that Sunday whilst I later walked or staggered the three miles home. When I reached there, to prove my (entirely false) sobriety I set to work cutting out my greetings cards, not intending to cut off the tip of my finger in the process. Much blood but little sympathy, naturally..

I think it fair to say that most of the locals attend one church or the other whereas only a minority of we incomers did so. One problem was that, even for the religious, the range of local denominations, therefore of actual churches was and remains quite baffling. It seems that whenever in the past there has been a division of theological opinion a new Church has been formed by breakaway and a new church building created to accomodate it. But it has not been unknown for the departing schism to conduct their own services actually in the open air for years before the building took place. There was one well recorded church gathering in a natural cave under the cliffs by the village of First Coast and yet another took place in a grassy hollow by the sea in Gairloch - these days a nine-hole golf course - overlooked by a monumental stone church large enough for a small town but, as I say only one of many local houses of God.

There is a little booklet written by Hector Grant, the first part of which is all about the Grant family's growing up in the settlement of Mellon Udrigle prior to world war two. This is a fascinating autobiography that includes an account of the Grant family walk of some ten miles each way to church in Aultbea and back, in all weathers, clad in their Sunday best. One day recently I was invited by a retired sea captain to accompany him on his boat for a fishing trip.Whilst chugging slowly past Isle Ewe the captain pointed out a certain rock face that sloped down into the sea. This, he told me, was where the stones for one of Aultbea's churches came from. Great slabs had been hand cut from that native rock and slid down into a boat then rowed over one by one to the 'mainland'. Goodness knows how long this process lasted but the large kirk (church) was Hector Grant's family's destination in the 1930's and yet stands ... another reminder that you don't actually need power tools or computers to create a work of such lasting magnificence.

That kirk, and the other one opposite the Isle View Care Home, has been the site of many a funeral, even as recently as since our arrival in 2002. Funerals are important events of great solemnity in Aultbea, and include the funerals of three of the four Wisemans who had been sitting at the bar that first Sunday newspaper day (above). Such funerals - and the wakes that most often succeed them - command the attendance of huge numbers of men and women in black. 

I have commented earlier about my perception of the value of Sunday observance. I can say now, without being a fervent believer in any particular church, that I have have since adolescence always seen the value of a biblical, physical day of rest. By the way, having reached thus far in these autobiographical episodes  whilst skirting around the the matter of religion I am happy to declare my belief in an afterlife. I feel that such a belief makes for a considerably higher value to one's life on earth. After all nothing is worth nothing. For me there is absolutely no value in trying to prove my God better than yours or my God better than no God - or the reverse' as a kind of game of spiritual one upmanship.We all know what is good and life enhancing about a personal observance of the ten commandments, even if these days it is more than ever difficult to live by those commandments.

By the way I believe the Hebrew scholars mistranslated the crucial word COMMANDMENTS. That word should be COMMENDMENTS. Recommendations rather than instructions. JC was not, according to the gospels, given the power to instruct. Perhaps it would have been best and easier by far if he had!.

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