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In Outer Hebrides, the faithful persevere

Church presence small as members progress amid Protestant traditions

ISLE OF LEWIS, Scotland — Part of a chain of islands forming the Outer Hebrides, the isles of Lewis and Harris are home to one of the more remote units of the Church, the Stornoway Branch, situated in the main town on the Isle of Lewis. Here the Vikings found a sheltered harbor and gave the town its name, which means 'steering bay'. Stornoway, part of the Scotland Edinburgh Mission, is one of four small branches among the many islands to the west of Scotland.

Stornoway Branch meetinghouse is centrally located on Stornoway's waterfront. Town's tourist map lists building.
Stornoway Branch meetinghouse is centrally located on Stornoway's waterfront. Town's tourist map lists building. Photo: Photo by David MW Pickup

The isles of Lewis and Harris are dotted with small villages connected by mainly single-track roads. The traditional industries of fishing, croft farming and the weaving of Harris Tweed are now complemented by a thriving tourist industry, swelling the 18,000 population during the summer months. Visitors come to sample the dramatic scenery, including some of Britain's most spectacular beaches where emerald seas lap at long white sandy bays guarded by ancient rocky cliffs. Many have come to appreciate the slow pace of life on these islands where homes and cars are left unlocked and crime is almost unheard of.

Part of this idyll is rooted in the strong religious faith of islanders. Here the Sabbath day is observed most strictly and ministers of religion are the opinion makers of island life. Members joke that you never get a parking ticket if you have a Bible in the back window of the car. In these islands, the home of the Calvinist Free Church of Scotland and several break-away denominations, no shops or restaurants are open on Sunday, neither do the buses nor the ferry operate on the Lord's day. Indeed, until recently, the children's swings were locked up to prevent them being used on Sunday. While the religious convictions are conducive to gospel living, they are also the source of mistrust of the Church's presence in the islands.

A small town on the Isle of Lewis, Scotland, is home to the Stornoway Branch, where early Vikings once found a sheltered harbor, giving the town its name, which means 'steering.'
A small town on the Isle of Lewis, Scotland, is home to the Stornoway Branch, where early Vikings once found a sheltered harbor, giving the town its name, which means 'steering.' Photo: Photo by David MW Pickup

One of Stornoway's veteran members is Donald MacDonald, a retired fisherman from the village of Tong. His father was an elder in the Free Church of Scotland and he was brought up to observe his religion faithfully. When he joined the Church in 1979, there were only four other members. He recalls fondly his time as the branch president, holding virtually every calling, conducting, speaking, and administering the sacrament every Sunday. For a time the branch met in members' homes or the missionaries' accommodation. When numbers grew and they tried to rent a meeting hall they found considerable opposition; no one would lease premises to them.

The Church then decided to supply them with a portacabin, but when planning approval was sought no one would lease them the land. Eventually Brother MacDonald suggested they put it in his garden, but when it arrived, no one would supply a crane to lift it onto brother MacDonald's land. He recalls how they had been warned not to place the building on his boggy land; he had constructed concrete pillars for it. During the night he worried how they would get the portacabin in place.

"My faith was starting to go a little bit," he recalled. Early the next morning he felt impressed that he needed to take down the fence bordering the road. He went outside in the pouring rain. In frustration he stamped his foot, and was surprised to find that the soil had hardened sufficient to allow the wagon to drive onto the land. The wagon driver arrived, tested the ground and concluded, "Na bother." The wagon drove on and the building was jacked up off the vehicle.

Donald MacDonald, a retired fisherman, stands near where temporary meetinghouse was placed on his property.
Donald MacDonald, a retired fisherman, stands near where temporary meetinghouse was placed on his property. Photo: Photo by David MW Pickup

Fourteen years later that portacabin and even a larger replacement had to be replaced. Just five years ago, a modern compact chapel was built on Stornoway's harbor front. The building even features on the town's tourist map.

Branch numbers are not great in Stornoway, but the active members are stalwarts. Some have to drive for an hour and a half from the Isle of Harris to attend Church in Stornoway. It is the nature of the islands that as they mature young people tend to move to the mainland for college and careers, sometimes returning later in life. The branch has exported many fine members to other areas of the United Kingdom. Not a few of the Stornoway members have come to the islands, attracted by the beautiful scenery and the leisurely pace of island life.

Members speak fondly of the missionaries who have served on the islands. At one time missionaries participated in a branch basketball team that was so successful that it fostered an interest in basketball, a legacy that remains part of the island culture today.

Although he has lived on Lewis for 28 years, Branch President Eric Shaw, a native of Yorkshire, is still regarded as one of what islanders call 'incomers.' He came to the island with his wife, Dorothy Ann, and two young daughters to teach mechanical engineering at the Lewis Castle Technical School.

They knew nothing of the Church when, in 1985, Sister Shaw was working in the garden of their home one day when missionaries were tracting; she invited them in and soon joined the Church.

"I was a fence sitter," said President Shaw. "Deep down inside I believed but if I accepted that it meant I would have to do something about it." His conversion came later.

Donald John Mackay and his wife, Maureen, are weavers of Harris Tweed. She joined the Church through Primary.
Donald John Mackay and his wife, Maureen, are weavers of Harris Tweed. She joined the Church through Primary. Photo: Photo by David MW Pickup

Sister Shaw recalled that from age 12 she had a good pen friend from Idaho, who had written abouther Church and her temple, and her fiance served a mission, "but it meant nothing to me at the time." Over the years they eventually lost touch. Trying to trace her long-lost friend, she eventually wrote to the Church address on the leaflets the missionaries had left, enclosing a letter for her friend. Two weeks later she had a reply. It contained two sheets of paper with one sentence repeated over and over: "I'm so happy!" It later transpired that relatives of Brother Shaw were also members in Lancashire, England.

Maureen MacKay is a member from Handsworth, England. Unknown to her for many years her grandparents were members who emigrated to join the Church in the United States, but her less-active father stayed behind. She knew nothing of the Church, "but as a child I always wanted to go to church." It was only when she took to school a Children's Friend magazine sent by American relatives that she learned about the Church from a fellow pupil who was a member and invited her to Church. The Primary teacher obtained her father's permission for her to go to Church with her friend. Eventually her father returned to activity and her mother also joined the Church. Sister MacKay served a mission in Cardiff and Bristol, part of the then British Mission. She later married in the Church and was sealed in the temple; her husband, who had served as branch president in Dundee, died at the age of only 40 in 1981.

Sister MacKay came to these islands on vacation with friends as a widow when she met and later married native Donald John MacKay. They live far from the branch chapel in Luskentyre, western Harris. Sister MacKay realized that her husband was a talented weaver, often making his own designs and colors in the island tradition. She got him organized and they started a business that has prospered remarkably since. One day they received an order from Nike in Japan for 9,500 metres of cloth. They were sure it was a mistake and should have been 950 metres. On inquiry, the Japanese agreed that they had made a mistake — it should have been 95,000 metres of tweed.

There is little social activity in the remote villages; Sister McKay is grateful for the kindness of her non-member husband who faithfully brings her the hour-and-a-half journey to Church. "He loves coming to Church," she said. He participates in classes, reading scriptures.

Sister MacKay enjoys being part of the tiny Stornoway Branch. "It's a lovely little branch. The Church is like one big family wherever you go." Not letting opposition bother her, she observed that "when it's not easy, it's all the more important to hang onto the basic principles, like reading scriptures and offering prayers, and paying tithing." For many years she has servedserved on several community, charitable and trade organizations on the Isle of Harris.

Young Women president Annie MacDonald's sole young woman is Hannah Nelson, 12.
Young Women president Annie MacDonald's sole young woman is Hannah Nelson, 12. Photo: Photo by David MW Pickup

For an islander to join the Church is a courageous act. The strict religious tradition runs deep and continues to exert a subtle influence on the lives of the islanders. "There is great peer pressure for people not to have anything to do with the Church," explained President Shaw. Brother MacDonald explained,

Despite these challenges, many of the local members are natives of the islands Donald MacDonald said, "We have to depend on our testimony, very much so. Our testimony is our strength. The truth will stand."

"It is a religious Island," said Sister Shaw. "The members here are strong. They're at Church because they want to be." Sister Shaw thinks that because of the religious nature of the people it is easier to live the gospel. "There are not the distractions here that there are on the mainland. No one works on the Sabbath."

Another Stornoway stalwart is Katrina MacLeod, a member for 21 years converted by missionary labors on the island. After she went to Church the first time, her husband said he would not speak to her unless she promised never to go again. She refused and endured 10 months of silence before her husband's heart softened.

The change came after they had visited a relative who asked if she believed in God. "I know there is a God," began a four-hour discussion about the gospel. When they returned home, her husband said, "If I'd known you felt that strongly about it I would never have opposed you." He eventually invited the missionaries to teach him and he was baptized. All their five children have been raised in the Church and it is their two Aaronic Priesthood sons who pass the sacrament each Sunday.

Another native member is Annie MacDonald, the branch Young Women president. Sister MacDonald is a Gaelic-speaking native of Lewis and a convert of 18 years. "Though we're a wee branch, we're a strong branch. Don't the best things come in small packages? We are a small, close unit," she declared. Sister MacDonald has only one charge — Hannah Nelson, who at 12 has just joined Young Women. She considers the one-to-one care from Sister MacDonald a privilege. "I love the gospel," said Hannah. Although she and her brother are the only members in Sister MacDonald is also an elected councilor for the Lochs district of Lewis, one of only three women in the 31-member council. "People respect me for living gospel standards," she said.

Sister MacDonald senses a change in the attitude of islanders toward the Church. "Ten years ago it would have been impossible for a Church member to be elected to the Island Council. Things are changing." Still, she said, "It takes a lot of courage to walk through the chapel doors. Before a member joins there is phenomenal opposition through peer pressure. The faith of the members is tried and tested many times before they reach the waters of baptism. But when they make that decision to join, there is no turning back."

Despite the opposition, Sister MacDonald speaks fondly of her fellow islanders. "Differences of religion are secondary to the island bond. In times of crisis the whole island will pull together. They will back you to the hilt, irrespective of religion."

Elder John Wilson and Sister Elizabeth Wilson, from the Emu Plains Ward, Penrith Australia Stake, in New South Wales have been serving on the islands of Lewis and Harris for three months. "This is a really spiritual people," said Elder Wilson. "When you get to know them, they are really friendly." Elder and Sister Wilson work with less-active members as well as engage in proselytizing work. "There's a good prospect for the growth of the Church here. There are some good people on these islands."

Although a small unit of the Church and far from the mainland, the Stornoway members do not feel they're a long way from the Church. "We've got everything we require here, we don't miss anything major," said Sister MacDonald. The advent of new technology has been a boon to places such as Stornoway. With satellite they get live general conference sessions and recently joined thousands of other members watching the stake conference session broadcast from Preston with President Thomas S. Monson, first counselor in the First Presidency, and President Boyd K. Packer, acting president of the Quorum of the Twelve.

Branch members gather outside meetinghouse.
Branch members gather outside meetinghouse. Photo: Photo by David MW Pickup
Callanish I, tall, silvery Lewisian gneiss stones positioned in circle and in rows and dating back to 1800 B.C., stand near town of Stornoway.
Callanish I, tall, silvery Lewisian gneiss stones positioned in circle and in rows and dating back to 1800 B.C., stand near town of Stornoway. Photo: Photo by David MW Pickup
Among the branch's members are President Eric Shaw, a native of Yorkshire, and his wife, Dorothy Ann.  While life as a Latter-day Saint on the islands is not not easy, it has produced strong members.
Among the branch's members are President Eric Shaw, a native of Yorkshire, and his wife, Dorothy Ann. While life as a Latter-day Saint on the islands is not not easy, it has produced strong members. Photo: Photo by David MW Pickup
Tourists are beginning to enjoy recreation in Outer Hebrides, which has small villages of fishermen, croft farmers and weavers of Harris Tweed. "Though we're a wee branch, we're a strong branch," say branch members at Stornoway.
Tourists are beginning to enjoy recreation in Outer Hebrides, which has small villages of fishermen, croft farmers and weavers of Harris Tweed. "Though we're a wee branch, we're a strong branch," say branch members at Stornoway. Photo: Photo by David MW Pickup

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