For a minister of a church that has a reputation for being about as pious and dour as they come, the Rev Greg MacDonald is surprisingly upbeat. Not least for someone who is tasked with a fairly difficult undertaking – keeping his remote corner of Scotland stuck somewhere in the 1950s.
“There is disappointment and a genuine spiritual grief that people are being taken into a lifestyle that is not biblical,” the minister from the Free Church of Scotland (Continuing) quietly intones, standing amid a pile of religious placards in the centre of Stornoway. “The people passing us here need to know about our saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ.”
The people passing his lonely picket were the hundreds who had turned out for the first ever Pride march in the Western Isles, the island archipelago at the far north west of Scotland that remains a bastion of ultra-conservative Presbyterianism. History was made on Saturday as a large crowd of all ages gathered for the Pride celebration in Stornoway, which is the main town on the Isle of Lewis with a population of around 8,000.
Not everyone was happy. The various churches on the island – who are as famous for their splits as they are for their fundamentalism – seemed to be in competition for who could offer the most ferocious condemnation of the march. The Free Presbyterians reckoned it was “evil and defiling”, the Reformed Presbyterians an “act of hatred towards God”, and the Free Church (Continuing) denounced it as “sad and shameful”. While religious protestors maintained a low-key presence in the town centre that day, they claimed that 150 had attended a service the previous evening to pray for the marchers. More than twice that number would attend the Pride event.
The idea for Saturday’s march only originated a few weeks ago. It was partly a response to a church which is particularly strong on the island, the Free Church of Scotland (Continuing), kicking off about proposals for a Pride march in Inverness, which was also held on Saturday. A petition to the Highland Council from the so-called "Wee Frees" called for that march – Proud Ness – to be refused permission. In a classic of the angry man in local newspaper genre, the church even sent along a stern representative to pose outside the council offices holding his petition papers. Their bid was unsuccessful, but the uproar it provoked across the region was enough to start giving people in Stornoway ideas.
“I decided to put on an LGBT night because of this guy protesting about Proud Ness,” says Carl Easton, the manager of the Carlton Lounge pub in Stornoway. “At the same time, some people started up a Hebridean Pride page on Facebook. Within about three hours there was 150 people asking when the march was happening here. It just snowballed from there. This was testing the water as we’ve never done anything like this, at all, and we’ll be back even louder next year.”
The local MSP welcomed the Pride march, despite having voted against marriage equality a few years ago, citing the views of his constituents. Although not in attendance, the SNP’s Alasdair Allan said that an event like it “would probably not have been possible” on Lewis until very recently.
To say the culture wars had suddenly arrived in the Outer Hebrides would be disingenuous – they have been raging for years. Denominational differences aside, in terms of the Church's traditional hold over daily life, comparisons with Ireland aren’t entirely out of place. But like with their Celtic cousins over the sea who have recently voted to legalise abortion, that hold is loosening. The island airport has been running flights on the Sabbath for last 15 years and Sunday ferries have ran for nearly a decade, while the local arts centre even trialled film screenings on the holy day earlier this year. Predictably, all of these concessions to secularism/sin have faced varying degrees of protest. But while island life still largely comes to a halt on a Sunday, with shops and services shut and church attendance high, you get the feeling that the clock is ticking for the Church’s influence.
As if these encroachments on the sanctity of Sabbath were not terrible enough, even the local LGBTQ community are now affirming their existence in the Western Isles. By Saturday’s showing, they are not going to let a few naysayers get them down. For some members of the community, it was particularly poignant.
“I’ve had a couple of young people come up to me and tell me that they now have the confidence to go home and tell their parents who they are. That’s a huge thing for me,” said Ewan James Armstrong. As “The Duchess”, Armstrong is, at a guess, the first drag queen to hail from the Hebrides. “Growing up here was a nightmare. I hated every moment of my childhood and that’s the bit that’s sad, cause I can never get that back. This is not about going against the ‘older community’, but about educating people. LGBT people are never going to go away and never have been away – we have just lurked in the background.”
Having left the island over the decade ago and now based in Edinburgh, it was a triumphant return for the drag artist, who could barely move all day for the scores of excited teenagers queuing up for selfies. Are the young people of Lewis bigger fans of Lip Syncing for Your Life than they are of Gaelic Psalms, the island’s hauntingly intense form of congregational singing? You wouldn’t want to rule it out.
“It’s about raising awareness for those who are maybe doubting themselves and thinking it’s not the right environment to come out in. If they see this, they might be more encouraged to be themselves”, said Jane Nolan, marching with her family. She said she was proud to be attending the day with her 15-year-old son, Felix, who she said was the first young person to come out as trans at the secondary school on the island.
“I didn’t expect anyone to support me. But people have just kept it to themselves or been really nice about it,” Felix added. When his mum put an advert announcing his name change in the Stornoway Gazette, neighbours sent presents. The experience stands is contrast to those who’ve struggled in the past and is one sign of how much things are changing.
That a religious way of life is important to many in the Western Isles is not in doubt. But if it was ever the case that church leaders could claim to speak for the entire population, that has long since passed. It’s probably time that they get used to that, and make the islands a more accepting place for all.