The Early Days of a Better Nation

Monday, April 19, 2004

Islands, funerals, and the footnotes of Buckle

On Easter weekend Mrs Early and I took a cruise on the Maid of the Forth to Inchcolm Island. This island, a couple of hillocks joined by a short strip of strand, is in the middle of the Firth of Forth. Like all the other Inches it's cluttered with rusted and ruined fortifications from two World Wars (Inchgarvie and Inchmickery look like stone battleships, not coincidentally wasting more than one German bomb). It also has an abbey, which unlike most in this area is only partially demolished. Its lawns and garden, its cloisters and some of its rooms, are intact, and it's used for weddings. (All denominations and none - it belongs to the Scottish History trust, not to any of the churches.) It's fascinating to ramble and clamber around in. The chapter house, where the monks met daily for abbey business, is a polygonal structure with a stone vaulted roof, with stone benches around the walls and three arched seat-niches for the abbott, the prior and the sub-prior. Standing in the middle of the floor and imagining the monks lining the benches I realised what it reminded me off. 'It's a locker room!' I said. It probably smelled like one, too, when full of seldom washed men in often wet clothes.

The island's main pull, however, is its bird life and sea views, which you get to via pathways, stairways, tunnels and dangerous cliff edges. I saw my first puffins, a flock swimming in the sea, small birds with big triangular rainbow beaks that look as if they're held on with elastic, like clown noses. Lots of gulls, making ready to nest and already noisy in defence of their territories. A nearby rock, the Haystack, has a colony of seals, of which you can see a dozen or so at low tide.

I didn't read up the history, but the abbey's been there in one form or another for almost a thousand years, during half of which it was in use. What happened? Well, the Reformation happened. 'The best way tae prevent the black corbies fae returning,' said Knox, 'is tae pull doon their nests.'

In the third volume of Henry Thomas Buckle's Introduction to the History of Civilization in England he deals with Scotland. This was by way of comparison and contrast to (Vol 2) the history of Spain, which in turn was to point up the peculiarities of the history of France, which in its turn was to show how different it was from the (Vol 1) history of England, which was in Buckle's opinion the ideal country in which to observe the undisturbed and natural course of Civilization, what with its being an island and all (except for its attachment to Scotland and Wales, which introduced minor disturbing factors). So Buckle, in preparation for a scientific study of history, wrote in succession introductions to the history of England, France, Spain and Scotland, and - just when he was getting to what he thought was the main point - died. (In Damascus.) Bummer. But he left us one of the most entertaining and indeed enchanting hard-core rationalist and libertarian histories of these countries ever penned.

This is especially true of Scotland. Buckle sought to explain the paradox that the Scots were liberal in politics, and bigoted in religion. Loyalty, Buckle owned, was not one of their faults. 'The Scotch have made war upon most of their kings,' he wrote with barely concealed approval, 'and put to death many.' How were so rebellious a people so craven before their clergy? It was the association of the Church with, first the king against the nobles, and then the people against the king, that explained its ascendancy. That ascendancy, upon victory, it turned rapidly to a tyranny of its own, a spiritual Cheka complete with its very own people's courts, the Kirk Sessions.

The Scottish Presbyterian clergy of the seventeenth century did more to inculcate superstition, gloom, asceticism, fear of hell, and dread of evil spirits than perhaps any religious establishment outside of Spain or Tibet. Not even the Puritans, not even in their godly pomp during the Reign of the Saints, could hold a candle to the ministers of the Kirk. They told of themselves and each other self-serving miracle stories of the sort that, told elsewhere of Catholic saints, make Protestants scoff and Jesuits blush. (I myself have been in all sincerity shown the footprints of a renowned preacher from centuries past, still there in the top of a rock.) If a class of men is given power they will abuse it, Buckle said. 'The entire history of the world affords no instance to the contrary.'

It is no exaggeration to say that the reputation of the Scotch Kirk has never recovered from the merciless kicking it received from the footnotes of Buckle. And it is the footnotes you have to read: in his chapter on the seventeenth century their small print occupies more space than the main text, page after page. He trawled every hell-fire sermon, every seditious screed, every tormenting self-tormented twisting of the conscience of the elect, every relevant Act of the Parliament of Scotland, every witch trial and heresy hunt and ludicrous hagiography and miracle-mongering memoir, and came up with the goods. He documented the clergy's savage misanthropy and refuted it in a stirring defence and justification of physical pleasure and worldly gain that echoes that of Spinoza, and is all the more touching in that Buckle (again like Spinoza) was himself among the most abstemious and studious of men.

Buckle has a clear explanation of how the Scotch clergy gained their power, and how long they kept it, and how slowly they began to lose it, but he misses - or lived barely long enough to see - how they acquired, in the second half of the nineteenth century, a somewhat more liberal and enlightened hegemony. The Free Kirk's theological college - still called New College, on the Mound in Edinburgh - was the pioneer of German-influenced biblical criticism in the English-speaking world, and some of its clergy and laity (Hugh Miller, for instance) were intellectuals, patriots and philanthropists of the first degree. They did it by siding, once again, with the people.

The story is peculiar and contorted. The Highland clansfolk, smashed and demoralised by the post-Culloden culminating terrors of the Scottish Revolution-from-above (q.v.), lapsed from Episcopalianism or a nominal Presbyterianism almost into their ancient and never entirely abandoned paganism. They were re-evangelised and re-moralised by the Church of Scotland. In Ireland, after a later and greater catastrophe, another feckless Gaelic peasantry pulled themselves together in the Catholic church, and became in a generation or two the canny kulaks who defeated the British empire. The Scottish Gaels had a less fraught destiny. They stopped - or became remorseful about - their hard drinking and promiscuous dancing, and became respectable hard-working on-the-make Scots. (Not that the pagan trace has entirely departed. There's one island, to all appearances devout, of whose people I've heard a minister complain: '[These] folk are so heathen they're not even afraid of dying.') And strangely enough, they identified not with the contemporary Moderate, moralising, ministers of Enlightenment Scotland, but with the persecuted, radical, King-hating, bishop-stabbing hell-raising evangelists of the seventeenth-century conventicles. The Highland Presbyterians took as their heroes and saints people to whom the Highlanders were known only and hated as a terrorist and terrifying horde of lickspittle, servile, counter-revolutionary, savage, Papist, cattle-thieving, bare-arsed mujahedin.

Soon enough, the tame preachers of the capitalist landlords who had (often in the same person, or that of their sons) replaced the patriarchal petty-tyrant chieftains of the clans, came into conflict with those favoured by their tenants, tenants whom the aforementioned landlords were busy shipping to Canada (and earlier, the Indies) to replace with sheep. The popular preachers, for the most part, and to their credit be it said, stood with their congregations against the Clearances. Little worldly good this did them - the benefice was in the gift of the landlord, not the congregation. Hence the Great Disruption of 1843, over that very issue of patronage, which across the Highlands emptied the churches and manses of the Church of Scotland and filled those of the new Free Kirk.

('What do you understand by "the invisible church"?' a Free Kirk elder is said to have asked an aspirant to the communion. Came the hesitant reply: 'The Established Church?')

Predictably, as the century wore on, some of the fervent Highlanders began to call into question the liberal theological drift of the now hegemonic Free Church, and some few of them - a savoury remnant, as the old phrase goes - separated from it in 1893 to establish, with less than a handful of ministers, the Free Presbyterian Church.

In that church I was raised. It retains faint but discernible traces of some of the faults excoriated by Buckle, and has added a few more. It was also the first church in the British Isles to denounce apartheid, and the first whose secular head - its Moderator, an annual post - was a black man. The majority of its adherents are now African. There were not many fundamentalist denominations in the white world of the 1960s where (literally) red-necked farmers listened with reverence to a black reverend from Zimbabwe (I still remember staring at the holes in his earlobes) or to an English Jewish convert, enthusiastically and knowledgeably expounding the Hebrew text that underlies King James.

Last week I attended the funeral of a relative of mine, a member of that church, in Skye. The rain was terrible. The church was packed. There was no sermon, only a singing of the 23rd Psalm, and two prayers. It is a peculiarity of that peculiar people that they have no funeral service; there is a dread of even the appearance of prayers for the dead, that Papist innovation. So the worship on the day of the funeral does not mention the deceased by name; the coffin stays outside, in the hearse, in the rain; and at the graveside the minister does not pray. The burial was miles away, in Glendale. A slow procession of cars followed the hearse. On the hillside above the cemetery is a memorial to 'the Glendale martyrs', one of whom - John MacPherson - was an ancestor of the woman we buried. His sword is in her attic. Another of the 'martyrs' was a minister. These men were arrested and jailed for leading a confrontation of 600 Skye crofters with the Sheriff's men who had come to enforce an eviction. Their victory is visible in the houses and crofts that still spread across the hills of the glen and the dale.

There have been moments when I thought my family's funerals resembled the Mafia's as depicted in movies. Businessmen in black suits, conferring quietly, smoking by their big cars outside the graveyard. This time, standing in the mud outside the drystone wall, on the land our fathers fought for, I was suddenly reminded of pictures of funerals on another island not far away. The religion and politics could hardly be more different, but something in the shape of the faces and the landscape was the same, and the same rain.

For his great, long, flawed poem Island Funeral Hugh MacDiarmid stole an entire chunk of text word for word from Haldane's essay on materialism. I have no compunction in stealing it back:
Yet if the nature of the mind is determined
by that of the body, as I believe,
It follows that every type of human mind
Has existed an infinite number of times
And will do so. Materialism promises something
Hardly to be distinguished from eternal life.
Minds or souls with the properties I love
- The minds or souls of these old islanders -
Have existed during an eternal time in the past
And will exist for an eternal time in the future.
A time broken up of course
By enormous intervals of non-existence
But an infinite time.
I don't believe that, either, but not to believe is not the same as to scoff.


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