Finlay Macleod and Murdo Macleod, photographer, at Faclan 2017

Chasms and bridges. That’s what Dr Finlay Macleod and I talked about when we met on Wednesday September 13 September at his home in Shawbost (writes EVENTS editor Fred Silver).

Chasms and bridges. I don’t think the words were actually spoken. But looking back over his 80 years, it was both the huge changes and the surviving links in time, place, tradition and society which dominated our conversation.

Chasms that exist between his childhood in Adabrock, and the social-media driven world of today’s youngsters; the vast gap that exists between his early decades in a sophisticated, largely oral culture and today’s flippant 140 character summations of global policy; and the huge difference which he recalls between his Gaelic childhood outside the school walls, and the rigid, authoritarian English-language structure that existed in the classroom.

But great links survive. People’s appreciation for Finlay was vividly demonstrated only a few days before our meeting at a Blas Festival event in An Lanntair Arts Centre in Stornoway on Friday September 8th. Then Finlay literally took centre-stage before a packed house amid an array of singers, musicians and poets for an event to commemorate his 80th birthday.

And back in June, at the memorial event for his friend Michael Robson, Finlay praised Michael’s many achievements, explaining the past to the present. Finlay recalled how he had first come across Michael because of a scholarly paper on the birds of Rona. They then met in the early 1970s – and Michael was intrigued by Finlay’s family connections with Rona, themselves a subject which Finlay has pursued.

Before our interview, Finlay had insisted this article should not be about him – but the event at An Lanntair showed this was another potential chasm for me to bridge: while the audience had obviously stood to applaud his lifelong commitment to his causes, they were surely there in admiration of the man himself, of a Gael and a polymath who still stands clear-eyed analysing the world around him and linking it back to decades long past.

And, of course, there is the well-known chasm that has exists between Finlay and the dominant Church-controlled culture that suffused the island of his childhood and still exerts a lesser influence today.

But where did it all start for him? Finlay recalls his childhood in a very different world, with almost no telephones in the village and very few radios, too. His childhood was dominated by the Second World War and there was still constant news from the world beyond but it was brought back in person by the local people travelling the world with the Merchant Navy and also in the armed forces.

“The place has always had to be outward looking.” The news from outside came back with people who were working away “and because of that, it was much more real, more personal.” There seemed to be a huge gap between this and the knowledge being imparted at the school.

Crucial was the importance of the family in local communities and also of institutions that came to the Islands in the 19th Century – the State schools and the Church as we understand it today. Looking back he looks at the “the school…it’s strangeness, it being so very different from the life of the community and the lives of children growing up.” This was an institution that paid no heed to the community in which it was situated and which was dominated by a few textbooks from faraway publishers.

Finlay said you would expect that schools would build on the experience of their pupils, enrich their existing knowledge, but instead they created an alternative reality and their strong mechanism was compulsion. This was very different from the community outside where Finlay says he cannot recall any physical punishment being used in his family and or in the wider community.

There was so much communal work involving both the parents that children were largely left to their own devices, but he recalls you were known to so many, your family was known to so many people and that gave a huge sense of belonging, of rootedness, and this created a social control because each family was known so widely in the community.

Looking back at Saturdays when he was “a growing boy”, Finlay recalls the days would have involved some work, maybe tending the cow or cows; bringing water from the well; if the family was going to the peats, he might go with them to help; and inshore fishing was very prevalent, too. So a young boy led a very busy life, and if you contrast that with being ‘tied down in school”, the contrasting experiences were very remarkable.   “It’s amazing how children got used to it and took it for granted, that that’s what your life was.”   And then there was the language difference. “There was no English spoken outside the school gates at all.” Inside the school, there were “never-ending English exercises to try to instil in the children an ability to be able to read, write and understand English.” But because quiet was maintained in the school, “you weren’t really experiencing spoken English.” There was also no drama, no movement, no dance, nothing to give a sense of body concept…

When he came back to work in education, he was interested in trying to ensure that the education which children received, related to the communities in which they were situated. He started writing Gaelic books himself to help this process, including the first Gaelic children’s book published by Acair, the publishing company now celebrating its 40th year which he was involved in founding. He was also part of the original group that established An Lanntair Arts Centre and is credited with choosing the name.

Looking back, Finlay sees a huge change in the social context of children. Now in much smaller families – and with far fewer families plus a greater mixture of people not brought up in the communities – they are exposed to an international world in a way inconceivable in the past – with the impact of globalisation of social media, the use of one mid-Atlantic English, and the dominance of “these massive institutions” such Google, Facebook and Amazon.

“Ever since (the mass media) has made contact with indigenous communities anywhere, there tends to be a sameness, a lack of diversity and that has accentuated. Exponentially, so that now children from a young age, wherever they are in the Western world or elsewhere, tend to be tied into, physically and metaphorically, social media, and entertainment of all kinds in the one homogeneous mid-Atlantic English so that cultural diversity of kind, not just language” tends to disappear.  

And here another gap appears. “The older you are, the less you are attuned to this new international information source.”

In his formative years, there was very little access to books outside of school – there was no local library available, people went to Stornoway perhaps once a year “and not to the library.” Newspapers available were usually the Daily Express and the Sunday Post, while Finlay learned to read for enjoyment mainly with the comics. “I was born in the same year as The Dandy.” Then there was The Hotspur…”all these wonderful DC Thomson publications, that’s really how I learned to read with enjoyment instead of it being just a vacuous school exercise.”

Looking at the Church which such an influence around him in childhood, Finlay says that: “its influence in society has lessened dramatically.” In “my youthful days” rural Lewis was “virtually a theocracy…its influence in my early days permeated everything.”

He recalls the conversions of classmates and their families and says he was fortunate to have seen the impact of the last major revivals on Lewis around 1950 on families and school-friends. “Sometimes half a dozen on the same day would have had the experience, the epiphany, of experiencing Christ and becoming Christians. The churches were full and people went in lorries to hear these evangelists who were very effective.”

This brought up another gap. Finlay remarked that if I had Gaelic, he could still recall and imitate the Gaelic delivery of one of these preachers, reminding me that he comes from an era where words were often recorded in the mind, rather than on paper, and that there is a paradox that an English-born journalist, with only a very rudimentary knowledge of Gaelic, is attempting to explain in English about a Gaelic-speaking community.

But there were other influences arriving. Two innovations that surfaced in his youth meant a lot to him. “The Highlands and Islands Film Guild came with their fortnightly films and these were a wonderful new opening on the world. I couldn't get enough of them - Betty Grable and Ava Gardner had arrived in Adabrock.

“The second enjoyable and subversive post-war arrival was the 'bothan' – my secular, community, nightly seminar; precious peer-learning.”

And he adds, “through my adult life my two prostheses have been Darwin and Freud; I continue to go back to them and still find them an inspiration and a comfort; these two old beardies!”

And he remarks, with a smile, his good friend the writer Alastair McIntosh refers to him as his Darwinian Druid and his Spiritual Atheist.

He recalls the influence of Sabbatarianism on the local community in his young days, affecting everyone. No one in his family was allowed to walk outside, to go to the shore, to read comics – newspapers were concealed under cushions. “Children were confined.” People walked to church – vehicles did not move on a Sunday. This all started me asking: “Why is this?”

He sees the churches now as “hanging on desperately to the last vestiges of Sabbatarianism” which he sees as exemplified by the issue of a “small swimming pool” in Stornoway opening on a Sunday.

Looking at the current concerns over falling population on the Islands, he says you have to look at that in the context of the great attractions of city life, the anonymity of the city, the diversity available there, the varied interest groups, “all that attracts youngsters.” The anonymity of the city is “very attractive if you are finding your own feet.” Rural areas everywhere face the same difficulty.

Looking at present life, he contrasts the vast “levelling effect” of the international social media with the influence of any previous institution.

Looking ahead, he looks with concern at the loss of cultural diversity, the impact of climate change, the loss of environmental diversity – such as the recent 50 per cent fall in the numbers of sparrows – and, “if that wasn’t enough, the thought of Trump’s finger on a nuclear button. You have multi-layered areas of concern. “

After having cancer six years ago, Finlay now focuses on family, friends and the richness of books in his daily life. Which has some great links to where it all started.