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Review – Banner in the West – John MacLeod – Birlinn Limited

June 2009 | by Dennis Hill

Banner in the West


John MacLeod

Birlinn Limited; 398 pages; £25.00; ISBN: 978-1-84158 742-4


The author traces the spiritual history of the island of Lewis and Harris, off the north-west coast of Scotland. There’s something intriguing about the ‘Long island’, its people and its spiritual history. Mr MacLeod is a son of the manse, a resident of the island since 1993 and an award-winning journalist.

     Celtic Christianity was introduced to Lewis and Harris by way of Ireland before Columba set foot there in the 6th century, probably first through migration. Nevertheless, by 1800 the island was almost entirely pagan. But, by 1850 the island had been transformed by evangelical revival.

     Mr MacLeod sets out three questions in the first chapter – Why did this happen? How did this happen? And, most compelling, what explains the survival of that evangelicalism today, to such an extent, while much of the rest of Britain is morphing into post-Christian paganism?

     He had already received one answer when he asked his father, Prof. Donald MacLeod, when he was a boy, ‘Daddy, why does everyone go to church here, when they don’t in Glasgow?’ ‘Because, John, the gospel was so late in coming to Lewis, and therefore it is late in leaving’.

     Well-researched early chapters cover the ‘Celtic Church’ and the later Viking invasions, which threatened the survival of the Gaelic language and Christianity itself in the Western Isles. The number of names mentioned throughout the book was such that I had a hard time keeping them straight (32 Morrisons, 35 MacDonalds, 73 MacLeods, etc). The book is also full of anecdotes about some of the major and minor players in the island’s spiritual history. Mr MacLeod is a good storyteller and some of these are hilarious.

     The author warns us in the beginning that he has opinions and he will be blunt at times. He is true to his word! But, he withholds comment on the most recent ‘painful’ controversies involving the Free Church, understandably, being ‘too close a spectator’.

     Towards the end of the book he tells of Mrs Malcolm MacAulay (1820-1913). During her lifetime, the island went from near total paganism at her birth to a massive Christian presence by the time of her wedding, and then finally to a more fractured but still dominant Christianity at her death. It is a fascinating story.

     The book holds a strange attraction. A good writer, he loves his subject and so he makes you love it too. A very worthwhile read.

Dennis Hill