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Banner in the West: A Spiritual History of Lewis and Harris

By John Macleod
June 2009 | Review by Dennis Hill


From the unfathomable Standing Stones of Callanish to the quiet dignity of Christian commitment, the people of Lewis and Harris have, for millennia, sought for eternal meaning through their struggles in a robust, stripping environment. Even today, as their Gaelic world is increasingly besieged by change, migration and the impact of the mass-media, their distinctive spirituality continues to fascinate a wider world. Today, the Long Island is, to many, Britain's 'last stronghold of the pure Gospel'; a place still defined by heartfelt religion – a community where, for instance, the threat of a Sabbath ferry service can still arouse considerable passion. In this sparkling account of island faith – from unknown, Megalithic builders to a war of Free Church schism waged on the Internet – award-winning journalist John MacLeod outlines the gripping religious history of this Hebridean community. This is a story that has never been related before, by any author, from the dawn of this island community to the present day – the tale of a people as indomitable as their landscape and a faith as profound as the Hebridean sea.

  • Publisher: Birlinn
  • ISBN: 978-1841587424
  • Pages: 288
  • Price: £5.30
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Book Review

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.

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