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September 18th, 2009
Fri, Sep. 18th, 2009 09:29 am

It's odd that Jonathan Meades' Off-Kilter series, three one-hour films about Scotland currently playing on BBC4 in the UK, doesn't make mention of Samuel Johnson's Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland, his 1775 account of a 1773 exploration of Scotland in the company of James Boswell. Or maybe it does mention it, and I just missed the reference?



Anyway, this week the parallel became even more clear, as Meades reached the Western Islands themselves. If Meades' Aberdeen programme was fascinating for me because I spent four years at the university there, this episode on the islands -- with its incredibly lyrical photography and sound -- stirred deep ancestral memories; up until my grandparents' parents' generation we were Gaelic-speaking, peat-digging islanders living on the isle of Mull. My mother is the author of one of the best history books about the island, Mull: The Island and its People.



The Wikipedia entry on Dr Johnson's Journey tells us that "Scotland was still a relatively wild place in 1773". Meades, who heads in this episode to Lewis and Harris, the "isles of rust", doesn't find slave ships or marauding privateers, but he does encounter wildness of behaviour (manic, unmeasured drinking on a Saturday, followed by fiercely Calvinistic Sundays in which everything is locked except the churches) and a wilderness of exquisitely minimalist nature.

In this film the light is constantly changing, the earth is porous like a sponge, the peat bogs contain paleolithic bodies and distant memories of appalling social injustice.



The extremities of landscape and climate breed strange religious fervour -- "sick men's dreams", in David Hume's view. These islands are full of extremist and "free" puritan churches where people sing, in massed, unaccompanied voices, wild pentatonic hymns. My own ancestors (up to my paternal grandfather and including some living cousins) were Plymouth Brethren, one of the sects empowered by the Disruption of 1843, a schism from the Church of Scotland which created "the wee frees".



In my own family history, the reason the corrupt and mainstream Church of Scotland had to be abandoned was that it allowed "publicans in the pews". On his deathbed, Grandpa Currie was still warning me of the dangers of two things, Catholicism and alcohol. He couldn't remember my name at that point, but he knew how to enumerate the evils that I should avoid, the things I should shun.



A decade or so later, when I married a Muslim, I felt that Grandpa Currie -- a sort of ayatollah or pseudo-Middle Eastern patriarch who travelled around the Highlands with a soap box doing eloquent lay preaching in a sonorous, soft voice -- might secretly, posthumously, understand. Not only were my muslim in-laws not Catholics, not only were they staunchly fundamentalist and literalist in their beliefs, but they renounced the demon drink, that peaty undermining of so many Scots.

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