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Monday, 28 October, 2002, 11:22 GMT
Plane talking over Sabbath flights
About 60 protesters greeted the first flight

The first scheduled Sunday flights into Stornoway on the Isle of Lewis touched down at the weekend. The move has stirred up controversy in a Hebridean island where the Sabbath has traditionally been strictly observed.

Two people I met on Lewis over the weekend sum up this story for me.

One is a young offshore oil worker from Stornoway who was delighted that Sunday flights are starting.

"I either miss out on contracts, or I get the work but don't get to see my family," he said as we stood chatting in the airport terminal building.

His problem was that he had to choose between travelling to a new job or going home and becoming stuck because he could not get off the island.

Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy

Exodus Chapter 20

Flights on a Sunday now mean he can do both.

The other is a minister in the Free Church (Continuing), who told me "Every Sunday afternoon from now on as I sit in my study, I'll hear the planes coming in."

He was not complaining about noise pollution. Hearing that sound, he said, would be "a pain to my soul".

Then he shook his head sadly and said: "I expect we'll get used to it."

But you could tell by the look on his face that he hated the idea of getting used to something which was an offence to his faith.

Passenger getting off the plane
The first flight arrived on Sunday
BBC reporters do not usually take Bibles with them on outside broadcast assignments. No doubt many think that we would do a better job if we did. Certainly, for this job it was essential.

It is certainly there, in black and white, in the book of Exodus. Chapter 20, verses eight, nine and 10, to be specific.

"Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days shalt thou labour, and do all thy work: but the seventh day is the Sabbath."

For the ministers and congregations of Lewis's Free Churches, that settles the matter. Scriptural authority justifies outlawing much that now passes for normal on a Sunday in the mainland.

The shops, petrol stations, most of the pubs, and nearly all the other businesses on the island stay resolutely closed.

God's law

It is only a matter of a few years, so the story goes, since even the swings were padlocked up in the council-run playground.

If you are against murder, adultery, stealing or coveting of thy neighbour's ox, they argue, you must be in favour of keeping Sunday special as well - because you cannot pick and choose.

It's all God's law. Break one bit of it and you might as well break all of it.

That is why around 60 churchgoers - including my friend from the Free Church (Continuing) - were out on Sunday afternoon, standing in dignified silence, to register their public disapproval of the first Sunday flight.

Many people in Lewis and Harris want the option of travelling on a Sunday

Scott Grier
Standing behind their home-made banner, they gave out leaflets to passengers turning up for the plane.

The tracts explained their claim that travelling on Sundays is a sin that not only damages the soul of the sinner, but will also destroy the life of the island.

They argue that Sunday flights will mean the Sunday papers coming in, so the shops and petrol stations will have to open. That puts pressure on supermarkets to open in competition.

They will need trucks to bring in supplies, which means the ferries will have to run... and then the traditional Sabbath will have disappeared from Lewis, just like it already has across the rest of the Highlands and islands of Scotland.

And there is a moral dimension, too.

Take away a day that reminds everyone of God, the churchmen and women argue, and you lose the "fear of the Lord".

Silent majority

That will mean more public sin, debauchery, and more of the kind of loose living that also passes for normal on the mainland.

On the other hand, the companies behind the flights - Loganair and Highlands and Islands Airports - say they are meeting the demand from the silent majority of Lewis people, who want to be able to travel freely, seven days a week.

Scott Grier, from Loganair, told me that those who worry about Sunday flights destroying everything that makes Lewis special are plain wrong.

"Those who have observed Sundays up till now will continue to observe Sundays in the way they've always done", he said.

Sunday ferry protest
Attempts to introduce a Sunday ferry were blocked
"But we know from all the research, and all the letters of support, that many people in Lewis and Harris want the option of travelling on a Sunday."

In addition, he said, having the flights available will be good for tourism, and for local businesses.

So, how do you decide? Do you meet the needs of the oil worker who wants to get contracts and see his family? Or does he have to suffer, to satisfy the requirements of the minister's faith?

On one side of the debate is the woman who turned up at the airport to celebrate the flight coming in because four years ago she had been trapped on Lewis on a Sunday, unable to travel to see her brother who was dying of a cerebral haemorrhage.

On the other side is the elderly man almost in tears as he joined the protestors outside the terminal building in singing Psalm 46, to try and drown out the noise of the engines, as the plane took off.

The one argument that really surprised me came from the Reverend Andrew Coghill, the spokesman for the Lords Day Observance Society on Lewis.

Living lives

He said that much of the case for Sunday flights could be boiled down to the assumption that, since this is the 21st century, of course there must be flights seven days a week.

He told me he found that patronising.

"How we live our lives here, in the 21st century, will not necessarily be the same as how people live their lives in Glasgow or Edinburgh, or wherever," he said.

"What people are really saying is that you in Lewis should be living your lives like the rest of us."

Religious text

Sunday flights as cultural imperialism? That I had not expected.

The problem is, of course, that it is a two-edged sword.

The non churchgoers of Lewis might well ask what right ministers have to stop them living the lives they want.

So, in the end, it comes back to Exodus Chapter 20. Ancient, irrelevant, religious text? Or the Maker's instructions?

See also:

27 Oct 02 | Scotland
13 Sep 02 | Scotland
16 Jul 02 | Scotland
16 Mar 00 | Scotland
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