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Last Updated: Monday, 10 April 2006, 06:30 GMT 07:30 UK
'No going back' for island ferry
By Huw Williams
BBC News

Protesters made their views known about the service
The tradition of observing Sunday as a day of rest in the Hebridean islands of Lewis and Harris may be about to change forever.

Churches say a new seven days a week ferry service across the Sound of Harris tramples over their faith, and they don't want it.

But others in the Western Isles argue that they should be able to travel wherever and whenever they want. The BBC's Huw Williams reports from the Outer Hebrides.

Rumours travel fast in island communities. Someone told me there had been a big demand from South Harris for posters promoting the Sabbath.

So, since a nod is as good as a wink, I was out at 10 o'clock on Saturday night, looking for people putting them up along the road to Leverburgh harbour. Once or twice I thought I was on to them, but eventually I gave up and went back to the bed and breakfast to sleep.

Early on Sunday morning, once I'd scraped thick unseasonal snow off the car and eaten a hearty cooked breakfast, I was back at the harbour. And, sure enough, there they were. Bright yellow posters, urging anyone driving to or from the ferry slipway to "Remember the Sabbath day". And at the slipway itself, tapes strung across the road - like police scenes of crime tape. Again bright yellow, with the warning "Caution keep out".

No disruptions

Someone had been out in the dead of night, putting out these silent rebukes.

They must have been from the island's churches. They must have done it after I went to bed. And they must have done it before midnight, because the whole point of the campaign against seven days a week ferry sailings is that Sunday is supposed to be a day of quiet and rest.

No work, only worship.

But any thoughts that the snow might stop the ferry from sailing were soon proved wrong. The Caledonian MacBrayne service line reported "no disruptions" on the Berneray to Leverburgh route.

The service links Berneray and Leverburgh

Just before 10 o'clock on Sunday morning a little piece of Hebridean history was made. The Loch Portain eased its way up to the slipway, lowered its ramp, and a few cars and slightly more foot passengers arrived in Harris on Sunday.

And not just any old Sunday. The Free Presbyterian church that overlooks Leverburgh harbour was celebrating one of its six-monthly communions. That added insult to injury.

"Given that the people travelling on that ferry must have a certain anti-Christian Sabbath mentality", the Reverend Andrew Coghill told me, "it's really the equivalent of driving a convoy of BNP supporters past a mosque in the middle of Ramadan." That, he said, would never be allowed to happen.

Mr Coghill speaks for the Lord's Day Observance Society. "As a Christian organisation we would say we were born again," he added.

"But we certainly weren't born yesterday... if we had been any other religious minority the government would be moving heaven and earth to make sure that our religious sensitivities weren't trampled over."

Day of rest

But he, and others on his side of the debate, are quite happy to spin the discussion, in an attempt to engage with people who don't necessarily take the Bible as the final authority.

Councillor Morag Munro lives just outside Leverburgh. On her croft, she told me she thought anyone would appreciate having a day set aside as a special day of rest.

"Would you not like to have one special day which you can share with your family and friends, when you can put off the pressures of work, the stress and the targets?" she asked.

Rather than us following the rest of the country, the rest of the country should follow us
Councillor Morag Munro

"Do you not think that would be a good thing for the health of the nation?"

Other people talked about the fear that Sunday sailings might damage - rather than enhance - the islands' tourism industry. If they become more like mainland Scotland, the argument runs, then the visitors might not come any more.

When Sunday flights into Stornoway Airport started, some of the Christian protestors were happy to speak about them as a form of "cultural imperialism".

And the same theme was echoed this time round. There's bemusement - why can't Lewis and Harris be allowed to be different from the rest of Scotland, the rest of the UK, if they want to be?

And there's no acceptance that the issue of Sabbath observance is a lost cause. "What I would like to promote", Cllr Munro told me, "is that rather than us following the rest of the country, the rest of the country should follow us."

Yellow tape was strung across the road at the slipway

The ferry company, CalMac, chose not to comment on the rights and wrongs of the protest.

On the quayside at Leverburgh, once the tapes had been cut to allow cars to move freely onto and off the boat, company spokesman Hugh Dan Maclennan told me that people had the right to make their point of view known.

But, he said, the company was responding to public demand. This, he said, is a life-line service, and people want to be able to travel up and down the whole of the Western Isles whenever they need to.

Every generalisation about this story is probably wrong.

It's not about church people versus non-church people. There are plenty of non-Christians who appreciate the unique Sunday you get in the Hebrides.

But I suspect there are also some Christians who wouldn't be quite so hard-line on this issue as their leaders are.

Wait and watch

And it's not even about Lewis and Harris versus Berneray and the Uists. Even if there's more public support for the Sunday sailings the further south you go, there are people on both sides of the argument on both sides of the Sound of Harris.

We'll all have to wait, and watch, and see whether the islands change irrevocably now that Sunday sailings have started.

But if they do, one young Free Church member told me, it'll be too late. She said she feared that many who were happy to see traditional Sundays disappear would only realise how much they missed them after they'd gone.

But then, she said, it would be too late.

Sunday ferry makes first sailing
09 Apr 06 |  Scotland
Sunday ferry service start date
03 Apr 06 |  Scotland
Sunday ferry splits communities
30 Mar 06 |  Scotland
Airport hails Sabbath flights
26 Oct 03 |  Scotland

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