Wednesday, 21 December 2005

Civil partnerships, the Western Isles, and perceptions of society

Unfortunately, the Western Isles often makes an appearance in some sections of the media for negative reasons. This week it’s no exception.

Civil partnerships.

Here, the registrars are refusing to carry out the ceremonies associated with registering a civil partnership. Though, the partnership legalistics are still being carried out for anyone who wants them. Cue the black hats / white hats approach in select media: "They're all an extreme bunch of people living on some islands in an extreme location". Do a google search and a whole mass of articles and websites appear, though most appear to reference the same article in The Scotsman.

The truth, not surprisingly, is a lot more complex.

The various strands of Christian faith do have a stronger "influence" here than in any other part of the UK, though this "influence" is comparable to some parts of rural Scandinavia. "Influence" itself is probably not the right word. To put it another way; the relationship between the churches, the perceived and actual "traditional" ways of life and the social structure is more fuzzy, complex and less clear-cut than it is on the mainland.

However, the implication that "everyone is of one mind and that mind is closed" is twaddle. Example. Recently, a spiritualist healer on Berneray held a healing event on the island. A lot of people turned up, creating possibly the first traffic jam ever on the island. Was there a protest or a picket outside? No. Hence, no report in the media. Lack of controversy = lack of sales of newspapers.

Yes, there were a few letters in a local newspaper. However, these were swiftly rebutted by other people. Some churchgoers didn't like it but they didn’t interfere, and were and are still friendly, sociable and helpful to the spiritualist healer.

Back to those letters – this is the problem, which plays into the hands of lazy journalism. State an extreme position, and it is easy to rent-a-bigot who is happy to be interviewed spouting extremist stuff, thus giving the position extra gravitas. My experience of living in a number of communities around the UK is that bigots and extremists aren't found in just the Western Isles – every community, without exception, has a few. They usually pop up in parish or community council meetings, or writing letters to local newspapers that wouldn’t be accepted in more mainstream publications. In Scotland, after much (too much) experience, I've come to believe that well-meaning community councils in particular unfortunately attract these people, like iron filings to a magnet.

On the mainland, these tend to be isolated individuals. Here, they are a bit more organised, and can use social and family networks to achieve a higher profile. That still doesn't mean that their views are representative of the population as a whole; far from it.

In addition, the relative ecumenical profile of the Outer Hebrides does attract people who think it will be a more 'fertile' ground for their brand of fundamentalism. An example was the last general election, where one of the candidates here was a charismatic chap called James George Hargreaves. I found him an okay and friendly chap to speak to on the phone, though we didn’t really touch on fundamental issues. The point was – he chose this particular parliamentary seat to contest because it had the best chance of success - as you can see, it's not exactly the closest seat to his home location. And, this kind of person are more media-savvy.

It is here that a perception problem may lie. There is a stronger peer-pressure amongst some parts of local society to conform more to the traditional or "no change" line. This is quite possibly what is happening with some of the registrars and council people; they don't mind the concept of civil partnerships and quite possibly welcome it, but within their social or work network there can be problems in saying this.

Some balance. Most (in fact, nearly all) of the churchgoers here – that I've spoken to – are open minded, moderate, friendly, sociable and helpful people. The Scotsman quote:

Work which may be done on Sunday must fall into the "works of necessity and mercy" definition, which allows churchgoers to be nurses, firefighters or coastguards, but not to open shops, play football or watch television. a prime example of taking an unusual situation and exaggerating it till it becomes untrue. Most people – and that includes churchgoers – watch TV on a Sunday. Contrary to popular belief, many people (including churchgoers) do hang out their washing on a Sunday, socialise with other people, and do various fun things. The Internet is heavily used then; the peaks and troughs from hourly hit charts for Sundays indicate that churchgoers are looking at our website between services on the Sabbath. (And on that point, the church elders have been very supportive and helpful with things Internet and website here on Berneray).

A few blogs have concluded that this must be a miserable place to live because of the civil partnership issue. Extrapolating something absurd from a misrepresentative article, without checking out the facts or even visiting the place, is particularly weak. I live here, and can tell you that it's anything but miserable. Yes, it isn't perfect, and there are a few miserable buggers here, but that goes for everywhere. But I live on an island that has no pollution, no crime, no traffic, a high standard of living, stunning scenery that pictures don't do justice to, and a real community where people – even with very different beliefs and practises – are friendly, sociable and helpful. The locals often have a very self-deprecating humour that is possibly lost without local knowledge.

And that, I suspect, is a prime reason why this area is often slagged off in a few specific parts of the media: jealousy and resentment. Some people cannot stand the fact that someone else lives in a better place than them, and they can't handle it. I've met a few of these people; best summed up by "bitter and boring".

Don't take my word for it – or that of anyone else, or any story you've read in the press. Visit for yourself. See the islands. Speak to the people. Socialise. Form your own opinion from your own experience. Or just read the odd article or watch the odd news report featuring rent-a-bigot, be happy to be misinformed, and stay ignorant. It's your choice.

So here's the challenge to the wider media. Carry out a survey of the views of Western Isles residents. Do it on a one-to-one, rather than group, basis in order to protect privacy and remove any social peer pressure. See what residents really, honestly, think about issues such as civil partnerships, equality, religious and spiritual issues, society, the family and the like. And I'll bet my last bag of peat that the overall picture is a lot closer to that of the mainland and other western European countries than the "Everyone's a miserable bigot" model.


  1. Excellent post. Well thought out with plenty of common sense thrown in as well. I agree friction sells and wish it were otherwise. On this side of the pond, unfortunately, we have more than just the occasional crackpot, hatemonger. We have entire regions of this country where they seem to thrive, and the voice of reason is the odd man out. I know this from living in those regions. Glad you live in such a lovely area.

  2. thanks for the link to this. very well put. had to go back to my post to see what i had written and i see that i was a bit cack handed about it. i was impressed by the bod who was speaking for the council who in essence said it is our duty to do the registering, it is not for us to do a flash ceremony and that is the responsibility of people involved. you paint a lovely picture of the region. oddly most of things you mention scare me. at heart i am too much of a city boy. but i shall be coming back to see more of the blog.