Fiona MacDonald interviews Rev Professor Murdo Ewen Macdonald – Church of Scotland minister, theologian, and ex-commando. He was born in 1914 in Drinishader in the Bays area of Harris. The Presbyterian islands of the Outer Hebrides are renowned for their deeply fundamental religion, but Professor Macdonald admits happily to a radical theology at odds with such a faith. Heavens, he makes jokes in church. We talked about the influences on his life…
It was a nice community to be brought up in. There was a strong community sense and though there wasn't much money, the importance attached to education by parents, who themselves were not highly educated, was immense.
There's still a strong sense of community in Lewis and Harris. It's demonstrated at weddings and funerals. At funerals the whole community turns out. The same at weddings.
First there is a rèiteach beag
when a wedding is to take place – the small gathering for the nephews and nieces and brothers and sisters, and others in the immediate family. Then there will be the rèiteach mòr
– that's for a bigger group. It includes intimate relatives but the rèiteach mòr
includes people who are not related to you at all but are friends and neighbours. Then [on the day of the marriage] there's the banais
– that's for the whole community. And that still happens in Lewis and Harris. Oh, it's a very old tradition and it's very meaningful.
The community sense is not as strong as it used to be. The ceilidh has gone pretty well. It was very important when I was a boy. There were a number of homes where people would gather every night. Ours was one of them – my grandfather was a very amusing fellow. And the next croft – oh, it was a very popular ceilidh house. Christina Macdonald, a spinster, lived there. And there was another ceilidh house in the next village.
They were crowded every night.
Sometimes the talk would be about old songs and who composed them. Sometimes there were stories – maybe not all of them accurate but they were good stories about old characters.
I'll give you one example.
A fellow called Duncan Martin – he was a giant physically. And gentle. Absolutely gentle and good natured. And he held the floor this night.
In the village of Scadabay – the next village to ours – they had a schooner that took herring to Archangel in Russia, and they brought back wheat and something else. And even before communist days, the Russians were spy conscious. And they imprisoned the crew of this schooner. Duncan was only about 19 at the time and he was among them. The giant. And the Russians started trying to get information from them, and they chose the most fragile of the crew. He was a young boy of 18 and he was slender and not very strong. A relative of Duncan's. Alasdair. Alasdair Martin. And they started pushing him around and knocking him about.
The rest of the crew turned round to Duncan and said, 'Duncan, you're the strongest man in the Outer Hebrides. Now, you take care of that thug the next time he comes in.'
Duncan was a gentle soul and said, 'Ah now, I've never raised my hand to man nor beast.'
That was typical of him.
But next day the thug came in and he knocked young Alasdair unconscious. And that was enough for Duncan.
'So,' Duncan said in his gentle way as he told the story this night, 'I stood up. I walked over to the Russian. I took a hold of his two wrists and we swayed back and forth and I heard a brag
[crack] and I knew I had broken his wrists. And he went out the door with his arms hanging limp by his sides.'
And that was the end of the story. Dramatic. He took his time telling it.
Oh, it could be very dramatic.
There'd be a core of people who would be in the same house every night. But new people would come in and it was very intriguing listening to the stories. Politics could be discussed too. Though they weren't highly educated, they were very interested in politics and they could discuss politics very intelligently. And then they might get somebody to sing a song. It varied.
But the media were taking over by the end of the 30s and by the time I came back from the war in 1945, the ceilidh was on the way out. And that weakened the strong sense of community that existed traditionally. But oh, the sense of the community is still there. We have to visit everywhere when we go home. Every house. They're hurt if you don't. Really hurt. So when we go home we trot from house to house.
My basic discipline is philosophy. I don't claim to a Damascus road experience [in his faith] but the nearest I've ever come to it was in the philosophy class at St Andrews University. The lecturer was expounding the philosophy of John Stuart Mill and this sentence leapt up and it nearly knocked me out, and it was a tremendous influence on me. This is the sentence: I can only believe in a God who is better than myself.
It's a terrific sentence.
I began to question the fundamentalist God. I remember walking from the classroom to my digs and by the time I got inside, I'd got rid of the fundamentalist God.
I remember a television thing I was on, and it was on the question of AIDS. Cardinal Winning was the Roman Catholic representative. I was representing the Church of Scotland. Somebody else the Baptist church. Somebody the Episcopalian church. And there were a few fundamentalists there. It was a convention.
And the fundamentalists got up and this was their line: It's a judgement from God. He has lost his temper. He's put up with our sinfulness and now he's going to punish us…
So I got up and I said, 'I'm deeply shocked by what you are saying. Your God – the one you proclaim and profess to believe in – is a cosmic, mindless, immoral idiot. And as far as your bloody God is concerned I am an atheist and I'm proud of it!'
I was brought up in the United Free Church, which went out of existence in 1929 – it joined with the established church to become the Church of Scotland. My formative years were with the United Free Church; but it was an intelligent church. It produced what I would call intelligent evangelicals.
I am amazed at that God which is proclaimed from some pulpits. How they don't see through that… The people that are proclaiming Him are better than the one they are proclaiming.
I've been asked to write a book on fundamentalism, which I think is a great evil. I'm very tempted to do it, and my thesis would be: let's get rid of this mistake that fundamentalism is a purely religious phenomenon. It has a religious expression, but there are also political fundamentalists on the far right or the far left. There are philosophical fundamentalists. There are psychological fundamentalists – behaviourists, for example. There are atheistic fundamentalists – they are so sure that there is no God, they can't live with the question mark that there might be one, even in a universe as complex as ours.
Though! I've known evangelicals from all over the world – from Canada, Australia, English ones – and the Gaelic-speaking evangelicals are much more 'earthy' than the ones from elsewhere. My father was a good example of that. He was quite a pious man, and yet he was earthy in his stories and his sense of humour.
The Gaels are poetic. By that I do not mean they are poets, but there's a sensitivity to poetry. This business of disapproving of secular songs didn't exist before 1790. It was Hogg of Kiltearn, who was a powerful minister and had a lot of disciples, who introduced this bifurcation of sacred/secular. Now, this is very strongly rooted in the Hebridean culture. It's stupid. Who created the secular world? Was it Satan? Obviously, it was God.
There was this man Macleod – a disciple of Hogg of Kiltearn – and he appeared in Lewis. In Uig. It was a big parish – in fact it included the parish of Harris at the time – and Macleod imposed this sacred/secular bifurcation. You could sing hymns or psalms. No secular songs. The secular would rob you of your sanctity – this kind of thing. Now, that attitude is still there. Macleod was a powerful figure and he imposed his personality on the entire community. These narrow religious people have got strong convictions – to this day you find these attitudes.
And yet, somehow it didn't quite succeed. I notice Professor Donald Macleod had an article in the West Highland Free Press, and he admits in it that the effort didn't quite succeed. Professor Donald is right. There is still this curious humanity and earthiness which they failed to destroy.
Rev Professor Murdo Ewen Macdonald is himself an example of a Gaelic amalgam of religious figure and earthy, Celtic humanity: a professor of practical theology who is a socialist and enjoys a renowned sense of humour; a Church of Scotland minister who became a commando and paratrooper. Wounded and captured behind enemy lines, he spent the rest of the war as padre in a camp for US Air Force prisoners.
His autobiography, 'Padre Mac: The Man from Harris,' reveals that when commissioned chaplain in the Queen's Own Cameron Highlanders, a senior officer compared his sartorial style to that of a Highland stick and told him in no uncertain terms what kind of deference he, as senior officer, expected in future. Rev Murdo Ewen promptly threatened to 'knock hell' out of him if he ever spoke to him like that again.
On another occasion, at the end of the war, he felt that if he followed orders to join a team evicting local German families from their homes, he would never again be able to preach the gospel of Christ. On being told this, the group captain called him an oatmeal savage, an ignoramus, and a coward – each insult delivered in a clipped accent and accompanied by an obscenity – and threatened to court martial him. Murdo Ewen turned the key in the door and promptly knocked the officer out cold. Bringing him round, he explained to him, ‘Because you went to an expensive school you think you are educated…The trouble with you is that in your snobbish abysmal ignorance you equate education with intonation. Let me tell you that I went to inexpensive schools and I am cosmically better educated than you…
I was brought up under a terrific minister. He was a Lewisman, Duncan Macleod. He was a product of Aberdeen University and they bestowed a doctorate on him. Dr Macleod was a brilliant scholar. Crofters hadn't got much money and unless you won a bursary competition, they couldn't afford to send you through higher education. Those of us who made it were people who were good enough at exams to get bursaries and scholarships. He used to teach in his study – maths, English, Latin, Greek, and finally Hebrew. And the number of people he put through exams who then went on into the ministry… He was terrific. The roll of 240 members produced 30 ministers.
Another influence on me was a first cousin called Angus Campbell. I think he was the best all-round developed personality I ever met in my life. He was very strong physically. He was a terrific mariner – even the Lewis people admitted that he was the best mariner in the Minch. He was a brilliant mason, carpenter, boat builder, engineer, plumber. He was very intelligent. And he was human with it. He was pious – he was session clerk of the church – but he retained his humanity.
I must confess, I'm pessimistic about the future of the Gaelic language. The ground of my pessimism is media bombardment. It's there all the time in newspapers, radio, television. And I listen to the Gaelic news from this chair and I find it a bit artificial. I remember I was home on holiday once and the Gaelic news came on and my brother Angus got up out of his chair and switched it off.
'Why did you do that, Angus?'
'Because I understand the news better in English.'
That's an honest reply. There's a curious artificiality about the news in Gaelic.
A theologian, Paul Tillich, had a great influence on my thinking. He started off as a philosopher and then he became a theologian, and I got to know him. And he was an authority on symbols and he said that language is the most powerful of all symbols. And he argued in a chapter of a book that when a language dies, it dies in the womb of the unconscious
. That's his great phrase. There is no conscious decision. No exact time. I understand what Tillich means. If this unconscious drive goes on, it will kill the language even although there are some who are striving to save it.
Take one example. When I was a boy at school, at the interval we always played in Gaelic. You never thought of playing in English. You go to the equivalent school today – the children are not playing in Gaelic now.
It's a beautiful language, but I'm a bit pessimistic…
In the lowlands and in other English-speaking countries, uneducated people make grammatical mistakes. The uneducated Gaelic-speaking person never does. My father left school at 12 and I never heard him make a grammatical mistake, and we listened to him conducting family worship morning and evening. Never once. And the same with my mother. Technically speaking, they were uneducated. But they came from a rich oral culture – that's why I would be very sad if Gaelic died out.
I remember Murdo, my brother, a week before he died, was driving me from Edinburgh to Glasgow and he suddenly said to me, 'Murdo Ewen, would you agree with me that mother is the most intelligent uneducated person you have ever met?'
So, I took my time in replying, and I said, 'Murdo, I agree with you that mother is very intelligent, but I don't agree with you that she is uneducated.'
'But she left school at 12.'
I said, 'Yes, but I'll give you two examples. One of the best hymns in the hymnary – in fact, in my opinion, it's the best Christmas hymn of all because some Christian hymns are sentimental and sloppy – is "Child in the Manger, Infant of Mary." Composed by Mary Macdonald, Bunessan [Mull]. Now, she could neither read nor write. And that hymn is the most intellectual of the Christmas hymns. And Duncan Bàn Macintyre: a contemporary of Burns. He wasn't such a good lyrical poet as Burns, but he was a much better satirist than Burns. He could neither read nor write.'
That demonstrates the richness of the oral culture. So I would deplore the death of the language. It's a poetic language. It's pictorial. People who have listened to me preach have told me that they can see what I'm saying – that I project a picture. My reply is that if I do that, it's unconscious – it's a Gaelic legacy. Betty [his American wife] notices it too. She loves Harris and she says that people there project a picture when they're speaking. Most of them.
But English is so powerful and we're exposed to it all the time.
I forget which psychologist said a number of years ago that the proof of authentic bilingualism is: do you dream in the two languages? I do. When I dream about my brother Murdo, it's always in Gaelic.
It is rare to meet a Hebridean who does not have a juicy story about second sight or similar phenomena. Professor Murdo Ewen is no exception. Indeed, he has a particular interest in the paranormal.
I came to a belief in it in a peculiar manner. I was an undergraduate at university at the time and I used to go home for the summer and help my father on the croft. I was helping him to cut corn one day when a crofter by the name of Alasdair MacKinnon from the next village stopped to talk to us and he started teasing me, saying, 'Murdo Ewen, since you went to that posh university you don't come and ceilidh.'
I said, 'Alasdair, wait till I clean myself and change, and I'll go with you.'
We had to walk a mile to his house beside a beautiful loch – oh, it's gorgeous – and this thing happened.
About 50 yards from his house he stopped and began to shiver. His face went very white and he had a curious look in his eyes. And then the sweat came out on his brow – ever since then I've had this picture in my mind of the scene in the Garden of Gethsemane where Jesus was supposed to have huge globules of sweat on his brow – well, the sweat stood out like that and I got hold of his elbow and I steadied him. And he said in a strangled voice, 'Calum is dead.' And I knew he was referring to Calum his son who had emigrated to Canada about 10 years before.
So I helped him home and he lay on the bench and he kept looking at the ceiling. And his wife came over and said: 'He has seen something?'
I went home and I didn't say anything to my parents and next morning the postman passed our house because he had a letter for the next house, and on his way back he came in and said to my mother, 'Isn't it sad about Calum MacKinnon?'
She asked what had happened and he said that Calum had been killed in Montreal the day before.
I went up to the teacher who used to teach us navigation at school to find out the time difference between Montreal and Harris, and he had died at the same time as I'd been with his father.
So that was my conversion to the paranormal.
I have a friend, he's a retired professor of astronomy, Archie Roy. Archie is the number one expert in Scotland on the paranormal. Now, he is not a devout churchman but he is a passionate believer in the afterlife. And one of his theories which I can expound is that there is something belonging to the personality which is indestructible. Death cannot destroy it.
Now, Archie may not be an orthodox Christian, but he's an ally, and we should welcome all allies. None of them believe in the afterlife more passionately than Archie. We need our allies.
I think it's arrogant to be dogmatic about the nature of the afterlife. The truth is, we don't know. I don't believe in the old-fashioned hell because it comes back to this thing I tackled at the AIDS convention. I'm better than a God who would consign people to that kind of hell. And I would say that without any trace of arrogance.
But I do think that if the afterlife is meaningful, in order to get to a higher level you have to work hard. As a child, I'm quite sure I had to try very hard before I could walk. This is my view, we're exposed to different environments and we have to learn, and sometimes the learning may not be easy.
But I don't believe in this savage God. Not only that, but I wouldn't respect him.
Rev Professor Murdo Ewen Macdonald died in 2004
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