Sabbath fight comes to an end on Harris as Sunday ferry service begins

Piece used as coursework material on the Practial Journalism HND course at Cardonald College. Some quotes used in this piece come courtesy of the BBC


IT took decades to finally achieve and caused the fiercest of fighting from the most traditional of Scots Christians battling to hold on to an outdated way of life. A simple Sunday sailing of a ferry from the Isle of Harris sparked political wrangling between ideological locals and a European law which sought to bring them into line with progressive modern society. Islanders were furious, but whether they approved or not, the move has proved successful and popular. The battle has been lost. 

Harris, in the north-west of Scotland, is home to around 2,000 people. Many of the Hebridean islands are still heavily influenced by religion. Those religious groups have a strong desire to be left to their own affairs; to be allowed to observe their rituals without the interference of the increasingly less God-fearing outside world. Local councillors and activists often come from the same mould. They would be happy to allow islanders to stick rigidly to their principles, while locals will always vote for those who let them.

Even local MSPs and MPs seemed keen to carry on with the status quo for the most part. Politicians are not in the business of upsetting voters unless it’s unavoidable.  The Hebridean islands for a long time were left to themselves and enjoyed shaping their communities and surroundings according to their strongly-held beliefs.

Hand of Europe

In the end the big bad wolf wasn’t the Scottish government –even if it may have quietly welcomed the change it didn’t have to take responsibility for – nor was it Westminster. The deciding factor was to be European legislation and was perhaps a difficult pill to swallow for Sabbatarian campaigners.

The change of policy in Scotland’s religious islands began in July 2009 when the first ever Sunday sailing departed from the Isle of Lewis. Pro-Sunday service campaigners – perhaps the existence of such a movement in these regions should have been the tell-tale sign that change was inevitable – lodged a complaint to the Equalities and Human Rights Commission in 2007, claiming that the lack of a Sunday ferry service was a form of discrimination. Public state-subsidised transport should not be arranged based on the outdated observation of the Sabbath Day by religious groups, they argued.

European law agreed and it was decided ultimately that a Sunday service between Stornoway and Ullapool must be introduced. Ferry operator Calmac acknowledged the strong local opposition to the plans – the pier-protests made it difficult not to – but said Europe did not recognise religion or beliefs as a valid reason not to run the service, and it was required to abide by the ruling.

With the news that European law did not consider freedom of religious expression a strong enough reason to overrule the opposing argument, the island’s Free Church Continuing organisation led the resistance to the overthrow, as they saw it,  of the laws of God Himself.

Locals called on island councillors to support their campaign but even with that support, the European decision could never be overturned at that level. Had the Scottish government or Westminster declared an interest in the case, islanders may have at least got a good argument out of Europe. But that was never going to happen.

Gripping the past

Despite being considered a Christian country, modern day Britain could easily fool you otherwise. Staunchly-held views like those in Lewis and Harris are the exception, not the rule, and modern day politics do not appease the churches as they did historically. Campaigners would always be on their own with this struggle and despite their pleas for people to embrace the will of God and their relentless defence of their way of life, religious leaders probably always knew they were beaten.

When one of their leading campaigners threw in the towel, it was confirmation if any was still needed that the Sunday ferry service roll-out wouldn’t simply stop after the victory in Lewis.

John Murdo Morrison famously told Calmac to “go and burn their timetables” during campaigns against Sunday ferry services stretching back to the early 90s. But after the Isle of Lewis not only succumbed, but appeared to show numerous economic benefits, Morrison’s view began to change. The retired hotel owner said: “When this was first mooted in 1989 there was vehement opposition. I was prepared to lead the fight against it because it was being thrust upon us without any consultation either with the people, or the council.

“Times have changed, sadly”, he continued “and there is a strong feeling as far as I can gather that a Sunday ferry service is essential. We have got to think about the economies of Harris.”

A different view

For the pro-Sunday service camp, the economy was the biggest motivation for their campaign. Islands like Lewis and Harris rely on tourism and when the majority of their visitors are looking for good quality, reliable and frequent service, communities must respond. The charm of the old fashioned Scottish islands is part of their appeal but it must strike a balance somewhere with practicalities.

However, not all residents were as willing to embrace a different point of view as Morrison, and after Calmac announced it was opening consultation on a Sunday service for Harris, opposition protestors demanded their elected officials chose which side they were on. Lord’s Day Observance Society spokesman, John Roberts, even announced to the media that Alasdair Allan MSP and Angus MacNeil MP had “twenty-four hours to answer”.

Councillor Morag Munro was quick to take her stance, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with her constituents, and in support of their principles.

“There has been a lack of transparency and no proper consultation,” she said. “Calmac are introducing this ferry for vehicles and passengers by using the excuse of repositioning. They are going to populate the ferry.

“We will be making an appeal – but to a higher authority.”

Angus MacNeil MP displayed a more heavy-hearted acceptance of the situation.

“During summer 1990, as a 20-year-old, I worked 68 hours a week at the Holm Jetty with Edmund Nuttall Ltd with the only day off being Sunday,” he said. “Thus each Sunday afternoon I used to be very grateful for Sunday as it was in Lewis.

“However, I have at times on a Sunday used ferries, often because no Saturday or Monday ferry was available, as well as used cars and probably aeroplanes. It would be hypocritical of me to pretend otherwise. I have also been fortunate in not needing, due to illness or death, to use the Sound of Harris ferry on a Sunday and have avoided more casual use out of respect for my many constituents for whom Sunday is a very special day.

“Personally,” he added “like many people, I find this a difficult issue as I have constituents, good friends and acquaintances who want to protect the Lord’s Day as being the special relaxed family day it actually is for many in Lewis whether or not they are religious and those who want Sunday sailings for very practical reasons.

“In short, if there is one issue that is not best served by mega-phone diplomacy or sound bit politics it is surely this one.”


Calmac came in for heavy criticism from campaigners and were accused of failing to conduct proper consultation on the matter. Although Calmac was set up to have relative independence from the government at an operational level, the big Calmac decisions are still the will of the Scottish government, and the will of the Scottish government in this case was decided in Europe.

Scotland enjoys a relationship with Europe that brings many benefits. European funds have invested in many underprivileged Scottish communities and in the event of Scottish independence, the SNP government has already expressed interest in EU membership for Holyrood. There would be no point in rocking the boat to defend a dying tradition.

It would be understandable if the Sunday Sabbath campaigners felt their religious expression had been snatched away from them, and without much of a fight from the officials elected to represent them. They may now find themselves in a long queue of British groups who believe the Scottish and Westminster governments concede too much power to Europe for economic benefits. They will no doubt feel that the battle they have lost is a much bigger one.

But with religious traditions in the Scottish islands gradually being phased out – many more shops and services are now becoming accessible on Sundays in the Hebridean islands – the regions may have a different future ahead of them. Community groups and local councillors will continue their protests at the erosion of their strict observance of religions rules, but when they are playing tug of war with three levels of government pulling in the opposite direction, it can only be a matter of time before they admit defeat.

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