Sunday, 11 July 2010

Eaglais nan Eoin ( The Birds' Church )

I think we would agree that almost everywhere, there are many more birds than cats and dogs. The West Side of the Island of Lewis is no exception. The religious fervour of the birds in these parts has long been talked of, and many would say that their devotions even exceed those of Eaglais a' Choin s' Chait, the Dog and Cat Church in Doune, in charge of which is the Right Reverend MacCollie, the minister who is very attached to his collar. Eaglais nan Eoin was situated in the village of Shawbost, which could accommodate large numbers of birds, which flocked to the various Sunday services. They had acquired a large barn of a place in Fibhig, an enormous shed no longer used by the local Harris Tweed mill. Beams and shelving used previously in the mill afforded ideal pews(perches,really) for the large congregations that foregathered there every Sunday. The birds liked their Calvinism dour and unadulterated, and this was reflected in a succession of old time avian ministers. Predestination and damnation were favourite themes of these preachers, and favourites too of the congregations. Such were the numbers who came to the Shawbost Church at Fibhig, that multiple meetings of perhaps one thousand birds were required to service this multitude. The Avian Free Church had the largest congregation on the island, by far. Every bird from the wren to the raven attended these popular services, and all were seated in the "pews" according to size. There were always a large presence of the crow family (carrion crow, rooks etc.) and, as one would expect, a great variety of seabirds, especially gulls. There were lapwings,sparrows,blackbirds, and, up high at the rear of the church, a bevy of buzzards fresh in from the creeks. There was a loft( not an organ loft, mind, you) high above the pulpit which was reserved for a particular church member who commanded a lot of respect from others, if not a little fear. This was Gilleasbuig, the golden eagle, who would fly in from Beinn Bhragair to attend these services. Before the Reformation, Gilleasbuig might well have been proud to mention that he was descended from a long line of bishops, but this was something he never spoke of now, and to be sure, neither did anyone else. Gilleasbuig was definitely a presence in the church and he ruffled a few feathers, so to speak, when he flew in to take his pew in the loft. On the few occasions that Gilleasbuig's wife could be persuaded to come (she was not of his persuasion), they said that it was as though the Holy Ghost had passed through the church. The "eoin oig" ( young birds ) were always well behaved when Gilleasbuig Mor was in church. His eagle eye could take in the whole congregation without so much as turning his head. The young birds looked straight ahead, wings folded, and not a chirp or a peep from anyone. He was a godsend to the minister and the elders.

The minister of Shawbost Avian Free Church was renowned as a great preacher, and was very often asked to "guest" at other churches throughout the Hebrides. He was not large of stature, but his presence always dominated any company he was in. A carrion crow born in Stornoway, the Reverend Kenneth MacCraw was said to be the "most powerful" preacher ever heard in the Isles. He was known by all as "MacCraw Mor", whose powerful message could bring tears to the eyes of the hardest-bitten buzzard. During the communions, a few years back in the Ness Church, it was said that a number of herring gulls had collapsed with the fervour of his preaching, and later became communicants of the church. MacCraw Mor took most of his lessons from the Old Testament, which he felt best reflected the time and travails of his people, much like the Children of Israel long ago. Some people aver that the Celtic peoples are descended from the "lost tribe of Israel". The Reverend MacCraw had no doubts about this.
With their souls well nourished, the large congregations would disperse, each bird returning to its own habitat. For Big Gilleasbuig, the golden eagle high up in the loft, an exit strategy had been devised to save the big fella' and the church from damage, as he took his leave back to Beinn Bhragair.
In Dalmore, Iain Shoudie was always abreast of matters, and with regards to the events above, his "coilleach",Calum and Calum's wife the "cearc", Fiona were regulars at the Shawbost Church. Iain Shoudie, as you know, could talk to the animals, and it was he who told me this story. If it were possible, I would loved to have heard MacCraw Mor in full flight, no pun intended.

Gael. "coilleach" Eng. cockerel
Gael. "cearc" Eng. hen
Gael. Gilleasbuig Eng. Archibald - literally "the follower of the bishop"
Gael MacCraw Mor Eng. Big MacCrow

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