Sacred Places Journal
25 September 2001: Lewis, the Western Isles: Every Barn an Altar
Breakfast: Black pudding and white pudding beside my tomato and mushrooms. "Will you tell me about it?" I ask the hostess?
"Ah, nooo. Ye're better off not knowing."
It is delicious, the black like a round of fried haggis, the white like the scrapple my Philadelphia aunt used to make for me.
"I'm studying the revival," I tell the lady at the religious bookstore. She calls a friend. The friend has the telephone number of a man who remembers it all. We drive across the flat, barren island. The heather is brown now. The peat bogs are striped by long ridges where the peat has been cut. Little hillocks of drying bricks of peat line the furrows. Many a fireplace and stove will burn warmly this winter.
Seventy-seven-year-old Donald John Smith is looking out for us as we pull into the drive of his bungalow overlooking the wild western coast of the island. He welcomes us into his sitting room and shoos out the golden cat. I begin asking questions and he hands me a pad with his hand-written testimony. "It saves me a lot of talking," he explains. It seems that here, in this remote falling-off place-next stop Iceland-the world beats a path to his door to hear his story. Even as we talked he was expecting six South Africans, he had had 12 intercessors from Glasgow last Friday, people from Colorado Springs, six from a Lanark (southern Scotland) prayer group. . .
His testimony was worth traveling 8,000 miles to hear. Donald John Smith is a poet. "I saw the beauty of God's creation in a different way. The singing of the birds was different. The grass was greener and the sea was a different blue. I saw people and my heart was full of love for them-the love of Christ and the warmth of the Gospel.
"We heard of religion in other places, but we saw it in floods. 'Every home a sanctuary, every shop a pulpit, every barn an altar.' People's faces radiated beauty, their daily living was fragrant. It was a wonderful thing, but there is a price to pay for revival: Prayer. There is prayer-prayer and tears.
"I couldn't say when I was converted, it was a gradual coming. All I can say is 'once I was blind and now I see.' I had been going to meetings, but here we don't say we are converted until we sit at the Lord's table." In the Church of Scotland they have communion once every six months.
I had heard that it was a very quiet revival, that there was simply an overwhelming sense of the Holy. "Yes, that's right," he said. "'Be still and know that I am God.' That is all we did-just humble ourselves."
I ask what effects are still felt today, some 55 years later, on the island. "We still bear the hallmarks. I can tell in the singing-there was something in the singing. And there are more people going to church and wanting to know the Lord now. It starts in the home. And we still have good religious education in the schools here. For 20 years after the revival there were not arrests in Barvas, not a single one.
And the key was prayer. He shows us a small, grainy black and white picture of two elderly ladies, Peggy and Christine Smith, perhaps relatives of his, with whom he used to pray, and points us to the byre (shed) behind his father's house next door where the people gathered to pray. "There were three rooms, and Duncan Campbell, the missioner, would go from room to room praying with people. "That's all it was. Just prayer and the most wonderful sense of the holy."
We photograph the byre, then stop in Barvas to photograph the big, grey, Church of Scotland church where it all started. Then on around the coast to a reconstructed blackhouse village-a cluster of long, thatched, stone houses such as those in which the people of the Western Isles lived from time immemorial until the 1950s.
We sit on a rugged green hillside and eat our Scotch pies surrounded by sheep and seabirds, but are jerked back to reality as a squadron of RAF fighters roar overhead.
Our final stop of the day is the astonishing Calanais dance of stones, a circle of 46 prehistoric megaliths placed so that, intriguingly, they form a Celtic cross. An amazing engineering feat. The expenditure of energy seems unimaginable. And what for? to study the stars? to worship their god? whatever secret the stones hold they are an assurance that early man struggled toward knowledge and light. As we continue to struggle.