Psalms and a sailing as history is made on Sabbath

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SILENT and dignified, they stood in the rain, a solitary placard proclaiming their collective strength of feeling. "Remember the Sabbath Day Keep it Holy" it read. The glowering clouds over Stornoway matched the mood of the 30 or so protesters who gathered outside the town's ferry terminal to display their concern at what they see as the dismantling of another pillar of their way of life.

The small protest, from members of the local Free Church Continuing, was to condemn the first scheduled Sunday ferry service to leave Lewis, a move which breaches the last bastion of Sabbatarianism in the islands.

The group refused to elaborate on their opposition but handed out leaflets and a brief statement: "We are a group of local Christians who care deeply about our island. We are here to testify that to run this ferry service on the Lord's Day is against the fourth commandment and so is displeasing to the living and true God."

It was just five days ago that Caledonian MacBrayne announced it was to start a regular Sunday service from Lewis, despite opposition from the local council and traditionalists.

The MV Isle of Lewis set off on the historic crossing at 2.30pm with 81 cars, three commercial vehicles and 391 passengers, leaving a crowd of about 200 cheering wellwishers drowning out the protesters who began singing psalms.

The state-owned operator had previously shied away from running crossings on the Stornoway to Ullapool route due to the strict religious beliefs of many on the island.

However, earlier this year it said it had been forced into the move because of equality legislation. CalMac said it had received legal advice that the existing practice of not providing seven-day sailing was likely to fall foul of the Equality Act 2006. It has so far resisted calls to publish the advice, although that is being reviewed.

Phil Preston, managing director of CalMac, said: "It's just normal business for us and we just want it to pass off smoothly. We are reacting to demand and meeting the requirements of the law."

The company began a consultation on its plans, but the decision to go ahead with regular Sunday sailings, backed by the Scottish Government, appeared to take many by surprise, including the principal objectors, the Lord's Day Observance Society (LDOS), with many of its members on holiday.

Calum Maclean of the LDOS said: "It's sad and disappointing, the beginning of the end and a further erosion of the Lord's day."

Mr Maclean accused CalMac of "riding roughshod" over the feelings of local people but said he was not protesting: "I'm not going to the quayside waving banners trying to stop people boarding. But the vast majority of people on the island do not want this."

Among the first on board was retired brewer Iain Turnbull, 61, from Stornoway, who boarded wearing an LDOS T-shirt but with a different message: "Let's Drink on Sundays in Ullapool." He said: "It's been a long time coming. This island had to get into the 21st century. It is dying on its feet."

Dr Finlay Macleod, a local Gaelic writer and scholar, added: "This is a very significant day. I am so pleased to be alive to see it. It's important from the point of view of civic freedom, not to have any creed or sect, big or small, have influence or control over normal, secular civic life. That's the heart of it for me."

While regular Sunday services operate in the largely Catholic islands of South Uist and Barra, the Sabbath was for generations seen as a strict day of rest in the joined Presbyterian islands of Lewis and Harris, with shops and other services closed and leisure and entertainment activities discouraged or even banned. However, the picture has gradually changed. Seven-day ferries between Skye and North Uist began in 1989 and in 2002 Sabbath flights took off between Inverness, Stornoway and Edinburgh. In 2006 the first Sunday ferry sailed to Harris from North Uist.

Today the reality of having pubs, hotels, petrol stations and the airport in Lewis opened on a Sunday has changed attitudes among islanders, although many still support the traditional view.

The policy of Comhairle nan Eilean Siar (Western Isles Council) is still to oppose Sunday ferries and the local sports centre remains shut. Similarly, the golf course in Stornoway remains closed, as does Harris Golf Club.

Shonnie MacRitchie, who runs the County Hotel in the town, believes the Sunday ferry will harm business. People who previously could not get off the island until Monday can now do so a day earlier, she said.