Western Isles takes moral stand against 'geidh' couple ceremonies

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THE Gaelic language has at least half a dozen words to describe homosexuals, varying from merely impolite to obscene. Such is the lack of a non-judgmental term for gay people that the BBC's Gaelic radio service was recently forced to invent a word: 'Geidh'.

It is hardly surprising then that councillors in this deeply traditional society, where the hold of strict Presbyterianism remains stronger than anywhere else on the British Isles, have voted to become the only part of the country to outlaw so-called gay "wedding ceremonies", which are to be held across Britain starting on Tuesday.

For many islanders, the move is simply an affirmation of their determination to hold back the onset of 21st century secularism, and to preserve their belief that marriage should only involve a man and a woman.

But the move has triggered a backlash from gay campaigners, who are threatening a human rights appeal against the council to ensure gay couples on the isles can have the same rights as those elsewhere.

More than 150 gay couples across Scotland are preparing to take part in the ceremonies from Tuesday morning, when the law comes into force. In England and Wales 700 couples are expected to follow suit when the law is enacted the following day, including Sir Elton John and his long-term partner, David Furnish.

It follows the passing of the Civil Partnerships Act at Westminster last year, which will allow gay couples to obtain the same rights as heterosexuals in areas such as employment, pensions and inheritance.

All registry offices will be legally obliged to perform basic registrations, at which gay couples will sign an official civil partnership document in front of two witnesses. Councils are also offering to conduct ceremonies, similar to normal civil weddings, so the occasion can be marked.

However, at a meeting of the Western Isles Council's Policy and Finance Committee last Thursday, councillors decided to outlaw such ceremonies.

It followed complaints by the council's registrars, who said they would be unwilling to carry them out. Consequently, any gay couples on the island will have to make do with legal registration.

The ruling is thought to be unique across the British Isles. While two Scottish councils - Highlands and East Renfrewshire - had voiced doubts about conducting the ceremonies, they have agreed to offer them to couples, following pressure from the Scottish Executive and gay rights campaigners.

But the Western Isles council is showing no willingness to compromise on the issue.

"It is a practical decision: our officers don't want to do them so we didn't even go into the debate [over morality]," said Angus Campbell, the chairman of the policy committee.

The move will place fresh scrutiny on the isles, home to 24,000 people, where the influence of the Free Church of Scotland on the northerly isle of Lewis, and the strength of the Catholic Church on the southerly isles of South Uist and Barra, is powerful.

Supporters of the move insist the registrars are simply exercising their rights.

The Rev Tim McGlynn, of the Free Church of Scotland (Continuing) in Scalpay, said: "To try and force them [the registrars] to do something they think is immoral would be unjust. But that is what is being advanced by people who are what I call bigoted secularists."

He added: "The position on the isles is that the people in positions in power are far more likely to personally have a faith which is guiding the things that they do."

However, gay people living on the islands claim that the heavy-handed Christian influence has left them living in a climate of fear.

One gay man, who asked to remain anonymous, said: "I can't give my name because the islands are the kind of place where you just can't and it would cause a huge fuss. You would be regarded as bringing shame on your village and your island."

He added: "I am very unhappy about what they have decided, but in a way I'm not surprised, we are years behind the rest of the country.

"This is discrimination. How come these ceremonies will be OK in Glasgow and not in Barra? It is absolutely wrong. I can imagine someone just having a ceremony on one of the beaches and defying anyone to stop us."

Calum Irving, director of the gay charity Stonewall Scotland, said the Western Isles council's move could trigger an appeal under European human rights law.

He said: "I received an assurance from the Scottish Executive that any couple wishing to have a registration and ceremony in Scotland would receive one, so it is very concerning that the Western Isles have taken this stance.

"I would hope that if a gay couple did come forward seeking a ceremony then the council would have the good sense not to spoil that happy couple's big day."

John Hein, editor of ScotsGay magazine - who says he has several subscribers to his magazine in the Western Isles - added: "How extremely miserable and mean-spirited of them. It is exactly what you would expect. What a dreadful place to live."

However, the ban remains superfluous for now - as no gay couples on the Western Isles have registered their intention to get 'married'.

Elsewhere in Scotland, dozens of ceremonies are planned for Tuesday and the rest of the week. The first to sign a civil partnership are expected to be John Maguire and Laurence Scott-Mackay, a Scots couple based in Washington DC who are returning for their ceremony on Tuesday morning.

Neil Fletcher and John Stewart, two Liberal Democrat councillors in Aberdeen, are also preparing for their big day on Tuesday, having booked Kings College Chapel, Aberdeen University.

A Scottish Executive spokesman said it was not aware of any council that was refusing to hold the ceremonies.

NEVER ON A SUNDAY

FOR visitors, the most dramatic feature of the Western Isles is how everything grinds to a halt on Sunday.

The modern Lewis Sabbath dates from the 1830s, when - aided by newly available Gaelic editions of the Bible and a series of charismatic preachers - Calvinism took firm root in the most northerly and biggest of the Outer Isles, Lewis and Harris.

Locals welcomed the weekly rest as a break from a life of grim agrarian toil, and the "never on a Sunday" tradition was established.

Work which may be done on Sunday must fall into the "works of necessity and mercy" definition, which allows churchgoers to be nurses, firefighters or coastguards, but not to open shops, play football or watch television.

Sunday flights to Lewis were only established in 2001 after years of debate and the ferries to the mainland do not sail on the Sabbath.

Just one shop opens in Stornoway on Sunday and has been the centre of controversy ever since. There is no Sunday public transport and pubs have only opened on the Sabbath since the 1990s.

While the isles have the highest level of churchgoing in Scotland, the general decline in religion has hit the Hebridean churches too. Sabbatarians have had to re-think their message and pitch it for a secular society by insisting that the Sunday rest ethic preserves family life and stops people "burning out".

But some islanders with family or business links to the mainland claim that the restrictions make their lives difficult and hurt business.