Brian Ferguson: An Lanntair reopens old wounds over Sabbath traditions

An Lanntair is at the centre of a heated debate. Picture: TSPL
An Lanntair is at the centre of a heated debate. Picture: TSPL
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Brian Ferguson discusses the bitter row erupting over a Hebriddean arts centre’s Sunday opening.

To many observers of Scottish culture, it must be hard to imagine any arts centre being accused of triggering a “nuclear” fallout with its actions – but that is what is happening in the Outer Hebrides.

Sailing into Stornoway on the ferry from Ullapool is one of the great arrival points to the west coast islands. But it is at the heart of an increasingly bitter row over island traditions, claims of “cultural vandalism” and comparisons to the Highland Clearances.

One of the first sights that greets the tens of thousands of passengers who embark from the CalMac ferry every year is An Lanntair, a striking building with a design inspired by its Gaelic name for lighthouse.

An Lanntair is widely regarded as a beacon for Gaelic and Hebridean culture thanks to its programme of theatre, dance and visual art. It also boasts the only cinema on the isle of Lewis, which it has used as the focal point for a Sunday opening trial that has reopened old wounds over Sabbath traditions, as well as thrust An Lanntair into an unwelcome spotlight. More than 800 people attended the three once-a-month trials, far more than the 300-odd who have signed an online petition against the prospect of permanent Sunday opening.

The turn-outs and feedback from An Lanntair’s audience base has, it seems, persuaded its board to press ahead with seven-day opening “as soon as possible”. It also insists that customers want the whole building, including its cafe-bar, to open on Sundays. More than six months on from the prospect of a trial emerging, it does not appear to have rushed headlong into regular Sunday opening. But it is also hard to avoid the impression it has created a bit of a no-win situation for itself.

If it backs down from pursuing regular Sunday opening it will be seen to have capitulated to the hard line taken by church leaders on the island which has kept the vast majority of Stornoway businesses, and its public sports facilities, closed on a Sunday. It would also now go against its own aims to want to operate on Sundays as an “inclusive and welcoming community space”.

But what could the consequences be for An Lanntair, which is already being accused of “turning on the community it was created to represent,” if it does press ahead with its plans?

It does not take much searching online to find plenty of evidence of simmering local anger about its motives and actions, as well as claims that many of its workforce are opposed to Sunday opening. One blog post accused An Lanntair of showing “utter disregard for the culture of the area”.

Although it has denied suggestions of grievances being raised by staff, it has pretty much admitted that not all of its workers are happy with the idea. Buried in the latest statement on Sunday opening was an admission that it was “not quite ready operationally” to open on the Sabbath. The fact that it is also insisting staff will not be forced to work on Sundays is enough of an indicator of the strength of local feeling and that many more than a small minority want to follow long-standing traditions.

A venue like An Lanntair can exist only if it continues to attract local audiences. The key question for its board is whether that public support will be put at long-term risk by opening on Sundays. With online discussion over the weekend about lobbying for public funding cuts and boycotts to be targeted at An Lanntair, its board and management would be wise to think carefully about their next move.