Sunday trade rebels spark unholy row

THE followers of Mammon and Scotland’s most famous defenders of the faith are poised for a battle of Biblical proportions over the Hebridean Sabbath.

Less than a year after the first Sunday flight landed on the isle of Lewis, the God-fearing folk of the Western Isles are facing the most serious challenge yet to their traditional observance of the Lord’s Day.

A garage owner in Lewis has begun opening on the Sabbath, two pubs on the island have applied to stay open beyond midnight on Saturday and the success of Sunday flights has led to mounting calls for ferry operators to follow suit.

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Leading the charge for the forces of commerce is Charles Engebretsen, whose Engebrets Garage and mini-market in Stornoway has become the first shop in Lewis to open on a Sunday.

The move has prompted outrage among some islanders who fear other shops will follow ‘Engie’s’ lead. Retailers, mainly garages and newsagents, have already privately canvassed staff on whether they would be willing to work on the Sabbath.

While local Sabbatarians have decided against organising a formal boycott, many church-goers are shunning the shop. In addition, Engebretsen, who had declined to comment on the move, is understood to have lost some local accounts.

Captain Iain Alasdair MacDonald, the Secretary of the Lord’s Day Observance Society and a Free Church elder, has vowed to fight the challenges to the Sabbath.

He said: "We at the society have had meetings with Mr Engebretsen, and they were very amicable. We hope that we can persuade him to change his mind and close the shop on Sundays.

"It is up to individuals to decide whether to stay away from the shop or not, we will not be organising any formal boycott. I personally am boycotting the shop and have told him so."

Defending the Sabbath as a day of rest, MacDonald said:

"You go to the Continent, go to France and Germany, and most things are still closed on Sunday and they still manage. It’s good for health, for family life and it’s honouring the Lord’s Day."

He added: "It’s one thing after another. We now have the flights, and now there is pressure for more things to happen on the Lord’s Day."

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Two Lewis pubs, the Whaler’s Rest in Stornoway and the Claitair Hotel in the village of Shieldinish, have applied to extend their closing time from 11:30pm on Saturday to 1am on Sunday morning.

Traditionally, Lewis pubs have closed half an hour before midnight, to allow a ‘cordon sanitaire’ between drinking and the beginning of the Sabbath. Islanders traditionally begin Sabbath observance late on Saturday night, switching off televisions and making sure they are home well before midnight.

Yesterday Bernie Fish, the proprietor of the Claitair Hotel defended his decision to apply for an extension to his licence, adding church-going islanders should be relaxed about the move.

He said: "It’s not going to have any adverse impact on anyone as far as I can see. We are a very rural pub. The nearest neighbour is 200 yards away, we are just going to be open a little bit longer.

"People should just be relaxed about it and let people do what they want to do. If people want to go to church then that’s fine by me. They don’t have to come here if they don’t want to. If people want to come here and have a drink on Sunday then they should be able to."

Fish claimed that locals were drinking on the Sabbath regardless of the 11:30pm closing time.

Jock Murray of the Whaler's Rest pub declined to comment.

The applications, which will be considered by the Western Isles Licensing Board on October 8, follow the granting of a Sunday licence to the bar at Stornoway Airport earlier this year.

MacDonald said: "We are opposed to this for two reasons. Firstly because it will be happening on Sunday, which is wrong. But also because the last thing we need in the islands is more time for drinking. This is totally irresponsible."

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Nevertheless, curbs on Sunday drinking appear to have done little to reduce excessive drinking in the Western Isles. According to research carried out by the University of Aberdeen, the proportion of people drinking to excess in the Hebrides is twice the Scottish average.

The first scheduled Sunday flights to Lewis began operating last October in the face of furious protests. Now some local businesses - including fish farmers - want Sunday sailings in order to help get their products to market more quickly.

Meanwhile, Western Isles Council has been told it risks breaking European Union law by banning Sunday entertainment on the grounds of religion.

In July, the council commissioned a leading advocate to assess whether the traditional ban on Sabbath entertainment - such as cinema, dances and concerts - was lawful following an application by a local businessman to stage paintball events.

Roy Martin QC, the advocate commissioned by the council at a cost of 4,000, said the council could prevent events being staged on a Sunday on the grounds of the islands’ traditional culture and heritage but not religion.

Last night a spokesman for Western Isles Council said: "We will be looking at all these applications on their own merits."