Sabbath of the Land
This article was commissioned by the editor of the Stornoway Gazette
for publication on 20 July 2000, following the announcement on 12 July that
South Harris is to be considered for designation as a Special Area of
Conservation - Europe's highest conservation status. Such designation would
almost certainly preclude the superquarrying of Mt. Roineabhal at Lingerabay.
This article was commissioned by the editor of the Stornoway Gazette for publication on 20 July 2000, following the announcement on 12 July that South Harris is to be considered for designation as a Special Area of Conservation - Europe's highest conservation status. Such designation would almost certainly preclude the superquarrying of Mt. Roineabhal at Lingerabay.
must thank Lafarge Redland Aggregates for the £6 million they have spent on the
Harris superquarry proposal. Human consciousness develops when faced with moral
challenge. Redland provided this.
proposal for Harris was like a shot to the cultural immune system. It stimulated
a dying community to look at the options open to it, to recognise that it had to
choose a future and develop a vision for it. As John MacAulay of the Quarry
Benefit Group put it, “the Public Inquiry was an education for the whole
community.” Or as God put it to Moses in Deuteronomy 30: “ I have set before
you life and death, blessings and curses - therefore choose life.”
superquarry issue was a theological one because “membership one of another”
– which means, spiritual interconnection - is the glue that holds any true
community together. Anything less is merely a “community of interests,” and
as human beings we are called, spiritually, to a communion that is much higher
than mere mutual self-interest.
the superquarry did was to face the people of Harris, and a much wider Scottish
constituency of observers, with a classic God versus Mammon dilemma. The Rev.
Prof. Donald Macleod put it very clearly to the 1994 Public Inquiry. He said: “Man's
relationship with his environment has been disrupted by the Fall. One primary
symptom of this is that he is always tempted to allow economic considerations to
override ecological ones. In the
present instance the divinely appointed guardians and servants of Lingerbay are
the people of Harris. Unfortunately,
these very people are now suffering a degree of economic hardship that threatens
the very survival of their community. Torn between their love for the land and their need for jobs
they face a cruel dilemma. Capitalism
offers to help them in characteristic fashion: it will relieve unemployment
provided the people surrender guardianship of the land thus violating their own
the end of the Public Inquiry, when the arguments for and against were freshest
in peoples’ minds, an astonishingly high 83% of the people of Harris
participated in voting 68% against the scheme. There was a real sense of a
people trying to decide the future of their place in this independently
organised secret ballot. Since then, the work of Harris Development Ltd. and
other local agencies have laid the foundations for creating more employment than
the 33 direct jobs and 10 indirect ones that the Public Inquiry draft report
finds would have gone to Harris residents.
hard fact that emerged from the Public Inquiry was that 150 tonnes of explosive
would be needed per million tonnes of rock extracted (section 8:42-49 of the
1998 draft inquiry report). As the quarry’s total output over 60 years was
planned at 550 million tonnes, this would have been equivalent to 36 tonnes of
explosive a week at full production, or 82,500 tonnes overall.
way of comparison, present Lewis and Harris usage of explosive is only 90 tonnes
a year. The Hiroshima atom bomb was “only” 13,000 tonnes of TNT equivalent,
so depending on the types of explosive being talked about (and the report is not
clear on this), the superquarry would have been something like dropping six
Hiroshima-sized atom bombs on Roineabhal. The trickle of residual nitrate
run-off into the sea, quite apart from twice-daily thuds unto the bowels of the
earth, was a sobering factor for consideration.
towards Edinburgh, it would have been welcome if Sarah Boyack, the environment
minister, had been able to give a clear answer one way or the other last week.
However, Scottish Executive sources suggest that she had been landed with a
dog’s dinner from the previous regime. The Inquiry Report and process was, it
has been said, so flawed that had she used it to decide in either direction she
would have been open to legal challenge and judicial review. This would have
protacted the waiting game even further, and added to “planning blight” –
the dampening effect that happens when people can’t plan because the future is
South Harris is now granted European status as a Special Area of
Conservation, the way will be open for future development that respects the
Creation rather than destroying it. However, it is important that the Scottish
Executive deliberates in a way that, if it possibly can, avoids starting up the
whole inquiry process again with the proposed Readymix Concrete (Scottish
Aggregates) superquarry on Loch Seaforth, as well as, possibly, Redland’s
previously aired intentions for Carnish at Uig.
is also vital that the people of Harris should be in control of any move towards
special conservation status. Just as a “Quarry Benefit Group” was set up by
the Harris Council for Social Services to look at potential benefits if the
superquarry went ahead, so too consideration should be given to setting up,
perhaps, a “Conservation Benefit Group.” This may be the opportunity for
Scottish Natural Heritage, at last, to get it right with crofting communities.
Isle of Eigg is showing what can be achieved when a community is able to use
conservation for social and economic advantage. Something similar in South
Harris could happen without any change in landownership given that, it seems,
the people there are generally satisfied with their landowners.
simple but practical starting point would be to enhance the effectiveness of the
Croft Entrant Scheme. There needs to be a more proactive way of matching up
those who need land and those who are ready to hand theirs on. Another way
forward, that would attract national attention and market opportunities, would
be to develop organic production. This is the only economically sound future for
small-scale agriculture and aquaculture. A third consideration is to capitalise
on the fact that Harris produces an incredibly high rate of university
graduates. The island’s employment strategy must aim at holding on to these.
They are its potentially most productive human resource, and that means creating
jobs other than just quarrying and fish processing.
are looking, therefore, at a vision by which “conservation” for Harris must
equally conserve both the environment and its people. These two are inseperable
and any attempt to split them is the ultimate undoing of community. This is true
both scientifically and through the eyes of faith, because in both ways of
looking at things human creation took place, and continues to develop, in that
wider context of the Creation that is the natural world. If I may
again quote Professor Macleod from the Public Inquiry, he said: “Theologically,
the primary function of the creation is to serve as a revelation of God. To
spoil the creation is to disable it from performing this function … [thereby
raising] the consideration that rape of the environment is rape of the community
follows that, equally, to treat the environment with reverence is to strengthen
the fullness of community. In this respect, we might do well to think of
“conservation” not as some sort of redundant set-aside, but as part of the
enriching and providentially productive deeper meaning of “Sabbath.”
his book, The Environment and Christian Ethics (Cambridge University
Press), Michael Northcott of Edinburgh University describes how the
“Sabbath of the Land” or “Sabbath of Years” is as much part of God’s
vision as is the Sabbath of the seventh day. Leviticus 25 assures that
Providence will make good shortfalls in economic production caused by human
beings granting this “rest unto the land,” and Leviticus 26 lays out the
grave social and ecological consequences of not honouring such a covenant with
the Creation. “Even then shall the land rest, and enjoy her Sabbaths,” says
Bible’s suggestion is that where a nation has not honoured the rights of the
land, a bit of catching-up is in order. We are, of course, talking metaphor
here, but as is the way with poetry, it may be important metaphor. Nobody would
suggest that the people of Harris have not honoured the Creation. But the
treatment of the land in a wider Scotland, Britain and Europe is a different
matter. Industrial agriculture has caused desecration. At the level of the
nations, then, it may be that by understanding conservation in terms of
“Sabbath” a deeper understanding can come about as to why it is valuable to
set both time and space apart in which to draw more present to the presence of
Northcott further remarks on how, “The Deuteronomist contrasts Egyptian
agricultural practices, which treat the land ‘like a vegetable garden,’ with
the moral sensitivity to the soil and its patterns of fertility which is
required of the Hebrews, who will farm the Promised Land but recognise that it
remains God’s and that he will tend and water it. This ethic of love, both
divine and human, for the land, together with the admonitions to care for it,
runs throughout the traditions of the beauty and fertility of Canaan, ‘flowing
with milk and honey.’”
Harris is indeed confirmed as a Special Area of Conservation and the majesty of
Mt Roineabhal is spared, one vital remaining area of work will be reconciliation.
When a small community is subjected to intense pressure from the outside, its
fabric cracks. People experience difficulty in knowing what they really think,
and in finding their voice, because those cracks run not just through different
factions, but through the factions that are inside each one of us.
most important thing for a small community is its social cohesion. Any massive
development from the outside is like the force field of a magnet. It pulls
things into a new shape and creates opposing north and south poles that were not
there before. Long after the magnet has been withdrawn, the community will
remain polarised … unless, that is, it can develop a conscious understanding
of what has happened to it.
calls for healing, which inevitably means forgiveness. And what is forgiveness,
but a deep acceptance, one of another, for what we are and for all that we are.
The need for forgiveness arises not necessarily because one party has “done
wrong” and another is “in the right.” No. We need to understand spiritual
psychology much more deeply than that. Our forbears in the Highland Church and
some today would, of course, have conceptualised such psychology in terms of
“original sin.” Buddhists would describe it as the inevitability of human
imperfection before the divine. And Mahatma Gandhi of India, who was a Hindu,
put it like this. He said, “All life entails violence. Our duty can only be to
minimise the violence that we cause.”
in such a light of inevitability, the concept of “original sin” becomes
peculiarly liberating. It allows us to accept conflict as an inevitable part of
being community. It shows that forgiveness is imperative simply in order to get
on with the job of living. So, how does this apply to the superquarry? The fact
is that if we were for it, we hurt some people; and if we were against it,
we’ve equally hurt others. As Gandhi says, “All life entails violence”!
The test of a people is not whether hurt happens, but how it is processed.
could be, of course, that there are more comfortable ways of seeking
reconciliation than by addressing it spiritually. But I think not – at least,
not if we want a healing running deeper than resentment masked by the scar of
fact is that forgiveness cannot come from the human will alone. If the great
divide that opens up from woundedness is big enough, ordinary human powers
cannot bridge it. The requisite power to go on loving one’s neighbour is,
rather, a gift of grace. It emerges from those depths of the soul where it is no
longer the conscious “I” that lives, but as Paul said, something “yet not
I,” that lives within and joins us to the bedrock of all life. Such is what
distinguishes brute survival from promised “life abundant.”
future prosperity of Harris will depend on many things. Some of these will come
to pass. Others will fail. But one thing is certain. An abundant future will
hinge upon the grace of God.
is why community development is ultimately a theological issue. Yes, we may run
from God, but we will never be able to run away. Now, let us turn and get on
with the only “business” that really matters – the business of becoming
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