Edinburgh, Scotland, Aug 27--(AP) There are some things you can't do on a Sunday on the Isle of Lewis: go shopping; take a bus; buy a newspaper; leave.

The ferry service from the mainland doesn't operate, and no flights take off or land Sunday on the wind-battered, staunchly Presbyterian island off the northwest coast of Scotland, where the Sabbath is strictly observed.

The island in the Outer Hebrides is the spiritual home of the Free Church of Scotland, an evangelical group that split from the Church of Scotland in 1843 and claims 5,000 of Lewis's 22,000 residents as members. The church--nicknamed the "Wee Frees"--allows only work of "necessity and mercy" on Sundays. On Lewis, where most people belong to either the Free Church or other Presbyterian denominations, almost all business and leisure activity stops for the Sabbath--libraries and sports centers are shut, no films are shown, and even watching TV is looked upon with a frown.

A challenge to this reverence is coming in October, when a regional airline is scheduled to operate Sunday flights from the mainland to Stornoway, Lewis' biggest town. Loganair says the new service is the result of demand from island residents and businesses.

Supporters of the Sabbath, however, claim the flights--a single trip each way to and from Edinburgh and Inverness--will undermine Lewis' strong sense of community and traditional way of life. "There are more important things in life than being on the commercial treadmill," said the Rev. Ian Campbell, a clergyman on the island. "Having one day a week when the place is in a state of suspended animation gives people a chance to reflect, recharge their batteries and spend time with their families," he said. "It preserves a sense of tranquility in a busy world."

Sunday was traditionally a day of rest for British workers, but Sabbath-day commerce has crept across the country in the last few years. In the last decade--and despite fierce opposition from religious groups--laws have been eased so that shops can open for business, although many smaller ones opt to stay closed. Since 1994, pubs across the country have been permitted to stay open all day. But not on Lewis. Campbell, pastor of Back Free Church on the island, said that on Lewis, "social life and Christian belief have gone hand-in-hand, to the benefit of the common good."

Loganair, a regional airline run by British Airways, acknowledges not everyone is happy. It cites the needs of tourists and students who want to leave the island at the end of the weekend instead of waiting until Monday. The airline said its flights, operated by a single 34-seat propellor aircraft, will be unobtrusive, and insists no employees will be forced to work Sundays. "We're flying in the afternoon, to avoid church services," said Loganair chairman Scott Grier. The company already operates daily Monday-Saturday flights to Stornoway. "We really believe there's room for both schools of thought. We're not trying to get anyone to change their mind. We're just trying to give people a choice."

Opponents say the majority of people on Lewis oppose the flights. A protest meeting in Stornoway on Aug. 19 drew 700 people. Lawmaker Alasdair Morrison, who represents the island in the Scottish Parliament, received 300 letters opposing the flights. Just seven expressed support. "People just do not want to see the unique character of the island changed," said John Roberts, general secretary of the Lord's Day Observance Society, which is organizing opposition to the flights. "Even businessmen on the island who are not Christians don't want the character of the island changed." Two years ago, campaigners rebuffed plans by a ferry company to begin Sunday service to Stornoway.

Attitudes, however, may be changing. A survey conducted two years ago by pollsters MORI found that 61 percent of people on Lewis favored the introduction of Sunday ferry services, and 62 percent wanted to see Sunday flights. Earlier this year, the Stornoway Fishermen's Cooperative voted to allow Sunday fishing. One hotel on Lewis has launched a legal fight for the right to serve guests alcohol with Sunday dinner, and a local law that banned the sale of liquor during "communion holidays"--five-day religious gatherings held twice a year--was quietly repealed.

Campbell fears the Loganair flights will be another nail in the coffin of Sabbath observance. "My gut feeling is that they will go ahead with it," he said. "It will be the end of something very unique and special and I will be sad to see it go."

more from beliefnet and our partners
Close Ad