Battle looms in Outer Hebrides over Sabbath opening

Stornoway, UK - On a Sunday, John Calvin casts a long shadow over these islands.

The austere influence of the 16th Century Protestant reformer is keenly felt on Lewis, Harris and North Uist, where the Presbyterian tradition runs deep.

True, the swings in the playgrounds are no longer chained up on the Sabbath but there are plenty of islanders who will not hang out their washing or play a round of golf, let alone go to work.

Now though, a new generation is fighting for change.

They are courteous warriors, keen to show respect to their elders even though they know their views may upset them.

Their battlegrounds are civilised places: running tracks, golf courses and sports centres, such as the council-run Ionad Spòrs Leòdhais in Stornoway.

On a Saturday its swimming pool is packed, open until 10pm.

But come the Sabbath, the showers are off and the doors are locked.

This infuriates mother-of-three Elma MacLeod, a keen swimmer.

"It has quite a big effect on us," she tells me at the poolside one weekday evening.

"My children are in school five days a week. They have two days off, which is their own free time for their leisure and pleasure.

"But 50% of that time this pool is closed.

"I understand that there are those who do not want to use the facility on a Sunday," she says "but I don't understand why the local council have imposed that on everybody in the community."

The answer, says Angus Campbell, leader of Comhairle nan Eilean Siar (Western Isles Council), is work.

More relaxed

"You can take exercise in many ways on a Sunday," he says. "We would encourage people to do that. But we do not want to ask our people to work on a Sunday."

It is a policy that applies only to Lewis, Harris and North Uist.

Further south, on the traditionally Roman Catholic islands of Barra and South Uist, attitudes to the Sabbath are more relaxed and council staff do work on a Sunday.

To Mrs MacLeod's annoyance, this means that the council-run swimming pool in Castlebay on Barra - a day's travel away by car and ferry - is open, while the Stornoway pool is closed.

"There is no contradiction," insists Mr Campbell, who says it demonstrates "the respect we show to the different communities we serve."

But for how much longer?

On 5 April, a "public sector equality duty" comes into force as part of the new Equality Act. The legislation outlaws discrimination by public bodies on the grounds of religion, faith or belief.

Mrs MacLeod believes the new law could force the council to rethink its policy of one rule for the Protestant north and one for the Catholic south.

Even if it does, other fights will continue.

On a steep slope above Stornoway, Ken Galloway is teeing off on the 11th hole of the golf course, a par five nicknamed the Dardanelles because of the gap between tee and green.

Mr Galloway is club secretary but even he cannot enjoy a round on a Sunday because the course landlord refuses to allow club members permission to play.

"The seven-day golf battle has gone on for more than two decades," he says, "but momentum has increased over the last few years mainly as a result of a variety of changing attitudes on the islands."

Honour God

"We are now able to fly in and out of the island on a Sunday. We are now able to sail in and out of the island on a Sunday."

And there is, he says, an economic case for Sunday golf, as it would make the courses of the Western Isles attractive to tourists seven days a week.

And anyway, he insists, "there is nothing wrong with exercising your body in a recreational sport on a Sunday".

Not everyone agrees.

Ian MacRae is not a stereotypical member of the Lord's Day Observance Society. He does not bellow fire and brimstone. He is young and softly spoken.

Mr MacRae is impeccably polite but he is also firm in his insistence that Sunday is a day to honour God.

"I myself work five days a week," he says "the sixth day, Saturday, is usually 100 miles an hour and a Sunday, whether spent in church or whether spent with family, it's an absolute Godsend.

"It's something that I think is beneficial for our minds, our bodies, our spiritual life."

And Mr MacRae insists that renouncing Biblical teaching about the day of rest is to set off down a slippery slope.

"Thou shalt not kill, that's a biblical absolute which we as a society hold to," he argues.

"Should we change that? Should we change people's right to life, should we change the fact that we're not meant to steal? It opens up very dodgy areas I think."

For others though the debate is not about religion as such, it's about tradition.

The council leader regards Lewis as the one of the last outposts of a gentler, more civilised Britain.

'We will comply'

"Do we then just fall in line with every other part of the UK because that is the acceptable thing to do?", he asks.

"I make up my own decision on what I do on a Sunday. It's not formed by religion. It's enjoying a way of life.

"Surely we are entitled to be a little bit different here. Most people who visit us appreciate that, they welcome that, they soak that in."

But Mr Campbell concedes that change might be coming.

"One thing this council will never do is act in an illegal manner over this," says the council leader.

"We are well aware of the change in the equality laws.

"If the law tells us we have to work in a certain way, we will not break the law. We will comply with the law."

But that would not mean closing facilities in the south, he says.

If the issue was forced the council would rather open the Stornoway sports centre on a Sunday than close the pool in Castlebay.

If that happens, the Lord's Day Observance Society warns darkly, there will be consequences.