Where do we go from here?

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Kenneth Roy

The strange dream of George MacLeod….

Kenneth Roy

In a week dedicated to the advancement of pygmies, let’s spare a thought for old-fashioned heroism. By the time I got around to interviewing George MacLeod for the BBC, he was very old and very deaf. We sat on a bench outside the abbey to talk about something or other – God probably came into it – and, such was his hearing, it was more of a growly monologue than an interview. We were both staying in the island hotel and I have a vivid memory of George MacLeod and his wife Lorna entering the dining room, books under arm, on that summer evening long ago. He had nobility of bearing. He looked like a great man. He was. But he also had a quality of menace. He exuded danger.
     Our mutual friend Ian Mackenzie wrote a lyrical essay in praise of George MacLeod for the Scottish Review. Ian said:

     George MacLeod was a true seer. He saw things others didn’t. He saw further into things. He saw into the past and into the future. He saw into souls. He was human, of course. Over issues big and small he could be petty, blind, deaf, stubborn. But on the whole, in him was as clear an access to the Word made flesh as I’m likely to meet.

In the same piece, Ian told a strange story about George:

     In my last year at the BBC, I got a message that George was willing to be filmed. This was during the Assembly, and I went to his Edinburgh home the day before filming to discuss what he’d like to say. He was now in his nineties and frail. Making and pouring the tea was a painful effort but what he had to say was more so. Two nights before, he’d had a dream. In his loneliness he had turned to Lorna, his much younger wife, whose early death he was still grieving over. In the dream, she had given him the most tremendous scolding. ‘Oh George, stop all this self-pity. You’ve a lot to do. Just get on with it’. He said in the 48 hours since he’d felt released. He no longer needed Lorna’s physical presence. The morning after that encounter he’d been walking up the Mound to the General Assembly service of Holy Communion, and was suddenly stopped in his tracks by a devastating thought. ‘Why am I going to this so-called Communion? Am I really saying that Christ’s presence is more real in bread and wine than in the whole of life? We don’t touch God in dedicated bread. We touch reality everywhere. We should just get on with it.’
     I said: ‘Do you want to say that on film tomorrow, you who have made Holy Communion central again in presbyterianism?’
     ‘If I have made Communion central,’ he said, ‘then I have failed. I only wanted to make love central.’
     The next morning, he sent a message saying he would rather not do the filming. I guess he decided he had to cross that No-Man’s-Land alone.

Ian Mackenzie’s last sighting of George MacLeod was a year later. He saw him in the distance on the Mound. He had been at an evening Assembly meeting. He was standing totally alone, very bent. He hailed a taxi. With some difficulty he climbed into it and was gone. Ian stood looking at the spot where he’d been. Some words rang in his head. They weren’t the words of Columba, or of George MacLeod, or of scripture, but of Shakespeare:
     What a piece of work is a man.

All this week, and particularly since the events of Tuesday evening in London, George MacLeod’s dream has been in my mind as a metaphor for Scotland.
     Oh George, stop all this self-pity. You’ve a lot to do. Just get on with it.
     That is what MacLeod did throughout his life. He just got on with it. He was – it’s worth reminding ourselves – a war hero (MC), a nuclear disarmer, a friend of the poor, a socialist, an irritant, an electrifying orator, a man of God and a lot more that doesn’t come to mind as I write this. But he would not be so widely remembered, his place in the canon of the Scottish greats not so secure, had it not been for a breathtaking act of creativity. Like most of the best ideas, it was essentially simple. Human tragedy: the unemployed men of the Glasgow shipyards. Human possibility: use and celebrate their craftsmanship. Human result: the restoration of an abbey. And then: a community for all the world to come, think, talk.
     The question is: how do we translate the practical vision of George MacLeod into the Scotland of the early 21st century? How are we to manage this when our wishes and aspirations as a society are so clearly disconnected from those of the UK as a whole? How are we to be creative, and intellectually free, in the midst of the rampant opportunism, the surrender of principle, the easy flexibility of ethic, we have witnessed this week? How do we survive spiritually as a nation in the face of these remote new masters, remote in every sense of that word?
     Oh for a vision, the vision of a MacLeod – astonishing us with its brilliance, its integrity, its practicality, its humanity. Oh for a MacLeod.
     But there – I’m in danger of falling into the self-pity that in George’s dream Lorna exhorted him to avoid. A national self-pity is the obvious risk. We’re world champions in self-pity; we leave the rest of the field standing. How to avoid it this time? I am asking too many questions. I have no answers.
     Except maybe a more co-operative spirit and a succession of small steps. It will be important to support the arts and literature: they are what keep us alive. They are obviously threatened by what has happened and what may be about to happen; they are peculiarly vulnerable; they must be fought for. SR and the excellent Scottish Review of Books share an interest in independent quality journalism; from today we will support each other through mutual promotion of our publications. A small step, of course: but if it is repeated across Scotland in many different ways, by people and organisations with broadly the same objectives, it will make a difference. It will make us stronger as a community.
     And, in the spirit of George MacLeod, we must encourage and stimulate new thought. The George MacLeod Trust, in association with SR, is setting up an online forum inviting contributions from people of all political persuasions and none. The forum has a finite life; behind it there is the restless urgency of MacLeod himself. We hope it will be supported by SR readers and that it will lead somewhere. But, please, not into a wilderness of negativity and depression.
     Next week, SR will announce a bold new initiative of its own. We have had a windfall: a large donation from an anonymous admirer. We intend to spend it positively. We will invest it in talent. But more of that later.
     Oh George, stop all this self-pity. You’ve a lot to do. Just get on with it.
     Exactly.

[click here] for Unblocking the gutter. Maxwell MacLeod introduces the online forum
[click here] for Scotland Quo Vadis