The Outer Hebrides / Stornoway, Isle of Lewis
21 April 1959 – October 1970
My grandfather, on my father’s side, met the Bahá’í Faith before the first visit of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá to Stuttgart, Germany in 1913. We do not have much information other than three letters of my grandfather written to a relative at the beginning of 1912. In those letters he excitedly wrote about this new-found Faith, expressing eternal gratitude and deep thanks to God for this great bounty in having found this wonderful Faith! Some of the photos taken during the visit of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá to Stuttgart in 1913 show among the friends my grandmother with my father as a five year old boy.
During World War II the Faith in Germany was prohibited, and therefore very little is known about that period. We just know that it was a very difficult time for parents to bring up their children. However, the three of us were brought up in the spirit of the Faith, although we belonged to the Protestant Church.
As soon as the War was over, Bahá’í activities began openly; also the Administration could function and the laws of the Faith were slowly enforced. My two older brothers attended study classes held in the home of Dr. Mühlschlegel, and sometime afterwards they declared themselves as Bahá’ís. Myself, as the youngest, attended the Bahá’í children‘s classes, and later the youth activities and summer schools etc. I only declared as a Bahá’í when I was about 18 years old. After the International Conference in Stockholm in 1953, my two brothers left to pioneer – my older brother to Austria and my younger brother, 20 years old, to Crete (where he became a Knight of Bahá’u’lláh).
In 1957 I heard about the possibility of going to Britain as “au pair” for one year. My parents agreed that I could go although my two brothers were already living abroad. With the kind help of the British Bahá’í friends, I found a lovely family in Cambridge (not Bahá’ís) and a wonderful Bahai community! Amongst my friends there were Mrs Lamb, Joan Benfield (later Mrs Ernest Gregory), Marina Nazar (Bridle), Jan Coppen (Mughrabi), Mahin Tofigh (Humphrey), Sephatollah Buick Agahi and Peter Vuyiya (later a member of the International Teaching Centre in Haifa). So I left my job in Germany and moved to Cambridge for one year. This one year was a very important time for me as I learned much of great value during this time. When my year in Cambridge was over, I felt very sad at having to leave this lovely community and country which I had learned to love so much. But, as it turned out, and to my great joy, I was to return to Britain in 1959 but this time to Scotland, to Stornoway – the Isle of Lewis – Outer Hebrides – which became my home for the next 11 years.
In the spring of 1958, when visiting the Haziratu’l-Quds in London, I heard Stornoway/Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides mentioned for the first time. Betty Reed, then Secretary of the National Spiritual Assembly, said to me in her usual beaming way, “Wouldn’t you like to go to Stornoway?“ At that time I could not think of anything other than going home to Germany because I had broken my collarbone in Cambridge, my arm was in a sling and I knew I had to go into hospital after the International Conference which was to be held in Frankfurt in July 1958. Also, sadly, my one year‘s stay as a mother‘s help in Cambridge was about to finish and shortly after my visit to London I had to leave the British Isles.
At the Conference in Frankfurt, however, something unexpected happened. I heard the name of Stornoway mentioned again; in fact, a Bahá’í was urgently needed there. I had no qualifications to do any special job in Britain and as a Bahá’í I felt I knew nothing, so I never really considered moving. At this International Conference, before the pioneering call was made, the participants had the privilege of viewing a portrait of Bahá’u’lláh. Never would I have thought it possible that a portrait could have such power and affect anyone so much as it did me.
We were seated in rows and then we gradually wound our way through the rows of people, slowly coming nearer to the Holy Portrait. As I came closer and closer to the portrait I could feel the waves of love, or the rays of His Holiness, reaching into my heart. It was so strong that I thought my heart would stop beating. When I finally stood in front of the Portrait I could hardly bear it; it was as if I was standing before His Holiness Bahá’u’lláh in person. I felt so small, so inadequate, and so ashamed because I had not done anything. After looking upon the face of the Blessed Beauty, I was so shattered I could not stop crying for a long time. This was such a relief as in fact it seemed to wash away from me all previous thoughts. I felt empty of everything except for a deep happiness and peace within me.
That same afternoon or perhaps the next day, I don’t quite remember, there was a roll-call from all over the world to fulfil the goals of the Ten Year Crusade. As the call came for the Outer Hebrides – Stornoway – I don’t know what happened to me but I just got up and walked to the stage where others had gathered. I distinctly remember feeling that ‘someone‘ was leading me out there. It was all so strange that I cannot really describe it. I felt so very, very happy and as though I was floating on air. Actually I was astonishing myself, my parents and my many friends.
During the months that followed I prepared myself for my new post and for my return to my beloved Great Britain. I loved the Bahá’ís in Britain very much and now here I was about to return to be amongst them again. I thank God for having given me this chance. From the moment of accepting Stornoway as my new home, I could not think of anything else. People tried to warn me of all sorts of dangers but nothing bothered me any more. Nothing material seemed important; I was going to serve Bahá’u’lláh! I decided that God must want me to go to Lewis for a special reason. Of course I had the blessing of my dear parents although they were bound to have been worried about me as I was going to the unknown. However, I also knew that they were overjoyed that their daughter was also about to go out to serve Bahá’u’lláh like their two sons.
I was 22 years old and I started out on my journey about the middle of April 1959 with lots of love and prayers from the friends and my beloved family. I wanted to arrive in Stornoway by 21st April.
On the way I visited many friends. During the whole journey to my Scottish island I felt Bahá’u’lláh very close to me. I was so gloriously happy. The Knight of Bahá’u’lláh to Lewis was still living in Stornoway but unfortunately she had become inactive. My first task upon my arrival, therefore, was to contact her. I was not worried about what might await me as
“Armed with the power of Thy Name nothing can ever hurt me, and with Thy love in my heart all the world-afflictions can in no wise alarm me.” (Bahá’u’lláh)
Eventually I arrived in Stornoway by steamer, Loch Seaforth, on 21st April 1959. As the boat docked, many people stood at the pier. No doubt it was to them a daily routine but to me it was as if they had all come to meet me, as a Bahá’í. As I had made no contact with the Knight of Bahá’u’lláh I booked into the first hotel I came to at the pier, the old Caledonian Hotel. It gave me a bed for the night and also a chance in the morning to have a look around my new island home to find other accommodation.
Here I should perhaps explain something about the Knight of Bahá’u’lláh to the Outer Hebrides. Geraldine Craney was an Irish girl who had become a Bahá’í in Nottingham but was cut off from her whole family when she accepted the Faith. After the pioneer call for the island was made at the start of the Ten Year Crusade, Geraldine, a new believer, arose to serve Bahá’u’lláh in Lewis where she lived on her own from 1953 to 1959. She no doubt had visits from Bahá’ís during these years but unfortunately she became inactive.
In the first few days I tried to find accommodation and work but it proved to be very difficult, especially as I had no idea where to start. With the kind help of the proprietress of the hotel, I was able to find accommodation but it was not available for another two weeks as the lady of the house was on holiday. So, for the next two weeks I remained at the hotel and met many people. I studied a great deal and went for endless walks in the castle grounds. All this time I felt very close to Bahá’u’lláh; I was gloriously happy and never felt alone. I could feel the presence of the heavenly angels. It was such a wonderful feeling which I cannot really describe with my inadequate words. The prayers and the love of my family and the many friends everywhere helped me tremendously.
My next step was to go to the local hospital to see the matron, Miss Smith, about a job. She was quite willing to give me a chance although the results of the entrance exam were not very good because of the very little English I knew. However, I was to start as an auxiliary nurse the next day and this was within the first week of my arrival in Stornoway. The matron had to get permission from the police to employ me but I was not allowed to start work, paid or unpaid, for three months, i.e. until my visitor‘s visa had expired. Of course I was entirely ignorant of this fact and it was only after many months that I realised why I did not get that job, namely, because I would have had to leave the island after the one year training as an auxiliary nurse in order to continue my training at a hospital on the mainland.
I just carried on praying, studying and walking. A kind lady, a welfare officer for the island, who also stayed at the hotel, took me with her when she visited places outside the town. I loved what I saw. Of course, when one goes out to serve as a Bahá’í, one is not thinking of what one will find there, or if one will like or dislike the place, but only of serving Bahá’u’lláh.
After the two weeks had passed, I moved in with the family with whom I had found accommodation, Katie and Bob Barr, at 7 Bain Square. They had three children – two boys and a little girl aged seven. They were a very wonderful family. It was like coming home and I became very much one of the family. As I had no job to keep me busy, I made myself useful around the house and learned a great deal about the people I came to live with. From there I started to learn as much as I could about the island and its inhabitants. I started taking evening classes in the Gaelic language, the language spoken on these islands besides English, but it was far too early for me as my vocabulary in English was as yet too limited.
In July I got another chance to apply for a job, this time as a kitchen maid in a boys‘ hostel in town. I was successful and the matron wrote to the Home Office for permission to employ me. About a month later I got a telephone call from the hostel asking me to come and see the matron. She wanted to tell me personally that she had given the job to a local girl. Because of the high rate of unemployment on the island, she naturally had to consider her own people first.
A little later that month I received a letter from the Home Office, asking me to leave the country within 10 days. This was to be expected as they had twice given me permission to work but in the end I did not get either job. I knew, however, that nothing is ever as bad as it appears and that if Bahá’u’lláh wanted me to stay on the island I would be able to. The letter had come as a shock to the Barr family. From the time of my moving in with the family they were always extremely kind to me in every way, even to the extent of charging me very little, sometimes nothing, for my board and lodging. They knew that I received money from the Bahá’í Fund, as my own funds had finished, and they thought this wonderful. However they also saw that I was not happy having to accept money from the Fund and that I was desperately wanting a job.
The day the letter arrived from the Home Office was also the day the local newspaper, the Stornoway Gazette was published. I telephoned the Pioneer Committee in London informing them of my current situation and to ask if they could help me with the visa, but there was nothing anyone could do. After my conversation finished with London, I picked up the Gazette and there I found a vacancy for a housekeeper – to apply to Mr. John Morrison, locally known as Johny Moi, at 3 Goathill Cresent. Mrs. Barr was certain that this job would be good for me because the woman was ill in bed; the husband and the three sons were known to be very nice. Work did not worry me in the least and I knew Bahá’u’lláh would give me strength and courage to take on this job, if I was to get it.
I forgot to mention that during those first few weeks on the island, my dearly loved friend, Joan Gregory, came to visit and help me settle and straighten out certain points which in my inexperience I had left unfinished. It was wonderful to have a fellow Bahá’í close by me. Joan knew Geraldine very well so we both went to visit her and got to know each other that way. We never met for any feast or celebration because as far as she was concerned, she had retired from the Faith.
Now, after seeing that advert in the paper, Mrs. Barr made me go to see Mr. Morrison at his work, and before he even heard who I was, he took me to his house to see his wife. I told him that I could not cook and that I had little experience otherwise as a housekeeper. He would not listen to me and he just said, “Surely you can cook bacon”. When we reached the house he told me that he had three sons who had finished school and that his wife was sick in bed. When I met his wife I got a terrible shock. She was very weak and looked like someone half starved. There and then I got the job, and I agreed to start. They really needed help desperately and Bahá’u’lláh guided me there. They had had many housekeepers but no one ever stayed. The house had been without a woman’s hand for a whole month and the place was a shambles. The following week Mr Morrison saw the police and the labour exchange, and he arranged for me to start as his housekeeper as quickly as possible. All was wonderful! I had a job at last! But I continued to live with the Barr family.
I just don’t know how I managed to look after four grown men with huge appetites and one woman ill in bed, a big house, a garden and endless washing and ironing (the men all worked at the father‘s saw-mill). The first week of my working there I washed and ironed 20 shirts. Looking back at my time with the Morrisons, I enjoyed every minute of it. To me it was as if it was my own family. With the cooking and the sick lady I had some difficulties, but Mrs. Barr was always ready with recipes and advice. Often I had to telephone her for help.
Eventually I got friendly with the dear family next door. It was an absolute delight to get to know them, Muriel and Kenneth Stewart, 5 Goathill Crescent, and their two delightful daughters, Jean and Shona. Kenneth had a store in the centre of the town. We became very good friends and I loved these children as if they were my own, especially Shona the little one, just two years old. She would wait every morning at their window until she saw me coming and then she spent most of the day with me. Muriel was also a great help to me in every way, and was always ready with recipes and advice. After being a month with the Morrison family, the lady seemed a little better, until one day when I arrived in the morning she was just conscious but could not speak any more. She was taken to hospital but before they took her we prayed together and I knew she understood. She died shortly after.
I continued to work at the Morrisons‘ house for 2½ years and during that time the father read a Bahá’í book, and he also met some of the Bahá’í visitors. While I was working there I got to know many people in Stornoway because I joined the Photo and Badminton clubs, joined the country dancing and also attended the ‘O‘ level English class. Mrs Barr was very active with the Old Folks Club and I helped with their activities and later became a member of the committee. We collected money, from house to house, for building a new Retirement Centre, and visited old and sick people at home, bringing them gifts at Christmas etc.
It was wonderful and important for me to be participating in all these activities. When Bahá’í visitors started coming to Stornoway, it was often difficult to find a place to meet. Joan Gregory and Ian Semple and also a Canadian Bahá’í, Bob Beattie (an Insurance Agent for the Western Isles) came to visit while I was still living with the Barr family. As time passed, we had many discussions on different subjects about the faith at the Barr home. Later, when I lived somewhere else I was able to take my visitors to the homes of my friends.
Around the end of 1961 Mr Morrison told me that he wished to marry again. He gave me enough time so that I could find other work. My friends thought it would be difficult to find another job but I knew better! If Bahá’u’lláh wanted me to stay, I would find something.
In fact, the miracle happened at the beginning of the next year (1962). I was offered a job in a Harris Tweed Mill, at Messrs. S.A. Newall & Sons, through a man I did not know and had never met before. Mr Adam Macleod made it possible for me to work there. It was an office job and I would be helping, if necessary, at the senior manager‘s house.
After 2½ years of domestic work I was allowed to take office work provided, of course, there was no local person who could do this job. My official job at Newall’s was as clerk and translator. When the boss needed to get permission to employ me, he asked for permanent clearance from the Home Office for me, and they gave it. Normally this was not granted until after five years‘ stay in the country.
So I started work with that firm in March 1962. This was great!! I had a chance to get to know these lovely people and their beautiful island more closely. The people I worked with were very special as they let me feel in a very short time I was one of them. We had great discussions on all subjects and they appreciated their friend who was not drinking alcohol because of her religion.
I had occasional Bahá’í visitors and was able to participate in different meetings held on the mainland in Inverness, which was wonderful. My annual holidays, at least for three weeks in the year, I usually spent with my family and friends in Germany and these were special. There I could gather new strength and be among Bahá’ís, talk to them, pray with them and gather their love and take it with me back to the island for another year.
In 1966, I was asked to move to ‘Linclive ‘ in Goathill Road, which was the home of Mr S. Newall, the senior manager. His daughter was incurably sick and needed someone to look after her, her father and the dog and their home. She was a very brave, sweet and thoughtful girl. She suffered from throat cancer and was very bravely fighting it. She eventually died in December 1966.
I was asked by the junior boss, Albany Newall, to stay on and look after his father, Mr Samuel Newall. They were absolutely wonderful to me. I could invite any number of friends in and I felt great as I could now return some of the love and kindness shown to me by my friends over all these years.
The following year (1967) Mr Samuel Newall died suddenly while on a fishing holiday. Young Mr Albany Newall asked me to stay in the house to look after everything while he and his wife, Anne Stirling, were re-arranging the whole house to their liking, as they were going to move in the following spring. I stayed there for eight months.
After that I moved to Mrs Maciver’s home, a few houses further down the road but there I did not stay long because the old lady had expected someone different. After that, an old lady, Miss Mary Macdonald (Mary Ruach as she was locally known) had asked me several times before when we met, if I would come and live in her house, as it was too big for her alone. Up until that time it had not been possible for me to move there but now I was free to do so. Miss Macdonald‘s house was also in Goathill Road. She was a very kind and friendly lady and I was able to have as many visitors as I wanted. She also met some of the Bahá’í friends visiting the island.
Of course I still continued to work at the mill, at the weavers payment office, and it was lovely! I was also asked occasionally to look after visitors of the firm who came from many different countries, and were accommodated in the flat belonging to the firm in Smith Avenue. This was also a very special time for me because I always had the opportunity to talk about my faith.
Some people on the island had heard of the Bahá’í faith long before I arrived and the wonderful friends who came to visit me had opportunities to teach, most of all Bob Beattie. As an Insurance Agent, he brought the Faith to many homes on the island. Also, among the visitors to the island was dear Gloria Faizi, the wife of Mr Faizi, the Hand of the Cause. She came in July 1965 at the time when money was being collected for the swimming pool fund, so we talked and the students of the town arranged for Gloria to cook a Persian meal, which was a great success. Also Richard St. Barbe Baker came to give a talk about his foundation “Men of the Trees“. Also other visitors came but unfortunately I did not keep a record of them.
During these eight years on the island I begged Bahá’u’lláh to send other Bahá’ís to support the ongoing work, which had so far not shown any visible results. I was wondering if perhaps I should leave the island because all other goal towns had progressed but not Stornoway. However, Bahá’u’lláh gave me the strength and courage to stay on. I had come to this island for a special reason. I loved this place and its wonderful people. I had made many, many dear friends and had become one of them.
On 14th February 1968 my prayers were answered – another Bahá’í arrived! I was overjoyed and felt gloriously happy that at last a fellow believer had come. As time went on, he encountered tremendous difficulties and he was not able to cope. Unfortunately I could not help him other than with prayers, and after five months he finally left.
The leaving of this pioneer was in a way quite discouraging but I just continued to pray, live the life and practise the principles. Another year passed without another Bahá’í coming to Lewis. I often wanted to tell the friends in Britain just to come – never mind finding this and that in front of you – as Bahá’u’lláh will protect, guide and sustain you if you arise to serve His cause. But somehow I could never say anything. My words were just not adequate enough. I was never any good at words, but I felt close to Bahá’u’lláh. I have learned so very much since I came here and for this I am eternally grateful. The very special lesson I have learned is that many words are not necessary, but happiness, sincerity and love is and that is what the people feel.
I think I should explain here something very important, which is not easy to understand by people not living on the island. Most inhabitants of these islands are very proud of their history and want to keep their beautiful, old language alive. Although they are very friendly, I think that they feel basically upset when people from outside (not from the island) come and try to change their way of life. This has, of course, also to do with the different churches whose dogmas are very rigid, and whose power has been the main influence on the people and their way of life. The islanders had grown used to this and therefore did not easily respond to ‘strangers‘, as everyone was referred to who was not born on the island. However, when they get to know you and find that you can be trusted, and that you want to learn about their lives, their history etc, and they feel your love – although you have a different religion and a different outlook on life – you will really be their friend for life. They seem to keep the person and his or her belief apart.
In my case there was, of course, the additional factor that Bahá’u’lláh wanted me to stay and so things worked out with my job, which no one expected. The change in their outlook could be felt, alone through all the prayers, although it is a very slow process. This change naturally comes about through the young people. Many leave the island after having finished their schooling, either to study or to join the armed forces, the merchant navy, or by looking for work on the mainland as there is very little work on the island. They may come back later if they find a job, or marry on the island. In the olden days most people worked as weavers. They had their looms in their home, got the orders and payments from the local mills, and so wove the famous Harris Tweed. This way of life was also slowly changing.
With the next pioneer call, in August 1969 two young Bahá’ís, Doreen Holdsworth and Roderick Grant, both primary school teachers, arrived in Stornoway. We were now a group and held our feasts, celebrations and consultations for plans and action. It was all so very wonderful but also not so easy for me. Because we were now a group I had to adjust rapidly to a different way of life, to young people with modern ideas. However, before the plans could be put into action, these dear friends would have to settle into their new jobs and get used to the people, to the place and to the group.
Through a friend of mine I got a council house (9 Portrona Drive) for one year for Doreen, while the lady was abroad. Roddy was not so lucky; he lived first in a bed-sitter, and later in a caravan, at the Rosebank Guesthouse. Since Doreen’s and Roddy’s arrival we made quick progress. The power was tripled. That autumn of 1969 we had a lot of visitors, due to the new arrivals and the wave movement. I certainly now had what I was praying for all those years, fellow Bahá’ís living on the island!! We said a special prayer every morning before leaving for work and at a set time at night, to be guided to one person a day and talk about the Faith. The result was that many people came to hear about the Faith and it seemed as though the whole town was, at one time or another, at 9 Portrona Drive.
We realised that with all these new contacts something had to be done in public so that the people could investigate more. First we decided that Joan Gregory on her next visit would be asked to present to the local library the book The Bahá’í Revelation. We also planned a Bahá’í week at Easter, at the beginning of April 1970.
On 17th February 1970 another Bahá’í arrived, Verdun Wake from Durham, who moved in with Roddy in the caravan. Now we were four Bahá’ís.
In February 1970 I had the great bounty of going on pilgrimage to Haifa. I could hardly believe that I was going to the Holy Land. On my way there I stopped in Greece to visit my brother and his wife who were living on the island of Crete. There, I was offered a job for two years. This was very important news because it was very difficult at that time to get any Bahá’í pioneers into Greece. As in the Nine Year Plan a pioneer was needed for Crete, I began to think of leaving my Island of Lewis at one end of Europe, as there was now a group there, and moving to the other end of Europe, to the island of Crete. First I would, of course, have to write to the National Spiritual Assemblies of Germany and the British Isles and ask for their guidance.
When I returned to Lewis, preparations for the Easter week were being made. I knew within myself that I would need to leave soon and that it was time for my departure from my beloved island and its people I loved so much. The foundation was laid and Lewis was entering now into a new phase.
As Stornoway was a priority goal for Ridván 126 (1970) we knew that more Bahá’ís were needed to come or that we needed the much prayed for new Bahá’ís. Before the Easter week we had the wonderful news that three more friends would be coming to join us, so we would then only need two more souls to reach the goal – the Local Spiritual Assembly of Stornoway. Alma Gregory, Minoo R. Servastani and Rita Bridge (later Bartlett) were shortly to arrive.
A week before the planned Easter teaching project, Joan Gregory came for our preparation and deepening, and many other friends also came to help during this whole period. The Easter week was a great success! We could feel the change of spirit in these islands; the people were awakening! We had our first short radio interview, through a dear friend, Mr Smith from Tong. Quite a few locals attended our meetings each night, and especially the youth seemed to be aglow.
In conjunction with the Easter project we wrote to all the dignitaries of the town and expressed the wish to present them with a copy of the book The Proclamation of Bahá’u’lláh. Only a few people replied and wanted to accept a copy. The provost, D. Stewart, received a copy of Bahá’u’lláh and the New Era, as the SGC thought it more appropriate. Two of the clergymen, the Rev. Bowie and Rev. Maclean and the Rector of the Nicolson Institute, Mr E. Young, received a Proclamation copy. Each person was visited and presented with the book and some excellent discussions took place.
With the three new Bahá’ís arriving and with the new spirit we were so happy and full of hope that we would reach the goal, but it was not to be. However, we could now look forward to progress, as we were now seven Bahá’ís on the island. After Ridván, we decided to have fortnightly public meetings at a local hotel, but although we detected a new glow before, there was no response from the local people. A wave of declarations from the Island of Orkney seemed to have reached the Western Isles, and one person became a Bahá’í on the Island of Mull, and so we felt sure that it would reach us soon too.
Before the school closed for the summer holidays, we applied for the use of a classroom in the school for regular use of our public meetings. Their negative decision was published in the local newspaper, i.e. ‘no’ to our application. In the meantime, my offer and decision to leave the island was confirmed and it came as a great shock to my dear friends. In September 1970 one of my colleagues, a friend at the mill, asked me to be a bridesmaid at her wedding. Her chief bridesmaid was an old schoolfriend of hers, so there was no problem for me arising from the signing procedure in the church. I was delighted and it was a wonderful time we had.
After our successful Bahá’í week at Easter, we planned a Bahá’í fortnight at the end of the summer as many students would be able to come and support us. We had great difficulties in finding a proper place for this activity but eventually we got the youth club hut for the two weeks and their members themselves supported this activity. Many dear friends came to help, and it also seemed to be a great success. Those dear young Bahá’ís who came especially for this fortnight, and the ones who were here throughout the summer, did wonderful work.
I left Stornoway – the Island of Lewis – in October 1970, with a very heavy heart, to return to Germany. Then in February 1971 I left for Greece – the Island of Crete – my new island home.
Although I had left Stornoway, my heart and my prayers will always be connected with this lovely Island and its beautiful people, whom I dearly love.
Volos, Greece, July 2013