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Blue skies on a Sunday afternoon on the Isle of Skye (Photo by Andrew Evans, National Geographic Traveler)

Sabbath on Skye

On Sunday, everything is pretty much closed in Skye.

Well, almost everything—at lunch I managed to grab a haggis sandwich in one village, and another pub let me use their Wi-Fi on the condition that I bought a drink—but otherwise, come Sunday, it seems the entire Isle of Mists shutters their windows in strict observance of the Sabbath.

The only thing that seems to open on Sunday is the church, and I passed by many of these bare, whitewashed chapels as I made my way down the splendid and intricate east coast of the Isle of Skye.

Unlike other Christian churches throughout the world, the churches on Skye sport no prominent steeple, but only offer a hint of a stone nub pointing skyward. I was curious about all these little churches in all these little villages—and thus it happened, come five o’clock in the evening, my curiosity pulled me away from the road and into the jam packed parking lot of the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland.

I was not dressed for church, alas—I wore hiking boots and climbing trousers, and I was still wet from the day’s storm, but I still entered the pure white church and shuffled sideways into a tight pew.

In the row in front of me sat four women, all with rather lavish black hats—as if a flock of ravens had landed on their heads.

My presence did not go unnoticed, and the congregation of around thirty churchgoers all made great efforts not to look at me directly while sizing up this tall stranger in muddy boots and with knees knocking against the pew.

Soon the minister appeared at the front of the chapel and we all stood and opened our Bibles to the correct psalm.

I had read about the Wee Frees of Scotland before, but this church—the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland—was something slightly different. These are the “Wee Wee Frees”—a reform church founded in 1893 as a breakaway from the Wee Frees (aka, The Free Church of Scotland). Church histories are always complex, but as I understand it, the Free Presbyterian Church was established in a move of separation from The Free Church of Scotland, which itself is a breakaway from the mainstream protestant movement, which broke away from Catholicism in the original Scottish Reformation.

As the minister read the psalms beneath a wooden roof of a century-old church, I realized that I was participating in a Scottish tradition that traces indirectly all the way back to Mary Queen of Scots.

The service was straightforward—readings from the Bible, a few stern prayers, one rather long sermon, a few readings from the psalms, as well as “songs of praise”, which meant “singing” the psalms we had just read.

But the “Wee Wee Frees” do not sing, per se. Instead, they launched into a monophonic chanting of the psalms, quite slow and melodic. One of the men of the church would begin, setting a baritone note that the rest of the congregation would follow, and slowly, the group moved through the words one note at a time.

There was no harmony or written music, for this is the monody that their beliefs call for (the more “mainstream” Free Church of Scotland only just allowed hymn singing and the use musical instruments as part of the service in 2010). These psalms like the human equivalent of the bagpipes, with a foundation of droning voices underlying a shifting melody across the top. Though I did not find the sound beautiful or overpowering, as a traveler in Scotland on a Sunday afternoon, the sound of local churchgoers singing the psalms in this very particular way that they do on Skye was touching, honest, and real.

And this is why I go to church wherever I am traveling in the world—be it a mosque in Baku, a synagogue in Tzfat, a Hindu temple in Panna, a Catholic mass in Dublin, or on this particular Sabbath—in a Wee Free chapel in Scotland.

These simple but stalwart churches are part of the landscape and history of the highlands and islands of Scotland, and no matter where one travels, one cannot ignore the beliefs of the people in any given destination.

Constantly, during the service, the minister prayed for “Our Island” and as I stood alongside this congregation, eyes closed, I pictured all the scenes I had witnessed that day on the Isle of Skye—the turbulent blue sea, the schizophrenic sky, and the green mountains rising and falling up and down and into the sea in half-moon bays of stone and sand. This was their island, I thought, and the way the minister prayed, this was their entire world—as if the Earth was nothing but blue ocean with its billions of mistaken outsiders versus the heavenly Isle of Skye, the last bastion of the true Christian Sabbath.

To travel is to drop oneself into another’s world and to see the rest of the world as they see it. On this last Sunday, standing amongst a village of believers in black, I saw Skye as the center of the universe, beautiful and right, guarded by fierce weather from the evils of the outside world.

Like most churches I visit, the Wee Wee Frees were some of the kindest people I’ve met, who chatted with me after the service and wished me the best of luck on my journey. Though in their eyes, I might be sinning by riding the bus or switching on the radio or buying gas, the only thing they said to me was “Welcome” and “We’re so glad you came.”

And I’m so glad I went.