Last stronghold of the strict Scottish sabbath set to crumble

The days when nearly everything other than praying is banned on Sundays on some Scottish islands may be numbered after most inhabitants backed ferry services on the sabbath. An opinion poll on Lewis and Harris, in the Western Isles, indicated that more than 60 per cent of people want Sunday air and sea links and 72 per cent back a referendum on the issue.

The result will provoke a fierce debate on the islands, where sabbatarianism among the "Wee Frees" of the Presbyterian Free Church has been almost an article of island citizenship. The ferry operator Caledonian McBrayne abandoned plans in 1988 to begin a Sunday service between Skye and Tarbert in Harris after fishermen threatened to blockade the port. However, CalMac has long expressed a hope of reintroducing the plans.

The recent shift in opinion on Lewis and Harris may reflect concern about safety among the islanders, since Sunday air and ferry services would provide better links to health services. Additionally, given the numbers of family members living in mainland Scotland, better transport would make weekend visits easier.

But the shift on the transport issue is not reflected in support for extended shopping - 63 per cent of those polled opposed opening on Sundays.

The poll, by Mori for BBC Scotland, surveyed 750 islanders, and has angered the Free Church, which has accused the BBC of trying to stir up division in the community. The Rev Donald MacDonald, a minister in Lewis and chairman of the Lord's Day Observance Society, said: "We are totally opposed to any services being introduced. [Observance of the sabbath] is God's law. It is moral law and is binding on us all." The society opposes a referendum on the subject.

However, with only 24 per cent of islanders registering strong opposition to Sunday ferries and flights, there may now be calls for CalMac and British Regional Airlines, which serve the islands, to begin operating on Sundays. Lewis and Harris have failed to thrive in recent years and are losing population, while nearby Skye has a rising population - partly because of better transport links since the opening of the Skye bridge in 1995.

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