Silent protest greets first Sunday ferry as South Harris defends its way of life

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When the Loch Portain ferry sailed into South Harris yesterday, it was greeted with the rowdiest protest permitted on the Sabbath - a line of tape emblazoned with the words "Caution Keep Out" and a dockside devoid of humanity.

After months of protest, the corrosive impact of the first Sunday ferry service on the religious culture of the Outer Hebridean island, its inhabitants made clear their feelings about the inaugural voyage by punctiliously observing the Sabbath.

In case the 18 passengers and five cars landing in a snowstorm at the village of Leverburgh after the 60-minute crossing from North Uist were in any doubt about the views of dissenting natives, a placard read: "Exodus: Remember the Sabbath Day to Keep it Holy."

The prompt 10am arrival of the Loch Portain, operated by Scottish ferry company Caledonian MacBrayne, represents what leaders of the Western Isles' staunchly Free Presbyterian communities consider the latest assault on their faith after the arrival of Sunday aircraft flights and limited shop openings.

The islands remain one of the last bastions of strict Sabbatarian observance, with the majority of the 1,950 people on South Harris accepting the rigours of a Sunday of church, prayer and no work. The ban on activity extends from children playing with toys to using public transport.

The Rev Andrew Coghill, of the Lord's Day Observance Society, which had led the campaign against the ferry sailings, claimed that the opposition of a large majority of South Harris residents had been "trampled" by the introduction of the ferry service.

He said: "Of those who expressed any opinion, 90 per cent are against the sailing. It has caused division. The notion that we need to move into the 21st century is a patronising stance that we're quite familiar with."

But while the deafening silence that greeted the ferry would have been welcomed by the 711 Harris residents (two-thirds of the adult population) who signed a petition against the service, others on board saw the voyage as a victory against what they consider the stifling Christian fundamentalism of the Sabbatarians.

The ferry docks for only 10 minutes at Leverburgh before heading back across the Sound of Harris to Berneray on the neighbouring isle of North Uist. The seven-day operation allows residents and visitors to travel the length of the Outer Hebrides by car all week for the first time.

Archie Campbell, a councillor on North Uist, who campaigned for Sunday sailing, said: "People now have the choice to travel to Harris on a Sunday and they should have the right to exercise that choice. This is all about freedom of choice. It's a historic day."

The Calvinist rectitude of the "Wee Free" communities of the Western Isles, where up to 40 per cent of the population attend church compared to a national average of 8 per cent, has been eroded in recent years. Loganair started flying to the Isle of Lewis, neighbouring South Harris, on Sundays in 2002 after agreeing to restrict flights to the afternoon, when the churches and chapels are empty.

Sunday shopping started on Lewis three years ago and numbers have grown, despite a boycott by some clergy.

But with the arrival of the Loch Portain yesterday, opponents planned a legal challenge to Caledonian MacBrayne.

Morag Monro, the councillor for Leverburgh, said: "It's not just church people who are opposed, but also those who have come to appreciate a day of relaxation and a chance to be together with their families for one day. In the end I see this as being detrimental to tourism because it will wreck the way of life which attracts visitors here."

There was little sign that the ferry company would heed such protests. Caledonian MacBrayne said it would operate the service in "as sensitive and unobtrusive a way as possible".

All of which was too much for Donald MacDonald, a South Harris councillor for whom the sight of a ferry on the Sabbath was so dispiriting that he has gone away for a week.

A family member said: "He is very disillusioned and extremely disappointed. He's probably taken a break to get away from it all."