Though our journey was completed some weeks ago we are still processing the many lessons we learned from our encounters. Here are some reflections on our passage from Glasgow to Bute.
We felt renewed after our visit to Glasgow, enjoying kind hospitality from an interesting cross-section of people. My friend Martin had shown us some classic cultural hot-spots in the West End, including flea-markets and venerable pubs, while Issy’s friend’s brother’s wife’s parents Frances and Charles invited us into their home for champagne with the emeritus archbishop of Glasgow. We discussed religious intolerance and Islamophobia and Frances recalled being spat at for being Catholic when she was a little girl living in a Protestant area of Glasgow. We had seen orangemen marching past the cathedral the day before and had heard a local express fears that a vote for independence in Scotland would stoke up the religious and political fires still smouldering beneath the surface in Northern Ireland.
We left Glasgow via the national cycle route 75 which took us through the beautiful grounds of Pollock House, once home to an aristocratic family an a thousand-strong community of servants, it now houses a cafe and a time-travelling murder-mystery game.
Following the Clyde out through the suburb of Paisley we met a retired lollipop man called Andrew. He was out strolling and passing the time before boarding a bus then a train then a plane to Moscow. He is spending his pension and days of retirement travelling to far-off destinations, seeing the sights and staying in hostels. He spoke of the joys of meeting new people in distant lands, and was wiser for his experiences. We discussed the deprivations faced by many in Scotland with the decline of the ship-building industry and he countered that he had seen ‘real’ poverty in Vietnam.
We stayed overnight in Lochwinnoch before walking on through torrential rain and across boggy moorland to Largs where a warm welcome awaited us. We have occasionally found accommodation through Air BnB, relishing the opportunity to meet people who open their doors to strangers. In Largs we found the most fantastic host in the person of Colin, who cheerfully told us that he had died twice in the last week. He had been admitted to hospital with a very rare fever that meant he was quarantined. At the height of his illness he was visited by a specialist with the intention of having ‘the conversation’ about death. Colin pulled through and his chief concern appeared to be who would look after his guests! It was refreshing to meet with such tremendous courage so lightly worn.
We were now in sight of the sea once more, with views across the water to the hills of Arran. From here we would catch a ferry to Bute, for the first time moving towards our destination under artificial power instead of on our own two feet. The end of our journey was in sight, and we were now in what was to prove the most beautiful phase of our journey.
We had chosen the Way of the Islands rather than the Highland way past Loch Lomond, partly for the greater beauty of the Western Isles and partly because we knew Bute to be a key location in the contemporary story of refugees in Britain.
When we first discussed our idea of walking to Iona and researching refugees some friends in London had pointed out that some Syrian families had recently been resettled on Bute. It seemed unlikely that such a small and isolated community would be chosen as a place of resettlement so we looked it up and quickly found polarised views of a complicated situation. The Daily Mail had run a story about ‘ungrateful’ refugees failing to integrate with their new community. Other media outlets, local and national and including the BBC and The Guardian, ran counter stories praising the success of the initiative. It was obvious that media lenses were having their usual distorting or fuzzying effects and we decided we would like to go and learn what we could about the situation at first hand.
After a swift internet search we were soon in touch with Monica, Mounzer and Father Michael. Monica hosts the Facebook page ‘Bute Welcomes Refugees’. She opened her doors to us and gave us a meal and a bed in her beautiful home which she calls An Tearman, meaning ‘Sanctuary’ in Gaelic. We were reminded of the City of Sanctuary scheme and also the tradition of places of worship being places of refuge (a tradition too often noted for its violations, such as the murder of Thomas a Becket in Canterbury Cathedral. She told us about her experiences fostering teenagers whom others had branded ‘difficult’. She understood that these individuals thrived when they felt they were really listened to, and was able to provide that calm listening presence which harassed teachers and others had neglected to offer. She has a powerful empathy for refugee, which she put down to her own experience of war and destruction when she was an infant in Hamburg.
Mounzer is a barber, husband, and father who fled war in Syria and resettled in Bute. We discovered him via a local news article which described the barber-shop he had opened with the help of a business grant. His first customer was the local MP. He told us how he and the other Syrian families on the island had no choice over where he was resettled, and there were difficulties associated with being on an island with only two Arabic interpreters and limited work opportunities. Another man with university qualifications had been washing dishes at a stately home, and some families and moved away from the island to join larger Syrian communities in Bradford or Sheffield. Mounzer had stayed and worked hard to develop his English language skills. He volunteered at a local hair-dressers and learned about the different expectations of Scottish customers, and was still developing his barber’s small-talk. His children attend a local school and in the absence of any mosques he and other muslims are able to worship in the local parish church thanks to their new friend Father Michael. He gave me a first rate trim and a cup of cardamom tea and was friendly and efficient, bearing the long hours of fasting in his far Northern Ramadan with smiling equanimity.
As Mounzer had made clear, it takes perseverance to make a new life in a strange place, but he was sustained by the friendliness and kindness of the people he met on Bute. We had seen examples of that kindness in Monica and Father Michael, but we also heard about less friendly attitudes. One lady told me that the people of Bute felt they hadn’t been consulted before the resettlement scheme came into effect, leading to resentment and a feeling of disempowerment in the local community.
On a small island like this there is a clear division between those who are born here (in Bute’s case they are known as Brandaynes) and ‘incomers’, meaning everybody else. Even if you live on the island for decades you are still an ‘incomer’ if you are not born there. I spoke to a local builder whose family had been Brandaynes for generations, and while he claimed to be easy-going he spoke of others who resented the gifts of bicycles given to the children of Syrian families when local kids got nothing. He also spoke of local suspicions that the veils worn by Syrian women were a sign that they were not well treated. Local children, he told me, would shout out ‘ninja’ when they saw these women, and adults would gossip about domestic quarrelling among the Syrians as if it was something never seen in Scottish families.
In this sense Bute is a microcosm of Britain as a whole. Think of the all too common hostility to immigrants which is so often stirred up by elements of the media which conflates refugees and economic migrants into one threatening mass. In Bute, as in Britain, we see those who empathise with refugees and those who are suspicious or hostile. We live in hope that hostility and fear will diminish as time, proximity and education reduce ignorance and the shared humanity of the ‘incomers’ and ‘natives’ becomes apparent.