In bleak and beautiful Stornoway, permanence and certainty have prevailed against the shifting spirits of the age, but they too must defer to the elemental force of Taylor Swift. Three days before the wee singer’s concerts in Edinburgh, a flock of pink and giggly Swifties had gathered at Stornoway's airport for the flight that will take them on their pilgrimage.

Torcuil Crichton, Labour candidate for Na h-Eileanan an Lar (Western Isles), watched them with a sense of wonder. “I’d gone to meet Anas Sarwar and was greeted with the once-in-a-lifetime vision of these sparkly kids in their cowboy hats and pink boots. My cousin Callum, who has just become Moderator of the Free Church of Scotland, was in the queue too and so I took Anas over to meet him.”

I’m compelled to publish the greeting that followed for the benefit of future cultural historians and am grateful to Mr Crichton for providing the source material.

Anas Sarwar (leader of the Labour Party in Scotland): “Are you off to see Taylor Swift, too?”

Callum Macleod, (Moderator of the Free Church of Scotland): “Er, no. I’m off to Inverness to prepare for communions at the weekend.”

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Torcuil Crichton relates this exchange to illustrate the reality of life on the edges of Scotland. These kids had had to plan their journey with military precision.

There's either a flight, or a ferry - if one is running - and for those travelling by boat there's a four-hour bus or train journey to Glasgow. Such a journey will require two or three nights of accommodation.

Any challenges the rest of us might encounter on the mainland are increased ten-fold on Lewis and Harris, the largest of the Outer Hebrides. “Any problems that are treated as routine on the mainland become potentially much more challenging here,” says Mr Crichton.

“Everything that we have in our fridges is subject to the regularity of the ferries. Everything in the shops and all the tools for basic day-to-day living rely on those boats.”

No other parliamentary constituency in the UK remotely resembles the Western Isles. Its numbers speak in superlatives. In terms of sheer land mass it’s one of the largest in the UK, yet has an electorate of just 21,000, Britain’s sparsest. This year, no other British constituency will feature an electoral contest as intriguing as this one.

StornowayStornoway (Image: Kevin McKenna)

Until late last year it might have been considered routine. Angus Brendan MacNeil had held it fairly comfortably for the SNP for 19 years, adroitly bridging the politics of faith and culture to make this seat his own. Then, he was expelled from the SNP for expressing loud dismay about their glacial and half-hearted approach to achieving independence. He stands as an independent.  

The selection of Mr Crichton for Labour added more spice. He had been a highly successful and widely respected political journalist at Westminster with some eye-catching film and television credits to his name. Like Angus MacNeil, he is a native of this archipelago whose family lineage – like that of his opponent - is rooted in the peatlands that swaddle this place.

It’s at this point, I must declare an interest. Mr Crichton was once my valued and kind-hearted colleague when we both worked at the old Sunday Herald. He’s had a stellar career in journalism and will be an asset to his party were he to be elected.

Mr MacNeil, meanwhile, once gave my mum and daughter a personalised tour of the House of Commons when they’d visited a few years ago. Some political observers disdainfully reach for words like ‘colourful’ to describe him, yet he is respected across Westminster’s political divide for his diligence on committees. Each is grudging when speaking of the other. The Labour people know that Mr MacNeil will be tough to shift.

The smart money would suggest a win for Mr Crichton. The SNP’s decision to field their own candidate, Susan Thomson, risks splitting the Nationalist vote, thus handing the seat to Mr Crichton. Neither the Labour man though, nor any of his detachment of canvassers are making any big claims. In a far-flung constituency where close neighbours are separated by fields and lochans it’s not easy to discern patterns of intent.

A harbour wall in Stornoway indicates you’re on holy ground. It overlooks what appears to be the wooden skeleton and eternal resting place of an ancient vessel at low tide. This though, is an art installation made in 2019 to mark the centenary of the sinking of the Iolaire, the troop-ship bearing islanders who’d fought in the Great War.

Each of the 280 wooden posts honours those who sailed with the Iolaire on January 1, 1919: 79 of them represent the survivors and 201 are for the dead. I’m startled to see that the artists are one Torcuil Crichton and Malcolm Maclean. “Is that you,” I ask the candidate. Indeed it is. I’m not sure if I’m more impressed that he’d crafted this with his old art teacher or that he’d never mentioned it before.

Change is the keyword for both Labour and the SNP, yet in these islands change is treated with suspicion. Older values such as steadfastness, loyalty and faith all proceed with respect for the unaltered symbiosis of earth, air, fire, water. The certainty and reliability of these things give life to places like this and preserve it.

Mr Crichton navigates them carefully and speaks passionately about the challenges of the islands. “There are so many great ventures and initiatives happening on Lewis and Harris.” He points to a shop called Ishga, a £3m business specialising in high-calibre skin products derived from seaweed. “They provide significant employment here, as do other enterprises, ranging from tech, tourism, food and drink and ingenious recycling of what comes from the sea and the land.

“But our eternal challenge is depopulation and the challenges that small businesses have in attracting skilled workers to come here. This isn’t helped by the price of property, especially in Harris. Where can the workers stay and settle?”

Torchuil Crichton is standing as Labour's candidateTorcuil Crichton is standing as Labour's candidate (Image: Getty)

He cites the big agencies integral to the economic development of the islands such as Calmac and the Highlands and Islands Development Board. “Islanders have scant representation on their boards,” he says. “They will always find it difficult to walk in our shoes. But at UK level we can get things moving in the right direction. At Westminster, we can have these concerns heeded.”

As we speak, news arrives of the suspension in Harland & Wolff shares, which seems to confirm local suspicions about the fate of the company’s operation, employing 145 skilled locals at nearby Arnish. Mr Crichton cites a recent visit by Labour’s shadow business secretary, Jonathan Reynolds, to Arnish. “He’s acutely aware of the issues here and knows how important sites like this are to the island economy. Having a direct voice at Westminster can be crucial.”  

I meet Christine, a former teacher and Director of Education and Billy Mackinnon, a local activist whose son Donald is Mr Crichtron’s election agent. They each relate Stornoway’s story of migration and its never-ending effect on the islands. “Those three emigrant ships that went from here in 1923 and 1924 to Montreal are bound up with the story of this place,” she says. “And yet,” says Billy, “you’ll find that many of those who moved away, eventually feel the urge to return.” The narrative on immigration changes course dramatically when you spend time here.

Later, I’m helping Angus Brendan MacNeil tie election posters to lampposts outside polling stations across the flat peatlands of the west. I’m not breaking my self-imposed electoral purdah as I’d helped carry some signage for Mr Crichton’s canvassers earlier in the day. Call it my modest contribution to the democratic process. 

“I’ve been delighted with the support I’ve received, especially from some SNP activists who, like me, have been dismayed by the histrionics in their party and the ruinous influence of the Scottish Greens. They know I’m passionate about what can be achieved by making our own decisions and that this passion has dimmed in the SNP.”

My lowland, urban sensibilities had thought we’d be embarking on a gentle hop around the villages. The vastness of these fields and peatlands and their defoliated grandeur has a mesmeric quality. Grinneabayat, Shawbost and Carloway with its views over to Berneray, places you’d only glimpsed fleetingly in the lore of these places.  

I entreat Mr MacNeil to take me to the standing stones at Callanish, those 5000-year-old sentinels in which the permanence of the islands is interred. I’m relieved and delighted that no modern and progressive accoutrements have been added to aid our understanding of them. Sometimes, you don’t need to understand; merely to wonder and imagine.

You’re compelled to make a spiritual connection between these Callanish stones and those wooden posts rising from the mud in Stornoway harbour. Several millenniums separate them in age, but they’re both united by their timelessness.

Labour and the SNP, as they always do, are promising change. But change is meaningless in a place like this unless first there’s understanding.