Over the last few weeks, there has been much in the Scottish media about young Simon Macmillan, the boy who has gone missing in South Uist in the Western Isles.
He is a member of a family I know well. While he was never one of my pupils, I can recall him growing up in the community. His enthusiasm for piping made him stand out from others; his fingers able to nimbly beat out the skirl of a tune. He did this whether he performed on his own or as a member of the school pipe band, showing a rare dedication to the art and craft of the “big music” or ceol mor.
Watching them with a great deal of pride on these occasions were his parents. His mother Liz was one of my former colleagues, a French teacher at the school, while Angus, his dad, was a man I first met at the age of 17 or 18 at a party in the Glasgow flat he shared with his two sisters. As a fellow-Hebridean, I was made welcome there on many an occasion. They were good people to be around, so much so that I was often (over) relaxed in their company.
Clearly I have been thinking of them a great deal in recent times, conscious of all they have been undergoing, the questions swirling through their heads. The uncertainties and doubts over Simon’s whereabouts have done much to prolong their agonies, undoubtedly making their moods continually switch between hope and despair. At one moment there must be a small gleam at the thought he might be found; at another there is darkness, the suspicion that this might never occur. And at all times, there are prayers; the turning to each other, the police and community, the mercy of God in the hope of an answer.
Most of us will never have to experience such a whirlwind of emotions. Our dead are certain, sure, their condition confirmed in the comforting words of a doctor or the more agonising sight of a loved one in their final moments. There are, however, a small number who might lack that sense of closure, fated to wonder, perhaps, for months or years what has happened to those missing from their lives. They include those who a few decades ago went out for a walk across the moor and never came back; the ones who took a short trip into town and failed to return; or took out their boats on a calm day not to be seen ever again.
These events bring out both the best and worst of our communities. There are the large search-parties which in islands as far apart as South Uist and Unst have gone out on a number of occasions when these events have occurred, looking for the missing individual. People give freely of their time, providing comfort to the close families of those who are lost in hundreds of ways. And then there are the cards, good wishes, telephone calls – each one a tiny act of consideration and concern.
Yet there is also another, darker side. There was one household I know that for years were tormented by tales of their missing father or husband being seen in various places, such as Liverpool or Glasgow, with their new families by their side. Others, too, have been made miserable with rumours that the disappearance was linked with secret affairs, financial difficulties, a litany of small crimes and ill-doings. For some people it seems a simple misfortune or accident is never quite enough. There must be a complicated reason for it.
I have been reminded of this a great deal over the last while, especially with some of the tales that have surrounded recent events, undoubtedly adding to a family’s distress. Reporters from the central belt of Scotland have arrived in the Western Isles with all their prejudices intact, alleging, for instance, there has been a sectarian assault within the islands. They do this despite all the evidence that there has never been an Orange or Hibernian Walk in the Hebrides; that its Protestants are sometimes to be seen in green-and-white hoops, its Catholics – like Simon – resplendent in blue; that the worst bigots living within its boundaries have always been those with the imprint of Govan (or thereabouts) found within their DNA. And then there have been – what was probably – the more local “inventions”, such as the tale of a victim being lashed by strips of seaweed to a gravestone a few months before. This seemed to have been based on some “pre-nuptial” jape that never even involved the missing youth.
It is obvious what aspect of human nature is responsible for all of this. There is a part of people that hates the inexplicable, what we cannot understand. It is this that leads some of us to invent secret affairs and financial wrongdoings to explain a disappearance, create mysterious families that could entice a man (or woman) away from these shores. There is nothing a gossip dislikes more than his or her ignorance; better to make up fictions and fantasies than do so.
In these traits, the world remains what it has always been.
Yet what is different now is that we have a press which seems almost too willing to believe, repeat and echo these tales. We saw it in the aftermath of Madeleine McCann’s disappearance; in the series of lies that were told about men that were later discovered to be innocent, such as Robert Murat or Colin Stagg. We saw it, too, in the news campaigns of the Daily Mail, when many people were put off giving MMR injections to their offspring as a result of its reports. In all these cases, ill-informed gossip was elevated to gospel and much distress and misery caused as a result.
And what is even more striking is the way these press-barons and editors, who regularly call for individuals to resign or be sacked for such misdemeanours – such as a “bad word” on the radio – fail to follow the logic of their own words. They rarely confess their errors. The word “Sorry” has to be squeezed from their lips. When this does happen, as it did in the case of Colin Stagg or Robert Murat, a (relatively) small sum changes hands. The latter-day Pontius Pilates of the nation’s press wash their hands quickly and move on. There are no resignations, no evidence of the sense of responsibility they ask continually from others.
For the sake of the vulnerable, both in terms of individuals and communities, it is time this changed, that the rights of people to be protected from libel and slander, particularly at a time of personal sorrow, were observed too.
Donald S Murray