On 1 December all who live in Lochbroom and District gathered at Ullapool’s creel tree. This year, the tree, which first took shape eight years ago and was created from borrowed prawn creels adorned with twinkling sparkling lights, has greater notoriety, as it features on BBC Scotland Landward. Folks of all faiths gather for the Ullapool Winter Lights big switch on, heralded by three short blasts of the iconic CalMac Ferry the Isle of Lewis. The symbolism of Christmas trees is rooted in paganism, and in years gone by the staunchly Presbyterian village of Ullapool would show little sign of Christmas celebrations, to the extent that even some shops stayed open on Christmas day.
Rev. Heidi Hercus arrives
But things move on, and this little village, which has always had melting-pot status since its inception as a herring-fishing hub in the 1700s, continues to evolve and change as new Scots come and go and make their mark on this little corner of Wester-Ross. In 2018, a new Minister was appointed to the Church of Scotland in Ullapool after a vacant period of seven years. The Rev. Heidi Hercus – a native of New York State – arrived at the village with her family with the intention to be “accessible and supportive” and, moreover, with a sense of humour. As Heidi got to know the village, she worked with the community to grow initiatives to support those in need.
Christmas trees are for everyone
But just three years ago Rev. Heidi faced uncertainty herself as she was told her visa status was uncertain and, with support from local MP Ian Blackford, she navigated a situation that was touch-and-go at times. This did not affect the Christmas spirit emanating from the Church of Scotland at Lochbroom, however. The inception of a Christmas tree festival opened the doors to a secular audience. The humour and creativity of Christmas trees entered the show, ranging from the sublime – a real tree entwined with holly berries and amethyst crystals – to the ridiculous – a Christmas tree constructed of tiny rubber ducks submitted by Ullapool High School.
The Ullapool Giving Tree provides much-needed support
Part of this popular event is the Ullapool Giving Tree. The tree collects gifts for all ages and food for the local food bank, which delivers to all those in need of extra help at Christmas. This year, John, (not his real name), a retired composer who won a scholarship to Glasgow’s Conservatoire in the late 1960s, will receive a present from the giving tree. He has no family and fell on hard times when his pension stopped, so he took to sheltering in doorways in Inverness and riding the buses by day to keep warm on his free bus pass. The tree is also helping a family with kids whose universal credit isn’t quite hitting the mark, providing them with a parcel of Coco pops and fresh fruit an veg at Christmas to boost their food supplies.
The Scottish people have always been generous
The Ministers of Ullapool have historically fought for social justice. In 1880, after the notorious clearances at Leckmelm, when a young family was thrown out into the snow, the Rev. John MacMillan of the Free Church raised a public meeting in Inverness to highlight the injustices faced by people in his parish. This agitation was fundamental to the hastening of all-too-late land reform, which led eventually to the establishment of the Napier Commission Inquiry into the Condition of Crofters and Cottars in the Highlands and Islands (1883).
This Christmas, the role of the Church was fundamental to community cohesion, and it happens far too often that the Giving Tree gives where the DWP fails to do so. There are many political points that could be made at this juncture. Safe to say, issues such as immigration and the distribution of welfare benefits should be in the hands of Scotland. There is only so much people can give, and they can only sustain it for so long. But, for now, people do keep giving and looking forward to the future with hope in their hearts.