The Crofter and the Laird

The Crofter and the Laird

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by John McPhee, James Graves, James Gray

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This is the account of the author's return with his wife and four daughters to the land of his ancestors, the tiny Scottish island of Colonsay, twenty-five miles west of the Scottish mainland. This engaging volume gives us a lens clear view of island life and the people on it.

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This is the account of the author's return with his wife and four daughters to the land of his ancestors, the tiny Scottish island of Colonsay, twenty-five miles west of the Scottish mainland. This engaging volume gives us a lens clear view of island life and the people on it.

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Farrar, Straus and Giroux
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The Crofter and the Laird

By John McPhee

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Copyright © 1970 John McPhee
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-374-70864-1


THE SCOTTISH CLAN that I belong to—or would belong to if it were now anything more than a sentimental myth —was broken a great many generations ago by a party of MacDonalds, who hunted down the last chief of my clan, captured him, refused him mercy, saying that a man who had never shown mercy should not ask for it, tied him to a standing stone, and shot him. The standing stone was in a place called Balaromin Mor, on Colonsay, a small island in the open Atlantic, twenty-five miles west of the Scottish mainland. The event was not the first of its kind there, and in a sense the MacDonalds were only completing what had been begun in an earlier era, when a party of MacLeans landed on Colonsay, hunted down another chief of the native clan, and trapped him in a long and narrow cave. The cave had an entrance at each end. Somewhere between the entrances, there was an opening in the ceiling. The chief ran back and forth, apparently wondering which exit might be the safest, and at one moment he paused to contemplate the opening overhead. A MacLean who had been waiting for him to do just that killed him with an arrow from above. Certain other islands are prominently visible from Colonsay when the air is clear. The weather changes so abruptly there—closing in, lifting, closing in again—that all in an hour wind-driven rain may be followed by calm and hazy sunshine, which may then be lost in heavy mists that soon disappear into open skies over dark-blue seas. When the ocean is blue, the air is as pure as a lens, and the other islands seem imminent and almost encroaching, although they are at least ten or fifteen miles away—Mull, for example, Scarba, Islay, Jura, the Isles of the Sea. In summer, toward midnight, the sun falls behind Tiree, thirty-five miles to the northwest, and Tiree becomes suddenly visible, back-lighted, apparently suspended in the air. In the time of the clans, Mull and Tiree, northern Jura, Scarba, and the Isles of the Sea were islands of the Clan MacLean. They form a semicircle around Colonsay to the north and east. Islay and lower Jura, which extend the semicircle to the south of Colonsay, were islands of the Clan Donald. Each of these clans, the MacLeans and the MacDonalds, had enormous territories of island and mainland to its name, but each apparently felt a need for seventeen additional square miles —this one small break in the Atlantic horizon, the sole territory of a small clan, never more than a few hundred people, whose title to the island had come by immemorial occupation. A clan without land was a clan broken. What the MacLeans had once failed to secure, the MacDonalds took and held.

In dependence on the MacDonalds and the various lairds who have followed them, many of the original clansmen remained on Colonsay. Others, beginning what would be a long-continuing but always voluntary emigration to the mainland, went to Lochaber, in the Great Glen, below Ben Nevis, and there entered into a kind of vassalage under the Cameron of Lochiel. On Culloden Moor many of them died with the Camerons, and modern books that deal with the clans and all the Highland souvenirs (tartans, plaids, kilts, claymores) will say that the Colonsay clansmen "charged desperately" there. But everyone was desperate at Culloden, for all the clans were broken there—annihilated by English armies—and the seven-hundred-year era of regional government by the clan system was ended forever. Shortly afterward, acts of Parliament disarmed the clans, prohibited the wearing of tartan cloth (the ban was effective for nearly forty years), and permanently removed from all clans their hereditary jurisdictions. From that day on, now more than two hundred years, the clans have survived only in the air, and all their setts and badges and bearings are pure nostalgia.

There was a toast among the clans when they banqueted. A clansman would rise, lift a cup, and say, "To the land of the bens and the glens!" And up from the food the faces would move, and every man would roar out, "To the land of the bens and the glens!" The bens and the glens were the whole world, the clan world, and not even Sir Walter Scott could exaggerate the romantic beauty of that lake and mountain country penetrated by fjords that came in from seas that were starred with islands. But, unfortunately, by the time of Walter Scott all that was left up there was the scenery. The clans were gone, and so were the clansmen. The glens were empty, and it was possible in countless places to stand on high ground and look out over an area where, say, ten thousand people had lived and where the only inhabitants now were thirty or forty shepherds. After Culloden, the surviving chiefs became landowners—lairds—in the modern sense. The clan ideas of familial possession and patriarchal responsibility fell away. The clansmen became tenants, and the chiefs, in the course of things, sold them out. The "dreamy, improvident Highlanders," as one Scottish historian has called them, all but gave away their patrimony to men from the Lowlands and from England. Before long, absentee owners heavily outnumbered resident lairds. To the new lairds it was clear enough that their lands were more profitable under sheep than under people, and so the people had to go. A small-farm society had evolved in the glens, and in the islands as well. The clansmen had shifted their concentration from war to agriculture, and life was agreeable enough, albeit primitive, in the small villages, with patches of ground under each man's tillage, cattle on the common grazing, and milk, vegetables, cheese, and meat on the table. The houses of the clansmen were called black houses, because peat was burned in them in open fires on hearthstones set in the middle of dirt floors, and the peat smoke seeped out through various holes in the thatch above after coating the interior of the house with smudge. Cattle and horses lived in the houses, too, or in adjacent byres. The animals often used the same entrance the people used. Windows were not glazed. When cold winds were blowing, the windows were stuffed with sod. In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the glens were virtually swept clean of these people—the residue of the clans—and the lairds, in removing them, apparently felt no moral encumbrances. Their factors—general agents, business managers, collectors of rent—went around to the black houses and gave the people notice of their evictions, and at the appointed times the walls of the houses were pulled down and the thatch and the wooden beams were destroyed by flame. Families sat on hillsides, often in snow or rain, and watched their homes burn out. For seven hundred years, torches had called the clans together in time of need, and now torches cleared the glens. The people leaving sometimes had to drain blood from their cattle and drink it in order to survive.

From the perspective of the late twentieth century, there seems to be only one possible view of the Highland clearances, as they are called, but contemporary writers often showed different attitudes. Harriet Beecher Stowe went to Scotland and returned to the United States to write something called Sunny Memories of Foreign Lands, in which she defended what the lairds were doing. And Robert Chambers, in his Picture of Scotland, published in 1827, wrote, "The landlords have very properly done all they could to substitute a population of sheep for innumerable hordes of useless human beings, who formerly vegetated upon a soil that seemed barren of everything else." The sheep were brought in by hundreds of thousands, and to some of the retreating population they became known as "the lairds' four-footed clansmen." Meanwhile, the clansmen themselves had three principal choices. They could move to the edge of the sea, which they hated, and live on fish, which most of them also hated. They could move to the Lowlands. Or they could emigrate to other continents. Into the middle of this tide went many of the original clansmen of Colonsay, some early, some later on, some after long stays on the mainland, others more directly from the island, some settling in the Lowlands, notably in Renfrewshire, others going to Australia, Canada, or the United States. Of those who left the Highlands as a result of the clearances, my own particular forebears were among the last. When my great-grandfather married a Lowland girl, in West Lothian, in 1858, he was in the middle of what proved to be a brief stopover between the bens and the glens and Ohio. He worked in a West Lothian coal mine, and the life underground apparently inspired him to keep moving. Serfdom in Scottish coal mines had been abolished in 1799, but Scottish miners of the mid-nineteenth century might as well have been serfs. They worked regular shifts of fifteen hours and sometimes finished their week with a twenty-four-hour day. Six-year-old girls in the mines did work that later, in times of relative enlightenment, was turned over to ponies. Wages were higher and hours a little shorter for mine work in the Mahoning Valley of Ohio, and my great-grandfather decided, in the early eighteen-sixties, to go there. The United States was torn up with civil war, and it is interesting to me but not surprising that that did not change his mind. He went into the Ohio mines, and stayed there, and died in 1907. He has about a hundred and thirty descendants who have sprayed out into the American milieu, and they have included railroad engineers, railroad conductors, brakemen, firemen, steelworkers, teachers, football coaches, a chemist, a chemical engineer, a policeman, a grocer, salesmen, doctors, lawyers, druggists, janitors, and postmen. His son Angus, my grandfather, was a heater in a steel mill. He got the ingots white-hot and ready for the roller. He ate his lunch out of a metal box and never developed much loyalty to the steel company, possibly because his immediate superior was his brother-in-law. "Oh, God damn it, Angus, if it weren't for my sister, I'd fire you," the brother-in-law said once, and my grandfather said, "John, if it weren't for your sister, I wouldn't have to work." On New Year's Eve—or, rather, in the first hours of the new year—these Scotsmen in Ohio always went around to one another's houses, following the Highland custom of first-footing. The first foot to cross a threshold in a new year will bring untold beneficence if it is an acceptable foot. It has to be the foot of a dark-haired person. If the first-footing is done by a fair-haired person, that is all right as long as a lump of coal or some other dark object is thrown across the threshold first. My father remembers all this from his youth, but he raised his own family in Princeton, New Jersey, and there were no first-footings there.

It has always seemed extraordinary to me how the name of the island, Colonsay, seems to hang suspended in the minds not only of my immediate relatives but also of collateral clansmen in scattered parts of the United States and Canada, whose stories—from island to mainland to emigration—are essentially the same, and whose historical remoteness from Colonsay is comparable. Just the name of the island seems to set off in virtually all these people, who now live anywhere between the oceans, some sort of atavistic vibration, and all they really have in common is the panoptic glaze that will appear in their eyes at the mention of the word "Colonsay." Given the combined efforts of the MacLeans, the MacDonalds, and the sheep farmers of Lochaber, it is hard to imagine a clan more broken and rebroken and dispersed than this one, but the name of its aboriginal island still apparently brings a sense of true north to all these conductors, brakemen, lawyers, salesmen, and football coaches. Not long ago, it occurred to me that although all my clansmen in America had talked for so long about Colonsay, as far as I knew none of them had ever been there. For that matter, all that I knew about it was that it was one of the Hebrides, in the islands of Argyll. As soon as I could, I took my wife and our four young daughters and went to live for a while on Colonsay.

IT was A CUSTOM within clans that clansmen sometimes brought up one another's children. In fact, the essential idea of the clan—a political unit based on blood and with its territory held not by the chief but by the clan as a whole—was often expressed in the handing over of the infant son of a chief to an ordinary clansman for upbringing. "Kindred to forty degrees, fosterage to a hundred" was an expression among the clans—also, "Affectionate to a man is a friend, but a foster brother is as the life blood of his heart." Bonds of friendship between two clans were occasionally emphasized in the same way. It happened once that the chief of Colonsay and his good friend the Macneil of Barra found that their wives were both pregnant, and, in what must have been a scene of backslapping conviviality, the two men decided not only to have their new children raised on each other's island but to have them born on each other's island as well. Barra is seventy-five miles from Colonsay, over open sea, beyond Tiree. As his wife's time approached, the Macneil was apparently in no hurry to make the trip. The season was midwinter, but anxiety was not his predominant characteristic. His island was small, and its satellite islands—among them Mingulay, Vatersay, Eriskay—were little more than rocks, but he was the Macneil, the sort of man that was once called mighty. In the evenings after dinner, the Macneil would go out onto the battlements of his seabound Kisimul Castle, wipe his lips, sound a trumpet, and shout into the Atlantic winds, "Hear, O ye people! And listen, O ye nations! The Macneil of Barra has eaten! The princes of the earth may now dine!" The Macneil's wife, at the end of her pregnancy, sailed for Colonsay in an open boat. In the middle of the trip, the boat—pitching, tossing—ran into a violent snowstorm. Mrs. Macneil went into labor, and while the snow was still falling her child, a boy, was born. A cow was on board, and to save the baby and its mother from death by exposure the crew killed the cow, eviscerated her, and placed the mother and the child inside the warm carcass. The baby was named John, and all his life he was known as John of the Ocean. In his youth, he decided that he loved Colonsay too much to leave it. His counterpart, meanwhile, born on Barra, moved to Colonsay at an age that is now unknown and became chief. The foster brothers apparently developed a strong friendship, and the young chief of Colonsay gave John of the Ocean honored status and a house, and although the wives of the two turned out to be jealous and inimical shrews, John of the Ocean remained on Colonsay all his life.

The line of Macneils that John introduced there is on the island still, and one of these is the crofter Donald McNeill, who on his maternal side is a descendant of Colonsay's original clan. His croft is on the western side of Colonsay, and from his house and his steadings the ground rises in green leas as it extends out toward the water, sometimes rising so sharply that the crofter's sheep have cut terraced tracks in order to keep their feet as they graze. The grassland ends in cliffs three hundred feet above the sea. The cliff face is slightly concave. In its clefts and on its ledges live thousands of kittiwakes, guillemots, razorbills, and fulmars, and above them, on the upper lip of the escarpment, great hunks of sod grow cantilevered out over the empty space above the waves. The crofter's cattle graze right up to the cliff edge, and once every two or three years a cow will step on the wrong plot of sod and go spinning to its death where breakers crash on the rocks below. It is cheaper to get another cow than it would be to fence the whole impossible shoreline of the croft, but the loss is a severe one nonetheless. The croft has eighteen acres under tillage, a figure well within the maximum—forty-nine acres—that defines a croft and was established by the Crofters' Holdings Act of 1886, which resulted from the Highland clearances and was written to protect the small tenant farmer and give him tenure on the land he worked.


Excerpted from The Crofter and the Laird by John McPhee. Copyright © 1970 John McPhee. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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