Tuesday, May 30, 2017
John McPhee's "The Crofter and the Laird"
Recently, I went to Scotland to do some cycling. I took John McPhee’s The Crofter and the Laird (1970) with me. I chose it because (1) it’s about Scotland, albeit a remote part of the country not on my itinerary; (2) it’s one of the few McPhee books I haven’t read; and (3) it’s physically lightweight and, therefore, easy to carry in my bike bag.
The book, which originally appeared in The New Yorker (December 6 & 13, 1969), proved to be an excellent companion. It’s a portrait of Colonsay, “a small island in the open Atlantic, twenty-five miles west of the Scottish mainland,” and a number of its residents, including crofter Donald Gibbie McNeill, who has tenure of a hundred-and-forty-one acre farm, and laird Euan Howard, the Fourth Baron Strathcona and Mount Royal, who owns the island. McPhee calls the crofter-laird relationship “the grand anachronism of the Highlands.”
The Crofter and the Laird contains an abundance of information about Hebridean clan history and clan legends. But, for me, the most engaging parts are McPhee’s descriptions of his own personal experiences on Colonsay. For example: accompanying Donald Gibbie on a lobster-catching excursion (“But suddenly out into the sunlight – hanging onto the wire and snapping at it like a fence cutter – came several pounds of glistening, mottled, dark blue-green lobster, in shape and appearance identical to the most expensive creature in Penobscot Bay”); starting a fire in the kitchen stove (“In the early mornings, I go outside and break up the coal with an axe”); helping the laird prepare his launch for use by a group of marine biologists (“The launch is perhaps twenty-five feet long, has a large rust-covered inboard engine, and appears to be planted in the shed, an inertia of tons”).
At times, what’s described in the book matched what I saw on the bike trail. For instance, one day, traveling the West Loch Lomond Cycle Path, I spotted two highland cows in a field next to the trail. I saw them through McPhee’s eyes: “wooly mammoths, gigantic Saint Bernards, slow-moving hair-farms.”
Sipping a delicious decaf latte at Berkmyre Café in Kilmacolm, I thought of Donald Garvard, in The Crofter and the Laird, “stirring mayonnaise into his coffee.” Everywhere I went, I saw the “profusion of rhododendron” mentioned in the book – frothy purple rhododendron blossoms spilling over the tops of ancient stonewalls bordering the bike paths.