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And the Cock Crew by Fionn MacColla

Canongate Classics, 1995, 184 p, plus vi p Introduction by John Herdman. First published 1945.

The author, Thomas Douglas Macdonald, adopted the pen name Fionn MacColla (the Introduction always spells this as Mac Colla) on taking up writing. In his work he seems to have made it his mission to document the loss of the Highland Gaelic culture and way of life. And the Cock Crew is in line with this undertaking as it is set during the onset of the Highland Clearances. It also examines the crisis of conscience of a profoundly Calvinist minister, known as Zachary Wiseman to non-Highlanders but Maighstir Sachairi to his flock.

Over twenty years before the events of the novel Maighstir Sachairi had arrived in Gleann Luachrach (or Glen Loochry, as rendered in a later sentence uttered by a non-Gael) to find it to his mind far too frivolous and ungodly. Under his influence the people had slowly come round to his way of thinking and behaviour except, perhaps, for Fearchar the poet. The times are, however, about to change. “Something else has come among us, something from altogether outside our way of life, and a man has to take account of it although he doesn’t even understand it or know what it wants for him…..Nowadays a man has to honour God and the Factor.”

That factor, Master Byars, known to the glen’s inhabitants as “The Black Foreigner,” though he is in fact a Lowland Scot, has an abiding and visceral hatred of anything Gaelic and cannot bear even the sound of that language. His antipathy towards Gaels led him to believe his life had been threatened by local men who had thought him lost and offered to help him. He called a contingent of redcoats to accompany him to where he had summoned the local villagers to assemble in order to arraign them for this. Two other local ministers are on the factor’s side but Maighstir Sachairi temporarily resolves the confrontation by interviewing the men concerned and telling Byars, “They are a people upright, peaceable, temperate in their ways and righteous with their neighbours to a most seengular degree in our times and generation.” The resultant reprieve for the villagers leads them to believe that they are in Sachairi’s protection.

It is, though, the Black Foreigner’s intention to remove the people from the glens and to replace them with sheep. The clan leader, Mac ’Ic Eachainn, to whose forefathers the clans could have looked for succour in the past “is now no better than an Englishman,” lives down south, does not speak Gaelic and is in fact in favour of the new economic project.

There is an impediment to marrying in the glen in that any man who does so will lose his holdings and be banished. In the absence of a wedding, Mairi-daughter-of-Eaghann-Gasda, an otherwise devout and modest woman whom Maighstir Sachairi would not have believed capable of misdeeds, has become pregnant. She cites the marriage bar as an excuse and refuses to name the father. This throws Sachairi into a crisis of conscience, wondering if he can still truly discern the will of God. It is into this vacuum of decision that The Black Foreigner steps, taking advantage of Sachairi’s hesitancy to confront him about the burning of the heather at the neighbouring village in preparation for the sheep.

Sachairi’s discomfiture is compounded by a meeting with Fearchar in which the poet questions him concerning doctrine, “Poetry and music are sinful, we say – yet with poetry and music a man improves himself in his nature it seems…. How is it that a sin can be experienced as a good?” and in which he concedes that the light of the spirit could be withdrawn from one of the Elect without his knowing it, that one of the Elect could be mistaken as to whether a thing is according to the will of God or not. This compounds Saichari’s indecision and he withdraws from interaction with the community giving Byars the opportunity to carry out his evictions unhindered.

In that long conversation Fearchar posits the relation between two neighbouring nations, long in conflict as the larger tried in vain to conquer and subject the smaller. “The big nation understands at last that it is no use to try to conquer them by force of arms. Suppose they try another way … and by some trick get power over the smaller nation and unite them to themselves. And so they will get from pretended friendship and a trick what they could never win by war and arms.”

He names it. “England. There is a nation that would never rest – never until she had taken away our freedom ….. Now she is more subtle, for Cunning is her name. Now she comes with feigned friendship and with lying promises and gold for our traitors she is able to obtain it, and our liberty is at an end.” For Fearchar the adoption of the English language by those who did so meant they became English, indistinguishable from true Englishmen.

It is within these passages that are laid out Mac Colla’s concerns, the nature of Man’s relationship to God, the repressions inherent in Calvinism, and the replacement of Gaelic culture by this alien one. Concerns not entirely absent from the Scottish novel in general.

It is as a novel, though, that there is something lacking in And the Cock Crew. The characters seem too designed to illustrate the sides to the conflict to have substance as people in their own right. The incidents of cottage burning and removal of people from their homes and livelihoods, harrowing as they may have been, are not shown to us from their victims’ perspective, only from afar, or by others in their aftermath and so their impact is lessened somewhat.

Still, someone had to undertake the task of representing in fiction the brutal upheaval of the way of life of an ancient and hard done by people. Not that that will ever stop such things from happening.

Pedant’s corner:- Crew (that would be ‘crowed’ in English. Even in Scots I have never heard crew as the preterite of crow,) “a heavy hammer leaning leaningly against the anvil” (in what other manner does something lean?) “was caught at unawares” (was caught unawares.) In the list of Canongate Classics at the end of the book the author’s name is misspelled as Fiona.

Consider the Lilies by Iain Crichton Smith

Phoenix, 2001, 152 p including ii p preface by the author and vi p introduction by Isobel Murray. One of the 100 best Scottish books. Returned to a threatened library.

Consider the Lilies cover

The novel’s focus is on seventy year old, God-fearing widow Mrs Scott (who is only once referred to, by her neighbour Big Betty, as Murdina.) Mrs Scott is one day visited by the Duke of Sutherland’s agent Patrick Sellar and informed she will have to leave her house in a mutually uncomprehending conversation; uncomprehending partly because she speaks Gaelic and he English but also because each has no understanding of the life of the other. The intention is to have the inhabitants move to the coast and take up fishing. And so unfolds a story set in the Highland Clearances which took place mostly in the county of Sutherland in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

Mrs Scott feels embedded in her home. “If you took (a potato) out of the earth before its time it would die.” It was where she tholed her mother’s illness till her death, married her husband (before driving him into the army) and brought up her son. “It isn’t easy for a woman to rear a boy. It’s easier when it’s a girl.” She decides to try to alleviate her confusion by first consulting the local elder and then the minister, but both are of no use and indeed seem, the minster in especial, to be in favour of the proposed change. In the meantime Big Betty has heard stories of those already cleared off the land further south finding no houses and no boats at their destinations and having to build their own.

It is only with the family of atheist (and stirrer-up of trouble via newspaper articles) Donald Macleod to whose house she is carried to recuperate after a fall that Mrs Scott finds compassion. He tells her, “To them we’re not people. That’s what we’ve got to understand. They don’t think of us as people,” and Smith articulates Macleod’s feelings as, “His hatred was not simply for those who were bent on destroying the Highlands, not simply for the Patrick Sellars, but for those interior Patrick Sellars with the faces of old Highlanders who evicted emotions and burnt down love.”

Restored to her own home and invited by the Duke’s agents to denounce Macleod, Mrs Scott realises, “There are far more defeats than victories, victories last only a short time and the defeats last for ever.”

In his preface Smith states he has not written a historical novel as he was “not competent to do a historical study of the period” but was interested primarily in the person of his main character. He mentions the problem of language – the displaced crofters would all have spoken Gaelic – and his conclusion that a clear, simple English would best encapsulate her mind. Yet while the Clearances are the ostensible subject of the novel (and probably account for the inclusion of this book in that 100 best list) I agree with Isobel Murray whose introduction argues that the real target is religion. Then again, in the traditional Scottish novel when isn’t it?

Pedant’s corner:- in the introduction “of of” (one of is enough) and a missing full stop. Elsewhere Mrs Scott finds a picture of her parents. The clearances took place in the era before photographs and a portrait would surely have been beyond a crofter’s means. As noted in the introduction there are other anachronisms to do with time scales. In this context I noted a mention of footballers. We also have “with bowl” (with a bowl.)

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