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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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