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Neil Gunn: Butcher’s Broom

This novel is set during the Highland Clearances in the early part of the 18th century. The story starts off in a small Highland community, focusing on Mairi – Dark Mairi as she is called – and clearly the link to the”old ways”. While life is hard, the community is united and manages – just about – to survive. Mairi lives with her grandson Davie and Elie, who lives with Mairi for reasons that are not entirely clear except because her own family is too large. Elie is courting Colin but the inevitable happens – she gets pregnant and he goes off to war. Elie has to leave the community, which does not approve of premarital sex, while Colin disappears, apparently killed in a colonial war.

We jump forward a while. Elie returns with a son – called, of course, Colin – and is welcomed by Mairi and Davie though not the whole community. From the narrative point of view, the rest of the story is concerned with Colin’s growing up, while Davie and the rest of the community hang around on the edges. However, Gunn has always been concerned with the economic facts of life of Scottish communities and we get a wonderful portrait from both sides of the start of the Highland Clearances. The Lord of the Manor wants to develop the land but does not want to be involved in the nasty business of throwing the people off the land, not least because his wife is concerned, so he gets an agent to do the dirty work, which he does quite effectively. The poor people, whose needs are subordinated to those of the sheep that will take their place, are ruthlessly evicted and, in some cases, killed. Gunn spares us nothing in his descriptions of the evictions and the only minimal resistance, primarily by the women of the community, most of the men having gone off to fight the colonial wars. John Prebble’s The Highland Clearances is an excellent introduction to the history of this period but this novel is a superb introduction to what the people suffered.

Publishing history

First published 1934 by The Porpoise Press