The Crofter and the Laird, John McPhee 1969

The 35 year old McPhee takes his four young daughters and his wife and moves to Colonsay, a small island of 15 square miles 25 miles off the west coast of Scotland, the ancestral home of his family.  Over the course of a summer he does his usual deep dive into the history, customs, individuals, legends, and geography of this small corner of the world that is rich with history of both persons and place.  He likens Colonsay more to a life boat than an island where the 138 residents share names, backgrounds, feuds, marriages, and an unbroken line of McPhees, McDonalds, MacMillans, et alia back to the glory days of the clans between 900-1600 when they were banned after the Battle of Culloden in 1746.  The aftermath of that struggle was the ‘enclosures’ in which thousands of Scots were turned off the land in favor of sheep grazing.  The crofts (a croft is defined as a piece of tillable land less than 49 acres) were created and ownership of everything on the island, including the crofts was granted to the Laird: “…the crofts, the farms, the store, the inn (thirty-seven beds)—everything but the tiny church and school properties and the pier.”  Life on Colonsay in the 1960’s when McPhee visited revolved around farming as it has for centuries. A hard working crofter who pays the Laird between 5 and 105 pounds/year can earn 1000 pounds in a good year but it’s around the calendar work, 90 hours/week to farm, raise animals, and manage to eke out a sustainable living.  Nonetheless, 2/3 of the islanders trace their unbroken presence on Colonsay back to the early clan.  In contrast, the Laird, the Fourth Baron of Strathcona and Mount Royal, lives in London and visits the island to collect rents and spend idyllic summers sailing its waters.  Educated at Eton, Cambridge, and McGill, he is both hated and respected by the islanders (‘Good morning, milord’ with a doffed cap is the greeting he still gets from the natives!)  The book is a perfect example of McPhee at his best—-an enormous collection of details accompanied by the telling individual portrait or anecdote woven into an intriguing and fascinating story about something that one would think he/she would never be interested in.  Vintage McPhee.

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