Butcher’s Broom – A Review.

Butcher’s Broom by Neil Gunn available on Amazon US and Amazon UK.

A people and their history swept away in four parts and fifty years. Horo, Mhairi Dubh.

“Ruscus aculeatus (butcher’s broom) is a member of the Liliaceae family. It has tough, green, erect, striated stems that send out numerous short branches and very rigid leaves that are actually extensions of the stem and terminate in a single sharp spine.” http://www.thorne.com

Butcher’s Broom, as an herb, appears in Gunn’s magnificent novel but also serves as a metaphor for the treatment of the Highlanders after the Battle of  Culloden in 1746 through the early 1800s by their English factors and landlords (sometimes Clan chiefs).

Neil M. Gunn was born in the Highlands county of Caithness, and so had a personal interest in the brutal interruption of the Clan way of life, an abrupt end to agriculture and a forced reliance on fish and seaweed collection along the coast.

In fact, a factor, Mr. Elder discusses some of Gunn’s ancestors, the MacHamish family: “There’s only one bad nest of them and they’re up on the Heights—MacHamishes, a sept of the Gunns, thoroughly godless dangerous ruffians. There are some Gunns, too, but they’ll be evicted first of all, because they know enough to organise the Strath—and they would. All that lot live by breaking the law.”

These are the Gaelic speakers of Scotland, so not only a way of life was desecrated but also a language was largely obliterated. Their story is much like that of the Native Americans in the United States. They were literally burned out of their homes, the sick and elderly left to die of smoke inhalation in their thatched cottages. The people who were not initially butchered later suffered from previously unknown diseases introduced by the large-scale sheep farmers, replacing humans with sheep.

Gunn writes in some of the most beautiful and lyrical prose you are ever likely to find in a book about these incidents but makes them personal in the characters of Dark Mairi, Elidh, Davie, Colin, Colin’s son, Kirsteen and their neighbors.

Of Dark Mairi of the shore, he writes: “The fire danced in tiny spots on her black irises. Yet she did not seem to see the sky so much as listen to it; or listen to nothing, so still did she become for a time. Then a small sighing wind came down the hillside and from her mouth, and vague concern for her cow touched her. She got up, put her basket over by the meal chest, and went out.”  Her name comes from an old Highland song: 

The stars are shining cheerily, cheerily
Horo, Mhairi dhu, turn ye to me.
The sea mew’s moaning drearily, drearily
Horo, Mhairi dhu, turn ye to me.
Cold is the stormwind that ruffles the breast
But warm are the downy plumes lining its nest
Cold blows the storm there
Soft falls the snow there
Horo, Mhairi dhu, turn ye to me. (Dark Mary, turn ye to me.)

Dark Mairi and Murach had “the second sight.” “Usually persons with second sight are normal enough in every other way. But Seumas was a strange being, and when the others forgot him, Davie and Kirsteen remained sensitive to his alien presence.”  Dark Mairi is a healer who knows the plants, lichens, mosses of the glens as well as she knows the back of her hand. “Indeed, in her steady unthinking darkness, she might have walked out of a mountain and might walk into it again, leaving no sign. The sick man had looked at her with expectation. She asked him questions quietly. She smiled her small weak smile. She put her hand on his forehead. Her hand was very cold. Her smile did not touch her eyes at all. She was not concerned. She would soon put him all right.”

She could not, however, heal the great dislocation about to befall her people.  I did not want to reach the sea again, at the end of this novel, not only because I knew what would happen, but also because the language was so wonderful.

Lady Elizabeth Gordon, her factor Mr. Sellar, and the organized church are the villains in this novel, although their names have been changed to protect the guilty, all while the young able men of the Highlands had gone off to fight on behalf of this corrupt aristocracy. Patrick Sellar was tried for his role in the atrocities and found not guilty in 1816.

From a people thus described: “peat on limbs and faces, the bodies leaping and spinning in the circles of music, under a sky with stars paling to the east where a waning moon was thinking of rising upon her kingdom; here was more than the joy of the dance, something added to the mystery of the rhythm, a beat in the blood; freedom from walls, freedom from rules; escape caught in its own delirious toils between fire and music. The music put its frenzy in the boys so that they could not leave the fire alone. Out of the dark they came running with peats from the nearest stacks with the guitt of half-theft stinging their mirth. They would make a fire as big as the world and blind the moon and stars !”

To a defeated people thus described: “But Mr. Heller glanced at Mr James and smiled also. ‘What a handful of half-starved savages in the lost glens of the north may say is nowhere. Yet that is our business, and when talking to us he will make it his.’”

This is a story which will take your imagination captive, and especially if you have roots in the Gaelic North of Scotland or in Ireland, you owe it to yourself to read this novel.  Neil M. Gunn is one of the few authors I have read to note the irony of  the Gaelic Highlanders sent to Ireland to quash dissent and the Gaelic Irish sent to Scotland to quash dissent – all among their ethnic cousins. “It proved an interesting reflection that the soldiers from these glens who some dozen years before had marched away to the wars had seen their first service in Ireland, where a rebellion against His Majesty’s kingdom was being ruthlessly stamped out. And now here was a regiment of Irish being marched into the Northern Highlands to even the balance of immortal justice. So naturally these Irish were more eager for the fray than Mr. Heller or any of his prompters, for they came muttering of their own defeats and wrongs, of Tarrahill and Ballynamuck. The bloody Highlanders! The bloody Irish!”

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