When John McPhee returned to the island of his ancestors—Colonsay, twenty-five miles west of the Scottish mainland—a hundred and thirty-eight people were living there. About eighty of these, crofters and farmers, had familial histories of unbroken residence on the island for two or three hundred years; the rest, including the English laird who owned Colonsay, were “incomers.” Donald McNeill, the crofter of the title, was working out his existence in this last domain of the feudal system; the laird, the fourth Baron Strathcona, lived in Bath, appeared on Colonsay mainly in the summer, and accepted with nonchalance the fact that he was the least popular man on the island he owned. While comparing crofter and laird, McPhee gives readers a deep and rich portrait of the terrain, the history, the legends, and the people of this fragment of the Hebrides.
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Like several of his other books, McPhee's The Crofter and the Laird is about people whose lives are still very much entwined with nature. But this particular volume carries added depth and feeling because McPhee is writing about his ancestral land, the island of Colonsay in the Scottish Hebrides. Crofter and the Laird is no starry-eyed and naive "back to the land" tract: McPhee describes the rigors and difficulties of this life with the same attention to detail he gives to the simple beauty of the land and lifestyle. Colonsay is a stark region of stone and seals and sheep and storms, with its residents still living under a feudal system of farmers, crofter, and lord. But McPhee honors this homeland with a rich work that would make his ancestors proud.About the Author:
John McPhee is the author of twenty-six books, including Annals of the Former World, for which he received the Pulitzer Prize in 1999. He has been a staff writer for The New Yorker since 1965 and lives in Princeton, New Jersey.
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