Recently, I was thinking about some of the books that influenced me when I was younger. In particular, I was thinking about The Hill of the Red Fox, by Allan Campbell McLean, which I re-read a while back when I picked up a second-hand copy on my trip to Hay-on-Wye – it’s a book that has had a great effect on my writing, and served as a significant inspiration for The Wreck of the Argyll. It brought me to thinking of some of the other books I read when I lived in Portree on the Isle of Skye, and in particular books set on that island.
One of the books suggested to the class by my Primary 7 teacher was The Battle of the Braes, by Margaret MacPherson. It’s the fictionalised story of what is sometimes known as the last battle fought on British soil (although that probably overstates the case!) – the 1882 revolt of the crofters of Braes, just outside Portree, against the unfair practices of the landowners denying them grazing rights. The crofters withheld their rent, forced the Sheriff Officer to burn the eviction notices, then, when fifty policemen were shipped in from Glasgow, fought a pitched battle with sticks and stones before five of their number were arrested and taken to Inverness.
The book tells this story of the viewpoint of young Sam Nicolson, from one of the crofting families whose livelihoods are threatened. He takes an active part in the revolt, gets into a significant amount of trouble, and learns some lessons about the consequences of actions. Not for one moment does he ever doubt that the crofters are in the right, and at the heart of the book is the struggle between Justice and Law. Law is on the side of the landlords; according to the schoolmaster, even God is on the side of the landlords, because God is on the side of the Law; but Sam is convinced that the crofters are in the right.
The questioning of authority, and the mistrust of people who value money over communities, is still a valuable message to this day.
Margaret MacPherson herself lived on Skye (in fact, her granddaughter Lizzie was in my class in Portree) and her grasp of the cadence of Gaelic-affected speech is wonderful. There are few Gaelic words or even much in the way of dialect to get in the way of the story, but the way the dialogue is stitched together makes it absolutely clear that this is a distinct and separate culture she’s writing about.
The interweaving of the historical event with the boyish adventures of Sam works well, too. You never feel like you’re reading a history book – it’s an adventure. It just so happens that it’s an adventure that’s based on real events.
Margaret MacPherson’s books are no longer in print, but it’s worth searching them out. I got a lovely ex-library hardback in excellent condition from Abebooks, and plan on hunting down some more of her books (when I’ve got through some of my enormous tottering to-read pile).
It would be a shame for such great stories to be forgotten.