Probably the most famous Scottish novel of the Highland Clearances remains Iain Crichton Smith’s Consider the Lilies, originally published in 1968. Consider the Lilies is a much slimmer and more focused novel that Butcher’s Broom, as much a character study as a historical novel. Both novels, though, have an elderly woman as a central character, perhaps Smith deciding like Gunn that this is an appropriate way to embody the old life of the Highlands. Smith, however, as his title demonstrates, is more concerned with religion, and the novel is in part a scathing attack on the Christianity that encouraged submission to authority and did nothing to aid those in need.
The novel begins with the visit of Patrick Sellar, factor to the Duke of Sutherland, to Mrs Scott, an elderly woman who lives alone since the death of her husband and her son’s emigration to Canada. (Unlike Gunn, Smith makes no attempt to hide the names of historical figures). Mrs Scott’s incomprehension at being told she must leave her house intensifies when she is told that the church will also be pulled down;
“But what had he just said? Something about the church being pulled down. That of course was untrue. He must be joking. Who had ever heard of a church being pulled down?”
Sellar’s contempt for the Highlanders is obvious, but Mrs Scott herself is not the easiest character to like. Her religion has made her hard and unyielding, something that has been exacerbated by the years she spent looking after her bed-ridden mother:
“In self-defence she let a part of herself die. How otherwise would she have survived?”
Smith alternates chapters in the present following Sellar’s visit with glimpses into Mrs Scott’s past. We see her marriage fall apart as a result of her reserve, her husband driven to join the army and later killed fighting in Spain:
“You hate everybody,” (he tells her) “You hate to see anybody enjoying themselves.”
Mrs Scott’s comfort comes from her religion in what is by and large a religious community, with the noted exception of her neighbour Donald McLeod (another historical figure Smith co-opted for the novel, making him an atheist to fit his overall purpose):
“She remembered that when the first of Donald McLeod’s children had died after great agony at the age of one he wouldn’t allow the minister into the house…The trouble was he read too many books and had ideas above his station.”
It’s not unexpected then when both the elder and the minister let her Mrs Scott down, turning out to be simply an extension of the Duke’s power, and it is McLeod who helps her. In many ways Smith’s primary intention is to critique the church rather than the land-owners, or the unfettered capitalism which caused the Clearances. Religion is seen to be both personally oppressive and complicit in state oppression. Whereas Gunn’s anger was directed at the destruction of the Highland way of life, Smith sees that life already damaged by the church which then betrays the very people who have most faith in it.
This is most evident from the novel’s conclusion, ending as it does before the houses are burned and the land is cleared. Instead the climactic moment is Mrs Scott’s refusal to betray McLeod and her decision “that never again would she go to that church and that her Sundays were forever her own.”