Our third novel of the Highland Clearances is Fionn MacColla’s And the Cock Crew, originally published in 1945. Like Iain Crichton Smith, MacColla was a teacher, but unlike Smith, he also falls into that unfortunately common category of Scottish writers: those who publish little. Enrique Vila-Matas has written a whole novel (Bartleby) about writers who only publish one book, and indeed, if only he had known, Scotland provides numerous examples (we may come to some of them). MacColla was lucky enough to publish two novels in his lifetime; another two appeared posthumously. Despite this, he was strongly associated with the Scottish Renaissance (a revival of Scottish writing during the first half of the twentieth century most associated with Hugh MacDiarmid, with whom he shared strong nationalist views).
As the title makes obvious, And the Cock Crew is a novel of betrayal. As with Smith, MacColla is most scathing of what he saw as the Highland people’s betrayal at the hands of the church. Religion takes an even more central place as the main character is a minister (it’s not a proper Scottish novel, of course, unless there’s a minister in it somewhere). Maighstair Sachairi first appears heroically at a gathering of the community ordered by the Factor (frequently referred to as the Black Foreigner, a satanic nom-de-plume which also suggests his distance from the Highland people). He is seeking to punish those who he claims chased a “sheep man” away from their land; Sachairi speaks up strongly for them:
“If he was pursued it was by his conscience jabbering at him, and the fear he was in wasna bodily.”
However, in his own conscience, Sachairi is tormented by the problem of whether the Clearances are a punishment from God as the other ministers believe. This doubt leaves him helpless when he discovers the Factor setting fire to the heather, an act he knows will leave no grass for cattle:
“So long as he saw this calamity which threatened his people as no more than a wrong conceived in the proud hearts of wicked men, so long he had been able to act with vigour and decision, for he saw his duty clearly…But meeting the Factor at the very moment when he did not know whether he ought to regard him as the instrument of Divine vengeance, he had found himself deprived of all decision.”
In the meantime, his congregation continue to believe he will protect them.
The centre piece of the novel is a long conversation that Sachairi has with the Poet who led the community before his arrival. The Poet acts rather obviously as a vehicle for MacColla’s own views. He points out to Sachairi that no man can really know God’s intentions through a series of probing questions. He also comments on the relationship between Scotland and England:
“For consider…Conquest is not only a matter of defeats in battle. If a nation gives up its ways and its language and the things that belong to its nationality, and takes the ways and language of another nation, then it can be said to have been conquered by that other nation.”
It comes as little surprise, then, that when Sachairi is injured during the clearing of the glen, he wakes to find himself being cared for by the Poet. Though this might make the novel seem overly didactic, Sachairi is treated sympathetically as a character throughout, though MacColla is less forgiving of those responsible for the Clearances than either Gunn or Smith. It is ironic, however, that in a novel so fierce about the vanishing Highland way of life, it features so little.