Butcher’s Broom is Neil Gunn’s novel of the Highland Clearances, an event that changed the landscape of the north of Scotland completely and did much to destroy a way of life. This is a much more successful novel than Sun Circle as Gunn is able to recreate events with greater accuracy, and it is clear that representing the history of that time is important to him. The novel feels carefully researched, and also wide-ranging in an attempt to provide background to the Clearances, including a visit to London where the estate’s owners reside.
This is clear from the early pages where Gunn is keen to recount the historical background of Napoleon’s domination following the French Revolution. This provides not only a reason for the young men of the Highlands to be recruited as soldiers, but also explains the need for Britain to become more self-sufficient in food (as well as driving prices up and making sheep farming more profitable). Gunn’s main focus, however, is the Highland community of Riasgan and Dark Mairi who comes to represent that community and way of life – indeed, she is almost at one with the land:
“…in her steady unthinking darkness, she might have walked out of a mountain and might walk into it again, leaving no sign.”
Gunn spends the first third of the novel creating a picture of the way of life. He describes a community spirit with much kindness and plenty of laughter, joking and singing without ever seeming sentimental. Typically Gunn absorbs Gaelic superstitions into his novel and as early as page 58, in counterpoint to the general happiness, we have a character known for their visions muttering, “Fire! Fire!”
Gunn’s other central character is also a woman, Elie, who falls in love with a young man, Colin (Gunn clearly felt that at least one love story was compulsory per novel), who unfortunately impregnates her before leaving to join the army (to be fair, he doesn’t know she is pregnant). Despite such an apparently supportive community, Ellie heads south in secret to have the baby; by the time she returns with a child the old way of life is already deteriorating and the ‘clearance’ of the glen is not far away.
Gunn describes the clearance of Riasgan in all its horrific detail, largely based on historical accounts. The houses were all burned to prevent them being rebuilt, and everyone, from babies to the bed-ridden elderly were forced to leave – on foot of course. The Highlanders’ helplessness is easy to understand:
“What was the sheriff saying now? Why the devil doesn’t he speak in Gaelic? Can’t you speak in Gaelic? We don’t know what you’re saying.”
Soldiers are brought from Ireland to protect the evictors. Heller, who intends to rent the land, is based on the real-life Patrick Sellar who famously said that an old woman should be left to burn in her home – the line is also used in the novel.
The Highlanders are given land at the coast where they must make a living from fishing, but in the final section of the novel we see that much of their old way of life has disappeared and the young men and women are looking to emigrate. Dark Mairi is symbolically killed at the end by a shepherd’s dogs.
Though Gunn’s central characters often seem too blank (it would be difficult to say what distinguishes Elie or Colin from the other young men and women in the novel), this is still a fine novel of an important event in Scottish history that still shapes the Highlands today. Perhaps more important is its depiction of a way of life now lost to us. It’s not, of course, the only novel of the Highland Clearances, and next I hope to look at two more.