SOME historians believe that it was the success of the 1977 television mini-series Roots, based on the book by Alex Haley, which set North Americans of Scottish descent haring off in search of roots of their own. Genealogy flourished and Highland Games appeared from Alaska to Orlando.

If that’s the case, four-time Pulitzer Prize finalist John McPhee was ahead of the game. His great grandfather left the Hebridean island of Colonsay and migrated to Ohio. In 1969, McPhee, his wife and four daughters left their home in New Jersey “and went to live for a while on Colonsay” with the 138 people who already lived there.

In fact, McPhee seems to have spent only one summer on the island before the text of this book appeared in the pages of The New Yorker and his American audience is never far from his mind. Comparisons are made for their benefit — an islander lives in a house “less than the size of one floor of a New York brownstone” — and history simplified for their consumption.

Loading article content

His scene setting owes much to what Scottish historian Tom Devine termed “victim history”. McPhee recounts the clans’ destruction by “English armies” at Culloden and his Highland Clearance has buildings afire while folk watch from the hills and drink cattle’s blood to survive.

His pursuit of those who remained begins with Donald “Gibbie” McNeill. Gibbie is a crofter but he is also a fisherman who can’t swim, a beachcomber, ferry worker and pier master. In short, he leads a fairly routine island life cobbling together a number of activities in order to survive. The most interesting thing about him is that he can coax a lobster from a tidal pool by angering it with a piece of wire. Despite his local antecedents, McPhee studies his Colonsay folk as Victorian tourists did the St. Kildans; insinuating himself into their lives and checking them for quaintness. St. Kildans, however, had cliff scaling, puffin eating and an island parliament to divert their inquisitors. McPhee has crofter Donald Garver who went to public school, Andrew Oronsay who pipes and Ross and Neil Darroch, brothers who were made redundant and spend their time fixing fences, laying bricks and digging ditches.

The narrative only really springs to life when the Laird demonstrates that victim history might be overstated but it still has truth in it. In 1969, the Laird was Euan Howard, Fourth Baron Strathcona and Mount Royal. He is a descendant of Donald Smith of Forres who migrated to Canada and bought Glencoe and Colonsay with the fortune that he made there.

The National:

Euan was educated at Eton and lives in Bath. He blames the preceding laird, his father, for being too benevolent to the people of Colonsay and is introducing them to austerity, redundancies included. He describes the people as lazy, charming liars and is tempted to say “to hell with these bloody idle so-and-sos”. Instead he has decided to drag them “screaming into the twentieth century”.

The unreconstructed laird isn’t quite enough to bring the book to life. Read thirty-eight years after it was first published, one sees now how much more it could have been. For one thing, McPhee’s quest is almost entirely male. He is only interested in the men of the island and even though he graces them with his considerable powers of description and swaddles them in Highland myth, they remain stubbornly uninteresting.

The women, by contrast, are subject to flippant physical descriptions, panegyrics on their baking skills and little else. Yet Donald McNeill’s wife Margaret, married to a man who refuses to leave the island, has a British Columbia calendar on her wall. What of her life, her dreams? As to his own wife and daughters, if McPhee hadn’t told us they were there we would never have guessed. Their feelings and impressions go unrecorded.

It is striking how much Colonsay has changed since 1969 and how little. Today it is accessible by internet and has joined the craft beer and gin revolution. But the population is roughly the same as it was when McPhee visited and Colonsay House is occupied by Alex Howard, son of Euan. In 2013 Howard Jnr. made headlines when he accused residents of removing gravel from a beach without his permission and they felt he had portrayed them as thieves and peasants. The locals, great gossipers by McPhee’s account, must have talked about apples not falling far from trees.

The Crofter and the Laird by John McPhee is published by Daunt Books, priced £9.99