On the brutality of the Highland Clearances: Sheep brought in more wealth than did human tenants

The Highland Clearances began in the late 1700s. It was an often cruel and bitter time for the Scots, thousands of whom were beaten and expulsed from their homes. Horrible. And yet this miserable episode of Scottish history helped settle the Eastern Townships here in Quebec.

At that time in Scotland, lairds controlled the land and its people, who had for centuries eked out a living farming potatoes and tending their farm beasts. There wasn’t much money in it for the lairds, who realized that sheep would bring in much more cash. So they began to clear the land of people: “Not all clearances were brutal,” notes a Scottish government website, “but some were. Nor were they confined to the Highlands. But the Highland experience was the most traumatic. The Highland Clearances devastated Gaelic culture and clan society, driving people from the land their families had called home for centuries.”

Some rural folk were resettled in towns that were founded just for them, but others were simply shipped off. They went to America, to Australia, to New Zealand and, of course, to Canada. The biggest group arrived here in 1792, which was known to the dispossessed as “The Year Of The Sheep”.

(There’s actually a lot of disagreement over the reasons for the clearances; some see it as a desperate solution to famine, others as the rich desperate to get richer, still others see greedy ship owners spreading lies about the ease of life in the New World, so buy your passage now. And there was also the British nobility’s desire to break up any possibility of rebellion. Likely all these reasons played their parts. You can find more about the civil war backdrop, and the arrival and dramatic impact of the Industrial Revolution, at BBC.co.uk, which has a large history section, as well as multiple features about the Clearances.)

Author Peter May was born in Scotland, and he’s taken inspiration from that history to write Entry Island (2014, filed in the Lennoxville Library in Adult Fiction). The narrative switches from the Clearances to modern-day Quebec, where an Anglo police investigator is called in to help solve a murder.

Peter May now lives in France, which may explain his interest in creating Detective Sime (pronounced Sheem) Mackenzie, a Quebecker with long-ago Scots immigrant roots who now lives and works in French.

May certainly spent a chunk of time in Quebec for research (even thanking a collection of Townshippers for their assistance, including Lennoxville-ians Ferne Murray and Jean MacIver). There are still errors that show a lack of understanding of Quebec, however – like the apostrophe in Tim Horton’s.

Det. Mackenzie grew up in the Townships, though almost all of the modern-day action is set in the Iles de la Madeleine. A well-off entrepreneur is stabbed to death, with his wife claiming a masked man did the deed. There’s little evidence for this, making her the prime suspect.

Mackenzie is brought in because the islanders are Anglos, the homicide squad full of French-speakers who may miss linguistic subtleties. That means Mackenzie, an often dislikeable and depressed insomniac, must work with his ex-wife.

The investigation is buffeted by complex interpersonal relationships, and located on a claustrophobic island filled with locals who aren’t so interested in sharing gossip, or anything else, with coppers.

To top it all off, Mackenzie has long given up caring about his family history, yet stories of the Highland Clearances begin to haunt him. The towns of Bury and Gould make brief appearances later in the novel, offering a solid dose of Gaelic area history.

May’s writing will pull you along.

Entry Island is the only Peter May book in the Lennoxville collection, but you can order more of his work (free!) through the interlibrary loan system. (Most of his novels are thrillers and are available in French; the book L’Ile Des Chasseurs d’Oiseaux (2009) is the first in his well-received Lewis trilogy;  Le Mort Au Quatre Tombeaux (2013) begins his “faceless assassin” series.)

May is focussed on the injustices on the past. Whether he, and his creation Mackenzie, can move beyond that past is another matter.


— Eleanor Brown, February 5, 2016

About BiblioLennLibrary

The Lennoxville Library, in Quebec's Eastern Townships, offers free memberships to all residents of Sherbrooke. We have a great selection of books in French and English, plus books on tape and CD, too! Check out our large-print section, our graphic novels... La Biblio Lennoxville se situe dans les Cantons-de-l'Est du Quebec. Les residents de Sherbrooke peuvent devenir membre gratuitement. Nous avons une grande selection de livres en francais et en anglais. Venez donc nous voir! Hours/Heures d'ouverture: Mardi-Tuesday, 10am to 5pm -- 10h a 17h Mercredi et Jeudi -Wednesday and Thursday, 10am to 6pm -- 10h a 18h Vendredi-Friday, 10am to 5pm -- 10h a 17h Samedi-Saturday, 11am to 4pm -- 11h a 16h Pour plus d'info, vous pouvez nous trouver au http://www.bibliolennoxvillelibrary.ca/ Click on the above to get to our website!
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