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“The Crofter and the Laird”: an insight to Scottish Island life

Book cover of The Crofter and the Laird by John McPhee

The Crofter and the Laird is a different kind of travel memoir. John McPhee travels to the Scottish island of Colonsay with his family to get closer to his own family’s Scottish roots. As someone with there own expatriated Scottish roots growing up in Australia, I felt a strange connection to McPhee’s book. My father would show us our family tartans and talk about clan histories and whilst there are some overlaps between what I would call contemporary Scottish and Australian cultures, there is still a slight disconnect. As though one culture splintered into two and even though they share the same roots, the paths they are on now are completely different.

Colonsay Island is circled in red. Go to Wikipedia for more facts about the island. Image from:

The above map shows where Colonsay is located. I thought it was important to show this because a lot of people forget that islands make up a huge part of Scottish geography and culture. Island life—a almost lost tradition as result of English dominance—is something Scottish islanders take extremely seriously. The island itself has a marine climate which means it is roughly between 7-15C (45-60F). Way too cold if you ask me. The island’s history is mixed up between mystery, myth, and a bit of truth. Landmarks around the island have their own stories and take on their own magic. Similarly, the people on the island have become one with the land.

The island consists mainly of crofts which are small rented farms with land for farming and usually a house. The rental prices of crofts are fairly low and on Colonsay they pay this rent to their Laird, the person who owns the real estate or in this case, the crofts. Due to this dynamic of crofters and lairds, Colonsay as McPhee points out, maintains a somewhat feudal quality about it. The island consists mainly of fellow islanders and most outsiders are kept a bit at arms length. The locals use Gaelic although, like many things on the island, it is dying. Young people struggle to find work and are often forced to move to the mainland or bigger islands. Some islanders fear that the culture of Colonsay life will die out soon because of this slow immigration.

A rather interesting and quirky fact that McPhee brings up is that people on the island often share the same last name so rather than having twenty McNeills messing up the postal system people are referred to by where they are from like Flora McNeill became Flora Oronsay. This reminded me of my own last name, which had its spelling changed to help the local postal system back when my Dad was born in 1940s Australia.

The beauty of McPhee’s book is in the stories of the local people of Colonsay who a quick to forgive and hard working people. Island life doesn’t seem easy, yet the people McPhee talks to say they wouldn’t change it for the world. To be honest, I felt like McPhee’s travel memoir/history of the island was too short. There were so many amazing stories especially about the history of the island that just got skimmed over.

After visiting Scotland this year, Edinburgh specifically, I felt like I wanted to take more time to learn more about the country my forebears were from. As someone who hates the cold and rain, I wonder sometimes if my ancestors left Scotland because they couldn’t cope with the weather either? Maybe we were always Southerners at heart?

Me in Edinburgh

What travel memoirs are you reading lately? What books have helped you learn more about your ancestry? As always, share the reading love.