Pretty Maids all in a Row: the Women of Colonsay

Jessica Grose '04, English 171, Brown University, Autumn 2003

In John McPhee's The Crofter and the Laird, he shows the women in the traditional roles of mother, baker, wife, daughter. Towards the end of the book, though, McPhee describes women (though not in general native citizens of Colonsay) who take on a less typically female role: the role of supernatural fable keeper.

It is not the islanders who preserve the early magic of the island. It is the women who stay at the inn -- the ones with the knitted caps and tweed skirts and walking sticks, some of whom have bought their own shepherd's crooks with them from Edinburgh. At home in Midlothian, they belong to organizations like the Highland Hall Association and the Edinburgh Gaelic Circle, and they go to regular meetings where, in effect, they burn tartan candles. In their heads hang splendid tapestries of Hebridean lore and legend, and when they come to the island, for their brief visits of a week or ten days, they become solitary silhouettes in the heather on the hilltops, drinking in the air of ages past and imagining themselves to be in the company of forms unseen. They themselves are inconspicuous...and they are sometimes unexpected. Two or three days ago, a fine-tweed lady with powdered hair and a varnished crook jumped out from behind a whin bush, tugged my sleeve, and told me not to kiss a fairy or I might never see the human world again.

Questions

1. This is one of the few passages in the novel where women are the center of McPhee's description and focus. What does this say about the attitude towards women in Colonsay? What does this say about McPhee's attitude towards women? Is the voice of the island and the voice of McPhee one and the same? What are some of the other descriptions of women in the book that either contradict or reinforce this description of women?

2. The women McPhee describes as those who "preserve the early magic of the island". At first, this preservation is posited as a good thing, but McPhee goes on to make light of the women -- he makes them sound flighty and a little insane, particularly the "fine-tweed lady" described above. Why does McPhee do this?

3. It could be said that McPhee's tone throughout The Crofter and the Laird is one of magical awe at this island that seems like a throwback to earlier days. If this is the case, then why does he distance himself from these mythology-obsessed women?


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Last modified 10 November 2003