McPhee's Description of Island Life in The Crofter and the Laird

Katie Reynolds '06, English 171, Sages and Satirists, Brown University, 2003

In The Crofter and the Laird McPhee, gives his reader a view of life on the Scottish island of Colonsay. He tells us his family's roots are in Colonsay, but he was raised in Princeton, New Jersey, and is currently raising his own children in Princeton. He packs up his family and moves to Colonsay for a year, enabling him to give such a description of the island. In the following passage McPhee describes the nature of life on a small island. His lyrical prose pulls the reader along easily and makes us feel as though, we too, have an intimate understanding of what it means to live on Colonsay.

Where I come from, a few angry words at a party can separate people for all time, but no amount of enmity could do that on Colonsay, where the sea is close in four directions and where vehicles meet and pass on a road that is eight feet wide. When the Lochiel approaches over the water, Donald the pier master is waiting on the pier, and so is Angus the Post. They have to see each other almost every day. Each life eclipses the other. They compete in the rental of space to visitors. They are, among other things, cousins. A smile always comes to the croft with the mail. 'Good morning. A nice morning. A nice day.' Enmity may come with it, but it can be only one of many threads, and the same threads seem to run from each person on the island to half the others. The people are rubbed together beyond the meaning of friction. Deep feelings are not always relevant. The surface dominates, because it is so small. Eruptions are spectacular in brief. 'That's what it's like on this island,' the doctor told me. 'A great row, a great to-do. A most awful battle. Then, a day later, it's over.' And the mail keeps coming.

1. What does McPhee gain from starting with "Where I come from, a few angry words at a party can separate people for all time."?

2. Why does McPhee bother to give details as small as "and where vehicles meet and pass on a road that is eight feet wide." Do we really need to know that the road is eight feet wide? Why and how does this strengthen his description?

3. McPhee uses the three short sentences: "They have to see each other almost every day. Each life eclipses the other. They compete in the rental of space to visitors." The first and last sentences are very utilitarian, and the middle one is much more metaphorical, what is the effect of this? What happens when he gives the image of lives peacefully eclipsing each other and then contrasts that with the image of competing for rental space to visitors?

4. He ends with: "And the mail keeps coming." What effect does this have?


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Last modified 10 November 2003