Roger Hutchinson has written numerous books on Highland topics. His best known work is probably ‘Calum’s Road’ about a crofter on the island of Raasay. After Inverness County Council refusing to construct a road from his village he built one himself.
Roger writes reviews regularly in the West Highland Free Press
Here is what he said about ‘Love and Music Will Endure’.
Mary Macpherson of Skeabost in Skye, who is better known to this day as Mairi Mhor nan Oran, is one of the most celebrated and least understood Highlanders of the 19th century. She was also, which is extremely relevant, arguably the most gifted woman to come out of the Victorian Gaidhealtachd. In her later life she produced a stream of song and verse which became legendary, which gifted her the cognomen ‘nan oran’, and much of which, owing especially to the efforts of Donald Meek, is still accessible today.
The trajectory of her life was not uncommon.
She was born in 1821. Her MacDonald parents moved to Glasgow when she was about eight and back to Skye when she was a young woman.
Mairi then moved for work to Inverness where she married a shoemaker called Isaac MacPherson. Isaac died in 1871 and Mairi became a nurse.
She was briefly imprisoned for theft of minor items. That offence could have been an understandable mistake or a miscarriage of justice. Mairi always protested that she was innocent, and her time in jail seems to have cemented her radicalism.
She then took up nursing in Greenock and became extremely active in Highland émigré social, sporting and political groups before returning finally to Skeabost in 1882 at the age of 61 years.
She died in Portree in 1898. Thanks to Portree Local History Society there is now a plaque outside the town’s Rosedale Hotel which commemorates her last days in Beaumont Crescent.
It seems like another age and of course it was. But as William Faulkner wrote – and Faulkner was not even thinking of the Highlands – ‘The past is never dead. It’s not even past’.
If you’re looking for a good example of the man who shook the hand of the man who shook the hand of the woman who…..look no further. The late Colonel Jock MacDonald of Viewfield in Portree, who many of us remember, knew Mairi Mhor when he was a boy.
Shortly before his own death in 1980, Colonel Jock passed on his memories of the grande dame to Aonghas ‘Dubh’ MacNeaacail, who is very much alive today and who subsequently published them.
There are three Skye names to play with! There is a baton passed down through three centuries. The past is not even past.
It is never more present than when interpreted in good historical fiction. All of which brings us to a great book which has been available for over a year but which has until now been inexcusably overlooked in this column.
Liz MacRae Shaw’s, ‘Love and Music Will Endure’, is as its subtitle explains, ‘a novel based on the life of Mairi Mhor nan Oran.’
Historical fiction is a tricky genre at the best of times, which may partly be why Scotland is swamped by so much of the worst.
It must satisfy two difficult criteria. It should read, obviously enough, as good fiction – it should have the approachability and stimulus, the narrative tension and gripping characterisation of a novel. Simultaneously, it should be faithful to fact, at least in its essentials.
The two are not always compatible. In ‘Love and Music Will Endure’, Liz macRae Shaw squares the circle with charming ease. She has researched with the diligence of an historian. She has then used her imagination to slip loose the surly bonds of non-fiction to tell a wonderful story.
In many ways Mairi’s first 60 years were a rehearsal of her later life in Skye. Liz MacRae Shaw offers us a girl of her time; born and raised in pastoral hardship and beauty, lost and unhappy in the city stews, forced to ride the murderous waves of the agricultural and industrial revolutions, but thanks to the Gaelic ubiquity in 19th century Scotland, never deracinated.
If she was personally radicalised by her experience of injustice in Inverness, her radicalisation was refined by the land politics of Clydeside in the 1870s.
She returned to Skye in 1882. That was coincidental but could not have been more auspicious. It was the year of the Battle of the Braes, of militant discontent in Trotternish and Glendale. It was the year when everything kicked off and Skye became an international symbol of rural revolution.
Many great names flocked to the island. Several of them were already familiar to Mairi Mhor and she soon got to know the others.
This in turn gives Liz MacRae Shaw the opportunity, which she seizes with relish, to put flesh on the bones and words in the mouths of John Murdoch, Charles Fraser Macintosh, John Stuart Blackie, Edward MacHugh, Michael Davitt, Alexander MacKenzie of ‘The Celtic Magazine’, John MacPherson of Glendale and others.
What bliss it would have been to be alive in Skye in those tumultuous few years in the 1880s, when anything seemed possible and a very great deal proved to have been achievable.
These men stride into Shaw’s book and Mairi MacPherson’s life like mythological heroes. Their arrival is beautifully handled. By then Liz MacRae Shaw, and consequently her reader, is familiar enough with Mairi Mhor to realise how much of a Gaelic nationalist she is.
Unlike Murdoch and Fraser Macintosh in particular, Mairi’s attachment to her fellow Gaels was more cultural than political. We are in no doubt that she would sooner, far sooner, have attended a shinty match or a ceilidh than a land league rally.
Influenced at least in part by a long friendship with the Skeabost landowner, Lachlan MacDonald, she
was often unwilling to think badly of native, hereditary Highland landowners, especially if those landowners spoke Gaelic,
Liz MacRae Shaw offers us a person who is consequently torn between an attachment to the old clan structure and the new politics of land reform which were directly intended to disempower if not dispossess men like Lachlan Macdonald of Skeabost. Her sympathies were very far from uncommon among Highlanders of her own and later generations.
It is a terrific portrait of a woman who, as Aonghas MacNeacail writes, was big in every way. Big in size, yes. But big also in talent, in personality and above all, in heart. Mairi Mhor deserved this book.