This is a book of two distinctly different halves. The first is a series of extended responses to the short daily journal entries made by the author's father. The second section is a series of deeply personal reflections from the author in the year or so that follows his father's death.
The first section goes a very long way to shattering the romantic myth of self sufficient crofting farming methods. No matter how wonderful the landscape of western Scotland can seem to tourists and visitors, dragging a living from the unresponsive soil was no holiday. The volume of shear hard physical work needed simply to stay just (and often only just) ahead of the poverty line is remarkable. The fact that the authors father continued to work this way well into old age is even more remarkable. When you sit by a warm fire you should be grateful that you have not had to cut the peat it burns from a distant bog, as this family had to do.
With the exception of a few parts, two relationships are key to understanding this section of the book: the relationship between a man and his son, and the relationship between a man (the father) and his land. It is clear that they are both shaped by each other. Crofting is said to be "no exercise for fools. Or perhaps no exercise for wise men", which seems to sum up the conflict between the reality of the existence and the passion of this last crofter.
The second section of the book moves into darker territory. The death of both parents leaves a huge gap in the authors life and he moves back to his village of Sanna. If the first section of the book is about the battle of extracting a physical living from the land, this second section is about the battle for understanding, about gaining a spiritual life (but not the in a hide bound church sense of the word). Maclean is connected to the land, but he knows he has to leave. After a year he does this, moving to a small Scottish town. Although his views of some of the aspects of town life are understandable they do seem to lack compassion. How powerful are local councils? Can they really address the long term economic issues that have ripped the heart out of many areas? If they can only attend to local issues is it really just to call them a "cancer patient peering into his mirror for blackheads"? This section is ripe with anger, loss and frustration. While lapses into vitriol are understandable under these circumstances, this book is also not without humour.
Just as his father battled against the loss of his land, so does the author. The father died still fighting, the author has moved away to survive and keep fighting. He admits that one day he will return, but he will know nothing of it.
This is a stunning book, and a worthy antidote to some of the more rose tinted accounts of life on the land. Very highly recommended.