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Butchers Broom
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23 of 23 people found the following review helpful
on 9 January 2007
Anyone who wants to understand the main corpus of Gunn's novels should start here, for the inhumane evictions that we know as the Clearances remained at the back of his mind as he wrote of the generations who followed, particularly in "The Silver Darlings".

He shows how the Highlanders were betrayed by the greed of the Scottish aristocracy, the callousness of Parliament, and by a system of law which was created and enforced by the rich for their own benefit; betrayed too by the Church, which preached a message of punishment for sin and a humble acqiescence.

The general mood of the novel is increasingly sombre and tragic, yet, amid all their suffering, Gunn's crofters come alive in their painstaking toil, their practical caring for one another, and their celebration of life itself. His descriptions of the landscape and the patient suffering of the womenfolk are reminiscent of Hardy at his most powerful, and his heartfelt sympathy for this suffering generation is expressed in prose which rises at times to the level of poetry.

"Butcher's Broom" deserves to be given a place among the most significant works of modern British literature, and should be read by anyone who seeks to appreciate something of the price which was paid for the defeat of Napoleon and the strength of the British Empire.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 14 March 2014
There is a symbolic moment in Neil Gunn’s moving masterpiece of a novel when the wife of Captain Grant, the landlord of the tenant-farmers in the tiny glen of the Riasgan, throws her box-holly into the fire. The box-holly, or Butcher’s Broom, is the clan badge of the Sutherlands, in Muriel Grant’s eyes dishonoured by the clan chief’s betrayal of the tenants.

Gunn’s novel is a ‘faction’, a fiction based on what happened in the Highland Clearances of the early 19th century. During the Clearances, the Duke and Duchess of Sutherland employed agents, the principal being significantly called Heller in Gunn’s novel, to evict thousands of tenant farmers from the land that they had worked since time immemorial. In their stead, and in the name of ‘agricultural improvement’, huge swathes of northern Scotland were given over to sheep.

Make no mistake: this is ethnic cleansing. In ‘Butcher’s Broom’, a people considered ‘savages’ by Heller, a lowland Scot, have the roofs of their homes burnt over them. As Elder, another lowland Scot, puts it: ‘We know they are unlearned and their dialect can have only a very few words because the things around them are few and they live pretty much like animals’. Dispossessed, the Gaelic-speaking inhabitants of the Riasgan become refugees, those archetypal figures of the 20th and 21st centuries.

Whilst ‘Butcher’s Broom’ is epic in scope, it is personal in implication. The central characters are two women: Dark Mairi, a wise-woman and healer, and Ellie, her granddaughter. Their insights into the behaviour of others make Mairi and Ellie convincing characters. The more we learn about Mairi, Ellie and their neighbours, the more we are moved by their sensibilities in the context of what we might regard as hard and economically impoverished lives. In consequence, we are even more aghast at the inhumane treatment meted out to them. Gunn withholds the clearing of the Riasgan till the last 50 pages or so of his novel. Hence, when the eviction happens, it comes with added, brutal, force.

The structure of ‘Butcher’s Broom’ is well-nigh perfect. From the outset, and in sharp contradiction to the uninformed beliefs of the Duke and Duchess and their agents, Gunn vividly establishes the sophisticated culture of the Riasgan. The women folk ‘waulking’ the cloth at the house of Angus Sutherland is particularly emblematic of a cultural richness that didn’t survive the Clearances. Gunn vibrantly conveys what was swept away: the improvised verification that accompanies the Riasgan women as they rhythmically beat the newly woven tweed; the combative exchanges across the room, often witty and vituperative; and the bardic story-telling.

Gunn’s writing is at his lyrical best in ‘Butcher’s Broom’. Gunn is brilliant in using evocative imagery to encapsulate feelings. For example, when Mairi reaches her cottage after her journey from the sea with which the novel begins, Gunn tells us that ‘Pleasure glimmered on her face like twilight on a loch’. Gunn is terrific in achieving a cumulative effect through added detail, for example in his description of an eight some reel at the ceilidh that follows the ‘waulking’:

‘Between the black piper and the red fire the music changed to quick time. The women faced each other between the lines of men, dancing woman to woman, then, advancing, linked arms and whirled in a giddy spin, the men swaying on their feet, watching them, jocular, eyes glistening and ready. The women broke apart and faced their men, who danced to them with welcome, who swung them and left them, to face each other man to man. All the wild male energy now tore out of them; their deep-throated cries rose upon the night, pierced the night with exultation; the dance attained its moment of mad frenzy; linking arms, they set their strength to the swing. The quiet women who had danced, quietly laughing, watched them, waiting for the sundering of that whirling violence, conscious of the male pride but sure of themselves as of fate’.

The novel ends as it begins – with Mairi. Gunn successfully brings together the various strands of the novel. Mairi’s death is highly symbolic: she has gone back to the Riasgan to hunt for lichens and roots but dies surrounded by sheep. The shepherd setting his dogs on Mairi is emblematic of the terrible inhumanity that can be shown by our fellow human beings: the shepherd’s whistle to the dogs reminds us of Heller’s earlier whistle to recall his thugs as they finish their burning of Mari’s cottage by throwing her hens in the fire. Yet, there is hope. For Ellie, there is hope that she might have a better future now that Roy, the father of her child, has returned. Roy’s are the final words spoken in Gunn’s novel: ‘time matters no more’. ‘Butcher’s Broom’ transcends its time and setting. Hopefully, we will be moved by the injustices perpetrated on the folk of the Riasgan and speak out against all such human injustice in whatever contemporary form it takes.

Stewart Robertson
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 5 January 2014
"Ruscus aculeatus (butcher's broom) is a member
of the Liliaceae family. It has tough, green, erect, striated
stems that send out numerous short branches and
very rigid leaves that are actually extensions of the stem
and terminate in a single sharp spine." [...]

Butcher's Broom, as an herb, appears in Gunn's magnificent novel but also serves as a metaphor for the treatment of the Highlanders after the Battle of Culloden in 1746 through the early 1800s by their English factors and landlords (sometimes Clan chiefs).

Neil M. Gunn was born in the Highlands county of Caithness, and so had a personal interest in the brutal interruption of the Clan way of life, an abrupt end to agriculture and a forced reliance on fish and seaweed collection along the coast.

In fact, a factor, Mr. Elder discusses some of Gunn's ancestors, the MacHamish family: "There's only one bad nest of them and they're up on the Heights--MacHamishes, a sept of the Gunns, thoroughly godless dangerous ruffians. There are some Gunns, too, but they'll be evicted first of all, because they know enough to organise the Strath--and they would. All that lot live by breaking the law."

These are the Gaelic speakers of Scotland, so not only a way of life was desecrated but also a language was largely obliterated. Their story is much like that of the Native Americans in the United States. They were literally burned out of their homes, the sick and elderly left to die of smoke inhalation in their thatched cottages. The people who were not initially butchered later suffered from previously unknown diseases introduced by the large-scale sheep farmers, replacing humans with sheep.

Gunn writes in some of the most beautiful and lyrical prose you are ever likely to find in a book about these incidents but makes them personal in the characters of Dark Mairi, Elidh, Davie, Colin, Colin's son, Kirsteen and their neighbors.

Of Dark Mairi of the shore, he writes: "The fire danced in tiny spots on her black irises. Yet she did not seem to see the sky so much as listen to it; or listen to nothing, so still did she become for a time. Then a small sighing wind came down the hillside and from her mouth, and vague concern for her cow touched her. She got up, put her basket over by the meal chest, and went out." Her name comes from an old Highland song:

The stars are shining cheerily, cheerily
Horo, Mhairi dhu, turn ye to me.
The sea mew's moaning drearily, drearily
Horo, Mhairi dhu, turn ye to me.
Cold is the stormwind that ruffles the breast
But warm are the downy plumes lining its nest
Cold blows the storm there
Soft falls the snow there
Horo, Mhairi dhu, turn ye to me.
(Dark Mary, turn ye to me.)

Dark Mairi and Murach had "the second sight." "Usually persons with second sight are normal enough in every other way. But Seumas was a strange being, and when the others forgot him, Davie and Kirsteen remained sensitive to his alien presence." Dark Mairi is a healer who knows the plants, lichens, mosses of the glens as well as she knows the back of her hand. "Indeed, in her steady unthinking darkness, she might have walked out of a mountain and might walk into it again, leaving no sign. The sick man had looked at her with expectation. She asked him questions quietly. She smiled her small weak smile. She put her hand on his forehead. Her hand was very cold. Her smile did not touch her eyes at all. She was not concerned. She would soon put him all right."

She could not, however, heal the great dislocation about to befall her people. I did not want to reach the sea again, at the end of this novel, not only because I knew what would happen, but also because the language was so wonderful.

Lady Elizabeth Gordon, her factor Mr. Sellar, and the organized church are the villains in this novel, although their names have been changed to protect the guilty, all while the young able men of the Highlands had gone off to fight on behalf of this corrupt aristocracy. Patrick Sellar was tried for his role in the atrocities and found not guilty in 1816.

From a people thus described: "peat on limbs and faces, the bodies leaping and spinning in the circles of music, under a sky with stars paling to the east where a waning moon was thinking of rising upon her kingdom; here was more than the joy of the dance, something added to the mystery of the rhythm, a beat in the blood; freedom from walls, freedom from rules; escape caught in its own delirious toils between fire and music. The music put its frenzy in the boys so that they could not leave the fire alone. Out of the dark they came running with peats from the nearest stacks with the guitt of half-theft stinging their mirth. They would make a fire as big as the world and blind the moon and stars !"

To a defeated people thus described: "But Mr. Heller glanced at Mr James and smiled also. `What a handful of half-starved savages in the lost glens of the north may say is nowhere. Yet that is our business, and when talking to us he will make it his.'"

This is a story which will take your imagination captive, and especially if you have roots in the Gaelic North of Scotland or in Ireland, you owe it to yourself to read this novel. Neil M. Gunn is one of the few authors I have read to note the irony of the Gaelic Highlanders sent to Ireland to quash dissent and the Gaelic Irish sent to Scotland to quash dissent - all among their ethnic cousins. "It proved an interesting reflection that the soldiers from these glens who some dozen years before had marched away to the wars had seen their first service in Ireland, where a rebellion against His Majesty's kingdom was being ruthlessly stamped out. And now here was a regiment of Irish being marched into the Northern Highlands to even the balance of immortal justice. So naturally these Irish were more eager for the fray than Mr. Heller or any of his prompters, for they came muttering of their own defeats and wrongs, of Tarrahill and Ballynamuck. The bloody Highlanders! The bloody Irish!"
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on 4 November 2012
Beautiful, mystical and incredibly moving.......my favourite of the Neil M. Gunn novels. If you have never heard of the Highland Clearances before, you will never forget them after reading Butcher's Broom
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on 15 December 2014
Ecellent.
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on 3 May 2015
Good
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2 of 11 people found the following review helpful
Butchers Broom is a long-winded and rather turgidly written novel about the tragic clearances in the Highlands. Well-meaning, it attempts to fictionalise the 19th-century lives of Highlanders, of which the author, Neil Gunn, is well informed, but his out-of-date language, his laboured style, his efforts to make descriptions poetic, all fail to convince or enrapture.

In fact I gave up on this novel, and although it was probably well-received and well considered when it was published, I think this kind of book has had its day and I would rather read a straightforward history of the clearances than a characterless novel.
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