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Lessons of History
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.