Thursday, December 22, 2005

Farewell Rhilochan: The Scottish Highland Clearances

Farewell Rhilochan, by Verna MacLean, is a historical fiction novel about a group of Scottish Highlanders uprooted from their homes during the Highland Clearances of the early 19th century. Kathleen MacFarlane is a young, uneducated woman living with her father and dying mother in the northern Scotland village of Rhilochan in 1806. The village soon receives word that the Lord and Lady Stafford, who own their land, want them removed in a week – so they can raise larger sheep on their land. The Highlanders are forced off their land by military might and their homes are burnt. Like so many other Highlanders, the villagers are soon scattered, and sent to inhospitable land: rocky areas with poor soil, near the coast.
Kathleen suffers the hardships, and struggles with feelings of anger and vengeance against such great cruelty and injustice, as her family connections are severed. Her ailing mother dies during the journey to the rocky land, but the landlord is unwilling to delay their departure even for a burial, and then prohibits the family from returning to bury her at the family gravesite. Her brother-in-law Charles soon departs for the city to find work, while her father has nothing to live for in the new place – and they will all soon starve. The Highlanders also face unfriendly neighbors, and must face the unpleasant outside world: the truth of how others view them and their backward ways.
Farewell Rhilochan presents a compelling story, rich in well-defined characters and strong conflicts, generally from the outside world (including their minister, a clergy man more interested in helping the rich landlords and berating the people he is supposed to help) and especially the villainous Henderson, who oversees their forced move. We see how even those who have left the Highland clans to do service for the military are poorly treated, even forced to help clear their own people off their land.
The Highlanders’ lifestyle is always present, in the background yet included in various references throughout the story. A glossary at the book’s end defines several terms used, such as “burn” to describe a brook or stream. Each chapter begins with a short quote about the Highlanders and the clearance, and the quote’s source – a good way to show the author’s bibliography. Throughout the story we learn of the Highlanders’ illiteracy, their superstitions, “the Evil Eye,” their practice of keeping animals in their own homes, and even their rather raunchy wedding traditions. All these are mentioned from the Highlanders’ perspective, and not elaborated on. Still, I could relate at least some of the material to the novel Christy (Catherine Marshall), in which an outsider describes customs of the Highlanders 100 years later in East Tennessee. Farewell Rhilochan describes the historical situation that brought many of the Highlanders to the U.S., where later generations continued in the old ways. For Kathleen and her friends, however, it appears that the Highlanders and their way of life are being eradicated and scattered; some go to Nova Scotia, while some learn to adjust to life in Wick. Yet there is hope, for a new life, and Kathleen finds unexpected friendship and kindness even in the midst of tragedy.
Farewell Rhilochan is a well-written story, educational and interesting, with strong, likeable characters. Through this novel the reader can learn more about, and more fully appreciate, the story of the uprooted Highlanders and their plight.

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