11 – The Highlander’s Last Song

Published in 1986 as Introduction to The Highlander’s Last Song, the Bethany House edition of George MacDonald’s What’s Mine’s Mine

 

              I occasionally wonder what more can be said to introduce George MacDonald and his remarkable works. And yet I continue to discover every book to be so unique in itself that words to commend them almost write themselves. If you have not read any of MacDonald’s books in this series and are unfamiliar with his life and background, I urge you to read the Introduction to The Fisherman’s Lady, the first book.

            The Highlander’s Last Song, originally published in 1886 as What’s Mine’s Mine and now reissued in the Bethany House Classic Reprint Series, has long been one of my favorites. But its attraction to me has also been one of the reasons I delayed so long in choosing it as a selection for this series; I questioned whether its unique flavor would be sufficient to “grab” twentieth-century readers–sad to say, always a necessity in this modern age. But it was precisely the book’s flavor and tone which always intrigued me, which got under my skin and caused MacDonald’s perspectives to influence me long after I had forgotten the specifics of the plot itself.

            Several features set The Highlander’s Last Song apart from the body of MacDonald’s other work. Certainly the parallel between his beloved brother John and the character of  Ian is noteworthy, for John MacDonald spent time in Russia and was forced to leave under almost identical circumstances. In addition he and his brother enjoyed a relationship similar to that of Alister and Ian. But more particularly it is a story of the land of Scotland–specifically the highlands along the northwest coast.

            MacDonald’s fascination with the land is clearly demonstrated in The Highlander’s Last Song. Anyone who has read MacDonald, thoroughly, recognizes that nature always spoke to him about the character of the God he served. All his books resound with his love for the earth, the sky, the seas, the mountains, the heavens, the animal creation. And working in combination with his imaginative genius, MacDonald’s descriptive passages are among the most moving to be found anywhere because to him nature was alive with the pulsating life of its Creator.

            The Highlander’s Last Song takes that love of nature a step further, because it is a story in which a Scottish clan’s love for their homeland is the central theme. Thus the descriptions of Strathruadh and the interplay of the hills and the valley with the lives of the once mighty clan Ruadh are integral to the very plot. Though Strathruadh itself is a fictional location, MacDonald, as was his habit, drew on actual place names in a given locality to fabricate the names and places for his stories. Thus we are able to fix the locale for the book–working from detailed maps of the area where to this day the Gaelic name “Ruadh” survives in many valley, hill, glen, and stream names of various forms–on the western coast of mainland Scotland, directly west of Inverness. It is a rugged land, sparsely populated, with fierce winters and stubborn soil which, when suitable ground for growing crops can be found, does not easily yield its bounty to those who choose to make these highlands their home.

            But for centuries (roughly between the years 900 and 1800) many determined Scots of Celtic background did make the Scottish highlands their home. From past ages these strong and independent Scots–in whose veins flowed the blood of the Scandanavian Vikings, the mysterious Picts, and the Celts who had migrated from Europe before recorded history could even chronicle their movements–had banned together in large, familial tribes, or “clans.” And the persistent unity within these clans–often expressed as bitter and warring hatred against rival clans–bound the people of the Scottish highlands together. Though as a nation Scotland first had to solidify its independence, then fight long and hard against England to keep it, and finally was united with her neighbor to the south in the seventeenth century, throughout it all the highland clans marched to their own independent tune, led by their chiefs and accompanied by the wail of bagpipes. They were part of the Scottish nation on one level, but on another, deeper level, were their own independent entity within the whole. Attempts to subdue the clan leaders throughout the years resulted only in bloodshed, for they were not a people to be overpowered by force.

            Change, however, could not be held back; if force could not subdue the highlanders, economics ultimately did. Landowners from the south, attracted by cheap land prices, good hunting, and wide spaces where sheep could be raised inexpensively, began buying large plots of land in the north. Furthermore, those landowners who had long rented out small parcels to struggling crofters began to see that they could fatten their profits considerably by converting their property to grazing land for sheep, hardy creatures requiring little maintenance, whose wool fetched premium prices. For these and other complex reasons, in the late eighteenth century “the highland clearances” began; massive numbers of poor farmers were expelled from their homes and farms in favor of sheep, which needed a great deal of acreage to feed upon. Between 1800 and 1820 whole villages and clans were relocated, sometimes under cruel conditions and treatment, leaving the highlands desolate of the clans which had once so colorfully and energetically peopled them. The clan system was not able to withstand the onset of industrialization and many highlanders emigrated to Canada, some to fishing villages on Scotland’s eastern coast, others to the south of Scotland; still others were scattered and the clan bonds broken forever. This is Scotland as it really was for many of its people.

            But no MacDonald book is without deep undercurrents of abiding spiritual truth which emerge from the context of the historical setting of the story itself.  In the growth of young Alister Macruadh, clan chief and central character of The Highlander’s Last Song, a number of penetrating eternal principles convict the modern reader, driving us back to the solid bedrock upon which our faith is based. Determined and passionate, Alister must wage a fierce battle with his pride, asking himself what subtle disguises Mammon has put on to tempt him away from the highest calling of all–total submission to Christ. The choice faced by Alister is as complex an issue as MacDonald ever raised, fully justifying any attempt to rationalize away the spiritual element and settle for what might be acceptable  “in the world’s eyes.” Yet Alister’s resolve in the end to lay everything on the altar of dependence upon God’s provision rather than man’s initiative serves as an unforgettable and powerful model of true self-denying practical commitment to our Lord.

            The Highlander’s Last Song, then, is the story of a chief’s love and devotion to his people, a story of the sacrificial commitment which undergirds the responsibility he feels for those that look to him for leadership, and the story of a young man’s journey into the upper regions of freedom from self. For MacDonald was always anxious to show that even the righteous have a continuing need to purge themselves of anything standing in the way of God’s perfect will for them. God’s work in an individual heart is never complete, no matter how selfless that heart may seem to be.

            But in the midst of these everlasting lessons we take from our reading, at the same time this is a historical novel, accurate in its portrayal of that portion of Scottish history during which the leaders of dying remnants of once-proud clans had to face the future and decide what was best for their people. This book offers us, along with a variety of characters, a portrayal, not only  of Christ, but of the homeland which played such a vital part in MacDonald’s own life and development, his personal, spiritual, literary, and ancestral roots.

            Though the Gaelic place names still abound, and though in isolated pockets of Scotland (mostly in remote glens of the Western Isles) the Gaelic can still be heard, the sound of the ancient Celtic language has gone. And with it has gone the clan culture. Only faint echoes remain, echoes which exist only in the memory of those who love the heritage represented by this people and their strange but flowery tongue. The clan Ruadh, and all those who bore the name Macruadh (“son of Ruadh”), live on for us through George MacDonald’s imagination, typifying a folk culture of a remote and distant land that is no more.

Michael Phillips

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