Jeanne Williams,
The Island Harp
(St. Martin's, 1991;
iUniverse, 2000)

This book originally was put out under the banner of historical romance, but actually landed in the wrong spot. It should have been historical fiction, a wee fine distinction, but a significant one. Yes, there is romance, but only as a small part of the true tapestry of human emotions.

It did not fair well in the U.S. mostly because of the romance banner. So for some time the book has gone unnoticed and was only available in used bookstores. Thus, I was delighted to see the wonderful work given a reprint treatment more deserving of his subject matter and hopefully people will discover this marvelous story of Scotland.

Many of you, I am sure, know of the great potato famine that hit Ireland, how nearly a million died. But were you aware the same blight that hit Ireland moved to Scotland? Worse, this horrible loss of life sustaining crops came at one of the ugliest periods in Scottish history: the beginning of the Clearances. More and more of Scotland's gentry were city folk, generally living in the big cities of Scotland and England, and paid a factor to run their country estates, caring little how he ran them as long as he produced profits to sustain their rich lifestyles. Crofters were not really a moneymaking situation for the lairds wanting the highest return for the least investment. Sheep were low maintenance, with high cash return. People cost more and what they gave as payment for living on the land was small. So began the Clearances -- literally running people off land their families had farmed and lived on for centuries -- to make way for sheep.

Island Harp, based on fact, details this terrible slice of Scottish history through eyes of Mairi. It is set on the Isle of Lewis during the Clearances of the 1840s, when the English landowner (the Countess of Seaforth) drove crofters from their homes to use the land for grazing or hunting.

Young Mairi loves her life, simple though it is. She loves her family, her beloved grandfather Fearchar, Gran, brother Tam and other relatives of the clan. But one summer, her life is shattered as the laird's factor sets fire to their homes, the start of the evictions. Fearchar runs into the burning house to rescue the harp he treasures and dies for his effort, but before dying he asks Mairi to protect the harp as a symbol of their heritage.

A dash Captain Iain MacDonald rides in to the rescue. Scot by birth, he soldiers for the English queen and is a son of one of the local gentry. Iain does what he can to help Mairi and her family, and naturally she falls in love with him. She gives herself to him in the Ring of Stones (Calanais) knowing she will always loves this man. Later, as she learns she is with child, she finds out Iain is engaged to wed another -- one of his class. Mairi leads her clan to the Auld Broch (an ancient circular tower) and reclaims it for her people, rallying them into farming on land considered unfarmable, weaving, fishing -- anything to survive. Not only do Mairi and her child survive, they thrive along with her clan.

Mairi is the embodiment of the clan mentality, how the Scots survived and endured, their spirits unbroken through one of the worst periods in history. It is a story of personal triumph, of dreams and determination.

- Rambles
written by DeborahAnne MacGillivray
published 17 May 2003

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