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The Crofter and the Laird Paperback – September 1, 1992

4.6 out of 5 stars 30 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Like several of his other books, McPhee's The Crofter and the Laird is about people whose lives are still very much entwined with nature. But this particular volume carries added depth and feeling because McPhee is writing about his ancestral land, the island of Colonsay in the Scottish Hebrides. Crofter and the Laird is no starry-eyed and naive "back to the land" tract: McPhee describes the rigors and difficulties of this life with the same attention to detail he gives to the simple beauty of the land and lifestyle. Colonsay is a stark region of stone and seals and sheep and storms, with its residents still living under a feudal system of farmers, crofter, and lord. But McPhee honors this homeland with a rich work that would make his ancestors proud. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.


“McPhee brings to his book about the island of Colonsay in the Scottish Hebrides a visual precision and a grace of language that are quite rare.” ―Harper's

“A small masterpiece of penetrating warmth and perception.” ―Charles Eliot, Time

“One always has the sense with McPhee of a man at a pitch of pleasure in his work, a natural at it, finding out on behalf of the rest of us how some portion of the world works.” ―Edward Hoagland, The New York Times


Product Details

  • Paperback: 168 pages
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux (September 1, 1992)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0374514658
  • ISBN-13: 978-0374514655
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.4 x 8.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 7.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (30 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #476,123 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

John McPhee was born in Princeton, New Jersey, and was educated at Princeton University and Cambridge University. His writing career began at Time magazine and led to his long association with The New Yorker, where he has been a staff writer since 1965. The same year he published his first book, A Sense of Where You Are, with FSG, and soon followed with The Headmaster (1966), Oranges (1967), The Pine Barrens (1968), A Roomful of Hovings and Other Profiles (collection, 1969), The Crofter and the Laird (1969), Levels of the Game (1970), Encounters with the Archdruid (1972), The Deltoid Pumpkin Seed (1973), The Curve of Binding Energy (1974), Pieces of the Frame (collection, 1975), and The Survival of the Bark Canoe (1975). Both Encounters with the Archdruid and The Curve of Binding Energy were nominated for National Book Awards in the category of science.

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback
This book deals with McPhee's return to his roots: two small islands of the inner Hebrides in Scotland. You do not have to be Scottish to be captured by the author's personal emotions during this visit. They are beautifully blended in with factual information on the history of this part of Scotland and on the harshness of life on these islands. McPhee always manages to weave a personal thread through his books. For example, in "Rising from the Plains" he uses the family history of the main character (David Love) to personalize this documentary on the geology of Wyoming. Particularly captivating is the conclusion of the book where Love returns to his now dilapidated parental homestead. What makes "Crofter and the Laird" even more interesting is the fact that McPhee now writes about his own emotions. I was particularly touched by the chapter where he describes a walk to the ruins of an old priory. It is hard not to identify yourself with the author. Simple black-and white pen-drawn illustrations certainly contribute to the depth and authenticity of this book. I am invariably awestruck by the variety of subjects in McPhee's books, but this one certainly is one of my favourites.
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Format: Paperback
The finely detailed observations and vivid turn-of-words which we have come to know so well from McPhee's books on North America and its geological history, is applied here with great skill in this look at the tiny Scottish island of Colonsay and its inhabitants. The small population of under 150 people can trace ancestry to two castes or clans. Most are crofters or farmers. Some are true islanders with family roots going back hundreds of years; others are "incomers". It's not a derogatory term but simply another social distinction. Then there's THE CROFTER AND THE LAIRD. McPhee offers a distillation of this social concoction. "The usual frictions, gossip, and intense social espionage that characterize life in a small town are so grandly magnified...everyone is many things to everyone else, and is encountered daily in a dozen guises. Enmeshed together, the people of the island become one another. Friend and enemy dwell in the same skin."
McPhee deals with his usual areas of interest such as the environmental past of the island, but its the people that fascinate him. Here it's also a little closer to home as Colonsay is the home of McPhee's ancestors. The book is as much a narrative of the strife torn history of clans as it is one Americans' exploration of the "sentimental myth" that he attaches to his Scottish surname. McPhee quickly sees that, rather than myth, the clan is as real to Scots as it ever was. This is only amplified in a feudal and cloistered social setting such as on Colonsay.
The McPhee's (or Macafee, MacPhee, Macheffie, or MacDuffie, as the various septs are known) are part of the ancient clan MacFie. They're Celtic, and the Gaelic origin of the name means "son of the Dark Fairy or Elf".
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Format: Paperback
I really enjoyed this book. It was refreshing and light but great in detail. John McPhee explains his move from the U.S. with his wife and 4 daughters back to his Great Grandfather's ancestral home on the island of Colonsay in the Hebrides of Scotland. The population is around 150 and he learns all about the small town life in a feudal environment. McPhee talks about everything from farmers, crofters, and general laborers and their daily lives on the island. He also shifts from what he sees and experiences with first person gossip and comments from the islanders to stories and legends from the island's and his clan's past.

All the islanders talk of the Laird Strathcona who owns everything. Then John meets him and sees he is just a minor peer in the Scottish Court and more of a landlord trying to bring the island of Colonsay a little out of the past. The book is lightly sprinkled with simple sketches of the island which brings everything together.

A really enjoyable read for anyone with Scottish roots or just interested in Scottish life and history. Not everyone is descended from Scottish Kings and famous knights. Most of us are of the poorer stock like those portrayed in this book. I am even more proud of them now.
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Format: Hardcover
My family also originates on Colonsay, and we go back to visit occasionally. We were asked if we were related to John McPhee, because our name is McAfee. We were told that it was a good thing we weren't, because John had given away more secrets than the islanders thought wise. They told us that if he ever returned he would not make it off the ferry onto the dock. This is a great book and should be read and appreciated by all.
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Format: Paperback
1970's "The Crofter and the Laird" is John McPhee's graceful account of an extended stay on the Scottish island of Colonsay, ancestral home to his clan and a living fragment of an almost feudal lifestyle in the 20th Century.

Author John McPhee is rightly known for his keen observation, his simple but highly descriptive prose, and his ability to capture a sense of place. These skills are very evident in his clear-eyed yet sympathetic narrative of a vanishing culture in the Hebrides. The residents work small crofts, or rented farms, for a thin but apparently rewarding living in the solitude of a remote and beautiful island. The laird, owner of the island, lives in England but visits every summer. The crofters and the laird are enmeshed in an ancient legal tradition of mutual obligation, an anachronism which neither party was quite yet prepared to give up when McPhee stayed on Colonsay.

Colonsay's culture sits on a couple of millennia of history contributed by Picts, Celts, Scots, Vikings, and others. Some of the best parts of McPhee's narrative are his observations of the ancient remnants, such as ruined chapels, and the myths, stories, and customs forwarded by the islanders. Every physical feature on the island seems to have a name and a story.

The center of McPhee's narrative is his host on the island, one Donald McNeill, who pursues a variety of vocations to feed his family and make a living, and who provides insight into a close-knit society that regards "incomers" with some suspicion. McNeill is entirely comfortable in his life, appreciative of his family's long continuity on the island, yet honest about the hard work required by what is nearly subsistance living.

This book is highly recommended as a fascinating and enjoyable read on a small fragment of a vanishing island culture in a place time seemed almost to have forgotten.
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