An Open Letter to the actor, James McAvoy, concerning the Highland Clearances
17th April 2011
Dear James McAvoy
I read with interest your comments in The Scotsman at the weekend. It’s a fair point you make about there being no movies dealing with the Highland Clearances. Hard to believe isn’t it? It’s one of the most significant landmarks in Scottish history, with no shortage of heartbreak and drama, but no one has yet dramatised it for the big screen. How could that be?
Don’t think this is an accident or an oversight because it’s not. I was brought up in the town of Thurso, less than thirty miles from the worst of the Strathnaver Clearances, but the subject was never mentioned at school. Yet there were kids in our school whose grandparents had listened to tales told by their older relatives who themselves were cleared off the land. This wasn’t ancient history to us. But it was a history too shameful to mention.
There is a wealth of stories from Scottish history crying out to get made into films but few of them ever do. It’s as if Wallace, Bruce, Mary Queen of Scots, Rob Roy and Bonnie Prince Charlie are the sum total of our history. Kings, queens and battles. Same as it ever was.
Period dramas are the stock-in-trade of English cinema and television. There have been hundreds of them, some based on historical events, others on the classics of English literature. They flood onto our screens – and by our I mean Scotland’s – on a regular basis. I’m not complaining about this. My mother enjoys them so why not.
But where are the corresponding period dramas from Scottish history? Where are the great movies set during the time of the Reformation, the Covenanters, the massacre of Glencoe, the Darien Expedition, the Act of Union, the hounding of the Jacobites, the Scottish Enlightenment, the trial of Thomas Muir, the massacre of Tranent, the Radical Uprising of 1820, the Highland Land League, the Industrial Revolution, the Victorian slums of Glasgow, or, as you say, the Highland Clearances?
The same applies to historical bio-pics. The lives of Robert Ferguson, Robert Burns, John Murdoch, Mary Ann Somerville, David Hume, Thomas Muir, Robert Louis Stevenson, RB Cunninghame Graham, or at the start of the twentieth century – Ethel Moorhead, John MacLean or John Logie Baird – were full of passion, high drama and incident. But where are the movies?
If you, or anyone else involved in cinema, are serious about making a film set during the Highland Clearances can I take the liberty of pointing you in the direction of a story that has been screaming out to be filmed since it was first published in 1968.
It has no parts for good-looking young actors like yourself. There’s no parts either for gorgeous young women in buxom push-up bras. It may cover the same period in time but Pride and Prejudice it is not.
The central character is an old woman, poor and frail, nearing the end of her days, who lives on her own. She’s worked hard all her life for little material gain. She has little education, nor much knowledge of life beyond her own small god-fearing community. (Think Breaking The Waves, except a century and a half earlier.)
What sustains her in her poverty and old age are her Calvinist beliefs. She believes her suffering will eventually end and she’ll get her reward in the afterlife. Death, she feels, can’t be that far away.
The story is set in a geographically isolated corner of Scotland once teeming with love, life and passion but subsequently ravaged, destroyed and then emptied by the Clearances. Today the same rivers run deep, fished and policed by the wealthy, but there is only the rubble of crumbling old buildings where children once played. And sheep.
The novel is called Consider The Lilies and was written by Ian Crichton Smith, one of our country’s finest poets. This magnificent book, set in the early years of the nineteenth century, has a very understated opening which in my opinion would translate beautifully to celluloid.
“Her name was Mrs Scott and she was an old woman of about seventy. She was sitting on an old chair in front of her cottage when she saw the rider.”
In the hands of a Robert Bresson or a Bill Douglas this could be transformed into high art.
Consider The Lilies is one of the great classics of Scottish literature. It is not a long novel by any standards, it’s hardly more than 140 pages. You could read it in a couple of hours. But it packs a big punch.
With the poet’s eye for detail you feel the dramatic changes sweeping through the Scottish Highlands. Ian Crichton Smith said his book wasn’t about the Highland Clearances. In the preface he writes: “This is not an historical novel. It is a fictional study of one person, an old woman who is being evicted.”
That’s the thing. Too many films want to chunter on about an issue rather than skillfully tease out an important story through characters. But you’ll learn more about what the Clearances must have felt like, by reading this novel, than through any academic treatise on the subject.
There are two main characters in the book. The old woman and her atheist neighbour, who challenges the dictats of the landlords and their factors in his own way. It is significant that Crichton Smith chooses to make the old woman his central character rather than the neighbour. The author once commented that “I do deeply think that women are stronger, more enduring than men.”
The author has done a lot of the work for you. In his deceptively simple prose, he skilfully draws you into the mind of a bewildered old woman who simply can’t understand why she should have to leave the only home she has ever lived in, the home she gave birth to her son in. Why should she drag her meagre worldly possessions for miles across the open countryside to live on a patch of barren land she has never been to before? She can’t believe that the church elders would ever permit such a thing to happen.
Old Mrs Scott can feel the ground beneath her feet shifting in more ways than one. But something magical happens. In the teeth of coercion and bribery, a frail old woman comes to commit an act of such breathtaking yet simple defiance that it is truly inspirational. She learns to say no. Isn’t that the stuff of great drama?
As the author explained: “Mrs Scott was to be broken out of her ideology to see how she could cope as a human being.” It is in her stubborn refusal to betray her friends, and in her own quiet resistance to the horrors of eviction, that her humanity burns more fiercely than all the flaming torches of her evictors.
Consider The Lilies not only sheds light on the Highland Clearances but is an invaluable piece of our cultural heritage. It deserves to be made into a top-notch movie. I’m sure once you’ve read it you’ll agree it is a source of inspiration, righteous anger against injustice, and an affirmation of dignity and basic human decency against all the odds.
I’d recommend shooting it in black-and-white, pacing it nice and slow, allowing the faces of the characters to tell the story as much as their words or actions. Think Bergman rather than Gibson. And it wouldn’t work with big name actors from the south. You’d need local actors from the Highlands with proper northern faces. And most of all, and this is absolutely vital if the film is to be a success, keep Ewan McGregor as far away from the project as possible.
I hope this has been helpful.
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