Butcher's Broom

It is the imagination of an historical injustice beautifully realized yet what most lingers in the mind is how contemporary the story is.

Neil Gunn's novel tells of a single community in a glen in Scotland whose live is shattered (at the opening the nineteenth century) by the clearances.  Clearances designed to replace the life of crofters, governed by subsistence yet workable, with the life of sheep, managed by few but accruing significant profits to landlords.

In the pursuit of this profit, the landlords use the law to betray centuries of accumulated tradition, breaking ties to 'their people', driving them to the margins (the sea in this case) or abroad. This will make the land open for 'improvement' and 'progress' (until in this case the 'opening' of the new worlds of American and Australasia made these sheep marginal). Efficiency tends to be a remorseless, unforgiving god.

The current inhabitants are slothful and ignorant. They have not signed up either to the dominant language (English) nor the cult of efficiency. Their adaption to place that has seen them survive and develop a complex culture of adaptation and celebration counts as nothing. They can be pushed aside. It is for their own good. They will be forced to join the 'modern world' and make a 'real' contribution to our onward march to a fully monetarised and developed future.

Does this sound familiar? This story is unfolding now, in numerous parts of the world, with the same tragic consequences. For example, the San Bushman find that their traditional homeland has been designated as 'national park' to accrue to Botswanan elites revenue from tourism, able assisted by misplaced, Westernized notions of 'conservation'. They should settle - like real people - and depart from their ignorant, uncivilized ways of being resilient, adaptable and subsistent!  They should not choose their life paths (for they are after all ignorant). They must be guided by children (and, if necessary, the rod should not be spared).

It makes the novel deeply poignant - the terrible resonance. The shard of hope is that, in Scotland at least, communities begin to reclaim their rights and the balance of both culture and law swings behind them. Would this were so everywhere but in truth communities like those depicted in Gunn's novel remain imperiled and are continually shattered everywhere. It is one of the most challenging injustices of our time and so often the world rolls by and not only rolls by but assents to the same arguments that hold the Scottish landlords in their grip, negating humanity.

Greed cloaked in the language of progress is a gripping demon.

The novel itself saw Gunn's turn from social realism to something yet other: a recognition that for politics to be truly reformative, there needed to a transformation in people's values and they have a metaphysical root. You cannot expect people to work to a common humanity if they do not see it and seeing it, living out of it requires a spiritual vision of things. The struggle for justice is an outward task but one with an inward root.


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