Superstition and Satire in "The Crofter and the Laird"

Jon Segal, Graduate Student in American Civilization at Brown University, English 171, Sages and Satirists, Brown University, 2002

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In The Crofter and the Laird, John McFee sets out to his ancestral home to paint a picture of life in the past and the present on Colonsay, hopefully giving us some clues as to the meanings of our modern lives, although this last portion is not necesarilly part of his project.

In the following passage, and the chapter to follow, McPhee juxtaposes the recollections of his superstitious grandmother with a laundry list and then a recollection of the types and textures of the superstitious behaviours he witnesses on Colonsay:

One night about sixty years ago, my grandmother and grandfather were awakened by the steady howling of a dog. My grandmother touched my grandfather's shoulder and said to him in a frightened voice, "Oh, Angus, listen, that is a sign of death." Jumping out of bed, Angus said, "You're damned right it is -- if that dog is still there when I get down the stairs and out the door." If events fade into legend and legend into superstition, superstition eventually fades away altogether, and it is impossible to say how that one made its way to my grandmother in Ohio; but if it came from Colonsay one certainty now is that it has long since vanished from the island. Legend hangs above the Hebrides more thickly than clouds, but the people pay even less attention to these things -- to haunted dogs, seal women, seers, mermaids, elves, fairies, glaitigs, gigelorums -- than they do the rain. Donald Gibbie beleives in nothing supernatural, and he says he knows few people who do. Donald Gibbie spends his time worrying about, among other things, the Common Market (EU) and "what effect Great Britain's entry into it might have on subsidies as we know them." It is not the islanders who preserve the early magic of the island. It is the women who stay at the inn -- the ones with the knitted caps and tweed skirts and walking sticks, some of whom have brought their own shepherd's crooks with them from Edinburgh. [133-134]

How does the juxtasposition of the grandparents, superstitions, Gibbie, and the out-of-town Tweed Ladies serve to make the entire idea of superstition look ridiculous?

What function does this lampoon play in McPhee's project in general? What does it say about artifice?

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April 2002