MacMillan Didn’t Have a Leg to Stand On

Cecilia Kiely '04, English 171, Sages and Satirists, Brown University, 2002

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John McPhee ends the The Crofter and the Laird by returning to the same story he started with, a legend about one of the last chiefs of the McPhee clan. In the final paragraphs, he writes:

The chief in that particular incarnation was the one who died in the cave in Uragaig when the MacLean bowman shot him from above. An hour or so beforehand, he had been at his house, in Kiloran, when the invading MacLeans approached. Outnumbered, he left in a hurry with one of his friends, whose name was Gilbert MacMillan. They were running together up the side of Ben Sgoltaire when they looked behind them into the glen and saw thirty or forty MacLeans go into the house and come back out dragging McPhee’s screaming wife.

McPhee said, “MacMillan, why don’t you go down and see if you can do something to help her? She has been good to you, MacMillan. She gave you the stockings you wear. And you gave her good promises that you would see no harm come to her.”

“Unlucky is the time that you remind me of it,” MacMillan said, and he drew his sword and went back down the hill. MacLeans swarmed around him, but he stood with his back to a high stone wall and magnificently began to hack them down. Swinging and thrusting, he killed sixteen MacLeans, and he might have killed them all, but other MacLeans went around to the other side of the wall and pushed out stones at the base, making a hole through which they chopped at MacMillan’s legs until he fell. McPhee went on up the hill. One associates with one’s ancestors at one’s risk. I will never again be able to look a MacMillan in the eye.

This passage emphasizes family names. For example, McPhee writes “he killed sixteen MacCleans” when saying “he killed sixteen” or “he killed sixteen men” would be just as clear. What purpose does this serve?

At the end of passage, McPhee abruptly ends from his historical narrative and draws the reader into the present with the sentence: “One associates with one’s ancestors at one’s risk.” The repetition of the general and impersonal pronoun “one” contrasts with the specificity of the clan names. What is the effect of this switch from specific to general and past to present?

Because McPhee was obviously not present for the story he relates in this passage, it is clear that the dialogue between the men has been reconstructed. How would you characterize the way that McPhee and MacMillan address each other? How do McPhee’s choices convey his attitude towards his subject?

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Last modified 10 November 2003