God and Religion in The Crofter and the Laird

Paul Merrylees '04, English 171, Sages and Satirists, Brown University, 2002

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One of the later chapters in John McPhee's The Crofter and Laird begins by discussing the religious observances of the Colonsay islanders. As it turns out, every week, nineteen residents gather together at the Church of Scotland to hear the young minister preach about such topics as the providential conversions of British pop singers and of the differences between the thinking of successive generations. Every third week, an even smaller group of islanders takes the bus over to Kilchattan for a Baptist service, where they hear supplications to God that he "in this age of unprecedented communication ... please make Himself apparent to us." Just as McPhee's wry, subtly cynical exposition of Colonsay's formal religious traditions is getting off the ground, however, he suddenly and dramatically shifts tone:

[The Minister] is slow to baptize, not being ready to baptize just anyone. He says, "Baptism is a shell, unless the parents are going to take spiritual command. Then you have the yolk inside."

Donald Gibbie kills a gull and tacks its white body, smeared with blood, to a fence post on the croft, as a warning to other gulls to stay away from his flocks. When sheep are lambing, there is a moment of danger just after the lambs are born. The ewes are too weak to get up and protect the young. At these times, gulls or crows will sometimes swoop down and peck out the eyes of the lambs. [91]

Where just a few sentences earlier the writing was detached, somewhat abstract, loose, and casual, now the writing is tight, the sentences are short, the imagery is vivid, and there seems to be a visceral substance and tension beneath the succeeding paragraphs. Now McPhee is talking about birth and life and death, in this world, in the most immediate sense. His daughter "is six, and she talks about death every day," he says.

Why does McPhee suddenly shift the tone midway through the paragraph? Is this stylistically consistent with the rest of his book?

Does McPhee think that there is a difference between the real religion of Colonsay and the formal one? Does he suggest that there is a fundamental relationship between the colonsay islanders and the truths of the world that may be lacking in the mainland society, and if so, is this idealization?

What is McPhee's trip to Colonsay fundamentally about, for him? Is it a kind of pilgrimmage?

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Last modified 10 November 2003