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Book review: None Dare Oppose: The Laird, the Beast and the People of Lewis

None Dare Oppose: The Laird, the Beast and the People of Lewis by John Macleod Birlinn, 272pp, £16.99

With the publication of None Dare Oppose, John MacLeod becomes the most prolific goalscorer currently playing in the top division of Scottish non-fiction. MacLeod resumed his literary career in 2008 with Banner in the West, a blockbuster history of religious faith in Lewis and Harris. That was followed in 2009 by When I Heard the Bell, his searing rendition of the Iolaire disaster which devastated those two islands at the close of the First World War. Last autumn came River of Fire, an equally passionate account of the Clydebank blitz. And as 2010 rolls into 2011, there lands in our laps an absorbing account of malice and mischief in the 19th-century Hebrides. That adds up to four hefty pieces of prose within roughly 26 months. The man is a writing machine.

Readers will notice a thread running through most of those volumes. MacLeod was born in Lochaber, but his father, Professor Donald MacLeod of the Free Church College in Edinburgh, as well as being no mean writer himself, is from Ness in Lewis. John MacLeod moved back to the Long Island many years ago, is a member of the Free Presbyterian Church and now lives just outside Stornoway. Upon his doorstep there are rich seams to mine, and MacLeod is assiduously hacking away at them. He has previously been better known as a polemical feature writer and columnist in this newspaper and others, whose application of Highland Presbyterian principles to national and international issues was not always agreeable to a Lowland - or indeed, much of a modern Highland - readership.

More than that, while nobody sensible has ever doubted that MacLeod is a marvellously gifted writer, the waspish style of his journalism is not suited to the studied historical narratives that he has chosen to relate. He had to muzzle the attack dog and has successfully done so by stepping back a century or so, in style as well as subject.

None Dare Oppose is a Dickensian tale with Dickensian characters set in Dickens' time, and written in the kind of classically educated, mannered and gently humorous style which most writers ceased to attempt around 1914. MacLeod's achievement is to make his revival of this construction hugely enjoyable.

The book begins as it means to go on. We are transported to the dark, narrow lanes of Victorian Stornoway. Late at night a doctor's maid answers an insistent knocking on the door. Her master is called out to a deathbed, and when he returns he demands a basin, warm water, Lysol and soap, "because I have been handling the body of the Beast".

The Beast in question was an elderly gentleman from Tain in Easter Ross named Donald Munro. Almost 50 years earlier Munro had arrived on Lewis as procurator fiscal. In the decades that followed he acquired virtually every public and private office in Stornoway. He proceeded, as MacLeod describes, to become not only the most powerful but also the most hated commoner in the northern Hebrides. The two are not automatically synonymous: Munro worked hard on his reputation. As estate factor, fiscal and the only lawyer in town he had a grip on Lewis life that Mussolini would have envied. As he was also a bad and vindictive man, it ended in tears - a lot of tears from the people of Lewis before the eyes of Munro were finally made to water.

Tales of wicked factors and suffering crofters are no longer a novelty, even when the factor is so very wicked that he could double as a pantomime villain. Factors on Victorian Highland estates had a hard row to hoe. Their employers had - often for the first time in history - shelled out lots of money for the property rather than seamlessly inherited it, and they wanted to see a return. If that return meant whipping the tenantry into shape, there was not much point in Sir James Matheson and his fellows employing Mr Wilkins Micawber at the business end of the venture. They needed Fagin, or at least a credible likeness.

MacLeod's Donald Munro is not wholly Fagin. He is a bit of Fagin, and a bit of Bill Sikes, and a bit of Quilp, and a bit of Harry Flashman. There's a touch of Mr Hyde in there too. But he is a curiously sexless and unavaricious character. Far from ravishing Hebridean maidens, he preferred to spoil the lives of the people of Lewis like a chess player, moving them around to maximum effect with a minimum of contact. And he died almost poor. He did what he did because he was good at it, and because he was good at it he liked doing it. The salary was secondary.

The context of Munro's career was the biggest, most self-sufficient and most confident of the western islands of Scotland. Much of None Dare Oppose is a vigorous revisionist romp through Lewis history - there was no such person as the Brahan Seer; the Seaforths of golden memory were a vain and silly bunch; people who moan about Lewis clearances should take a look at South Uist and Sutherland and count themselves lucky.

None of this detracts from the thrust of MacLeod's story, which is that of all places in the Scottish Gaidhealtachd Lewis was best placed to withstand the assaults of the 19th and 20th centuries, and that without people like Munro and his employer, the drug baron James Matheson, it could then and now have been a better place. The lessons are not purely historical. MacLeod asserts that Matheson and Munro and cronies could only have corrupted the law so thoroughly because Lewis was Lewis - full of Gaels and a long way from Dingwall, let alone Edinburgh. Some episodes in more recent Hebridean history suggest that those circumstances have not entirely ceased to be relevant.

Munro's comeuppance was delivered, as it probably had to be, from within Lewis itself. One of his hired hands overstepped the mark way out on the west side of the island, and having got himself in a tight situation he threatened to shoot the youngsters of the area. A Lewisman of the same community was later illegally detained and beaten up. You do not do those things to Lewismen, not now, not then, as the local police tried to tell Munro. But Munro was past telling. A subsequent court case, and nationally bad publicity for the estate of Matheson, resulted in the Beast being stripped of all his privileges. He spent his last years - back to Fagin again - a bitter, broken figure, snarling at the ragged boys who taunted him through the streets of Stornoway.

There is a moral, of course, a Hebridean Presbyterian moral to MacLeod's vivacious re-enactment of the Wicked Tragedy of Donald Munro. It comes in Gaelic and in English, and probably in every other language under the sun, and it says that pride will fall, if only in the disgusted hands of a deathbed doctor.

 
 
 

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