Consider the Lilies by Iain Crichton Smith

An interesting character study…

😀 😀 😀 🙂

Mrs Scott is elderly now, living alone in her small cottage since her only son emigrated to Canada. One day a rider comes to visit her – Patrick Sellar, the factor of the local landowner, the Countess of Sutherland. He tells Mrs Scott she must leave her home and go to live by the sea where the crofters will have to learn to live by a new trade, fishing. The crofters’ land is wanted for sheep – a more profitable venture for the landlords. As Mrs Scott seeks help from her neighbours and the church, we learn about her past and see her gradually come to understand herself better than she had. And eventually we see how she faces up to an uncertain future…

The story is set in Sutherland in the early 1800s at the height of the Highland Clearances, which is one of those landmark events by which Scotland defines itself, and which still provides food for the sense of grievance that feeds the socialist aspirations of a large majority of the population and the nationalist aspirations of a large minority. Patrick Sellar is a real historical figure, though Mrs Scott is fictional. Unfortunately Crichton Smith’s grasp on historical facts is somewhat tenuous – not unusual in a nation where history is distorted too readily into a propaganda tool and where historical accuracy is rarely allowed to get in the way of the grievance mythology.

However, Crichton Smith’s glaring timeline errors irritated me so much that I found it distracting. For instance, he calls the landlord “the Duke” throughout. In fact, the Duke in question wasn’t a duke at that time – he was the Marquess of Stafford. The land belonged to his wife in her own right as the sole heir to the Sutherland Earldom, and her title at this time was the Countess of Sutherland. This, that the Countess of Sutherland was the most prominent of the landlords involved in the Clearances, is, I would have said, one of the best known facts about the whole era, so it both surprised and annoyed me that Crichton Smith consistently got the titles wrong.

Then there’s the question of Mrs Scott’s age. We are told that her husband left her and their very young son, joined the army, and died a few months later in Spain during the Napoleonic wars, so presumably sometime between 1808-14. Patrick Sellar’s career as factor ended in ignominy in 1817 after he was tried for some of his cruel actions while evicting the tenants. So how exactly did a woman young enough to have her first child after 1800 become an old woman before 1817? Crichton Smith claimed his purpose was not to write a historical novel – fair enough, but even if the Clearances are only background to Mrs Scott’s story, a little bit of historical credibility would have been good.

Book 9 of 80
Classics Club Spin #30

However, indeed the Clearances are not Crichton Smith’s main target. The story is mostly about another recurring theme of Scottish literature – the stranglehold of the reformed Church on the people and its abuses, and here he does a much better job. Mrs Scott naturally turns to her church in her trouble, but finds that church and landlords are in a symbiotic relationship, each upholding the other, and neither showing much concern for the poor and powerless. Circumstances lead her to take help from a local man, Donald Macleod, who is seen as a troublemaker by those in authority, as an atheist and as a man who stands up for what he sees as his rights. (Donald Macleod was apparently also a real person but not one familiar to me.) And as she spends time with him and his family, Mrs Scott comes to re-assess her own church-driven moral rigidity and stern humourlessness, and to realise that this may be what caused first her husband and then her son to leave her.

It is written in simple language, in third person but from Mrs Scott’s perspective. Her age and the circumstances in which she finds herself gain her sympathy from the beginning, but initially the reader too sees her as her son must have done, as a woman so determined to judge others by her strict moral code that she makes the lives of those around her miserable. As we learn her story, though, our sympathy grows – her life has been hard and perhaps her natural liveliness and humour were driven out by her early experiences. Abandoned by her feckless husband, she has devoted her life to her son, but her emotional repression means that she shows this devotion through nagging and criticism rather than through gestures of love and affection. And when he too abandons her, all she has left is her church – a church that preaches hell and damnation more than love and salvation, that rules through authoritarian fear. It is her final abandonment by the church that is the catalyst for her to re-assess her life. So there is a sense of hope in the end, not that life will be easier nor that eviction can be avoided, but that Mrs Scott may free herself of the shackles of misery in which the church has bound her, and learn a more open way of thinking even at her late age.

Iain Crichton Smith

After a very shaky start caused by the historical howlers, I eventually became absorbed in Mrs Scott’s story. It’s a short book and isn’t saying anything particularly new or profound – it is covering ground that has been well travelled in Scottish fiction, one might say trampled into a mire. But Crichton Smith keeps the story intentionally intimate by showing the effects of large events on one individual, and that makes it an emotional read, especially in the second half. I’m not convinced it really has the weight or quality to be considered a true classic, but it works well as a character study and an interesting, if slight, commentary on the way the church in Scotland has been used as a tool to keep the underlings under.

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40 thoughts on “Consider the Lilies by Iain Crichton Smith

  1. This sounds terrific, especially after learning a little about the clearances after our The Silver Darlings review-along.The bodgy timelines wouldn’t bother me since I wouldn’t know the difference except that you’ve pointed them out.

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    • It’s kind of like the prequel to The Silver Darlings! In a sense, knowing from that one that the crofters did manage to build a new community made me feel more confident for Mrs Scott’s future. I don’t mind occasional historical inaccuracies but these ones were so pointless – nothing would have been changed by getting them right. Laziness on his part, I feel…

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      • I think I’ll look out for Consider the Lilies. The true story behind the circumstances of why the characters in The Silver Darlings ended up fishing for a living was equally as interesting as the actual story.
        Inaccuracies certainly put us readers off, we get distracted by them and then decide we don’t like the story. It is such a huge effort to write a book that you would think that getting the facts right would be a doddle.

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        • Especially when the facts are pretty well known, in Scotland anyway. If you do go for this one I hope you enjoy it. I’ve been trying to think if I’ve read other novels about the Clearances but none are springing to mind. except a crime novel by Peter May, Entry Island, which gives a really moving depiction of the clearance of the Isle of Lewis.

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  2. I too love historical fiction but the historical inaccuracies you refer to put me off, I’m afraid. There are so many well-researched historical novels out there. I have just finished reading one, which I will review on my reading blog, Dear Reader… when I get around to it. Do other bloggers struggle like I do to find time?

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    • These historical inaccuracies felt particularly silly too, since they are major facts in the history of the Clearances, and therefore well-known to most Scots who’d be attracted to reading a book on the subject. A bit like an English author getting the names of Henry VIII’s Queens in the wrong order! Ha, yes, time is always a major issue in blogging! I’ll look out for your review when it comes.

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  3. It sounds as though this book could have done with some better research and historical accuracy, FictionFan. Those sorts of things bother me, too, when I find them in books. And it is interesting, isn’t it, how historical accuracy can be put aside to support certain narratives. I think that happens in a lot of places. And even though it’s fiction, I do prefer a little more even-handedness. At any rate, the characters do seem interesting, and of course the setting. I am glad that you found things to enjoy with this one.

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    • I think what annoyed me was that the facts in question are pretty well-known facts in Scotland, so it seemed the height of laziness to get them wrong. Yes, I think every country distorts its history to create a narrative of how it would like to be perceived, but it’s become a real issue in Scotland recently, with the Scottish government accused of deliberately teaching anti-British propaganda in schools to indoctrinate children into supporting the independence cause. So I feel it’s even more important that writers of both factual and fictional history try to show the complexities of historical events.

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    • Fortunately the introduction had alerted me to expect some historical inaccuracies so at least I was forewarned. Otherwise I may well have thrown this onto the abandoned heap at an early point. But on the whole it was worth reading, though I’m still fairly lukewarm about it.

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  4. Probably not my cup of tea, but I’m glad you found it interesting. I don’t know enough about Scottish history to have those glaring inconsistencies of fact disturb me!

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    • It’s a pity because if it hadn’t been for the historical inaccuracies I’d probably have felt much more positively about the book overall. I suspect most non-Scots wouldn’t spot them, but any Scot interested enough to read a book about the Clearances would probably know the main facts, like me.

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  5. I don’t understand how such glaring inaccuracies get through the editing process, even when the writer can’t be bothered to get them right, it’s really surprising. This does sound an interesting exploration of Mrs Scott though.

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    • It’s a good question – this one isn’t even ancient so it should have one through a proper editing process. Such silly errors too. But yes, Mrs Scott was well done – I found her very believable.

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  6. I do remember writing a comment here some days back and getting interrupted, it’s gone now… So just to say that, despite its flaws, I’m still interested to read Consider the Lilies, especially hearing a story from Mrs Scott’s point of view. I’m also pleased to have been alerted to the historical lapses, thanks.

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    • Mrs Scott’s story is worth reading, especially the second half. It still amazes me though that the author didn’t make the effort to get the basics right, especially since none of the howlers were actually relevant to the story. There’s a difference between artistic licence and just plain getting things wrong! However, I hope you enjoy it.

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  7. This sounds really fascinating to me as a non-Scottish person, learning about the Clearances. Those historical inaccuracies are annoying. Not that I’m defending the author here, b/c he should have done his research, but I’m surprised the editors didn’t pick up those errors too? Seems weird…

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    • It is odd that the editor didn’t spot these issues, especially since it’s quite modern for a classic, when people were already more concerned about historical accuracy than they maybe were back in the early days of historical fiction. But it is an interesting character study of Mrs Scott and while the book doesn’t take us to Canada it shows how common emigration from Scotland to Canada was at that time…

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  8. These inaccuracies are really bad, considering Iain Crichton Smith was Head of English at Oban High School for many years (he taught my mother.) There’s actually a plaque on the house in which he used to live, just down the hill from me. I know my Dad has this book – it was a present one Christmas from my aunt, but as Dad doesn’t read fiction, I may just filch it for curiosity value – definitely not for historical accuracy!

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    • I was really surprised by the historical inaccuracies. They were so glaring and yet not necessary for the story. I’d have enjoyed the book much more if it hadn’t been for that, and I do think it’s worth reading anyway, for Mrs Scott’s story.

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    • I reviewed a factual history of the Clearances a year or two ago, and a few of us did a review-along of The Silver Darlings, which is about the early fishing industry that grew out of the Clearances. But it’s one of those themes that recurs in Scottish fiction, so I have doubtless mentioned it a million times in relation to many books!

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      • The fishing industry rings a bell so it must have been that review I am thinking about. It’s not a part of history I have ever learned much about but it is of course how many families (some of my own ancestors included) ended up in Canada so I feel a bit of a connection there!

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            • Haha, that’s funny. I wouldn’t have thought of that. My maiden name is a pretty common Scottish name; I suspect it would be hard to track down any definite connections at this point.

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            • If you know the name of a Scottish ancestor and their date or place of birth, you might be surprised. Scottish birth, marriage and death records are excellent back to about the early 1800s, because the Church of Scotland registered everything by law. Catholics sometimes slipped under the radar for that reason, but usually they conformed to the law. I researched my Canadian uncle’s family for him and it was amazing how much information was available. Mind you, they were slightly better class than my own family – I used to joke that his family had servants while my family were servants!

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            • Oh neat! I didn’t know that. I have an uncle who has done some family history so maybe he has that info. I’ve been told the family kept sheep on the Highlands so I don’t think I’ll find any secret high class relatives!

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