Big Macs deliver a feast of fiction

Angus Calder relishes a clan's epic journey from the Highlands to Canada and beyond
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No Great Mischief by Alistair Macleod (Jonathan Cape, £15.99, 262pp)

No Great Mischief by Alistair Macleod (Jonathan Cape, £15.99, 262pp)

An unusual feature of Alistair Macleod's exceptional novel is that so many important characters go without Christian names. Even the narrator is referred to by his family pet name, gille beag ruadh ("little redhead"), though we learn that he is Alexander. He has "Grandpa", "Grandma" and "Grandfather", "twin sister", "second brother"... but what we never forget is that all these people are Macdonalds.

This story is epic and elegy of clann Chalum Ruiadh. In 1779, the original "Red Calum" immigrated from Moidart to Cape Breton Island. His second wife died on the voyage, but 12 children survived, as did the dog that had refused to be left behind and had swum gallantly out to the ship to join them. ("Little dog," tradition has Calum say, "you have been with us all these years and we will not forsake you now.")

Over two centuries, down to the 1980s, when we meet the narrator, the clann has become a multitudinous component of the Gaelic-speaking community of Nova Scotia. Its members recognise each other in any far country by the cast of the face, the red hair or black hair. Some, like the narrator, a highly-paid orthodontist, have prospered away from the piss-poor Maritimes, where fishermen yank out their own bad teeth. Others have struggled on their rugged coast or wandered the world to find labouring work. The Gaelic, as in Scotland, has been dying out, but the Gaelic words of the songs of the clann still come back wherever they meet.

They remember the Macdonalds' war with Montrose against the Campbells, their victory over Lowland Whigs at Killiecrankie, their doomed support for Bonnie Prince Charlie, and are proud that one of their name, a former Jacobite, was the first man in Wolfe's army to scale the Heights of Abraham, fooling sentries with the French he had acquired in exile. It was Wolfe - remarking, though he detested Gaels, on the usefulness of Highland soldiers - who added that it would be "no great mischief if they fall".

But the clann harbour no bitterness against Wolfe ( a redhead) nor against English in general, nor Lowland Scots. They were not "cleared" by a landlord, as happened to Highlanders elsewhere. Calum crossed the Atlantic of his own free will, having been told there was land there, hoping to feed his family better away from his native north-west.

So the myth of the clann, as its members internalise it, is not one of victimisation or vendetta. Macdonalds, fools and heroes, fought bravely, sometimes winning, often losing. Now Canada, which they helped to conquer and create, is their home.

A latterday Calum emerges as the epic and tragic protagonist. We meet him at the outset as a falling-over boozer, drinking himself to death, in a Toronto slum, where his dentist brother, still in awe of him, seeks him out. Calum's singing revives in the dentist the Gaelic "Lament for Cape Breton". In the last chapter, the dentist drives him back to Cape Breton, to die within sight of the lighthouse where they grew up. Their father kept the light.

The fourth brother, Colin, died with their parents when the ice betrayed them walking across to it. The dentist and his twin grew up with Grandma and Grandpa. The three elder boys lived wild, first fishing then - led by reckless, strong Calum - in a gang of clann Calum Ruaidh men, as hard-rock miners in Western Canada, South America and South Africa. The reason why Calum is dying in a city slum has to do with a fight which broke out with a French Canadian gang at a uranium mine in the Laurentian Shield.

Such travels and contacts enable Alistair Macleod to give universal resonance to the experience of the clann. The Quebecois too are great fiddlers. Zulu miners love their own songs. The clann embraces in its fellowship the whales that dance in the bay, loyal dogs, a devoted horse named Christy. It remembers its roots in arenas of soil and stone and sea that all city dwellers have lost.

The elders presiding over the dentist's childhood are Grandpa - the convivial hospital maintenance man, always apt to express in earthy speech his deep carnal affection for his wife - and Grandfather, a genteel white-collar man, deeply read in Scottish history, the person who knows all the words of the old songs. They meet in an arch of feeling and intellect, devoted friends because they are so different, above the difficult love which bonds the dentist to big brother Calum.

There are phrases in Seamus Heaney's poem "The Seed Cutters" which partly express what Macleod does with his Macdonalds: "compose the frieze/ With all of us there, our anonymities". No Great Mischief is more complex than a frieze, but has that kind of starkness. Macleod writes with such "simple" lucidity as is achieved only by mighty efforts in, one suspects, the wee small hours. The book is pervaded by humour and colour, intensely vivid, and very, very moving.