Columns and Letters

Comment: Reading Alistair MacLeod

-by Frank Macdonald

I’m certain, well pretty certain, that there is no connection, but the coincidental appearance of two headlines on the same page of an online newspaper made me smile. 

One headline read Alistair MacLeod dead at 77. The second read, Missing: $26,000 Bottle of Scotch.

I read with a heavy heart the story under the first headline. As for the second, I left the story itself to imagination. I don’t know where that bottle of Scotch is. I know where it should be. Alistair enjoyed a Scotch.

There hasn’t been much else to smile about these past few days, with Dunvegan, Inverness, all of Cape Breton reeling under the news of Alistair’s death. There are a few people who are, in their own life and presence, the stuff of granite monuments, seeming destined to endure long beyond the allotment of time doled out to mere mortals. Then we learn that they too are mere mortals. 

Alistair MacLeod was mortal, although in this age of longevity he passed from us much too soon. Over the past couple of years I’ve spent a lot of time visiting an aunt in the Inverary Manor and learned that it is a place where it is common to see four people in their 90s outbidding each other at “25 ”. “I’ll go 30.” “30 for 60!” They have the kind of energy and alertness that makes me, at 69, feel significantly younger than I once used to believe 69 was. I came to see 77 as not much older than my own youthful self. So the death of a friend at that age seems an injustice, as so often death’s indiscriminate reaping of lives seems an injustice.

Yet there was something granite about Alistair MacLeod. You will discover it over and over again in his collected short stories, in his novel, No Great Mischief, in the man’s recording musings at various interviews where his wit and insights cause audiences to laugh, yet send them away thoughtful.

MacLeod’s former publisher with McClelland & Stewart, Doug Gibson, in an interview with  the Canadian Press, told a reporter, "Alistair was that rare combination of a great writer and a great man. Whenever Alistair appeared in public, at readings or other literary events, people recognize that they were in the presence of a greatness that was very humble. And they realize that simply to be in his presence made their life a little better."

When I first bought Island - The Collected Stories, I discovered within its covers a story titled Clearances. It was the only story in the collection with which I was not familiar, had not read in earlier collections or in a journal. It sent a thrill through me, a new Alistair MacLeod story. My  first reaction was to find a comfortable chair and read it. Instead, I closed the book and placed it on the shelf.

In the 14 years since Island’s publication, I have occasionally taken it down and read one of Alistair’s stories, most often, The Tuning of Perfection. Each time, I was aware that the collection’s final story, Clearances, was still waiting for me.

Sunday afternoon, after learning of Alistair’s death, after tears shared with Virginia over the loss of a dear and mutual friend, after a half dozen phone interviews about his life and work, I went to the shelf and took down my volume of Island - The Collected Stories, turned to the last entry and read Clearances, reaching the story’s end where an old man and his dog stand at a centuries-long end of a seemingly unending Highland tragedy. With or without the weight of Alistair`s death in the room, I would have cried, and I did.


Alistair MacLeod shunned any suggestion that he was the interpreter of the Highland or Gaelic culture as we experience it here in our Cape Breton lives. “No,” he told Michael Enright during an interview last year when the CBC radio host asked Alistair if interpreting the people and culture here was part of his mandate. 

“I don’t think I have any mandate,” Alistair replied. “I just write about what I like.”

It had long been Alistair’s advice to writers to “write what you know.” He could have added to that “write about what you love.” 

He did, and in doing so he told the world about the depth and worth and beauty and challenges of living in Cape Breton, or living out of the Cape Breton experience when harsh economic conditions take you elsewhere in the world. He did it so well that elsewhere in the world Alistair MacLeod is widely read in several languages by people who recognize themselves, their lives, their issues, their problems, their concerns, in his work, as surely as we recognize ourselves in it.


On Saturday, Alistair MacLeod will be laid to rest at St. Margaret of Scotland Cemetery in Broad Cove. The fate of the $26,000 bottle of Scotch may never be known.

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