The majority of chapter one presents us with Bheathain’s Ordinary World. That is, Bheathain’s existence prior to any threat or opportunity that might necessitate change. It is true that the loss of his amber touch-piece – and the first appearance of the mysterious white stag – provide an undercurrent preparing us for the remarkable scene at the end when Bheathain encounters his soul, but in the main, the rescue of the lamb, the evening at The Staffin, Bheathain’s relationship with Tammas and the description of the home he shares with his grandfather are all aspects of Bheathain’s life before the change demanded by narrative. We do not yet know the nature of that change, but we have already learned much about Bheathain’ character and circumstances and something of those from whom he will draw his allies, his mentors, and his enemies.While magick exists in the background of Bheathain’s world, the landscape of Skye and the habits of its people are described with complete realism. Life along much of Scotland’s north-west seaboard, especially after the collapse of the kelp trade, was as harsh and disagreeable as anything experienced in the slums of Edenborough’s Old Town or the vast newly built tenements of industrial Glasgow and offering a man considerably fewer opportunities and trades where he might improve himself.For much of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries the Scottish Gaels were regarded as an insurrectionist threat by the Anglian speaking lowlanders who dominated parliament in Holyrood. However, according to Hamlet Mountstone’s A Long History of The Gael, (1898) that threat was always exaggerated and would be undermined,
…not by subjugation or prohibition of custom and the Gaelic language, but by the gentrification of the once-mighty clan chieftains and the maggoting of lands previously held in common by all with white-faced sheep.
Conditions for the Scottish Gaels only became a matter of public and ecclesiastical concern during the famines of the 1840s; however, while this brought much needed charity it did not change government policy which continued to focus on depopulating the highlands through encouraged and forced emigration to the colonies.Quite rightly, many critics of Acts of the Servant have devoted much time to analysing MacGregor’s statement (taken from the Mise en Scène) that “this novel’s concern is the place [and] purpose of magick in the modern world.” However, all have focused on MacGregor’s ‘magick’ and ignored his portrayal of “the modern world” as it existed in the 1860s. This, I am afraid, reveals the ridiculous emphasis given to magick by MacGregor’s detractors because MacGregor’s “modern world” is, for its date, a remarkably honest depiction. This is not the ‘och aye the noo’, oat-caked, kilted and sporranned bonny-Scotland perpetrated by W F Shakeshaft in The Highlands For Me, (1842) or even that portrayed in several of MacGregor’s early Romance novels, but rather life as it was lived in some of the harshest, most inclement lands in the whole of the Britannic Isles.