The Commission Men & the Rule of Three

Scottish EmigrationThe function of the Emigration Commission needs little elaboration beyond that presented by the three characters. Essentially, the majority of landowners welcomed their inspections as the commissioners could award funds from the public purse for improvements to land and industries, such as fishing, while justifying, in the landlord’s opinion, the clearance of land for sheep. A landowner in the good books of an Emigration Commission could believe he ran a well-ordered estate even as he sent his tenants overseas. It follows that a landowner’s tenants had an opposite view of Commission Men and it was not unknown for their progress to be sabotaged and harassed by aggrieved tenants and in one notable event in 1850 a party of aggrieved Campbells ambushed three Emigration Commissioners on a lonely road in Glencoe, overturned and burnt their carriage and slit the throats of two of the commissioners. The third commissioner escaped on horseback, along with the coachmen, and was later able to identify five of the ringleaders who were tried and hung at Inveraray Castle alongside a coachman who had colluded with the attackers. Another two-dozen Campbells were found guilty of obstructing the king’s highway and deported to Van Diemen’s Land.

Glencoe, by William Miller, 1836The rule of three refers to MacGregor’s fondness for using a trio of characters to create a strong narrative dynamic. An example in the First Prologue is the scene between Captain Wolfe and Warders Pengallow and Thomas which quickly established Wolfe’s character and his relationship with the men under him and the same can be said of the scene in Chapter One between Bheathain Somhairle, his grandfather and Tòrmod M’Neis at the Staffin Inn. In those examples the three characters take centre-stage, whereas the Commission Men act within a larger group. Their function in the scene is to bring the wider world, as seen by the privileged, into the domesticity of Sir David’s dining room and thereby prefigure the later scene between Sir David and Adam Shaw which shows the wider world through the eyes of the dispossessed.

Goldilocks, 1912

Some critics have argued these repeated groups of three (we shall find many other examples) are a veiled reference to the three branches of magick, while others maintain it is based on the concept of soul, spirit and body. A few have even suggested it draws on a proto-Freudian triumvirate of ego, super-ego, and id, and it is true that these trios often contain a mediator, or ego figure, such as Tòrmod in Chapter One who intervenes between Bheathain and his grandfather, and in this chapter Lord Dundee steps in several times to challenge the intemperate bishop.

skye-sporting-estatesIn my opinion, this over-complicates matters. There is no need to see some allegorical purpose for three characters, rather than two or four, when narrative purposes answer perfectly well. Two characters in a scene, as in life, are more likely to adopt polarised positions without either expecting the other to alter their view, leading to stasis. Three characters allow more possibilities where one can act as mediator between opposing views, two may take a common position against a third, or two opposing arguments can sway a neutral party. Thus, three characters offer greater complexity and the possibility of change or development in character or narrative. Indeed, one does not have to look very far in literature – if one takes literature in a broad way – to find many other instances of a trio of characters acting in a similar manner with each positing a different attitude and persona: the three bears of Goldilocks fame, or the Three Billy Goats Gruff, for example and in mythology and religious faith one immediately thinks of the three fates of Greek myth and the Holy Trinity.

The Three Fates, Paul ThumannThe negative effect of the ‘rule of three’ in literature is that sometimes the individual characters can appear rather stylised resulting in a loss of nuance and humanity, as, I believe is the case with MacGregor’s Bishop of Stirling. As stated above, MacGregor substantially rewrote the bishop’s dialogue, making the character less of a mouthpiece for the clearances and more of a human being, but he is still too obviously the villain of the piece. A further criticism is that the focus on the bishop largely exculpates Lord Dundee and Sir Gordon when both men are equally culpable but merely express their opinions less harshly. Arguably, greater subtlety could be had in the dinner table discussion but only, in my view, by increasing the number of characters so a range of views might be expressed. This would raise two problems; firstly: Commission Men only ever surveyed in parties of two or three; secondly: a large number of characters risks too many discordant voices and the loss of the central idea.

In this instance, as the focus is on Sir David and, to a lesser extent on Lord MacDonald, the lack of depth in the bishop’s portrayal is tolerable because he functions primarily as a prompt for Sir David’s thoughts and conscience rather than as a character in his own right.

MacGregor would revisit the theme of the Clearances later in Acts of the Servant but this image serves as a timely reminder of the human cost of the Commission men’s deliberations.

The Last of the Clan, Thomas Faed, 1865. Courtesy Scottish National Gallery

Bard of Tweeddale


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