Degrees of Separation In Acts of the Servant

Gearrannan Blackhouse village, Isle of LewisAn anonymous piece in the autumn 1865 issue of the Edenborough Review welcomed MacGregor’s return to writing and then lambasted volumen primus of Acts of the Servant for:

…the remorseless misery of its leading characters, of whom there are so many the reader might understand he is to act as a shepherd and herd them into order, engenders a sense of despair out of keeping with an activity chiefly undertaken for pleasure. What is MacGregor trying to tell us in his earnest new voice? Are we each entirely alone, whether from choice, vocation, or ill-fortune? Is there no joy to be found in company or are we all truly islands isolate one from another? The wonder is not that MacGregor spent two years cloistered in his abbey but that on rejoining society he should give us such a parade of unhappiness. It is as though a castaway newly released from his desert strand has neither a good or kind word to say to anyone.

Employing the then infant science of textual analytics, Doctor Claude Crabtree, writing in 1937, concluded that this unenthusiastic review was penned by MacGregor himself out of pique at the bastardisation wrought on the novel by his publishers. I am no expert in textual analytics but in disagreeing with Doctor Crabtree’s opinion would point out that at the time of publication MacGregor had a family to support and could not completely ignore his obligations, no matter how frustrated he was with Beresford and Lucas. Acts of the Servant had to sell and critical reviews in the Edenborough press would hardly assist.Croft interiorLeaving aside authorship of the review, it does make a serious point that all the main characters in volumen primus, and in the successive volumes, are to greater and lesser extent set apart from those around them and that this separation is a source of unhappiness. Psychologists would properly term this as ‘alienation’ for the true source of each character’s isolation is that in some crucial regard they perceive themselves as unlike those around them and are forced to carry their burden alone on the basis that they may suffer harm from those perceiving them to be different, for example: Captain Wolfe; or that their difference defies description, as Eolhwynne claims in conversation with Lord MacDonald.

Alienation in particular is at the heart of Bheathain’s circumstances and explains his hostile reaction to Màiri’s news that he is acquiring clearsight. Already stigmatised by the mark on his face he can only see clearsight as a second cause for people to disassociate from him. He seeks acceptance and sees his difference as something that sets him apart.

Lord MacDonald also suffers from alienation but here it is his position in society that is responsible. His estate depends on his good governance and he feels responsible to his clansmen – two forces that are not easily reconciled. He is of course ably assisted by Murdo Dixon but it is clear that Dixon is primarily his servant and not someone with whom he can share his burden. Those with whom he might share it, namely his cousin, Sir David Mackenzie and the Commission Men, have a very different attitude to the care of an estate and he is unable to take any support from them.

cruddys-supports-bard-of-tweeddalePaavo Jukola has, although he is almost certainly unaware of it, chosen alienation in that he is a spy aboard the Dundalk in the pay of the Hanseatic League, who, he erroneously believes, support his hostility toward Russia. His alienation may take a moral standing, in that he believes he deceives those around him for a higher purpose, but his acceptance of a continuing role in the League even after Otto von Danneberg has patiently explained the true position of the League to him, shows that Jukola actively thrives on his sense of alienation.

Initially, Sir David Mackenzie may seem an exception to the alienation of the other characters, but I suggest this exceptionalism is illusory. Although surrounded by his loving wife and family, his concern for them, expressed in the fineness of his household, is bought at the cost of depopulating his estates and alienating those who look to him for care.

In my opinion there is only one exception; only one character that has neither chosen nor has reason to be alienated from those around them: Màiri Mulcahy is that exception. Freed of the isolation that clearsight brought her, she initially continues her isolation by setting up home on Haelda’s Island but has recognised that what she really wants is acceptance and a position where she can be of use to those around her. Chief among the people she seeks acceptance from is Bheathain Somhairle, provided he can meet her reasonable conditions.Circe Invidiosa, J W WaterhouseWhy might Macgregor have chosen to give his reader so many characters alienated from those around them? I have two suggestions, though they are supportive rather than competing. Firstly, the sub-text of Acts of the Servant is acceptance and toleration, most obviously of those with clearsight. MacGregor states this plainly in the mise-en-scène written for the first edition published in 1865:

The author suggests that any reader with ill-regard for magick might find within matters persuasive of seeing it in more kindly light.

It follows that if the aim is increased toleration and acceptance then those who are not accepted and not tolerated are alienated from those around them and Acts of the Servant is, in part, a study in alienation.Arbinger AbbeySecondly, MacGregor wrote Acts of the Servant after enduring two years of isolation at Arbinger Abbey following the death of Madeleine MacGregor. Though his isolation was, one presumes voluntary, it was also a response to grief and despair and no doubt a sense that he was unworthy of good company. His journal makes it clear that he took some of the blame for Madeleine’s death on himself as he was aware of her unhappiness at Arbinger and believed he had failed in his duty as a husband and father-to-be.

Grief especially isolates us because the grief-stricken believes that no one can fully understand their loss: this was confirmed for MacGregor by his own father’s brusque (though perhaps well-intentioned) advice to “get over it swiftly or lose all position in society” as quoted by MacGregor in his journal. Thus MacGregor chose to depict alienation both as a plea for the toleration of magick and those who practise it and because he had discovered in the previous two years just how terrible it could be.The Scream, Edvard Munch, Oslo State GalleryIf I may be so bold as to speak of my own circumstances, I think I understand something of MacGregor’s motivations. No blame attaches to anyone for the death of my father, the poet, Thomas Warbrook, but I am aware that I, as a fellow writer and academic, have not lived up to either his expectations or those of critics who expected me to follow my illustrious father. Comparison of my work with my father’s achievements always leaves me depressed and defensive and of course I miss his company and advice dreadfully. I am also father to my own son, Gerald, and I fear that here are still more degrees of separation. It is not that we do not get on; more that he is so distant. Presently he is working for some charity in Sumatra. Quite literally, I must turn half the globe to find him. Of Edith, my ex-wife, I shall say nothing and let that speak volumes. In my cups, and as I celebrate the near completion of my work on volumen primus I have opened a bottle of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, I sometimes wonder if all I really have for company is Tam MacGregor and that damn fool Hendryk van Zelden.

And my cats of course; though I suspect Boris and Tusker are next door at Mrs Pumphrey’s: she spoils them dreadfully.

Bard of Tweeddale


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