New Jersey to the Hebrides

“Seventeen square miles in eight minutes of latitude may be the next thing to nothing,” writes John McPhee, “but after a short time it becomes a continent.” The continent is Colonsay, in the Hebrides, land of his forefathers, to which McPhee moved his family from New Jersey in 1969 to write an account that originally appeared in The New Yorker.

His portrait of the island, its inhabitants and their absentee landlord, The Crofter and The Laird, the third of his books to be republished in Britain by Daunt Books (£9.99, paperback), is both fond and frank. When it was written, Britain was on the verge of entering “the Common Market”, but some things probably haven’t changed, including the speed with which word gets around. When a chicken ran under the wheels of his car, McPhee says, “News of the death… apparently reached every ear on the island before the pinfeathers had settled to the ground.”

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