ISLAND - Alistair MacLeod
Alistair MacLeod, born in 1936, was raised in Cape Breton, Canada, the setting for these stories.
In Island he uses the short story format to explore his preoccupations, making use of repetition to
show families under stress from the poverty of the land. Archetypal characters recur – often referred
to by titles such as ‘the mother’, ‘the father’ and ‘the grandmother’ – as powerful figures in the
emotional landscape of the family. The narrative voice is usually that of a son, often adolescent, who
feels constrained and frustrated in this narrow landscape. Conflicting views of the world create
tension in the stories. MacLeod’s preoccupations are always the cruel, pristine beauty of this
landscape, the struggles of the people who inhabit it and the abiding sadness of those who
have abandoned it.
THE IMAGINATIVE LANDSCAPE in ISLAND
Landscape is never neutral. In real life, people bring their own knowledge, experience and
emotions to their environment to interpret the world they live in. In literature, the writer creates a
world and invites the reader to enter and to make it real in their own imagination. As Scottish writer
Andrew O’Hagan tells us, ‘Literature helps people to live imaginatively in places’ (2006). The Cape
Breton that MacLeod creates in Island is composed of many landscapes which combine to develop
the imaginative landscape of the text.
The landscape determines the lives of those who live there. A harsh and withholding place, all rock,
sea and wind, it is their own, proudly-held territory. The landscape is beautiful and MacLeod is lyrical
in his descriptions of ‘the harbour … like a tiny, peaceful womb’ (p.119) and the flowers which ‘burst
and hang in all their short-lived, giddy, aromatic profusion’ (p.146). However, death and injury are
ever-present in the sea and the mines, and the farmers struggle with cruel weather and stony soil.
Cape Breton has offered these people a place to survive since their ancestors fled Scotland and
Ireland generations ago. Familiar stories and songs, and remnants of Gaelic, keep the memories of
those other times alive. The old country can be seen across the ocean on a clear day and Dublin
seems closer to them than Toronto. Memory of the past informs their lives.
Life is hard for the people of Cape Breton. They work close to nature and their struggle to make a
living makes them strong and taciturn. Men and women fulfil separate, traditional roles in the family
and often fail to communicate. There is a powerful sense of belonging so that those who stay are
often hostile to those who leave, seeing it as a betrayal of the clan and of their world. Those who
leave suffer guilt and a strong sense of displacement.
The remoteness of the community has always protected it. MacLeod portrays the people as clannish
and protective of each other, gently spoken, courteous and old-fashioned. By contrast, outsiders
seem sometimes shocking and brutal in their speech. Though the people cling to the old ways, the
world is changing around them, as tourists move in and work gets harder to find. MacLeod shows,
finally, that the landscape he has created is fragile and doomed.
IDEAS & ARGUMENTS IN THE TEXT
Island advances a number of key ideas relevant to the Context The Imaginative Landscape.
The Cape Breton landscape that MacLeod evokes in Island reveals his struggle to reconcile opposing
views of the place.
The natural world offers great beauty but also terrible dangers, and the value of the local traditions
contrasts with the restlessness of the young people. MacLeod dramatises this struggle by giving his
characters very different views of their landscape.
The idea of human destiny is explored throughout the text: whether to stay where you have roots
or to seek a life in another landscape. In many of his stories, conflict arises when young men reject
the life of their community for the wider landscape beyond the island.
The cycles of nature are shown in the stories, through the seasons and the lives of the animals but,
while reassuring for some, they represent sameness and repetition for others.
The beauty of tradition is juxtaposed with the inevitable march of change. The people are not
judged but it is shown that all their decisions have a cost. The grim endurance of the men and
women who stay is placed beside the loss and displacement of those who leave.
ANALYSIS of KEY IDEAS and ARGUMENTS
Enduring the landscape
* For many people their birth into a particular family and culture is so intrinsic to their identity that
the idea of choosing another life in a radically different world is never even contemplated. For
others, there can be the awareness that although life is very difficult, the landscape they inherit
becomes their destiny. In MacLeod’s stories, accepting the life the landscape offers can give
certainty and security to one’s identity, but it can also limit potential. MacLeod has chosen Island as
the title for his collection of stories because it symbolises the emotional isolation and silence of the
characters. The characters seem remote from each other
The Women, fiercely defend their lifestyle and despise the compromises their children have made
to lead city lives.
The Men who stay accept their destinies more meekly. Some take refuge in drink; others silently
endure the burden of physical labour, putting aside their own wistful dreams for there is a place in
the clan and the community for all who belong there. Some of the people see a choice, to accept or
reject this destiny. Others take up the place that is offered to them without seeming to choose.
MacLeod admires the strength and endurance of those who accept life in this landscape but he
reveals the physical and emotional price they pay.
Family Expectations are strong: young men inherit their father’s work and loyalty to the clan is
paramount. However, some are drawn to the world outside their tiny communities, often by the
desire for a richer intellectual life as a lawyer, doctor or teacher in a modern North American city.
They are torn between love for their families and the fear that they will be bound to the narrow lives
their parents have led. The price they pay is a constant sense of loss and displacement.
1. Which characters in the stories have been made stronger by their difficult environment?
2. List the different kinds of damage, both physical and psychological, that the men in the stories
suffer by living in this landscape.
The Consequences of Escaping the Landscape
It is not easy to leave your home and family. People can remain so tied emotionally to the feelings
associated with home, that no other landscape can ever be as meaningful for them. Several of
MacLeod’s stories explore the idea of abandoning the landscape.
The Landscape and Forging Connections with Others
In a harsh environment, people can survive only with help from others. MacLeod imagines the
landscape as a shared one, where people have allotted roles and tasks that help to define everyone’s
place in the world they inhabit. Much of the beauty of the Cape Breton world comes from the
human connections forged by the landscape that MacLeod depicts.
Young children work alongside their parents in a kind of early apprenticeship for the lives they will
take up as adults. In ‘The Boat’, the narrator’s first memories are of riding on his father’s shoulders
to the boat that was the family’s livelihood and he works with his father catching lobsters and
mackerel throughout his childhood. A consciousness that life is hard is shared by all the family
members in the stories and each home closes its door on the harsh outer landscape to provide a
warm place, with the kitchen stove at the heart of it.
Some men and women bind themselves in strong marriages and maintain traditional gender roles,
men as breadwinners and women as homemakers, dependent on each other for survival. Through
arguments and disagreements, a connection forged through love, duty and mutual work remains
The animals in these stories play an important role. Farm animals and their cycles of reproduction
keep the people close to the cycles of nature and the seasons. More than just pets, the working dogs
are depicted as having interdependent relationships with the people. The narrator of ‘Winter Dog’,
for example, describes an excursion onto sea ice that becomes a battle he and his
dog fight together. ‘Clearances’,: MacLeod gives many examples of warm mutuality between the
people and the dogs that work beside them. The challenges posed by the landscape demand that
people and animals live and work together to
prosper and survive.
The Landscape, Tradition and a Sense of Place
MacLeod imagines a landscape shaped by the history of its people. Forced immigrants and refugees
from poverty and oppression often keep alive a tribal memory of sadder, older landscapes as part of
their communal identity. Despite MacLeod’s ambivalence about people escaping their communities
for other landscapes, he leaves the reader in no doubt about the important role that tradition plays
in giving meaning to human life. Even when tradition is harsh and requires a bitter duty, it is always
at least as valuable as what replaces it. As we have seen, those who abandon it feel forever
The imaginative landscape he creates for Canadian Cape Breton is founded in the history of its
people. The original loss of country and displacement from Scotland and Ireland remains a feature of
their stories. This gives greater value to the poor farmland and shoreline that they own in their new
Tradition gives power and meaning to the clan. Traditional ways of relating to the landscape are
followed by generations of Cape Bretoners. Fishing grounds and family boats are handed from father
to son and men bring their sons under the ground to work beside them in the dangerous little mines.
Men and women take traditional roles in the family and home. The women are depicted in their
kitchens and the fathers portrayed as working to provide for the family. These time-honoured ways
of living offer security to the people and a clear understanding of where they belong in the world.
The generations live in harmony and grandparents are respected as the holders of family history.
Memory plays a part in the creation of an imaginative landscape. It is a way of making the past real,
through the traditional stories and songs that link the people to their history. The handing down of
Scottish names to newborns, tales of the people who once inhabited the same landscape and the
Gaelic songs that carry in their melodies old grievances and sorrows are all ways of keeping alive a
sense of who these people are.
The Inevitability of a Changing Landscape
External forces can change the meaning of the landscape, threatening a cherished sense of
belonging or ownership. New buildings, new people and new processes have to be accommodated
into the existing world order. This change is the cause of much grief as people struggle to hold on to
their social and economic landscapes.
Tradition and family are the bedrock on which the communities of Cape Breton are founded . The
people have struggled against poverty, accidents and the elements to hold their lives together and
remain constant in their values. However, MacLeod shows that they cannot keep the modern world
from intruding and altering their lives and their landscape. He presents the tragedy of the inevitable
loss of their world. Their world is threatened as the traditional work of Cape Breton begins to dry
up. The mines no longer yield enough to support workers and the men have to go ever further away
to find employment. As their men leave, the families and the communities feel the strain of
separation, and the landscape, once bordered by the edges of their little harbour, is forced to
Outsiders make their way into the landscape and see the locals as objects of curiosity. The culture
and music of the fishermen becomes the subject of academic study, things of novelty.
The fragility of the Cape Bretoner’s world is seen most poignantly in ‘Clearances’, when the old man
who narrates the story is encouraged by his son, in what seems like ‘family betrayal’ (p.428) to sell
his land to the German tourists. The clear-cutter, too, represents the ability of the younger
generation to survive in a changing landscape and adapt to changing times. He tells the old man,
‘People like you and me … are no match for the Government and the tourists’ (p.426). The languages
– Gaelic among the family members and German among the prospective buyers – represent the
private worlds they inhabit and the difficulty the old man has in understanding the new view of the
world. Ironically, the tourists are seeking an unspoiled landscape, but their very arrival will change
fundamentally the world of the clan.
The story has a devastating end, with the old man and his gentle ‘bilingual dog’ (p.424) about to be
savaged by the pit bull. ‘Neither of us was born for this’ (p.430) reflects the old man and his silent
protest seems to refer to all the destruction his world is facing. The Cape Breton landscape seems to
have come full circle – created by refugees from Scotland’s Highland Clearances of centuries ago, it
has now fallen victim to the modern clearances of tourism and government interference. MacLeod
shows his grief at the inevitable changes to the fragile landscape through this violent conclusion to
the collection of stories. Change can only be achieved at great cost to those who depend upon the
security of the meaning attached to the landscape.
1. Although MacLeod’s created world of Cape Breton is very different from our own cityscapes and
the Australian countryside, the stories show us that all human beings are greatly influenced by the
places they inhabit. Discuss.
2. Contrast the fragile beauty of the environment in ‘The Lost Salt Gift of Blood’ with the changes
that have occurred to the landscape in ‘Clearances’.
Writing in Context: Sample topics
REMEMBER: Written responses may be expository, persuasive or imaginative.
1. Moving away from home often causes pain and a sense of loss.
2. The confinement of a landscape can be reflected in the narrowness of its people’s ideas.
3. A harsh landscape can cause a corresponding hardness in its inhabitants’ approach to life.
4. It can be difficult to accept changes that occur to a familiar landscape.
5. Leaving a familiar landscape where you belong in order to be independent is sometimes seen as
betrayal by those you leave behind.
6. A landscape steeped in tradition and family influence is supportive but can also be stifling.
The Closing Down of Summer
The narrator is reluctant to leave the secluded beach at Cameron’s Point to travel to his South
African mining job. He weeps ‘outwardly and inwardly for all I have not said or done and for my own
clumsy failure at communication’ (p.206). He laments: “ I would like somehow to show and tell the
nature of my work and perhaps some of my entombed feelings to those that I would love, if they
would care to listen.” (p.197). The people are hardened by difficult lives. This is clear when the men
of ‘The Closing Down of Summer’ must dig the frozen ground to bury their dead. MacLeod depicts
the proud strength of the people who rise to the challenges presented by the landscape
In the Fall
The narrator of ‘In the Fall’ ends his story with a powerful image of his parents holding strong in a
landscape that batters them: ‘I think they will stand there for a long, long time, leaning into each
other and into the wind-whipped snow and with the ice freezing to their cheeks’ (p.117).
1. Select passages from the stories to show the, the harsh weather of ‘In the Fall’ (p.116)
.Women, such as the mothers in ‘The Return’, fiercely defend their lifestyle and despise the
compromises their children have made to lead city lives. Angus’ mother turns her anger on him for
rejecting his brother: ‘I have my alcoholic … who was turned out of my Montreal lawyer’s home’
(p.87). . Angus, the young narrator’s father in ‘The Return’, feels guilty because he has failed to
support his alcoholic brother in Montreal. He has allied himself with his city wife’s disdain
and abandoned the values of the clan.
1. What feelings does Angus in ‘The Return’ have about leaving his native landscape?
The Road to Rankin’s Point
Calum, the young man who is dying, returns to his grandmother’s farm, his childhood landscape. The
old woman plays ‘the ancient music’ (p.158) of their clan on a violin which ‘came from the Scotland
of her ancestors’ (p158). He is trying to understand his fate by connecting with his past, and in turn,
with the mythology of the landscape. The dogs at Rankin’s Point that howl to announce the death of
1. Describe how, in the “The Road to Rankin’s Point,” the traditional music of his clan comforts
2. ‘There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so’, Shakespeare tells us in
Hamlet. Think about the way people create meanings for their environments. Think about
the ‘tiny sea-washed farm’ (p.160) in “The Road to Rankin’s Point.” What are the different
things it represents to Calum, his grandmother and the family who want her to go into a
The Vastness of the Dark
Other landscapes never seem to be fully real to the exiles.. “The Vastness of the Dark” deals with a
young man who views leaving home as, ‘the planned day of my deliverance’ (p.26). However, the
world outside the car window seems unreal to him as he moves through the landscape in a ‘sort of
movable red and glass showcase’ (p.55). The little town of Springhill only becomes real to him when
he remembers the mining accident that ruined it and he is able to connect the place to his own
history. His denial of his origins, when he tells people he is from Vancouver, suddenly seems ‘silly’
(p.56). The father in “The Vastness of the Dark” has lost fingers to a dynamite accident, has a scar
that ‘runs like violent lightning down the right side of his face’ (p.34) and lungs damaged by coal dust
and so has become hardened by the life he has led.
1. Select a passage from the stories to show the physical landscapes of the claustrophobic
mines of ‘The Vastness of the Dark’ (p.35),
2. Develop a monologue for the son who tries to leave in ‘The Vastness of the Dark.
3. Write a conversation between the narrator of ‘The Vastness of the Dark’ and Angus in
‘The Return’ about leaving home.
4. How does MacLeod show the suffocating feelings of the narrator of ‘The Vastness of the
The Closing Down of Summer
The people are hardened by difficult lives. This is clear when the men of ‘The Closing Down of
Summer’ must dig the frozen ground to bury their dead. MacLeod depicts the proud strength of the
people who rise to the challenges presented by the landscape. The narrator decides that singing the
old Gaelic songs in the Celtic revival concerts has become ‘as lonely and irrelevant as it was
To Every Thing There is a Season
Why does MacLeod write in the present tense in ‘To Every Thing There Is a Season’ when he
describes the Christmas traditions of long ago?
1. Develop a monologue for the dying father in ‘To Every Thing There Is a Season’.
In ‘Clearances’ the narrator describes his journey as a soldier to discover the old country. He finds
resonances of home in the Gaelic language and the welcome he receives from the Highlanders. He
contextualises his relationship to the landscape when ‘he looked across the western ocean, beyond
the point of Ardnamurchan, and tried to visualize Cape Breton and his family at their tasks’ (p.421).
1. Write a conversation between David in ‘In the Fall’ and the old man in ‘Clearances’
1. Select passages from the stories to show the harsh weather of ‘In the Fall’ (p.116),
The Golden Gift of Grey
2. How do the parents in ‘show their son the importance of shared family values?