Characterisation

McGrath blends historical fact with contemporary fiction in his characterisation. His cast mixes recognisable figures such as Queen Victoria, Patrick Sellar and Harriet Beecher Stowe with parodic creations such as Andy McChuckemup. This draws attention to the fact that although it is based on factual events, the play is artificial – it is not simply telling a factual account as a story.

Patrick Sellar

Patrick Sellar is introduced early on in the play, as two Strathnaver women and a young Highlander discuss the changes rumoured to be taking place in the area.

As James Loch and Patrick Sellar, factor and under-factor to the Sutherland estates, make their way up the strath, the Second Woman predicts what their business that day might entail as she asserts I hope they have not come to improve us. ‘Improvement’ was the word used by landowners to describe the Clearances.

Obnoxious

Stage directions establish the difference in social class between the women huddled under their shawls and Patrick Sellar who is looking very grand . He is established as an obnoxious figure as he ignores the women. This is confirmed when he describes the locals’ inability to pay rent as a terrible degeneracy in the character of these aboriginals. His language is overelaborate and he is clearly showing off.

Sellar can be described as the stock villain of the piece. He presents himself as a great social reformer, improver, and progressive; He claims that the Highland people require to be […] convinced that they must worship industry or starve, and that the enchantment which keeps them down must be broken.

However, this is unconvincing. He is unable to conceal his disdain for the people that he evicts from mildewed districts of the estate, referring to their swarm of dependents.

Capitalist

quote
So if you’d abandon your old misery/ We will teach you the secrets of high industry

These words end the chorus of the musical duet between Sellar and Loch. The song offers light relief for the audience. Yet, McGrath’s satire of Sellar, and the capitalist agenda he represents, is unremitting.

Sellar is following instructions of the Duke and Countess of Sutherland. He is part of the capitalist system in that he supports the owners of the means of production. In referring to the Clearances as improvements he shows he believes in a system where profit is a priority – social equality and welfare are lesser issues.

Ruthless

Sellar carries out his duties with such passion that he is a truly repellent character. Watching the devastation orchestrated by Sellar, the character of MacLeod offers the best evaluation of the character of the ruthless factor when he says You have a great hatred for the people of these parts, Mr Sellar.

Sellar orders the forceful removal of a 94 year old woman from her home, shouting:

quote
Damn her the old witch, she’s lived long enough […] – let her burn.

Use of the word witch, with its primitive associations, and the devastating command let her burn, convey Sellar’s utter disregard for the people and place.

This eviction scene, and the factual accounts given of barbaric evictions across the Highlands lends dramatic irony to the courtroom scene of Sellar’s trial.

quote
can you believe, my good sir, that I […] should deliberately […] burn a house with a woman in it?

Sellar’s rhetorical question leads the judge to urge the jury to ignore all the charges except two. Sellar’s outright denial of his actions is an obvious lie. It ensures his villainy in this play is complete.