Grace, Written by Jeffrey Allen Russel and Lynda Lemberg
Karl Marx, in Das Kapital, called the Highland Clearances ‘robbery… under circumstances of reckless terrorism’. The Clearances (which took place from the 18th to the 19th centuries), are remembered today (when they are remembered) as an example of class relations gone awry and one of the first modern instances of ethnic cleansing. They mark a period when a wealthy British aristocracy had such private power that it could — and did — sweep the Scottish countryside, ridding Scotland’s vast Highland region of the Gaelic people who had lived there for generations. Some of the Gaelic crofters — tenant farmers — left Scotland because of economic pressures, and some were forcibly displaced or killed, their homes destroyed. They were taking up valuable space, and the aristocracy needed to make room for more profitable enterprises. (Sheep farming was becoming more fashionable than anything the crofters could offer.) Today, descendents of the Gaels who left Scotland populate the globe, especially former British dominions like the United States, Australia, and Canada. The Highland Clearances have not been the subject of any widely released narrative feature film — but Grace, a screenplay for just such a film, dramatises the Clearances from the perspective of a young Scottish woman, the film’s namesake, Grace Russel.
The year is 1830 and Grace, born on Scotland’s Black Isle, lives a well-to-do colonial life in Montreal with her husband and two children. From her home in Canada, she witnesses the effects of the Highland Clearances taking place across the ocean. In Montreal’s harbour, she sees her cousin kicking people off a wharf after they’ve disembarked from his ship. (‘This wharf is private property! Clear off!’ he says). He shouts at families with children and elderly people who ask, desperately, ‘Where are we to go?’ As Grace’s cousin puts it, they’ve been ‘given free passage’. ‘The rest’, however, ‘is up to you’.
Grace, who makes it a habit to personally deliver charity to tenement slums in Montreal, denounces her cousin’s behaviour and helps the refugees. She arranges for them to stay on a now-vacant Mohawk settlement. (In a disturbing parallel to the clearance of the Scottish Highlands, the same day that she meets the crofters Grace also witnesses government agents forcibly vacate the Mohawks from their homes.) One of her countrymen catches Grace’s eye in particular: Cailin McLone, pregnant at the start of her journey across the ocean but now grieving the loss of her child, shows up along with the other starving Scots to receive donated food. Cailin is only thirteen years old — the same age as Grace’s daughter. A deeply moved Grace offers Cailin a bedroom in her home — that of her own lost son, Colin. ‘You may stay here for as long as you’d like’, she tells her. Traumatised and filled with stories of atrocities unfolding across the ocean, Cailin moves Grace to empathy for the plight of the Gaelic crofters who are being evicted and deported. Grace’s promise to Cailin will shape the rest of her life: ‘I promise you this. I will do everything within my power to stop the men who wronged you’.
Grace’s husband’s business is shipping, and on the way back from a routine trip to Glasgow a storm sweeps him overboard, never to be seen again. She receives a letter from her father, the cold and brooding Hector MacKenzie, informing her that his lawyer has arranged passage for her to return to Scotland with her children. In Scotland, a drama unfolds that involves characters in the Scottish aristocracy, their bourgeois agents (including, to her horror, Grace’s own family), and crofters living in the Highlands — families directly impacted by the constant threat of violence and deportation.
Sir George and Lady Sutherland have just become the new Duke and Duchess of Sutherland. They are responsible for the Highland atrocities, with the significant help of their aid Patrick Sellar, who has just been acquitted for culpable homicide and arson for his role in burning down homes with people still inside them. (All three were real historical characters: Sellar was really put on trial for his crimes and exonerated for lack of evidence, and although both Sellar and the Sutherlands profited from the Clearances, they were subsequently denounced in history books.) At a lecture in Edinburgh which Grace attends shortly after arriving in Scotland, Sellar makes his case for the Highland Clearances:
Rest assured, it is an act of benevolence to put these barbaric Highlanders into a position where they can escape their squalid conditions, apply themselves to industry, educate their children —
But he is cut short by a protestor, the radical journalist Thomas Bakewell, who shouts ‘Liar!’ from the audience. (Sellar explains the rationale for the Clearances more honestly later, when he brags to a couple of aristocrats about the profit he has made from ‘remov[ing] the superfluous population to make way for ample grazing land’.) Thomas and Grace share a determination to end Sellar’s crimes. (They also fall in love.) When Grace remarries to Reverend Hugh MacKenzie of Sutherlandshire (to Thomas’s chagrin), she ends up in close proximity to the crofters being displaced by the Sutherlands, and she grows close to people who are undergoing just the sort of horrors that she has heard about from Cailin. Grace’s proximity to the centre of events in Scotland enables her to keep her promise to Cailin, but the more Grace learns about the Clearances, the more she realises the extent of her own complicity in the terror that she has vowed to stop.
In a powerful scene at Hector MacKenzie’s mansion in Edinburgh, one can sense Grace’s horror at attending a dinner party hosted by her father whose guests are responsible for the atrocities she has promised to end. She tries to question the status quo at the dinner table (never a good idea), and her father apologises on her behalf for her lack of awareness of social customs. (‘My daughter is new to Edinburgh society’, he says.) One can envision in production the jarring contrast between the opulence of a dinner party populated by Scotland’s elite and Grace’s revulsion when she realises where it all comes from. But there is also humour in these scenes — the aristocracy can be cruel, but also ridiculous.
Grace presents the Highland Clearances in a way that is ready for the screen. Already embedded into the screenplay is a strong sense of cinematic drama. The movement of characters and cameras is choreographed, and from Scotland’s countryside to the opulence of its 19th-century interiors, the screenplay frames perspectives to communicate the story’s atmosphere, historical context, and competing interests. Quick shots and cuts between scenes prescribe a film that moves quickly, jumping across oceans, between classes of society, and even through time to recall traumatic memories. The writers juxtapose terrible cruelties with aristocratic finery to great effect. The dialogue is snappy and precise. And as befits the medium, the screenplay frequently propels the story forward by omitting unnecessary dialogue, communicating important details without impeding the momentum. When characters do speak, it is meaningful and well-articulated. Symbols unify the story, polish its transitions, and elevate the work to an artful drama with a clear vision. There is a certain absurdity to the notion of replacing people with sheep, for example — an historical irony that the writers do not overlook. (The aristocracy justifies getting rid of the crofters by calling them animals — though the purpose of eradicating them is to make room for other animals.) The screenplay tells us that ‘[h]eads of dead game line the walls’ of the Duke’s hunting lodge. Just as hunting is sanctioned by the upper classes, so is the ethnic cleansing of Scotland considered benevolent by the ones doing the deed. In this story, the hunters are also the murderers. They don’t recognise humanity, and they see only profit.
Grace is an extraordinary woman. But she may be too extraordinary. In Grace’s world of 1830, she has virtually no rights as a citizen except as relates to her husband. (She would be entitled to inherit her husband’s wealth, for example, were it not for her father’s vehement opposition and the agreement of a Scottish judge.) Grace is privileged by her wealth and routinely fights for the rights of people less privileged than her, but she is also a woman — and thus a second-class citizen herself. It would be decades before various Married Women’s Property Acts would allow married women to own and control property in Britain. The Highland Land League, an advocacy organisation that fought against the Clearances, would boast victories for the crofters in the 1880s, more than fifty years after our story takes place (and, historically, too late to stop the worst of the Clearances). Yet Grace is a woman who, long before these legislative shifts, fights for the rights of vulnerable people wherever she goes. In Montreal, she regularly distributes food and clothing in the slums. When the crofters arrive in Canada, she helps them. She denounces the actions of her cousin, finds space for the crofters to stay, and just like in the slums, she personally distributes food to them (with the help of a Montreal doctor, with whom she also volunteers at a charity clinic). She offers Cailin a bed in her home for as long as she wants. And when she discovers her family’s complicity in the Clearances, she foregoes her privileged status, virtually rejecting her bourgeois background to live amongst the oppressed crofters. ‘What makes you care so much?’ her friend Siobhan (a crofter) asks her. ‘I don’t know how not to’ is her made-for-film response.
Grace also demonstrates an appreciation for Gaelic culture not shared by anyone else in the film, frequently playing Gaelic tunes on the piano and expressing excitement at being able to attend her first ceilidh (a traditional Gaelic social gathering). (‘We’ve never been to one!’ she exclaims when her crofting friends invite her family.) We learn that even as a child Grace was friendly with Gaelic crofters on her father’s property — much to the displeasure of her father, who forbade them even to speak their native Gaelic. In an otherwise intolerant age of pseudoscientific racial hierarchies (Grace lives decades before Darwin would publish his On the Origin of Species) and in an age of Anglo-supremacy (she lives in the heart of the British Empire, which would continue to amass vast colonies of oppressed populations for decades to come), Grace is uniquely multicultural in her outlook.
Although Grace rejects her status to fight for the crofters, she also uses it to her advantage. She contributes her wealth to the cause of ending the Clearances. She also uses it to protect herself. She is a beautiful, well-to-do woman, so when she distributes protest pamphlets in the streets of Edinburgh with Thomas, and the police start to give Thomas trouble, she tells them to stop — and after looking her up and down, they do. At one of the many violent raids of a crofting village, when ruffians sent by the sheriff assault Grace’s daughters, Grace identifies herself as the reverend’s wife — which makes the intruders second-guess their trespasses. And when Grace and the crofters discuss visiting the office of the magistrate to complain about the abuses of the sheriff’s men, she convinces the crofters that the safest option would be for her to go alone. If the crofters join her, they will be imprisoned, she tells them. ‘They won’t dare touch me’, she says. Grace renounces her privilege and consistently demonstrates her belief in equality, but she does not renounce it to the extent that she can no longer use it for her own benefit — and for the crofters. She continues to speak the language of the aristocracy.
In one of the few moments when Grace shows imperfection — and a realisation of her own imperfection as one who profits from the oppression of the crofters — she tells Thomas, ‘I’m no paragon of virtue. Look at me, Thomas. I am the embodiment of all that I despise’. But by this realisation, she is a paragon of virtue. As is often the case in historical dramas, our protagonist more closely approximates the values of a 21st-century liberalism than the values of her historical peers. Grace is morally upright in an otherwise crude environment, willing to act when no one else will, and she has an abiding sense of equality that transcends her historical context. Stories about people who stand up for justice when no one else will are compelling, especially when the protagonist could uphold the status quo (and profit from it) but chooses instead to lead social change. But that kind of story can also be problematic, not least because it’s usually inaccurate.
Historical change is usually the result of persistent popular struggle, not the actions of any one person. Decisive individual action (and fast results) are more dramatic than reality, where struggles that transcend the individual drive social change. But we love the hero. In the case of Grace, the crofters fight back in their own right, but it’s consistently Grace who, by her privilege as a member of the elite, wields her power on behalf of the downtrodden. Grace’s life is loosely based on an actual Grace Russel — an ancestor of Jeffrey Allen Russel, one of the screenplay’s authors — whose family, like Grace’s family in the story, was complicit in the Clearances. But Grace’s extraordinary activism for crofters’ rights in the story comes from the writers’ imaginations — an exploration of how a fiercely moral woman might have responded to the Clearances as they unfolded before her eyes. Social change for the crofters (and for women like Grace) would be the result of decades of struggle by the oppressed themselves. But for dramatic effect, the screenplay condenses decades to a single year and the struggles of many to the dedication of one — placing the burden of (and credit for) massive social change on Grace’s shoulders. It makes for a good story, but it also transforms history. If she wasn’t Grace the bourgeois activist, could she have been a crofter herself, fighting for her own rights?
Grace is well-written and well-researched, and the story of the Highland Clearances deserves the attention that Grace gives it. It’s a story that resonates everywhere crofters emigrated in the wake of the Clearances and everywhere disparities of wealth grant undue power to a privileged few. History provides all the important characters, from the callous aristocracy to the families in the Scottish Highlands fighting for their rights and dreaming of new futures in new lands. Grace deserves production that does justice to their stories. ■
Length: 120 pages
Genre: Historical Drama
Language: English, Gaelic
Find out more
Find out more about this screenplay and its authors from their website and the screenplay’s page on Facebook. The writers of Grace are Jeffrey Allen Russel and Lynda Lemberg, both award-winning Canadian screenwriters in Toronto. Grace is the recipient of 73 awards, including the Grand Prize at the Hollywood Hills Screenplay Competition.
This screenplay was selected for the 2016 Atlas Awards Official Selection.
This critical review was commissioned and sponsored by the filmmaker.
Featured Image: iStock.com/LiliGraphie