On 10 January 1957 the momentous news reached the family publishing house in St Martin's Lane. 'Mr Macmillan has just been made prime minister,' his elder brother Daniel was told by an excited secretary. 'No, "Mr Macmillan" has not been made prime minister,' the chairman corrected her. ' "Mr Harold" has.' Here, in a nutshell, is the theme of Richard Davenport-Hines's book. Its early chapters form a heroic chronicle of upward social mobility. We first encounter an earlier Daniel Macmillan as a mid 18th-century crofter, scratching a living from the desolate but sublime landscape of the Isle of Arran. Next comes his only son, Malcolm, born on the bonny banks of Lochranza, the beauty of which inspired Sir Walter Scott to the curmudgeonly reflection that 'wake where'er he may, man wakes to care and toil.' So it proved with the Macmillans. Malcolm prospered though hard work on his poor land, becoming a tacks man, a kulak among crofters, who served as an elder of the Church of Scotland. His son Duncan, claimed by the revivalist preaching of the Baptists, was also a hard-working man who, according to his own son, 'cared for nothing but his family - that is, did not care what toil he endured for their sakes.' This was just as well, for he and his wife Katherine had no fewer than 12 children, though four of their daughters died tragically young in an epidemic which finally induced the family to forsake Arran. Their two younger sons deservedly get chapters to themselves in The Macmillans.
LRB 25 June 1992 | PDF Download