The novel opens in the present day, with successful orthodontist Alexander MacDonald visiting his elderly older brother Calum in Toronto, Ontario. The novel explores the emotional bonds of family through flashbacks to their childhood in Cape Breton Island and young adulthood spent in the mines of Northern Ontario, clan history dating back to 1779, and present day interactions between the two brothers and a sister. Though written primarily in English, Scottish Gaelic and French are used in dialogue and song.
The novel also mirrors Canadian history as a whole, taking its title from James Wolfe's assertion in the Battle of the Plains of Abraham that Scottish soldiers should be sent into battle because "they are hardy, intrepid, accustomed to a rough country, and no great mischief if they fall." The enduring linguistic and cultural tensions that have defined Canadian society are also reflected in the novel; during their time working in the uranium mines of Elliot Lake, the brothers are frequently in conflict with their francophone coworkers.
The novel explores the themes of brotherhood and the conflict between the rise of individualism and family in the post-modern world. Alex loves his alcoholic brother, Calum, despite his problems because Alex sees the potential in Calum. Alex lets his brother die in peace and with dignity even though he is a convicted murderer and alcoholic. The author uses Alex as an example for all human beings. MacLeod wants the reader to realize that "all of us are better when we're loved" and that forgiveness and love for humanity are the only weapons humans have against the destructive forces of evil.