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The Novels of Neil Gunn

Margery Palmer McCulloch

(The text of a paper given to the ASLS Schools Conference in 1992.)

Neil M. Gunn’s
The Silver Darlings Scotnote
After Edwin Morgan’s talk on MacDiarmid and the poets of the Scottish Renaissance, I want to move on to one of the principal fiction writers of that Renaissance, the novelist Neil M. Gunn. Gunn was a Highlander from Caithness in the north-east of Scotland and, like Edwin Muir, he wrote in English. Lewis Grassic Gibbon, who was sceptical about the possibility of a fiction revival in the Scots language – and sceptical also about his own ability to carry further the innovative linguistic medium he had developed in Sunset Song – called Gunn somewhat ironically ‘a brilliant novelist from Scotshire’.

Gunn, however, was very much part of that early twentieth century movement for Scottish literary and cultural renewal. Indeed, Kurt Wittig, in his 1958 study The Scottish Tradition in Literature, found that Gunn ‘more clearly even than C.M.Grieve ... embodies the aims of the Scottish Renaissance’. The fact that Gunn wrote in English meant that the Scots language did not become a sticking point for him as it did for MacDiarmid, polemically at least if not always in his poetic practice. While Gunn believed that language was important for any nation’s identity and that for many nations it was the principal marker of identity, his understanding was that identity goes beyond language to shared cultural traditions and social patterns developed over long periods of time; to our relationship with our geographical, physical environment and to the complex of ideas about human life which has evolved from shared living experiences. On the other hand, he believed with MacDiarmid that a nation’s literature and art could not be divorced from its social, economic and political life and that lasting regeneration of the nation as a whole. As with all these writers of the early twentieth century revival, Gunn was not interested in antiquarianism. His approach to the traditions of his people was quite different from, say, that of nineteenth century novelists such as Scott and Galt. Both these novelists expressed the desire to capture ways of life that were fast vanishing so that there would be some record of them. Similarly Stevenson in the Scots poetry of Underwoods gave as his objective the wish to be a makar in his own Scots tongue before that finally ceased to be. Gunn’s attitude was quite different. He commented of Scott’s historical novels that while their history was not untrue, it ‘no longer enriched or influenced a living national tradition’, that these novels could not be stepping stones to present or future developments. His own emphasis was on ‘growing and blossoming from our own roots’ as he described it in the essay ‘Highland Games’ on the need to draw on our traditions in order to move forward, but also not to be surprised if tradition sometimes took an unexpected turning in its move into the future.

As novelist and essayist, Gunn’s principal concern was with the Highlands, but this does not mean that his books are limited to a local interest. The details of setting and day-to-day experience may be foreign to a city reader, as the daily life of a novel set in France or Russia or early nineteenth century England may be foreign to a late twentieth century Scottish reader. But as with all good novels, the questions that his books pose about ‘where we came from, where we are going and, since we are not alone, but members of a countless family, how we should live with one another’ are relevant to us all – Highlanders, foreigners and city-dwellers alike. The quotation I’ve just used – "Where we came from,where we are going and ... how we should live with one another" comes, not from Gunn but from the poet Edwin Muir’s autobiography – a book which I would very much like to see on Higher and Sixth Year syllabuses, along, perhaps with his fine Glasgow novel Poor Tom. There is a close relationship between Muir and Gunn in their sense of the importance of the community, of a coming to self-knowledge and a sense of individuality through the security and co-operative traditions which a small community can offer.

I’ve been asked to talk today about one or two Gunn books which might be usefully added to the Scottish literature texts studied in schools, with particular reference to the Higher and Sixth Year Studies areas. When I begin to think about this, I found myself making out a case in my mind for about ten out of Gunn’s twenty novels – something which wouldn’t be very helpful to you with the short preparation and teaching time at your disposal and which would extend this conference into next week at least! It does indicate, however, how many texts are awaiting discovery by Scottish students in the Gunn area alone. And this is even more the situation in relation to Scottish literature as a whole.

In the end, I decided to talk initially about two novels, Bloodhunt, Gunn’s penultimate novel, and Highland River, a very important pivotal work which won the James Tait Black Memorial Award and the Saltire Society’s first book award when it was published in 1937 and gave Gunn the confidence to give up his civil service employment and concentrate on his writing. First of all, then, Bloodhunt.

Bloodhunt was published in 1952, two years before Gunn’s final novel The Other Landscape. Gunn’s late books are on the whole preoccupied with what he found to be the destructiveness of modern life, with the shallow values engendered by urbanisation and an increasingly materialistic way of life, with the political cynicism, suspicion and fear of the Cold War period in the years immediately after the second World War. In addition, from his beginnings as a novelist Gunn’s books had a philosophical dimension, and in these late novels this becomes increasingly overt until in The Other Landscape, for example, a concern with the narrative form and convincing characterisation and incident seems to be jettisoned in favour of the pursuit of a philosophical search. Although they have their enthusiastic supporters, I don’t myself find these late novels among the best of Gunn’s books, and in particular I find that the Highland characters and attitudes which are used in them as counterbalances to destructive urban values are often sentimentalised, seen as if by the tourist from outside the culture, as opposed to being vitally dramatised from within as they were in the earlier Highland novels.

Bloodhunt, on the other hand, is quite a different matter. This novel too is set in the post-war years of Cold War and nuclear menace – close to the date of Edwin Muir’s ‘The Horses’, and as in ‘The Horses’, its emphasis is on a new beginning, a putting behind of past treachery and a moving forward with human love and co-operation. It is set entirely in the Highlands and its perspective is an inside one. Although it has a philosophical subtext, this is not intrusive but grows out of the action of the narrative. Unlike the early Highland books, however, its principal character is not a young boy growing up in the Highlands, but an old sailor, Sandy, who has returned to his birthplace in the Highlands after a life at sea where he has experienced not only the rigours of that occupation but also the personal suffering and tragedy brought about by the war. Therefore, although he reminds one at times of Old Hector in the early books – and Gunn, it seems to me, is at his best when dealing with the extremes of the age spectrum, the young boy and the old man – unlike Hector, and in keeping with the wider settings and concerns of Gunn’s late books, Sandy is experienced in the world outside the Highlands as well as being rooted in the Highland culture, and this gives his portrait and his judgements an additional strength.

I chose this novel because it is one of my own favourites and because it seemed to me that its starting scenario is one that would be readily understood by today’s senior school and college students: a fight by two young men over a girl, the ex-girlfriend of one of them who has been made pregnant and then abandoned by the other. In the fight the father of the girl’s child is killed and his killer takes to the wild country beyond the small town in an attempt to escape the law. There he is relentlessly pursued by the dead man’s brother, the local policeman, who turns what should be an objective search in order to arrest and bring a young man to justice into a menacingly cold yet impassioned, and in the end demented, blood hunt. The horror and tension in the plot are augmented by the fact that it is set in a time when hanging is still the ultimate punishment for murder. The fact that Allan has deliberately sought out his former girlfriend’s seducer leaves little hope for a plea of accidental killing.

One of the striking elements in any Gunn novel is its opening setting of the scene, whether the stillness and space and light of the northern landscape in the ninth century Sun Circle, the atmospheric loneliness of the boy on the beach at ebb-tide in Morning Tide or the excitement of Kenn’s fight with the salmon in Highland River. Bloodhunt is no exception and its opening pages draw the reader immediately into the tension of the unfolding drama. As with Dark Mhairi in Butcher’s Broom, the brothers in the short story ‘The Dead Seaman’ and Jeems and his niece Maggie in the Grey Coast, Sandy lives on the periphery of the community. His croft is situated in the uplands above the town of Hilton where the tragedy has taken place, with only one or two scattered crofts for company. This positioning of Sandy outside the town creates both a spatial perspective in the action, where we have a sense of comings and goings between croft and town, and also a tension in that the central drama is played out in an enclosed theatre, on Sandy’s croft and the moorland surrounding it, cut off from the town and its everyday life. This physical separation also emphasises Sandy’s moral separation from the community. Sandy is a man who makes his own judgements, not according to any specific creed, religious or political, but according to his experience of men and women and human relationships in a long and eventful life.

The opening scene of the novel conveys an atmosphere of isolation and menace. In addition, and paradoxically, there is a potential for comedy of a kind here as more obviously elsewhere in the novel, a comedy which comes over through Sandy’s bewildered responses – and I seem to remember that the television film of Bloodhunt played up that potential. I think, on the other hand, that the scene has to be played straight. If there is any comedy, it’s the kind of involuntary comedy which heightens tension as opposed to being a relief from it, the shaky laugh which escapes from us unawares in a situation which we don’t quite know how to handle:

‘Your brother – murdered!’ So great was the shock that Sandy’s understanding seemed blinded by the darkness. ‘I can’t see you. Come in.’
     ‘I want to look in the barn first. Give me the key.’
     ‘The key? Wait till I get my boots on.’
     ‘Just give me the key.’
     But Sandy had turned back and as he pulled on his boots wondered where on earth the key was. Certainly he had not locked the barn door that day, or yesterday, or any day his fumbling mind could think of. The menace of the policeman was about him, about the lads he had known so long, and he could not gather his wits.

In its economic way this scene sets up the oppositions in the action. Like Sandy we find ourselves recoiling from the cold,unfeeling menace in Nicol’s voice and actions, instinctively moving on to the other side despite his telling of the killing. Then, through Sandy’s responses, we find out something about the killer, Allan. Clearly he is one of the lads who have been in the habit of coming around Sandy’s croft, helping him with small tasks, hiding their poaching gear in his barn. There is a sense communicated of their vitality and warmth, the affection between them and Sandy; no warning of a killer mentality. From the outset, then, Gunn manages to put the reader, with Sandy, on Allan’s side, despite the seriousness of his crime. For Allan’s actions have come ultimately out of anger at the wrong done to his girlfriend. However misguided and however tragic the outcome, it could be argued that his fight was a fight for human values and against betrayal, while Nicol’s hunt for Allan is utterly devoid of humanity, utterly ruthless. And, of course, the situation is made unredeemable in view of the death penalty. Sandy’s shielding of the young man is not an ignoring or condoning of his action, but a response to the human spark which he knows from experience is in the boy:

Everything was very quiet and still, the bed, the dresser, the backs of the books on the second shelf ... He came back thinking there was nothing in the books which could deal with this kind of moment; nothing at all to dispel what came out of it, the awfulness of this human act.
     More than that and deeper; nothing to explain why he himself had, beyond thought, before its grip could get him, so instinctively shielded the murderer. All the time the policeman had been with him, he had refused to look beneath the surface, to ask himself what he was doing. Why? he asked himself now and out of his bleak misery answered, Goodness knows.
     His thought became confused; brought up images from his past that swirled and vanished; a figure running along a quay in a foreign port, a revolver shot ...
     What had possessed Allan? Allan, of all the young men who had come about the place, the laughing face, the bright one. Sun on the grass. They said he could go through a pool like an otter. He had seen him grow from the age of fourteen, when he had left school. Good hands on him. He had worked in a garage in Hilton and done a repair for a passing motorist that got him a foreman’s job in a garage in Perth – about a year ago. He could hardly be twenty-five.
     Allan would never have had a knife on him. Just his hands.

From this opening you can see that there is the promise of a suspenseful, involving book, and this is a promise which is fulfilled as Sandy’s croft becomes the focus of the action, with this constant unannounced visits of Nicol the policeman, often in the dark of night; with Allan’s fleeting visits for food from his hiding place on the Crannog, his physical and nervous health increasingly declining with his ordeal; and finally the arrival of the pregnant Liz, fleeing her parents’ house and instinctively seeking out the old man she had heard Allan speak of in the past and who was known and sometimes made fun of in the community for his eccentric ways. With the birth of Liz’s child, Sandy finds his emotional allegiance gradually retreating from the doomed Allan – though he tries to help him to the end – and fixing itself on Liz and her child and the future they represent.

There are also many genuinely comic passages in the novel involving Sandy and his widow neighbour and his town acquaintances, and as always in Gunn, there are splendid descriptions of the natural landscape around Sandy’s croft which provide an unforced context for Sandy’s philosophical speculations as well as the visual immediacy of the hunt’s setting.

In addition, I think the ending of this book would provide material for discussion among pupils or students, and I would expect that interpretations and reactions in regard to this ending would be varied and perhaps even quite violent. What happens is that Sandy, who has become very busy and preoccupied with Liz and her baby, begins to worry about the non-appearance of Allan to collect the tweed suit he has left for him in the barn, and goes out one day with his dog and telescope into the hills around the croft. Through his telescope he sees the now mentally unhinged Nicol fighting with Allan in the land close to the crannog and dragging his body into a hollow. Sandy finds the place of the fight but is too late to save Allan who is dead. He cleans the body and carefully conceals it under a ledge so that the birds of prey will not get at it, then he returns to the croft. As he comes close to his home, he hears Liz singing an old lullaby to her child and this confirms him in his decision not to report what he has seen in the hills, but to leave Allan’s body to be found in time, if it ever is found, and therefore to allow people to believe that he had died from exposure or exhaustion, or in the event of its not being found, had escaped the hunt.

The ending of the book is very moving and is entirely in keeping with the philosophy of the principal character, Sandy, whose own earlier harsh experiences had taught him the value of life and love, and it is in keeping too with Gunn’s philosophy in these late books which emphasises the potential for human love and new beginnings as opposed to an engagement with tragedy in human life. Liz’s child has been brought into the world in the darkest of circumstances and in the lowliest of places – Sandy’s barn – and, like the Christ-child, has been placed in a manger of hay in that barn. The boy is therefore, like that earlier Christ-child, a symbol of hope, of new life, of the fact that life must and will go on, and a symbol too of the love which enables human life to go on. In this interpretation, Sandy’s decision not to tell of the fight and killing of Allan but to go forward with the hope symbolised in Liz and her child is a fitting ending to the philosophical theme of the novel. (I would add a warning, however, that any association with the biblical Christ in this imagery is, I believe, symbolic and should not be forced. Gunn’s novels do not have a Christian context as Edwin Muir’s poetry does, and the suggestion of Jesus’ birth which is inevitably called to mind here has its place as one of the world’s great positive myths of hope as opposed to being a reference to a specific element of Christian doctrine or belief as held by the author.)

The ending, however, is also an open ending in that we are taken to the doorway, so to speak, of this new life, but we do not enter it and see it evolve. And this is where I myself find – and perhaps you and some of your students may also find – the ending ultimately unsatisfying, both artistically and psychologically. For, in addition to the human positives he has put forward in the person of Sandy, Liz and her child and the supportive relationships Sandy enjoys with his neighbours, Gunn has also painted a terrifying picture of human obsession and alienation in the person of the policeman Nicol. In his unannounced appearances on Sandy’s croft, his ruthless persistence in the hunt, even when ordered on leave in order to rest, in the comments by neighbours and townspeople about his loss of mental balance in relation to the hunt, the references to his mother’s equal obsessiveness with regard to her dead son and the search for his killer, we are presented with a deranged personality who seems to epitomise both the irrationality and machine-like impersonality of human evil, the kind of evil of the concentration camps, still near in memory to bloodhunt’s 1952 date, and the kind of evil we are seeing again today in the breakdown of civilisation in the former Yugoslavia. Nicol, therefore, seems to me the flaw in Gunn’s ending. For there can be little confidence that he will follow Sandy’s road and turn towards a new beginning with the newly born child. For this child is his brother Robert’s child and the child of the girl who has brought about that brother’s death. Will Nicol’s obsession allow him to leave these two unmolested? Will his mother’s obsession with her dead son allow her to leave in peace his illegitimate son and her grandson?

The only possible way forward for Sandy’s – and Gunn’s – ending, it seems to me, would be the death of Nicol as well as that of Allan, both deaths allowing the past to be quiet and the new beginning to unfold. Yet even here, it could be argued, there is an injustice to Allan. He has killed and has suffered for it and his name will remain besmirched by that killing. Yet he has also been killed, violently and outside the law, without the opportunity to plead in his defence, and his killer has been the authority whose job it should have been to uphold justice. The violence he has himself done lives on after him, but the violence and injustice done to him dies with him, while his killer lives on – a greater menace to society in his obsessive mental state than Allan himself would have been had he escaped the net put around him.

Although I have raised my own doubts about Gunn’s ending in this way, I would not see this as a negative response, but one which, if explored with students, should result in a much stronger involvement with the book and in fruitful discussions about violence and good and evil in society – and with particular relevance to the pressures put on young people trying to find their way to maturity in our contemporary society. One of the fruitful outcomes of the tide of theorizing which has swept over and at times nearly swamped literature and criticism in recent years is that we are now more likely to be aware of plurality of meaning in a text, less likely to feel we have to submit to one ‘true’ interpretation (something which was a negative legacy of early twentieth century New Criticism approaches). We can explore the silences of a text such as Bloodhunt, examine what the text says that it does not appear to say, and in doing this we can come to a deeper awareness of the issues it raises without distorting or simplifying these. It’s a fine book and I would very much recommend it for Higher and/or Sixth Year Studies. The fact that there is a video of the book available might be an added attraction, but here I would think one would have to use the film carefully. My memory of it is that it did tend to simplify the issues and at times try too hard for comedy. On the other hand it could provide useful material for a discussion of the relationship between book and film and of changes in emphasis as a result of change in medium.

I understand that the two Gunn texts prescribed for Sixth Year Studies at the present time are The Silver Darlings published in 1941, and Highland River of 1937. Neither is an ‘easy’ text, and both present student and teacher with quite different challenges. In The Silver Darlings the challenge is one of length in a tight curriculum and the stamina demanded of a reader over its 584 pages. On the other hand, the book has a number of advantages as a school or college text. Firstly, it is an heroic tale, an epic both in its entirety and in several of its various episodes. Its characters can at times be larger than life, as one finds in epic poetry or fiction, but they are also entirely convincing men and women, and so we do identify with them and take part in their adventures and journeys – the heroic journey undertaken by Catrine, for example, from Helmsdale over the ord of Caithness to the land-safety of Kirsty’s croft in Dunster or Dunbeath; the child Finn’s growth to boyhood and manhood; his journey to Watten to seek the cholera doctor during his mother’s illness and his sea journeys beyond the Pentland Firth first of all with Roddie, then alone with his own crew. Gunn’s novels as a whole tend to episodic structure, a feature perhaps inherited from oral tradition, and this structural pattern would allow one to concentrate on selected episodes for detailed study once students are familiar with the discourse of the novel as a whole. Despite its intimidating length, the novel must be read as a whole in order to grasp fully what it is about and how the author communicates its meaning to us. But once the overall pattern is taken in, then it does offer scope for concentration on selected areas and/or specific themes. The novel also offers the opportunity in a personal reading section to do background research into the Clearances, the impulse behind the book, and also into the growth of the herring fishing along the north-east Caithness coast. And if there should be opportunities for school trips, then the Caithness coast and hinterland is a marvellous area for exploration, with the remains of the Clearance village at Badbea, where both animals and children had to be tethered in case they wandered away and fell over the steep cliffside; the Whalligoe steps outside Wick where the fisherwomen carried the fish on their backs up approximately 365 steps hewn out of that same cliff; the splendid Fisheries Museum in Wick and the Crofting Museum just outside Dunbeath, Gunn’s home village; the beauty of the empty straths such as Dunbeath Strath and Strathnaver and the eerie experience of crawling inside the ancient burial mounds at Camster Cairns. A visit to Caithness is a marvellous journey into history.

Highland River is a text of much more manageable proportions – 256 pages in my 1937 edition. It also has some splendidly vital and immediate sections which deal with the boyhood of Kenn in the Strath of Dunbeath. Its challenge for pupils may well be in its overt philosophical nature, which in the early and closing sections of the novel can be very demanding; and in the way Gunn plays with the time in the novel, weaving backwards and forwards without preparation or explanation.

As with Bloodhunt, I am myself very fond of Gunn’s Highland River, and if my arm were to be twisted I would probably own it as my first choice among Gunn’s novels. It is, however, not so well known as The Silver Darlings, about which there is a fair amount of written comment. I think, therefore, that I should say something about it, as opposed to The Silver Darlings, in the hope that some of you will encourage your sixth year pupils to read it for their certificate studies.

Unlike Bloodhunt and The Silver Darlings there isn’t really a storyline in this novel, which is concerned with the adult Kenn’s search for his own identity and for the source of life, a search which he undertakes through a re-entering of his boyhood experiences in the Strath of Dunbeath and a following of his Highland river to its source in the moors beyond the Strath. I think, therefore, that the best way for me to talk about it to you here, is for me to bring out some of the themes and narrative patterns which you might want to explore with your pupils.

First of all we have, as we had in Bloodhunt a splendidly atmospheric and evocative opening section which sets the course for the novel as a whole and draws the reader into an intimacy and involvement with the principal character, the boy Kenn. Here is Kenn, on a cold morning, unexpectedly thrown into an epic struggle with his first salmon as he sleepily and reluctantly goes to the river pool for water for the breakfast tea.

Out of that noiseless world in the grey of the morning, all his ancestors came at him. They tapped his breast until the bird inside it fluttered madly; they drew a hand along his hair until the scalp crinkled; they made the blood within him tingle to a dance that had him leaping from boulder to boulder before he rightly knew to what desperate venture he was committed.

Against all the odds, Kenn lands the salmon and ‘from that day the river became the river of life for Kenn’. Although he was too young to realise it at the time, it was his first initiation into the traditions of his people and the beginning of his search for his own identity and his relationship to his community and its history. At this point, I should perhaps say that it did occur to me when re-reading this book with the response of today’s school pupils in mind, that the killing of the salmon might well arouse ‘animal rights’ and ‘anti-blood sport’ responses among city pupils in particular. I don’t know what one can do about this except encourage students to read on and hope that in the end what may well appear to us as a cruel killing of a trapped creature and an exultation in that killing, will be seen in the context of a way of life in which hunting is both one of the traditions of the people and a necessary activity for the provision of food in a fishing and crofting community where the economy is at a survival level only, and sometimes hardly even that. The way of life depicted is a very different way of life from that in our late twentieth century mechanised, materialistic, television culture, and we have to make an imaginative leap to enter into the experience it offers. On the other hand, it may well be that this will arouse no adverse comment at all.

One of the principal themes in the novel is identity, and how one’s sense of self and community is achieved. Gunn presents this theme in part through his view of the education system and the way in which this neglects the environment out of which the children come, forcing upon them instead an alien culture and detailed information which has no meaning and therefore no staying power in their minds. Instead of Kenn’s teacher using the illustration of the life cycle and spawning habits of the salmon to give the pupils a scientific awareness of the phenomenon which they saw happening before their eyes in their everyday lives, he beats Kenn sadistically because the boy is abstracted from his schoolwork in his wonder at his fight with the salmon and his achievement in capturing it. Education for these Highland pupils is ‘Leicester is famous for boots’, a meaningless piece of information which Kenn finds himself repeating when he regains consciousness many years later after a gas attack in the First World War. It is not the richness of the history and geography and animal and plant life in their crofting and fishing village:

It was remarkable how the races that had gone to his making had each left its signature on the river bank; often over and over, as children on gates and walls scrawl the names of those amongst them who are ‘courting’.
     On one side of the harbour mouth the place-name was Gaelic, on the other side it was Norse. Where the lower valley broadened out to flat, fertile land the name was Norse, but the braes behind it were Gaelic. A mile up the river where the main stream was joined by its first real tributary, the promontory overlooking the meeting of the waters was crowned by the ruins of a broch that must have been the principal stronghold of the glen when the Picts, or perhaps some earlier people, were in their heyday.
     And all these elements of race still existed along the banks of the river, not only visibly in the appearance of the folk themselves, but invisibly in the stones and earth ...
     A story could have been made of all this for the scholars, but in Kenn’s time no teacher ever attempted it. The Vikings were a people like the Celts or the Picts, concerning whom a few facts had to be memorised. But these facts were really very difficult to memorise, because they had no bearing on anything tangible. They were sounds in the empty spaces of history.

If one of the values of history, therefore, is the understanding of self and community which a study of our past can bring, this was something entirely lacking in the formal education of these Highland children – and still lacking, I’m afraid, in the schooling of too many of our Scottish children even today.

Another area of interest in this book, and one which could well make a useful topic for personal research and reading is this picture of a very specific but different environmental and social background which is communicated. We have the pattern of a life-style based on crofting and fishing, on equality in the community and co-operation among its members. Opposed to the sense of community among the people is the Estate with its factor, a force to be reckoned with on rent days and in the event of being caught poaching, but otherwise ignored by the people. There is a;so the sense of a chain of being in the natural world, a life system in which Kenn’s killing of the salmon and the trapping of rabbits have their place. There is an awareness of the rhythm of the seasons and the natural world which has been lost by town children, an awareness which is unconscious yet deeply felt by the children of the Strath. And the life-cycles of animal and plant worlds provide opportunities for initiation into the various stages of life for the boys who are themselves part of that animal world, again a contact with the primary manifestations of nature which has inevitably passed from our urban lives. I think we have to make an imaginative leap into this world which is in many ways foreign to us, but which in the end enriches our own experience through our imaginative involvement with it.

One principal feature of the organisation of the narrative of Highland River is the handling of time. The narrative is not structured chronologically. Nor does it operate by way of clearcut flashbacks from a specific point in the present and with an eventual return to the main narrative, as we have in Gunn’s The Serpent, for example. It doesn’t draw attention to its time shifts as Proust does in his A la recherche du temps perdu with his conscious use of verb tenses which we have to analyse to find out just where we are in the time spectrum of the story. Rather the narrative of Highland River slips backwards and forwards anachronistically without preparation or emphasis between time present, time past and time future. As I mentioned earlier Gunn’s novels are on the whole organised with an episodic structure and so we have brief episodes of childhood experience with the boy Kenn and his friend Beel, or with Kenn and his brother Angus, moving without pause or preparation into episodes of Kenn at war, Kenn at secondary school or university, Kenn returning to his Highland river in later life, and back again into childhood experience,and so on. Once we accept that there is no chronological pattern to the narrative, we move easily with it and what is created in the end is a sense that time is continually present, that we have within us time past, time present and future, existing simultaneously and interacting with each other to make us what we are. Time in this novel is therefore both an element in the formal organisation of the novel, and also a philosophical element in the novel. In a school study, I think it would be important to get students to be conscious of this narrative pattern and to investigate what its effect is both in the overall impact of the novel and at the various points in the narrative where these time shifts occurs, and how this compares with a more conventional pattern of chronological narrative.

The first of these time shifts occurs in chapter 3 of the book, after Kenn’s epic fight with the salmon and his sadistic beating at the hands of the schoolmaster, a beating out of the spirit of innocence and joy in the child which is echoed in the shift forward to the First World War and Kenn’s service at the age of 17 as a gunner. I’ve always had difficulty with Gunn’s portrayal of Kenn’s war service, finding an almost Biggles-like exuberance and insouciance in Kenn’s attitude to danger and death, and a not altogether sympathetic treatment of the breakdown of Kenn’s older brother Angus as a result of what could only have been shell-shock in the trenches. It would be most interesting to read these passages with today’s young adults and receive their responses to the action here. On the other hand, re-reading them myself before writing this talk and after the passage of some time, I suppose I am more conscious now of the youthful inexperience of Kenn and the relationship between this and the similar naive, exuberant enthusiasm with which so many young men rushed into service in the First World War, to be caught up in a horror and tragedy which they could never have imagined. If using this book with fifth or sixth year pupils, it might be useful to introduce simultaneously some of the war poems from World War One from an anthology such as Up the Line to Death, for example, which reproduces both the early naive fervour and the disillusionment and tragedy and anger which so quickly followed.

What you might find most difficult about this book from a teaching point of view is how to deal with its philosophical ideology, both overt and implicit. The best way into this may be through a comparison with Wordsworth – If school pupils still read Wordsworth! – and the romantic period view of childhood as a period of innocence and essential at-one-ness with the natural world and the sources of life; and in particular Wordsworth’s view of Nature as a teacher, who leads her foster children to maturity through experiences of joy and fear. I’m thinking here, for example, of the boat-stealing or trap-setting episodes in the Prelude where, as in Kenn and Angus’s salmon poaching expeditions there is a distinction drawn between social fear and primal fear – social fear, the fear of the gamekeeper and of being caught which is Angus’s weakness, and primal fear, the sense of intruding into the natural world’s privacy which terrifies Wordsworth’s boy. As they mature, Kenn and Angus have no primal fear, being at home in their natural world, although they always respect that world’s identity and difference, whether in the woods of the Strath or in their delicate handling of and wonder at the fragile beauty of birds’ eggs. There is a sense conveyed that Kenn’s adult strength and his scientific mind have grown out of that childhood intimacy with the natural environment. Gunn, however, does not idealise this environment or suggest that it is an essential condition for maturity and self-determination in adult life. We are conscious of the decline of the fishing way of life and the emigration forced upon many of the young men of the community, including Angus. My previous unhappiness at what has seemed to me to be an unfair connection between Angus’s boyhood weakness in the face of the gamekeepers and his breakdown in the Normandy trenches may be Gunn’s way of pointing to the importance of individual temperament and psychology and an avoidance of a romantic period overstatement of the relationship between nature and the growing child. Nevertheless, in the vital accounts of Kenn’s boyhood one has the sense of a child discovering himself for himself, and without the imposition of an adult conception of life which is almost unavoidable in a late twentieth-century town or suburban life-style of television, concrete playgrounds and organised indoor activities. Despite their poverty, Kenn and his friends are privileged in the way they are able to keep what Gunn called in The Atom of Delight the circle of their second self unbroken and outside adult influence until they are ready for it.

As in all his books, Gunn in this novel consciously puts aside a view of life which engages with tragedy. In the later sections of the novel the adult Kenn converses with his scientific superior Radzyn, a European who is much more widely read in literature and philosophy than Kenn, an introspective, almost neurotic figure who cannot accept that the mystery of life is beyond our understanding and who cannot accept the religious explanations offered to us. Kenn – and his author also – does not accept religious explanations of life and how we should live it either, but he seems able to live with the mystery. And for him, tragedy in human life is just something which is part of the whole, about which nothing can be done but accept it. His emphasis is therefore, as in Bloodhunt also, on life itself, its potential and its continuation. When he tells Radzyn that he is going to search for the source of his Highland river, he says casually that he expects to find nothing when he gets to the end of his journey, no vision such as a religious traveller might expect to find. And when he does eventually make his way from the harbour up the river to the Broch pool, up the Strath to the moors behind and eventually to the rivers source, it at first seems as if his intuition was right. Somewhat to his chagrin the narrowed stream does suddenly disappear into the ground with no apparent resurfacing. As he walks on, however, he finds to his delight that it mysteriously resurfaces and flows into a deep pool with sparkling crushed quartz shingle shore. In the ending of the philosophical theme of this novel, therefore, we find an anticipation of Bloodhunt’s ending and Gunn’s recurring emphasis on the continuation of life, on its mystery and delight. I’m not myself convinced that this is a philosophy which is sustainable in view of the tragic history of the Scottish Highlands and indeed of human history world-wide, and in some of Gunn’s late novels it does lead to a too easy application of the happy ending of romance fiction. It is, on the other hand, a fitting ending for Highland River and combines the scientific investigation of the adult Kenn with the delight and acceptance of the natural world which derives from his childhood intimacy with the river and its strath.

I hope this comment on the philosophical motifs of Highland River has not been off-putting, for any difficulty they might present is in the end counterbalanced by the quality of Gunn’s descriptive writing in the book, in the way he can bring both the hardness of the sea coast and the richness of the river uplands before the reader; and in the way he draws us into the boy Kenn’s childhood experience so that the adult Kenn’s search in the end becomes our search also. It is a fine novel and one that deserves to be much better known.

Finally and briefly, I would like to draw your attention to The Man Who Came Back, an anthology of previously uncollected essays, short stories and descriptive pieces which I put together for the Gunn centenary year and which was published by Polygon in the autumn of 1991. I feel a bit hesitant about recommending this, because I wouldn’t like you to think I was trying to drum up sales! In fact I don’t need to drum up sales because it has proved a very popular addition to Gunn’s work in print and has been doing well. The collection, which is in paperback, contains a short introduction to Gunn and has place in early twentieth century literature, together with some comments on the pieces included, and you might well find this a useful way into Gunn for pupils and for yourselves if you are not familiar with his work. With the exception of one, the essays selected were for some reason omitted from Alistair McCleery’s more extensive collection Landscape and Light, but I have from my very first acquaintance with them been conscious of their significance for Gunn’s view of tradition and identity and the importance of growing and blossoming from our cultural roots. Essays such as ‘Highland Games’, ‘The Ferry of the Dead’, ‘Gentlemen – The Tourist’, ‘Preserving the Scottish Tongue: A Legacy and How to Use It’ all explore the nature of our traditions and how we can preserve these and yet develop from them. ‘Nationalism and Internationalism’ takes up the thorny question of nationalism, a risky question in the climate of the thirties, but still of relevance today as we see European countries moving one step forward to European unity and two backwards to national sovereignty and traditions. Gunn’s view, of much controversial relevance in the 1930s when international socialism was fashionable and fear of the jingoism which had brought about the First World War was still alive, was that true internationalism cannot be an abstract impersonal concept which irons out all differences and individual qualities. It must spring from a confidence in one’s own national identity and a readiness to welcome and respect the identities of others. For Gunn, ‘a nation’s traditions are the natural inspirations of its people ... And it is only when a man is moved by the traditions and music and poetry of his own land that he is in a position to comprehend those of any other land, for already he has the eyes of sympathy and the ears of understanding.’

As well as several essays which are of relevance to the debates still being carried on today, there are others which describe some of the working traditions of the Highlands such as ‘At the Peats’ and ‘White Fishing on the Caithness Coast’. Others are more purely descriptive pieces such as ‘My Bit of Britain’ and ‘The Dunbeath Coast’ and demonstrate Gunn’s amazing ability to pull his reader into the landscape or seascape being described.

There are in addition several short stories which were not collected by Gunn, I think because he used them in a modified form in later novels. In my view some of these stories are much stronger in their original short story form and deserve recognition in their own right. ‘The Dead Seaman’ is a tense tale of human isolation in the midst of the pettiness and unthinking cruelty which one can find in small communities; ‘The Man Who Came Back’ explores the theme of the lad of pairts and the belief that to succeed one must go away from one’s small home community to success in the big city. ‘The Boat’ you will recognise as an early version of the opening of The Silver Darlings and pupils studying that novel might well want to consider how the story is changed by its incorporation into the larger novel. ‘Strath Ruins’, a poaching story, could be used to introduce younger Standard Grade pupils to Gunn, as, of course, could the essays ‘At the Peats’ and ‘White Fishing’ and the descriptive pieces, all of which could form the basis of lessons exploring the pupils’ own relationship to their home communities and their working life. All in all, it seems to me that this collection could be a useful companion to individual Gunn novels and contribute to the pupils’ research into the background which produced these novels.

This has been a somewhat restricted yet crowded introduction to Gunn, but I hope that I have said enough to persuade those of you who do not know his work that he is a writer worth adding to your Scottish literature texts. And for me, one of the most significant aspects of his writing is that it is dealing with questions which are still of primary relevance to us in the 1990s, not only in Scotland where the national identity and self-determination debate is still continuing, but also in Europe where a similar debate is being conducted, and in our attempts to deal with deprivation and loss of community and traditional living patterns in the Third World. He is very much a writer who fulfilled the forward-and outward-looking aims of the Scottish Renaissance.


Copyright © Margery Palmer McCulloch 1992


Last updated 25 July 2014.