Alan Riach is an academic, writer and poet and has written and edited several volumes on twentieth century Scottish literature. He is Professor of Scottish Literature at University of Glasgow.
Matters of the spirit: Neil Gunn
Neil Miller Gunn (1891-1973) was born in Dunbeath, Caithness, his father a fisherman and his mother a domestic servant. The fishing industry was declining and at the age of twelve he went to stay with his married sister in St John’s Town of Dalry, Kirkcudbrightshire, and at fifteen went to London. He became a Customs and Excise officer and returned in this profession to the Highlands. In the First World War, he was employed with shipping and based in Kinlochleven. He was married in 1921 to Dallas Frew, or Daisy, and after a year in Wigan, where he was involved with the coalminers’ claims against the mine-owners, which confirmed his socialist ideals, they returned north and settled in Inverness.
Gunn was writing stories through the 1920s and his first novels, The Grey Coast(1926) and Morning Tide (1931) are inwardly-focused, psychologically perceptive presentations of Highland life. From the start, Gunn demonstrated an uncanny ability to describe the relation between spirit and matter. These are subtle, slow and marvellously patient novels about characters of depth and tenacity, insight and common feeling, who find themselves on the edge of economic survival. Old age and childhood are presented tenderly but robust adults, their frustrations, hopes and resourcefulness in difficult conditions, are central. Hugh MacDiarmid saw immediately that Gunn’s writing was capable of developing Modernist tendencies in depth, precision and – crucially – with a distinctive Scottish focus and character. Gunn was positive about MacDiarmid’s aims for a Scottish Renaissance in the arts and they corresponded encouragingly, often humorously. Gunn was also in touch with novelists and poets Nan Shepherd, Edwin Muir and Willa Muir. In
the 1930s, he was increasingly committed to Scottish independence and engaged in various social commissions and reviews of the conditions of life in the Highlands, pushing for improvements. The success of Highland River(1937) convinced him he should resign his job and take up writing full-time.
Highland River is Gunn’s most accessible novel, with one of the greatest opening chapters of any book, as the young boy Kenn chases a salmon upriver and finally catches it, carrying it home in triumph. A fine statue in Dunbeath by Alex Main (1940-2010) commemorates this, with the big, weighty salmon on the spindly little boy’s shoulder. The brilliance of both statue and chapter is in their demonstration of Kenn’s determination to carry the fish home. In Celtic lore, the salmon represents knowledge, so of course it’s far bigger than the child and it takes huge effort to get the nourishment from it. But the novel goes further, dealing with the lives of Kenn and his brother through the First World War and the mature commitment to political progress that comes with the surviving brother’s return to Scotland. In its carefully crafted structure, the stories the novel tells are placed in juxtaposition, so that a Modernist estrangement from linear narrative generates both tension and pathos. Gunn retains the best qualities of humanist sympathy by engaging this progressive literary technique.
His greatest novel is The Silver Darlings (1941). The title refers to the herring, the fish the fleets go out for and the men spend their lives harvesting. The novel is the story of a fishing community created in the aftermath of the Highland Clearances, a small group of people among whom the boy Finn grows up after his father, Tormad, is press-ganged, in the opening chapters. Finn’s grandfather, asking about Tormad’s abduction, approaches the men who witnessed it and asks how long he might be kept away: ‘What is the longest time you have known of anyone?’
‘Oh, I have known men nearly twenty years in it, but they came out at the end well and strong and with a pension. Some men like it. It agrees with them. It has got that side to it. There’s no need to worry in that way. Many men on the south side have joined the Navy of their own free will...’ ‘Twenty years,’ repeated Tormad’s father, looking beyond his own death. ‘Ah, well,’ he added quietly, ‘I’ll be getting back. It’s hard on them at home. He has a young wife.’ Then he thanked Murray and departed.
The understated power of this writing is extraordinary. Something of that sense of human vision seeing beyond the time of its own life’s duration, surely appealed to T.S. Eliot, who published The Silver Darlings and more of Gunn’s novels with his company Faber and Faber in London.
The Silver Darlings is strongly but unobtrusively structured, part one (chapters 1-13) centred in the Land and Woman; part two (chapters 14-18) centred in the Sea and Man, and part three (chapters 19-26) representing Land and Sea, Woman and Man, the ‘circle’ reconnected, bringing the whole world of the novel together. However schematic this seems, in the detailed descriptions of characters and places, the gradual development of the story, which is carefully paced, full of tension and terrific, sweepingly dramatic but never melodramatic, episodes, Gunn is always convincing. He knows these people. The constrictions of identity imposed by social custom, economic priorities, biology and bigotry, are all patiently explored in Gunn’s pacifically sympathetic and consistently poised writing. He shows how the limitations of human identity are made liveable by a sense of the pleasure involved in their habitation. Yet this never allows for complacency.
The novel is the third of a trilogy, again, unobtrusively structured: Sun Circle(1930), which deals with the Highlands and Islands at the time of the Viking raids, and Butcher’s Broom (1934), which deals directly with the Clearances, leading up to the world of The Silver Darlings. But in fact, all Gunn’s novels might be read as a grand, unfolding vision of Scotland as a whole, including vivid depictions of Glasgow, in Wild Geese Overhead(1939) and Edinburgh, in The Drinking Well(1947), so cities, Highlands and Islands all come into his panorama. The closest similarity in the arts I know is the series of symphonies of Anton Bruckner, each one distinct but building and developing upon the preceding one, or ones, until they can all be held in the mind as a single, comprehensive vision. In this respect, like Walter Scott before him and MacDiarmid and Lewis Grassic Gibbon in his own time, Gunn presents a comprehensive vision of Scotland. His achievement is of that scale.
Gunn pretty much stopped writing in the 1960s and died in 1973. His later works explore aspects of Zen Buddhism, bringing the quality of spiritual serenity to balance the recognition of the need for material improvement. His Whisky and Scotland(1935) is a beautiful exposition of the many virtues and varieties of Scotland’s national drink. It endorses qualities of distinctiveness and discernment. With infinite care and authority, Gunn extends the argument from different whiskies to distinctive national identities, in the chapter entitled ‘The International Cup’. The same qualities apply to the islands of Scotland in Off in a Boat(1938), a celebration of sailing in Hebridean waters, describing a trip made with his wife Daisy immediately after resigning from his job as an excise man. It breathes a bright, refreshing air of first-hand experience of the sea and the island communities of the west. One important legacy of this is two books by Ian Mitchell, which examine the politics and economics of these parts of the world and their potential: Isles of the West(1999) and Isles of the North (2004). Both Gunn’s book, and Mitchell’s books, prompt considerations of the question, what might yet be made of Scotland’s archipelagos.
In Young Art and Old Hector(1942) and its sequel, the parable-like The Green Isle of the Great Deep(1944), Gunn looks closely at what young and old can teach each other, and how learning, knowledge and ultimately wisdom are increasingly threatened by totalitarianism, fascism, and war, authorities of power and violence. These novels are of the same era and as important as Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World(1932) and George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four(1949) but are better than either for Gunn works through to actual possibilities of regeneration beyond despair, in full acknowledgement of the difficulties and the almost impossible odds of the time. The Green Isle of the Great Deep was written as news was coming to Gunn of the horrors of the Holocaust and the Nazi death camps, and this news enters the novel with a quiet horror, connecting the moment of the novel’s composition and the universal understanding of what human potential at its worst might be. What rises in resistance to the facts of this history is evoked with hushed determination. What we think of as immaterial ‘spirit’ is determined in Gunn’s writing through depictions of matter and movement, physicality. And as British imperialism fails, these senses of spirit, community, well-being and social purpose redefine themselves through our sense of nationality. Co-ordinate points of good temper and understanding are always required. Gunn supplies them.
His presentation of what we might call, for want of a better term, ‘the spiritual’ is most vividly delivered through physical descriptions of startling immediacy, both in their intimate physicality and their visual presence, in images evocative of transparencies and opacities. Normally he disdains metaphor and employs nuanced depictions of immediate creatural relations that embody a sense of individual and communal life without explaining, categorising, numbering or codifying it. Wonder is its key, but in the balance of mystery, experience and knowledge, horror and repulsion may also be present. The relationship between the physical and the spiritual is dramatised in his novels in tensions and harmonies discovered and enacted between individual bodies and the society or community they live in.
Let’s look at one example: his second novel, Morning Tide(1931). Its structure is clear but again, unimposing. Spaced through half a year, each of its three parts takes place over a 24-hour period.
In Part One, it’s January, and we move from dusk till dawn. We begin outdoors, at evening. Hugh is on the beach picking bait. He meets Sandy Sutherland, and walking home, he encounters other boys and there is a fight. We follow Hugh home, where his Mother is preparing dinner, his Father threading bait for the fishing. The meal of steak and onions is relished, described with a strong sense of the physical experiencing of taste, what nourishment is: the mastication and swallowing of food and the drinking of water is of vital importance.
Also present are Hugh’s sisters; Grace, home for now but working as a maid to a rich woman in London, and Kirsty, a dairymaid at the Home Farm nearby, and his brother Alan, who’s going out to the fishing that night. Later that night, the storm rises and Hugh and the three women are down on the beach with the other villagers, anxious. The boats come back in as dawn arrives. Hugh is exalted in the return, first of Alan and his boat, then of his Father, and exclaims: ‘O red ecstasy of the dawn!’
In Part Two, it’s March. We begin in the morning as Hugh goes to school, is set to learn Walter Scott’s poem The Lady of the Lake but doesn’t get very far. Meanwhile, on the pier, there’s the ‘dividing of the fish’, allocating quantities of the new catch. Hugh’s Father is described as someone who ‘sees’: ‘but not with my eyes’. He works and behaves intuitively but with absolute precision. We spend the day at the school under the rule of the cruel schoolmaster and at evening, we return home, and after dinner, we accompany Alan and Hugh to a ceilidh at Hector’s house. That might seem the end of the night but there’s more to come: the nocturnal poaching of a salmon. Finally, Hugh returns home to bed. Then it’s morning and we witness the leave-taking of Alan, bound for North America, as Grace heads off to London. After the goodbyes, the characters return home. Hugh’s sorrow is replaced by a return of confidence: ‘He started running.’Part Three takes place in July, moving from a summer afternoon to the following dawn. There’s another salmon-poaching expedition to the pool in the forest. Returning home, Hugh is met by Elsie, who tells him that his Mother is ‘worse’ and asks for Kirsty. Kirsty returns and keeps vigil as Hugh runs for the doctor, who advises that things look bad: their Mother seems to be declining. Kirsty and Hugh sit up with their Mother, Kirsty reading from the Bible. Finally Hugh gets some sleep and is awakened by Kirsty, who tells him ‘Mother is better’: she ‘had been given up for dead but was alive’. The novel ends in exhilaration, Hugh running once again, ‘across the fields of the dawn.’
Part Three takes place in July, moving from a summer afternoon to the following dawn. There’s another salmon-poaching expedition to the pool in the forest. Returning home, Hugh is met by Elsie, who tells him that his Mother is ‘worse’ and asks for Kirsty. Kirsty returns and keeps vigil as Hugh runs for the doctor, who advises that things look bad: their Mother seems to be declining. Kirsty and Hugh sit up with their Mother, Kirsty reading from the Bible. Finally Hugh gets some sleep and is awakened by Kirsty, who tells him ‘Mother is better’: she ‘had been given up for dead but was alive’. The novel ends in exhilaration, Hugh running once again, ‘across the fields of the dawn.’
Such a bald outline gives very little sense of the pace and poise of the writing, the energies that build and ebb, the pressures and relationships, the suspense and satisfactions you experience in the book. The novel carries enormous evocative power. Few writers present concentrations of spiritual energy so well. They’re present in the quality of watching: even in the first pages, with Hugh looking at the seashore and the boulders upon it, seeing the approaching man, Sandy, and then in the way the writing turns and it’s as if the seashore itself is watching Hugh and Sandy as they leave it. The sea is figured as horse or deer, moving, turning, a living creature of motion and power. The elemental forces of sky-air-storm-wind are figured vividly. Each living thing and every inanimate thing too, possesses its own identity and dwells within its own world of relations, distinctively, in dignity and diversity.
Neil Gunn is one of the finest of all Scottish novelists.
The Well at the World’s End
After Neil M. Gunn
When you look deep down to the pebbles at the bottom of the well,
And see them, blue and brown and beautifully clean,
And it seems that although the well has gone dry, the pebbles themselves
And the air all around them somehow retain the memory of water,
Just as pebbles in a cave keep the memory of the sea,
And the shadows of ferns and the earth bank beside you
Mottle the well with flakes of summer sunlight, coming through the trees –
And when you lift the heavy fronds and look more closely in, and then
Start back, to return along the road, to the house with its garden and the old lady
There, who told you of the well, and the water you would find there,
And you speak to her, and tell her, ‘There’s no water in the well,’
And she says, ‘Oh yes, there’s always water in the well…’
You might then turn again, and go back through the trees, to look,
Once again, and prove to yourself, knowing you can always see
The surface of the water, the difference there is, between the air
And water, and that all you have to do now is pick up a pebble or two –
But you pause because you cannot move and your eyes stare hard
And fast, held by some strange spirit there, invisible, inside,
And you reach your hand down, slowly, and your hand goes into the water.
That something that you did not think was there, water so bright,
Adventure so near, deception so close, experience ubiquitous as light.
And the feel of that frozen bangle of ice at your wrist,
And the knowledge you’ll take with you of the treasures in the kist.
Whatever it is that stays visible and clear
In the now and the here, what the whole world,
And people in a place like this, hold dear.
Alan Riach, from The Winter Book(Edinburgh: Luath Press, 2017)