Highland River. Neil Gunn and his Greatest Friend
Neil Gunn's Highland River published in 1937 is dedicated to John, his younger brother (my father).
The dedication is revealing and contains a key to the great friendship between them.
' Dear John,
This can hardly be the description of our Highland river that you and I anticipated when, lying on our backs in a green strath , we idly talked the idea over. Curiously it is not the description I anticipated myself. Some ancestral instinct, at first glimpse of the river must have taken control and set me off on a queerer hunt than we have yet tackled. Or am I trying to cover up the spoor? You will early recognise that although there is no individual biography here, every incident may have had its double. Some of the characters seem to have strayed in from Morning Tide under different names. I cannot explain this odd behaviour – apart from the old desire to be on the hunt in any disguise. However, if only I could get you to see the hunt as a poaching expedition to the source of delight we got from a northern river, I feel that you might not be altogether disappointed should you come back (as we have so often done in our time) with an empty bag.
With brotherly affection, Neil.'
The river is undoubtedly the Dunbeath Water, a river greatly loved by the brothers and worthy of its status as an analogy of a human life. What is perhaps unusual about the analogy is that the river is studied with interest and affection from its estuary at Dunbeath to its source in the flow country of central Caithness. Neil, born in 1891, was six years older than my father, a significant difference in age for the very young. In early childhood Neil's companion was his older brother Ben who was to emigrate to Canada and return in the Canadian army to fight in the Great War. Neil too was to leave Dunbeath, but as a young teenager to further his education at the home of a married sister in Galloway. Her husband, a doctor, employed a tutor to prepare his young visitor for entry into the Civil Service. Neil took to his new surroundings enthusiastically and enjoyed the company of his tutor, a devotee of 19th century English literature. He also derived pleasure from the company of the local school master, a classicist. His early days in the Civil Service saw him spend time in London and Edinburgh before his work in Customs and Excise took him back to the Highlands. Because of the nature of his work, and some war work for the Admiralty, he
was not called up to serve in the army in the Great War.
My father's early adult life was very different. He received his secondary education at Wick High School and left with a fine clutch of 'highers'. His early success did not stop there; he won a bursary award for his entry to the University of Edinburgh. The Great War, however, intervened, and my father as a young man of 18 years was conscripted for service in the Royal Artillery on the Western Front. After having been seriously gassed, he was invalided out of the army to recover his sight in a British hospital. On his return to health he began his studies at Edinburgh University in mathematics and natural science.
Neil and my father were to meet more often in the 1920s and a deep friendship between them developed. Initially they shared memories of their childhood in Dunbeath, memories that were to influence them both for the remainder of their lives. Superimposed on accounts of these idyllic times were recollections of their activities during and after the Great War.. Neil talked of the friendship he had made with an Irish colleague in the Excise
service, Maurice Walsh, who left for Ireland after its attaining independence to become a successful novelist. The friendship had stimulated Neil's interest in the Irish theatre of that time and encouraged him to think about drama as an avenue to satisfy his creative instincts. The absence of a national theatre in Scotland at that time dampened his enthusiasm for this initiative.
Neil, an accomplished conversationalist, listened avidly to my father's accounts of his war experience and was particularly moved by his meeting with Ben a few days before the death of that brother. Neil had revelled in Ben's friendship in early childhood and loved his talent for music. From war to the university, my father described the exciting time he had had there in the light of developments in nuclear physics. Again, Neil was a good listener and showed an undisguised interest in the these developments and their potential
In 1926 my father graduated with first class degrees in mathematics and natural science. In the same year Neil's first novel, The Grey Coast was published to herald what was to become a literary voyage for him with four novels being published in the late 1920s and early 1930s. One of these, MorningTide, was a book of the month in 1931. But greater acclaim was to come with the publication of Highland River in 1937, a book that won the prestigious James Tait Black Memorial prize and cemented Neil's place in Scottish and British literature.
For Neil, the main thrust of the book is a search for the incommunicable , a search for the source of what is meaningful and revelatory at certain moments in life. The central character of the book, Kenn, is clearly an amalgam of Neil and my father. The latter's childhood reminiscences and war and university experiences were absorbed by Neil and given a new life in the fictional boy, Kenn. The way it was achieved reflected the complete trust and understanding the two men had for one another.
That mention of Morning Tide in the epigraph is not surprising. The descriptions of the family – father, mother, two daughters, and a son about to emigrate – are almost family portraits. The little boy, Hugh, again is a mix of Neil and my father,with the latter more predominant in the story because of a longer experience of his family home. The description of the storm scene in Morning Tide was certainly based on one of his accounts. The reader of the book leaves Hugh as a little boy at home in the magical world of sea, river and moor. During the war years my family used to spend the summer school holidays in Dunbeath at the home of one of my aunts, the eldest of the family. She was the centre of activity in her welcoming home and always on the go with domestic activities. She even had to contend with the demands of an Ayrshire cow – the provider of milk for the family and the many visitors who called - often unexpectedly. She is undoubtedly the model for Kirsty in Morning Tide. My father loved to take me up the strath to look at the pools in the river that he knew so well. Our walks took us to a knoll where the hazel trees grew in profusion and to the Broch, the House of Peace and the beginning of the gorge which marked the end of the first reach of the river and the beginning of its course in the moorlands. It wasn't all river as he also liked to take me the harbour, which had seen better days but which had retained for him
memories of storms and feats of seamanship by the fishermen.
Fortuitously during the war years Neil and my father saw much of each other. Neil lived in a farmhouse on the braes near Dingwall and my father in Strathpeffer a few miles away. Neil was going through his most prolific period as a writer and my father was fully occupied with his duties as HM inspector of schools for the county of Ross and Cromarty – a post which took him all round the county and to the neighbouring counties for inspections of secondary schools there in mathematics and physics. The atmosphere in Neil's home, which my family visited on Sundays, was always relaxed and friendly and conducive to good conversation involving all, but particularly that between the two brothers, My father's input to Neil's' books was noticeable in such books as Highland Pack and the earlier Well at the World's End but Neil valued more his companionship in discussing some of the ideas that were to appear in different forms in his novels.
As widowers in the 1960s the brothers met regularly in Neil's spacious house near North Kessock on the Black Isle. On a few occasions I was able to obtain leave from the Royal Navy, in which I was serving at that time, to spend a night or two in their company. Neil was particularly interested in my period of service in the British Embassy in Moscow for three years during the Cold War. Inevitably, this would lead to a discussion on Neil's Green Isle of the Great Deep and Young Art and Old Hector. But Highland River was never
far away, and I remember being struck later by a line from T S Eliot's 'The Dry Salvages' in his 'Four Quartets' which seemed curiously apposite to the meaning of Neil's Highland River. 'The river is within us, the sea is all about us.
As a postscript to this article, I feel I must mention how I managed to fulfil one of Neil's and my father's wishes - sadly after their deaths. Thanks to the efforts of my elder daughter, who works and lives in the Netherlands, I managed to visit the grave of my Uncle Ben (Angus in Highland River) in a war cemetery near Arras in France. We brought some heather, which we had bought in Eindhoven in the Netherlands to plant on his grave. I took the opportunity of writing in the book of remembrance a few lines about his inclusion in Highland River and how much he had meant to Neil and my father.