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John Burns

Gunn Light in North

We live in a world that seems somehow more riven and broken than the world in which many of us grew up. As Nobel Laureate W.B Yeats wrote in “The Second Coming”:

Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold.…

The best lack all intensity while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.

Another Nobel Laureate, Bob Dylan, describes it as a “world gone wrong”. For Scottish poet Edwin Muir in his great poem “The Horses”, which imagines the world after a terrible war, it was “the broken world”. Much of the twentieth century was a time of war, world wars and more localised wars which were just as terrifying and horrific for those involved, civilians as well as combatants. The twenty-first century has continued in much the same vein. Food and water crises, economic and social inequality, and the rise in global warming, have done little to make us feel any better. The fragilty of human life has been further brought home to us by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Neil Gunn was very aware of these things. When he became interested in Zen Buddhism in the 1950s it was seen as a very strange thing for a Scottish writer to do. His own view, expressed in a letter to F.R. Hart in 1964, was: “When I began reading about Zen, I seemed to know a lot about it and to have used it in my writings from the beginning.” It would only be some time later that other writers and the wider public in general became aware of Zen which became culturally fashionable in the West in the 1960s. For Gunn, as his amused observation above suggests, it was perfectly natural and had come out of the traditions of his own community. Even today he is sometimes seen as a “soft” or “mystical” writer who ignored the world’s problems. Yet this was a man who had seen the economic decline of his country, in particular his own country of Caithness, and wrote about it to draw attention to the general economic neglect of the Highlands. He was involved in the beginnings of the SNP which he saw as a way of bringing more prosperity to the country. Perhaps even more importantly he saw it as a way of developing self-belief and confidence in the people of Scotland. He also did much to bring the history of the Highlands into the popular imagination in novels like Butchers’s Broom and The Silver Darlings. His book Whisky and Scotland did much to counter the negative stereotypes of whisky drinkers which were prevalent in the 1930s. Whisky is now acknowledged as a vital part of the Scottish economy, and is  associated with the elegance and style of Scottish culture.  He worked on various Commissions helping to improve conditions for the people of the Highlands.  He wrote articles throughout The Second World War about the political and economic realities of the time.  This was not a man who avoided life’s difficulties, but someone who knew life was difficult and who thought long and hard about how best to live in the face of that knowledge. A simple way to see this is to compare the way his novel of the rise of the herring fishing industry balances the brutal treatment of the ordinary people during the Highland Clearances, something he described in Butcher’s Broom. That novel itself showed the richness of the native culture attacked in the name of prosperity and economic advancement. The Grey Coast, though written earlier, then brought the picture up to date by highlighting the decline of that same fishing industry in Gunn’s own time. His father, remember, was the skipper of a fishing boat so he knew the reality of the situation. As we can see for ourselves in our time, the story continues. His novels show how everything changes, nothing stays the same. Life is lived with a sure sense that nothing is final, everything is in flux.

 Famous for his descriptions of the movement of the sea and of Highland rivers, he is also very good at describing how even the landscape is in movement. In Butcher’s Broom, Mairi the healer does not see her world as a collection of static objects. Rather it is a constant swirl of movement and change. The landscape is vitally alive.

These outlines and these hills, the winding valley, the many valleys, the breasts of the hills, the little birch woods, the knolls, the humps and hillocks and boulders, the gravel faces, the black bogs, and always for movement the streams winding like snakes in the green or grey -green bottoms.

The valley becomes:

 thrown out of focus in space, and changes and curves in the backflow of time that is frozen at last in the Ice Age. The ice moves forward and time slowly returns. Vast hollows are gouged out and mountains are planed smooth: seas appear…. Until the valley is shaped as eyes of Dark Mairi see it. 

  For Mairi, with her knowledge of plants and animals (which Gunn based on the specialised knowledge held by the Bethune family of traditional healers), the world is a living organism. An early essay by Kurt Wittig explored this aspect of Gunn’s writing under the title, “Neil Gunn’s Animistic Vision”. Professor Tokusaburo Nakamura wrote to Gunn in 1955 telling him he recognised that spirit in his writing, and saying it reminded him of his own childhood in the very different culture of Japan. 

To see the world in this way, as a web of interacting and inter-changing forces is close to the world described by modern physicists and cosmologists. This was a subject close to Gunn’s heart in the 1950s and 1960s. He kept well-informed on developments in the world of physics through reading and by listening to lectures on the radio.  In Celebration of the Light: Zen in the Novels of Neil Gunn I argued that the same insight that the world is a living thing runs parallel to the insights of Japanese Zen Buddhism and the Chinese philosophy of Taoism which sees the world as the continual interaction of the forces of yin and yang, which are often depicted as negative and positive energy. What is important here is the sense of the world, our world, as constantly shifting and changing. To see the world from this perspective is to value the various manifestations of the world’s energy in our lives. Gunn’s writings are full of wonder at the way landscapes, seascapes, animals, people, fish, birds, trees, weather, are always in flux. Human beings too, are generally seen as part of a larger pattern or web of life as well as having their own individuality. The image of the wee boy at the beginning of Morning Tide, gathering bait on the shore in the ebb shows him as part of the general scene. Gunn describes the boulders and seaweed in such a way that they seem to us to be as important as the boy himself. Indeed the narrative voice moves in and out of the boy’s own consciousness so that we can watch him then see and feel and hear what he sees. The effect of this is to bring the reader further into the boy’s world. Our world; a world of elemental things like water and stone and sky. A world of constant movement and continuous adjustment if we are to keep our physical and mental balance, just as the boy adjusts his own balance among the boulders and the slippery seaweed.

        Between the high-tidal sweep of tangleweed the beach sloped in clean 

        grey-blue stones rounded and smooth, some no bigger than his fist, but

        some larger than his head. As he stepped on them they slithered and rolled  

         with a sea noise. The noise rose up and roared upon the dusk like a wave. 

This is language full of the sound and texture of the boy’s world, of the boy’s mind. It is language that is vividly alive.

The intensity of the boy’s attention, the intensity of his awareness of being in this particular place at this particular time is an example of what we now call “mindfulness” though for many people nowadays that word is itself used mindlessly, just as “zen” is now used glibly to describe certain design features. What Gunn does here, as he does throughout his books, is to make us see and feel the boy’s experience as our own. For much of the time we live blinkered lives and do not really see the world. It is easier that way. Artists, though, if they are true artists, help us to see, to apprehend the world directly. For D.T. Suzuki the great enlightenment of Zen is that moment when “we see into the heart of things”. It is clear from Suzuki’s language that this is an emotional as well as an intellectual enlightenment. 

The sharp light of his northern county, the softer light of his adopted Galloway where he spent vital years of his youth, meant that Gunn was well able to see. But he was also taught how to look, how to see, by his artist friend Keith Henderson. Henderson taught him his own method of looking at an object with the kind of complete attention that allowed him to recall it in detail at any time. Gunn’s biographers, F.R. Hart and J.B. Pick link this to Gunn’s favourite saying in the book Zen Flesh, Zen Bones which he kept by his bedside in his later years: “Look lovingly on some object. Do not go on to another object. Here in the middle of this object – the blessing!”

This technique, learned first-hand from Henderson, allied to his own keen vision (despite having damaged an eye in an accident) led to some of the most evocative yet accurate depictions of the beauty, the terror, even the misery of Scottish land and seascapes to appear in our literature. From the brightness of Peter’s vision in The Well at the World’s End:

      … the bushes came together into a low sheltering wood…. Stunted birch      trees and hazels full of small singing or chirping birds: chaffinches, tits,  green linnets, a scolding blackbird… a flash, a flight, a scurry; with bounteous green-leaved space for one and all. 

to the grim, grey sodden misery of this from Highland River:

      The path … was miry, the trees looked dead…as if the fuzzy lichen were    suffocating them …. There were broken, rotten branches, brown leaves and bronze bracken heaped and mouldering, yielding mole’s earth, withered grass, smooth rocks splotched with thin, grey lichen….The only thing of colour was the moss and it was green on yellow, soft, damp, and unobtrusively everywhere.

In all of this he brings alive the actual texture of the place. In his mature writing 

      … the bushes came together into a low sheltering wood…. Stunted birch      trees and hazels full of small singing or chirping birds: chaffinches, tits,  green linnets, a scolding blackbird… a flash, a flight, a scurry; with bounteous green-leaved space for one and all. 

to the grim, grey sodden misery of this from Highland River:

      The path … was miry, the trees looked dead…as if the fuzzy lichen were    suffocating them …. There were broken, rotten branches, brown leaves and bronze bracken heaped and mouldering, yielding mole’s earth, withered grass, smooth rocks splotched with thin, grey lichen….The only thing of colour was the moss and it was green on yellow, soft, damp, and unobtrusively everywhere.

In all of this he brings alive the actual texture of the place. In his mature writing 

Scotland is no airy-fairy land of Celtic mists and tartan romanticism. It is a place of brilliant sunshine and the  bone-freezing cold felt in the fingers and the hands of the girls gutting the herring on the quaysides, their fingers wrapped in bandages to fend off the cold and to keep the salt and the brine out of the inevitable cuts that must have stung cruelly. It is a remarkable achievement.

Yet there is more because for Gunn “seeing” also meant a seeing beyond, a seeing into the hidden life of things, seeing what he called “the other landscape”, a landscape glimpsed only in fugitive moments of vision.

I sat on the beach for a while. Here a bit of old iron stuck out of the shingle, there a rib from a buried keel. The sea water brimmed with a soft hiss. One listens as naturally as the sea brims, listens back. I realised I hadn’t done this for a long time. One can see mute things with an extraordinary clarity. Then a touch; just a touch, of clairvoyance seems to come out of the listening and the mind grows abnormally sensitive. ( The Other Landscape, p.32 )

All of us have had moments like this. Most people do not talk about them, even sometimes dismiss them as fanciful. For Gunn they are central.

 The paradox is that he was so good at describing the particular that he found himself breaking through to universals. Like James Joyce, like Thomas Hardy, he focussed on evoking the physical reality of a small place in such a way that it seemed to contain the whole world. Look at any of today’s ubiquitous guides to creative writing and you will find the injunction to deal with particulars rather than abstractions and generalisations.  What is the other landscape? It is a way of seeing that does not interpose an idea of what one is looking at between ourselves and the world. We can all draw a face because we know where the eyes, the nose, the mouth are. We have a fair idea of their shape and can come up with an approximation of a “face”, but the artists sees, and can re-create, what is actually there in this face, so that the effect of the re-creation makes us see the face much more clearly. In doing so the artist suggests other levels of awareness of the subject. In a way what he/she does is to create from that state of being that Keats called “negative capability”, a genuine openness of perception. It is what Buddhists call awareness. 

Those who lack this quality often generate anxiety and strife because instead of approaching life with open minds and willing bodies, they think they have all the answers and set out to impose those on everyone else. It is this arrogant, authoritarian mind that Gunn so clearly abhorred, and which he delineated so clearly in The Green Isle of the Great Deep, his dystopian novel which warned that such a mind-set could infect even the Celtic Paradise. The book came out of the Second World War. It pre-dates and bears comparison with Orwell’s 1984. Earlier in the war Gunn had written pieces for periodicals like The Scots Magazine and Chambers’ Journal in a spirit of much-needed positivity during dark times. They were later collected as Highland Pack, a book which has been much-neglected. In 1944 he produced the lovely Young Art and Old Hector in a similar spirit. In that book his protagonists, the young boy Art and the old man Hector have various adventures around the township where they live. Their relationship accurately describes a kind of child-care which was once very common, where young people learned the ways of their community from their elders. Each was seen as a valuable member of that community in a way that seems harder to discern in our world. Beyond that, the book is about the nature of wisdom. Several critics, including his friend and fellow-novelist Naomi Mitchison, accused him of escapism because at the height of the war he was writing about wee boys and old men in a remote Highland glen. His response was to write The Green Isle of the Great Deep and place Art and Hector in a nightmarish distortion of Paradise where everything is run by logic and reason and there is little scope for individual freedom. The totalitarian regime which rules drugs the people and suppresses any attempt they make to explore personal or communal freedom through a sustained campaign of disinformation and brain-washing. Gunn, a keen mathematician who was once described by T.S.Eliot as having the finest analytical mind he had encountered, was not against reason and logic per se: what disturbed him was the way the natural balance between reason and intuition was being destroyed in the modern world. The novel describes the efforts of Art and Hector to re-establish that balance. Beautifully written, suffused with humour but alive to the horror of the world, the book takes many surprising turns before reaching its end.

The “message” of the book, though that is too crude a word, is that over-intellectualisation, an overly mechanistic approach to the world, leads to destruction. It will also lead to the self-destruction of the perpetrators of this world-view, though many innocent people will be destroyed along the way. Towards the end of the book he says:

For love is the creator; and cruelty is that which destroys. In between is the no-man’s land where men in their pride arrange clever things on the arid ground.

It is a fine encapsulation of many of the destructive attitudes we see all around us in the early part of the twenty-first century, and I think Gunn pointedly and deliberately cites men as the worst perpetrators. Gunn is always for creativity, and against tyranny. He saw the loss of balance as a terrible loss, and he also saw the results of that as inevitably cruel because it leads to a refusal to see other people as fully human. A creative life is one in which the imagination is fully engaged, where empathy, love and kindness are major orientations. The Buddhist scholar and teacher Martine Batchelor uses the phrase “creative engagement” to describe this way of living. 

Those who are not open to this kind of interaction with others, with the world, are seen in Gunn’s fiction very much as destroyers. Recovering from her breakdown in The Shadow, written shortly after the ending of the war, the central character Nan realises that her boyfriend Ranald is a danger to her sense of self and to her mental health, because of his rigidity of thinking, his lack of a living responsiveness to her and to the world in general:

    We have to rescue the intellect from the destroyers. They have turned it into death rays and it should be the sun.

Nan knows, just as Shakespeare’s Hamlet did, that to lose the balance between head and heart, thought and feeling, is to lose one’s humanity.

In The Shadow, and in The Lost Chart (both flawed novels it has to be said), the antidote to such a mechanistic attitude to life is to be found in the books’ artist characters. In The Lost Chart Joe says: “The darkness creates drama ready-made for man; but man has to create his own drama of the light”. Gunn’s fiction, indeed all of his writing, is an attempt to create that drama of the light, an attempt to find a way beyond despair and to share his journey towards the light with his readers. 

Even now, nearly fifty years after his death, his generous and incisive writing engages and enlightens us.  

Perhaps the antidote to the stress of our own times is to engage creatively with the world, to pay attention, to be mindful, of the needs of others. It is a simple message, but one that could help to rid the world of much unnecessary suffering. For Gunn, the movement towards what he called the light was always liberating and expansive. In a dark time perhaps one way of facing the darkness is to acknowledge it but not to be diminished by it. We must remember that the shadows only exist because the light is there. Neil Gunn’s fiction “speaks to our condition” and constantly reminds us of this and opens us up to it. If we learn to pay attention and to read his work attentively with all of our senses engaged we will realise that we can engage with the world in this way too so that in the end all will be well.

John Burns, 8 November, 2021

The Licht Aye-Bidan

                                        There’s a licht


                                         in the hairt

                                         forbye the dark

                                         that happs us roun,

                                         A licht that winna smoor

                                         or  dee

                                         but lowes mair shair

                                         when maist owre-shadawed

                                         by the dark.


She keeps to the middle of the wood

among the hazels and the oaks,

the anemones and the bluebell haze,

couched in her own stillness,

before lifting her head

and silently rising, ghosting

through  springy branches,

moss, and fallen leaves,

stopping only to sniff the air,

the rough hair of her dark flanks

rising and falling with the pulse of her breath,

before she fades into a deeper silence.

John Burns teaches English and Tai Chi. He is the author of Celebration of the Light: Zen in the Novels of Neil Gunn and Series of Dreams: the Vision Songs of Bob Dylan. He writes poetry and short stories in English and in Scots, and has produced Scots versions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Twelfth Night. A founding editor of Cencrastus, he is now on the editorial team of Southlight magazine.

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