Neil Gunn: an Anthology of Observations and Aphorisms Compiled and annotated by Tom Hubbard
The Renascent Scot […] wants to treat of Scotland as rock and sea and land – a unique and wonderful rock and sea and land – and he wants to treat of Scotsmen as real projections of homo sapiens (rather than as kirk-elderish grannies), and he wants to complete his picture in a way that will not only make self-satisfied Scotsmen sit up but will make the cultured of the world take notice. (NEIL GUNN, ‘The Scottish Literary Renaissance Movement’) Neil Gunn challenged an existing Scottish culture that he believed to be fusty, deferential and complacent. In our own time, we find that those who despise ‘tree-huggers’ tend to be the most ardent monument-huggers.
All his strength, his vision, his style come from his people, from the Scottish tradition, from the Gaelic past, but he applies them to the crucial questions of our time. What he has to say is a concern of all men. Scottish literature here is national, yet knows no national limitations. (KURT WITTIG, in his The Scottish Tradition in Literature, on Neil Gunn)
[...] The closer Neil Gunn takes us to the events [in Highland River] the more they translate themselves into experiences that belong to humanity, so that when Professor Tokusaburo Nakamura read the book in Japan, the experiences seemed to belong to his childhood. (GEORGE BRUCE, ‘Neil Miller Gunn’, Edinburgh: National Library of Scotland, 1971)
[The] rediscovery of a primary impulse, the elementary principles of all art, in the local conditions. […] I wanted […] to write about the people close about me: to know in detail, minutely what I was talking about … That is the poet’s business. Not to talk in vague categories but to write particularly, as a physician works, upon a patient, upon the thing before him, in the particular to discover the universal. (WILLIAM CARLOS WILLIAMS [1883-1963], American poet and doctor)
One would hope that the place-names of Scotland, each one a poem in itself (especially in its original Gaelic, Norse or otherwise indigenous form) would be received by non-Scots as intimate rather than exotic. Take, for example, places associated with Neil Gunn: Dunbeath, Larachan, Kerrow, Dalcraig. In my own county, Fife, near a former mining area that has been reclaimed as a country park, we have Benarty, Cleikimin, Ladath, Kildownies … such names evoke the lyricism of landscape.
Ultimately the shieling meant food, the river fish, and the peat-bank fire. The contacts were direct and the results were seen. There was thus about the most ordinary labour some of the excitement of creation. Nor could cold or gloom or hunger or other discomfort completely obscure the sense of family unity in its life struggle; on the contrary, as with all creative effort, the discomforts and set-backs, particularly in retrospect, add some extra quality of fineness or delight. (NEIL GUNN, Highland River, chapter 7).
In his 1971 essay, George Bruce remarks: ‘In our mass produced society where the beginnings and ends of things are rarely seen by one person, life does not present itself as a meaningful tale.’ The recognition of the necessary inter-connectedness of life, the quest for an integrative vision, was a major feature of the Scottish Literary Renaissance. This relates to the philosophy of ‘generalism’ in education, as the corrective to over-specialisation; as Hugh MacDiarmid said of the Scottish polymath Sir Patrick Geddes: ‘[His] constant effort was “to help people to think for themselves, and to think round the whole circle, not in scraps and bits”. He knew that watertight compartments are of use only to a sinking ship, and traversed all the boundaries of separate subjects.’ (HUGH MACDIARMID, The Company I’ve Kept, 1966)
Going from the mouth to the source may well seem to be reversing the natural order, to be going from the death of the sea, where individuality is lost, back to the source of the stream, where individuality is born. Yet that is the way Kenn learned his river and, when he came to think of it, that is the way he learned life.
(NEIL GUNN, Highland River, chapter 4, first paragraph) This is also the theme of a short story by the Cuban writer Alejo Carpentier. His ‘Journey Back to the Source’ (also translated as ‘Journey Back to the Seed’) concerns Don Marcial, on his death bed, as his life unfolds backwards and at last he enters his mother’s womb. In this work of magical realism, ‘Birds returned to their eggs in a whirlwind of feathers. Fish congealed into roe, leaving a snowfall of scales at the bottom of their pond. The palm-trees folded their fronds and disappeared into the earth like shut fans.’ (From Carpenter’s collection, The War of Time, translated from the Spanish by Frances Partridge, Gollancz, 1970)
‘A Sudden Spiritual Manifestation’:
Real life seemed much older that evening than the Old Stone Age . . . When I awoke the dawn was in the window. It was a tall window. Immediately I was awake, with a pleasant feeling of lightness. I listened and knew no one else was awake. I could not lie still. I got up and went to the window, and found myself looking out on an old Spanish garden. It was now that the odd feeling came over me that the stillness itself was holding something, much as the walls held the garden; and in a moment I realised that what it was holding was time. Time was stopped, not by any kind of magic or enchantment, but actually . . . Quite simply, then, I knew with an absolute conviction as I stood at that window gazing out on the old Spanish garden that there exists an order of things outside our conception of time . There was nothing at all in the ordinary sense ‘religious’ about this experience; but what is astonishing, I think, is that there was nothing personal . . as I sat down on my bed, looking away towards the garden, I was overcome by a divine, a delicious sense of humour.
(NEIL GUNN, quoted in F.R. Hart and J.B. Pick, Neil M. Gunn: A Highland Life, 1981, p. 121) In his short eloquent essay on Neil Gunn, ‘Highland Zen’ (New Edinburgh Review, Spring 1982), Alan Spence quotes this passage and comments: ‘Here, described with a beautiful simplicity and directness, is the “timeless moment”, epiphany, what in Zen is termed Satori, a sudden awakening to reality, and intuition and a certainty, direct seeing, the “doors of perception cleansed.” '
‘I sat down and watched her. She went slowly from tree to tree gathering the sticks. She broke them, as she gathered them, into lengths, and made a heap of them. And it was while she was doing this with no one to see her in that lonely wood but my own eyes – it was while she was doing this that the true vision of her came to me. I saw her like the mother of generations, the gatherer and the provider; and I thought to myself that this is the greatness of great women, that this is what remains when all the tempers and vanities of great fools of men have passed on the wind.’ (NEIL GUNN, ‘The Old Man’ [short story])
James Joyce’s notion of an ‘epiphany’: […] a sudden spiritual manifestation, whether in the vulgarity of speech or of gesture or in a memorable phase of the mind itself. He believed that it was for the man of letters to record these epiphanies with extreme care, seeing that they themselves are most delicate and evanescent of moments. (JAMES JOYCE, Stephen Hero)
Joyce claimed to have written his collection of short stories, Dubliners, in ‘a style of scrupulous meanness’. He wanted to convey the paralysis of Irish life in the early years of the twentieth century. The epiphanies in each of these stories are moments of illumination in an atmosphere of dinginess and oppression, to which they return. If Alan Spence in his 1997 short story collection Its Colours They Are Fine does for Glasgow what Joyce did for Dublin, the mood – the Chekhovian nastroenie – is warmer, more celebratory; compare the young boy in Joyce’s ‘Araby’ with the old man in Alan’s ‘The Palace’.
Neil Gunn had read Joyce. Proust – whom Neil Gunn had also read – changed our perceptions of time, as Cézanne changed our perceptions of space.
An instant liberated from the order of time has recreated in us man liberated from the same order, so that he should be conscious of it. And indeed we understand his faith in his happiness even if the mere taste of a madeleine does not logically seem to justify it; we understand that the name of death is meaningless to him; placed beyond time, how can he fear the future? (MARCEL PROUST) This passage was quoted by MURIEL SPARK in her 1953 essay on Proust, ‘The Religion of an Agnostic’; ‘The Liberated Instant’ is the title of my essay on Spark’s short stories in Muriel Spark: An Odd Capacity For Vision, edited by Alan Bold, Vision Press, 1984. Is the epiphany, the liberated instant, the essence of the short story form? Neil Gunn’s own short stories are not as well known as his novels …
“No. We are dealing with what anthropologists would call a primitive society. What I am trying to show to you is that the society worked. You and I know that. When we use the word communism or anarchism, we have something real to go on. Our minds quite naturally take the next step and say: if we could get our society to-day, with the machine, working after the old pattern —if we could evolve the old into the new—then once more the life of the folk would be warm and rich and thick. For remember, they were primitive in the old days only in so far as the absence of the machine was concerned. They had their way of life, their religious attitude to life, their arts. Take what is considered the highest manifestation of art, namely, music. Look at the music out forefathers produced. One of the finest folk musics in the world. Do we in the Highlands produce music of any kind now?”
“Man, some of these old Gaelic airs are lovely,” said the shepherd fondly. “Do you know, sometimes when I am on the hill by myself, one of them will keep me company off and on for hours. And as it comes and goes it will bring into mind all sorts of strange things.” His eyes shone, amused and reticent.
“And all from the anarchists of Taruv!”
They laughed, enjoying the friendly talk and looking upon a wide world that also seemed to enjoy the leisured hour.
“This feverish fascination in the discussion of politics!” remarked the Philosopher. “Odd to think that in another century or so it will have passed. To us now it is nearly everything. I couldn’t begin even talking about the Serpent without landing straight in it!”
The shepherd smiled but said nothing.
“My point was simply that in those old days, when they had a settled way of life, when politics and economics had no meaning for them as they have for us they had a special way of looking even at the Serpent. Folk swore here in our country then, not by god or devil, but by the earth. Their bible for swearing on was the earth. You took a little earth in your hand and swore by that. The Serpent\ was the earth spirit.”
“I didn't know that,” said the shepherd.
(NEIL GUNN, The Serpent, chapter 14)
There’s almost an echo, in the words indicated here in bold, of the oratory of the First Nations of America. In the particular we indeed discover the universal.
Tom Hubbard was the first Librarian of the Scottish Poetry Library, and his
last full-time posts, successively in 2011-12, were Distinguished Visiting
Professor at the University of Connecticut (Scottish and American literature)
and Professeur invité at the University of Grenoble (Scottish and comparative
literature; aesthetics), followed by a writer's residency at Lavigny in
Switzerland. He is the author of ten books of fiction, poetry and non-fiction, and
editor or co-editor of other works. His most recent book is The Devil and
Michael Scot (Grace Note, 2020). A selection of his essays and talks over the
past forty years, Invitation to the Voyage: Scotland, Literature and Europe, is
forthcoming from Rymour Books. He is an Irish Scot.