Novels of Neil Gunn – Pt. 6

The History Novels


The Remote Past, The Clearance, The Sea

Neil Gunn never liked history when he was at school, perhaps it involved too many English kings and queens, too much colonialism. Dutifully memorising names and dates is something that is hard to love when the narrative bears little relation to your lived experience. He once said that the Scots had a good sense of history which is why we distrust it so much and you can see what he meant. However he could not ignore it. After all his subject was Highland culture and there was the craggy landmark as the Clearances, the tragedy of the removal people from their ancestral lands and the destruction of the clan system. He had to look at it, squarely in the face, fully understand it and chart the consequences, even if he found subject difficult. For him the whole episode was an act of betrayal and he felt a personal shame because, as he once said, “our own people did it”.

He confronted the past in three books. The first, Sun Circle, is a story of a peaceable Pictish/Celtic people and its inability to repel Viking raiders (no! Highland Park you do not have the monopoly on viking heritage). The second, Butcher’s Broom is the one about the Clearances, specifically the Sutherland clearances where real life characters wear a light fictional disguise. The final book, The Silver Darlings, dealt with the herring fishing industry at the beginning of the nineteenth century. The reception of the first two books was not as enthusiastic as it had been for his breakthrough novel Morning Tide. In particular Sun Circle was quite experimental in the way it tried to recreate an ancient mindset in an impressionistic way and it baffled some readers and booksellers weren’t that keen on it either. This combined with the poor reception of The Lost Glen suppressed the appetite for Gunn’s works and even held back his ability to resign from the Civil Service to write full time. So there was a gap before the third book in the history sequence. The first two were published in 1933 and 1934 but the last had to wait until 1941, with five intervening books. It is almost as if he was putting it off. Perhaps the subject of his father’s fishing industry affected him deeply and made him a little hesitant but, when finally he tackled it, it was worth the wait as the book is probably his masterpiece. The Silver Darlings is a mythic tale about the Caithness fishing industry in the early nineteenth century when, for a brief time, the sea provided a reasonable living and offered a flash of light between the grey stormy clouds of the Clearance and the gloom of later economic depression.

If you were only going to read one Neil Gunn book I would recommend The Silver Darlings as it not only shows off his strengths as a novelist, it also contains most of his major themes. There is, for example, boyhood. We see the development of Finn from childhood to manhood and the way he becomes a leader of men (the name is a clue to his stature as it is an unsubtle hat tip to the mythical Finn MacCoul). It is set in Dunbeath (or Dunster as it is called in the novel), where Gunn was born. There is a strong woman, Catrine, Finn’s mother, who at the start of the novel walks from Helmsdale, over the Ord of Caithness to Dunster, to make a new life for herself and her unborn child, after her husband had been lost at sea. They settle in a croft with a friend where the boy grows into himself. It is here that he discovers the landscape as well as a sense of the magic of past in the quietness of an ancient cairn. The mother about the boy’s future as she wants him to stay close to the land and not put to sea – something that had already claimed her husband. However the pull of the sea is deep within Finn and he follows his calling, especially as there is a surrogate father figure in the shape of Roddie, a skilled and highly respected fishing captain. Fin goes to sea with him and although there is a mutual respect there is a rivalry when Finn grows into manhood and wants to assert himself. At the core of the rivalry there is also jealousy because Roddie’s has a deep and constant love for Finn’s mother Catrine. This personal story works its way out but the main subject of the book is the sea and the fishing industry of the time. Gunn had done enormous research and knew the facts of how it developed and used this to set the framework of his character’s lives. In addition to written sources he also had a deep emotional knowledge of the subject – after all he had been brought up in this very fishing community and his father had been a well respected skipper. He had a visceral understanding which allowed him to write great set-piece descriptions of the landscape, the sea, the vessels, the dangers of storms, and the perils of navigation. It’s as if he could see everything in front of him as he wrote about the heroism of people in the face of a harsh environment and how for a time they could almost flourish.

One of the natural disasters they faced was a plague. At any other time I might not have mentioned this incident in a summary but now, with the world in the grip of the Corvid it seems suddenly pertinent. When I first read the book the idea of a plague seemed remote, part of the distant past – something the world had moved on from. But not so. It is a reminder that we are always facing problems previous generations have already faced. And perhaps that is the value of historical fiction.

At 600 pages it is long The Silver Darlings is Gunn’s longest novel, but it needs its length because it is a big story. Even though he hated it being described as an epic it is, nevertheless, an epic. Perhaps Gunn resented the book being described as such because it was also a very personal story. It was the story of his own parents and the growth of the fishing industry of Dunbeath. His father was a skipper – just like Roddie and some of the incidents are memories or reminiscences from people he knew. For example an old man in Dunbeath remembered Neil’s father buying his boat in Sutherland and sailing it home, as happened in the novel. He also remembered the first men to sail from Dunbeath through the Pentland Firth to Stornoway and then missing the Butt of Lewis in a storm¹, which is one of the most memorable episodes in the novel. When researching the book, Gunn went out of his way to meet with old fishermen and curers and he even managed to find someone who had sailed from Stornoway to the east coast and then sailed in his father’s boat. It is such a personal story that he felt he had a responsibility to the community as well as himself. In the novel Finn is told: “Justify your father and look after your mother.” This is exactly what Gunn was attempting to do.

The Silver Darlings starts in the aftermath of the Clearances when an agricultural people were forced to resettle on a narrow coastal strip, in crofts that could not fully sustain them. Catrine’s husband and Finn’s father, Tormad, feels he has no other choice but to try his hand at fishing – i.e. adapt to a new element. It is the death of him. The novel is thus a direct continuation of Butcher’s Broom. As Gunn starkly put it: “They had come from beyond the mountain which rose up behind them, from inland valleys and swelling pastures where they and their people before them had lived from time immemorial. The landlord had driven them from these valleys and pastures, and burned their houses, and set them here against the sea shore to live if they could and, if not, die.” The book, though, is not as much about the displacement as the recovery when fishing was profitable and the short time when the region found some wealth. But as well as finding an economically sustainable way of living the book is also about the discovery (or to be more precise the rediscovery) of cultural wealth through tapping into the ancient culture. It looks back beyond the immediate past. As well as the magic of ancient places Finn’s discovers the tradition of tales, story telling, and songs that had been such an important part of the life of his ancestors. This contributes to the epic quality of the novel and gives it something of the feel of a saga. It could be timeless, even though it was set at a very specific time. No wonder it is the most read of all Gunn’s works.

The compulsion to write Butcher’s Broom was less immediately personal but he still needed to confront the most important event in the history of his people – the Clearances.

It fictionalises the clearance of Strathnaver where an old woman died after being forcibly ejected from her home, which was then torched, after which Patrick Sellar, the agent, was tried for murder. Although he was acquitted (and there has always been speculation of what that meant and how much the verdict could be trusted) the notoriety of the incident has meant he has remained one of the great symbolic figures of the Clearances and their cruelty. Even though many of the landlords on the west coast were more cruel than the Sutherlands and made less effort at relocation, Stratnaver is a prominent part of the folk memory of the times. In the book Patrick Sellar is represented by the character of Heller and the Duke and Countess of Sutherland are represented but not directly named.

The actual eviction and its consequences for the community only occupy the end quarter of the novel. The main purpose is to build a picture of the Strathnaver community and its traditions, before the clouds gathered and the ties to their past life were broken. To show what was lost. It was not Gunn’s aim to write a polemic about the injustice of the events. Instead he wanted to draw a picture of what life had been like and how, in-spite of the economic hardships, it had been rich in culture and humanity.

The central characters are the three people who live in Black Mairi’s croft, Mairi, Elie and the young boy Davie. The book starts with the journey of Mairi to the coast to use her powers of healing and then walking back to her croft along the strath. It ends with her making the same journey from the coast, where she had been exiled, to die on her own native soil. Mairi is the representative of the deep culture. She has a compassionate understanding of people but no personal warmth and is often described as being like a stone. “But Mairi was tight and upright as a standing stone; she was like and earth outcrop to Elie’s brown stream” p26

Elie, a generous, warm, good natured young woman, who falls in love with Colin and in the normal course of events they would probably have married, except he is persuaded that he ought to join-up to fight in the British army as it was an old clan tradition for people to serve as soldiers if asked to by their chief. Although times have changed and their chiefs have turned into nothing more than landowners on the English model, people still act on deeply held traditional beliefs. Instead of these traditions protecting them they left them more vulnerable when the times changed. The fact that so many strong men of the community went to war also meant they were not there to defend their land when the factors came to take it away.

When Colin left he was unaware Elie was pregnant and would have the shame of being an unwed mother. Because of this she leaves her community to becomes an exile in the Lowlands, where she is exploited and barely survives. She thus returns, even though she fears her welcome. Eventually the warmth of the community prevails and she finds her place even if there is shadow. She is pursued by Rob, mill owner, at first aggressively with an attempted sexual assault which she resists. He has mixed emotions because he is powerfully attracted to her but at the same time hesitant because of the bastard child. In the end they marry but she has to give up her son (also named Colin) who remains with Black Mairi. After the Clearance Rob (a violent and difficult character) dies. At the end of the novel Elie is the only one left standing as Mairi dies and Davie is about to leave for Canada. But Colin returns and there is hope as he is united with his son.

That is the basic plot but it is less important than the texture of the life presented.

Although Gunn’s affiliation with the Gaelic way of life is clear and the bulk of the novel describes its humanity, he is scrupulous to give some voice to the concerns of the landowners, both their motivation to do something they genuinely thought of as ‘improvements’ and a desire for the clearance to not be done too cruelly. They thought they were making changes no different to what had been done in the Lowlands and in England but underpinning their economic rationale there was a complete contempt for the Gaels and their culture. The novel makes very clear that these people believed they were dealing with an uncivilised culture and it is shocking to read: “ ‘I mean,’ sad Mr Elder, rather interested in the point, ‘was he really making sense when he spoke? We know they are unlearned, and their dialect can only have very few words, because the things around them are few and they live pretty much like animals. But what could he have found today intelligibly at such length?’” p160 Neil Gunn would have done his homework and I’m sure that this is an accurate representation of the attitude of this class of person at the time.

Gunn is fair in laying out the economic case for change and the genuine belief of the landowners in what they were doing. But the hard, inescapable fact was that however they justified out to themselves it was an act of great cruelty. “And eviction was a terrible thing, for it meant the tearing it up off by the roots and throwing it on a sea beach or on a foreign strand where everything that made life comely and happy and desired would forever be denied; where life itself, through exposure and lack of physical sustenance, would become wretched beyond reason and starve and die.p191

It was the death of a culture:

Daylight found the homeless on their weary, ragged, straggling march to the sea. Several who had departed during the night to friends at a distance, had had the new and terrible experience of not being received across the threshold. Of all that happened at that time, this denial of hospitality was the most bitter and destroying; for it struck not merely at the body, but at the living root of the spirit. Back into the dawn of time, hospitality had be the spontaneous law; of life’s many blessings, surely the rarest, with its welcome and its brightness; for in the giving and receiving courtesy found laughing phrases and pleasant manner.”. p377

Gunn’s view was that his people had been too acquiescent in the face of their oppression but this is then balanced by his love for the spirit and fortitude they showed as fishermen in The Silver Darlings. Although he had an immense romantic attachment to his land he always wanted to remain clear eyed and present a full picture

P.S. The photo was taken at Badbea, a clearance village for people evicted from the strath of Berriedale. Today it is a tourist site, just off the A9, where you can see remnants of some of the buildings and a monument, erected in 1911. As you can see, I visited it on a dreek day and boy was it bleak! I could not imagine how anyone could have made a life there.