The Highland Meta-Novel
The Organisation of Neil Gunn’s Novels
The title for this piece is borrowed from Christopher Stokoe’s thesis¹, which identifies how the novels of Neil Gunn form a coherent exploration of the Highlands . If you read his novels, in short order, you can see how this might be the case as it is striking how many themes crop up in different ways in different novels. It is as if he was was constantly reworking them and coming at them from different angles. His main subject was indeed the Highlands – its landscape, history, current state, the roots of its Gaelic culture, its way of life, and the balance between the individual and the community. I was initially puzzled by the way certain things reappeared from one book to another. Did that mean the author was only writing one book, with themes constantly rehashed? No. The question is unfair. His novels may repeat certain tropes but they differ markedly in mood, scope and structure. In fact the changes he made in his approach caused despair in his publishers, who wanted him to continue the successful formula of his best sellers. But Neil Gunn was a stubborn man, determined to explore his subject in his own way from a variety angles. He used certain themes like: salmon poaching, the descriptions of nature, the traces of an ancient culture, the need to leave, returning in disgrace, mutual support, and individual resilience, as building blocks that could be rearranged in different ways to form different structures.
Stokoe’s thesis that Gunn’s 20 novels could be read as one over-arching narrative sprang from the discovery of a note Gunn scribbled in the 1960s, when his writing career was over and he could look back at what he had achieved. He had always been a proud man and so he had been irritated by a suggestion by Eric Linklater that you could only write one novel about the Highlands. In reply he listed his twenty novels and asked ‘which of these is the only novel that can be written?’ But then he did something far more interesting: he categorised his work, to show both the structure of what he had done and the range of his subjects. Whether this proves it was a meta novel or not I don’t know. It does however show that the life of the Highlands was a big enough subject to reward continuous exploration. Gunn wrote about his own country and wanted to show it was as culturally rich as any other.
He organised his work into five main themes and three sub-themes.
- The”locality” of the Highlands as a state of mind
The Grey Coast (1926), The Lost Glen (1932)*, Second Sight (1940)
- The wisdom of boyhood:
Morning Tide (1931), Highland River (1937), Young Art and Old Hector (1942)
2a. The Biographical extension:
The Serpent (1943), The Drinking Well (1947)
- The Highlands as History:
Sun Circle (1933), Butcher’s Broom (1934), The Silver Darlings (1941)
4a The Murderousness of the Modem World:
The Green Isle of the Great Deep (1944)
4b Escapism validated:
Wild Geese Overhead (1939), The Lost Chart (1949), The Shadow (1948), The Key of the Chest (1946), Blood Hunt (1952)
- Conclusion – The Comedy of Transcendence and Light:
The Silver Bough.(1948), The Well at the World’s End (1951), The Other Landscape (1954)
*The Lost Glen, although not published until 1932, was written in 1928
It can be seen that Neil Gunn circled around his subjects as none of them were written sequentially. So, for example, his first two novels dealt with the state of the Highlands but then 12 years later he comes back for another bite. The ‘wisdom of boyhood’ is evenly spread but the ‘the Highlands as history’ has two novels close together then a gap – quick, quick, slow. This fractured timeline suggests to me that there was not a grand, overarching design for a comprehensive novel of the Highlands. Rather he followed his instincts and interests as they occurred to him. The classification is post hoc, a bit like the Texas sharpshooters who fires his bullets into a wall then afterwards draws a circle round them to show he hit the bullseye. One can even make arguments about the accuracy of the classification. For example Young Art and Old Hector is more about the passing on of cultural knowledge from the old to the young rather than the wisdom of boyhood (it is in the Green Isle of the Great Deep that Art’s instinctive wisdom really comes to the fore). There are also other classes that might have been included such as ‘the returning Highlander’.
Does this make a difference – if we are arguing the architecture of a cohesive meta-novel it probably does – otherwise not so much. The important insight is the way Gunn saw his own work and in his thesis Christopher Stokoe found a new approach to Neil Gunn’s novels and a way to make new connections.
¹ Stokoe, Christopher John Lawson. Closing the Circle: Neil Gunn’s creation of a ‘meta-novel’ of the Highlands. Doctoral Thesis. Glasgow University. 2007
P.S. Apart from his thesis, Christopher Stokoe’s main contribution to Gunn scholarship was his exhaustive bibliography: Stokoe, C. J. L. A Bibliography of the Works of Neil M. Gunn. Aberdeen: Published in Association with Aberdeen City Libraries by Aberdeen UP, 1987.
P.P.S. The photo is of the osprey nest at Loch Garten. I liked the idea of linking a bird flying high above the mountains and the water with a meta-novel