Novels of Neil Gunn – Pt. 3

The Wisdom of Childhood

Gunn as a Young Boy

I am on holiday in Lanzarote in an apartment overlooking a surfer’s beach. Every afternoon groups of fit-looking people gather to search for waves. At about 4 0’clock a girl, 10 or so years old, arrives with her father. He sits on the rocky beach, filming and shouting instructions. She pays heed but will also go her own way. Mostly she is just one of the guys (and mostly they are all guys), hanging out, waiting for a wave.  Although she is young it is obvious she has their respect because all that matters is ability – and she is has that in abundance. With a low centre of gravity, balance, and agility she is better than most of the men. One time she went through a tunnel and the look of triumph on her face lit up the whole beach. When she is in the water she is alive.

I watch fascinated. The heads bobbing up and down waiting for a wave they think they can follow, then each making their own decisions, getting up in ones and twos and then either riding it to completion or failing.  The evening sun is warm and the light glows around the surfers. My mind wanders to Neil Gunn and his childhood when he learnt to poach salmon. The outdoor skills he learnt when young, his knowledge of nature, the way it formed his character, was at the heart of his success as a novelist. The girl has the ocean and the waves. He had a river. The girl spends over two hours each evening, after school, going again and again, doing it for the joy and the exultation. He did the same: going up the river, studying the habits of fish , looking for salmon, developing an instinct for his land. Poaching salmon, though, carried very great risk because, if caught, the whole family could be turfed out of their croft and lose their home and livelihood. But for the Gunn and his brothers, as well as the village community,  it was their birthright – their way of life. Just as importantly it also made him feel alive. Going after a salmon brought him moments of pure attention  – of being at one with his surroundings and the fish. Amid the apprehension of danger his heart sang. “But deeper than that. Deeper than conscious thought or myth. Sheering right through to the vivid and unconditional where are born pagan deities, who are lovely until pagan thought degrades them.” (Morning Tide, p222)  The girl rides the waves, Neil Gunn caught salmon but they both share a compulsion. They want to be  at one with their surroundings.

For Gunn the intensity of his childhood experience was at the heart of his career. The two early novels that made his name, established his reputation and gained him an audience had a child at their centre (a child recognisable as Gunn himself).  Morning Tide (1931) and Highland River (1937) both describe him growing up in a small fishing village at the mouth of a strath. He was born in 1891 and at the end of the nineteenth century the herring industry was in decline. Men, including Neil’s father risked their lives but their livelihood was precarious. It was a community with a common sense of purpose and an understanding of the risks they needed to take and  the difficulties of survival. Tasks were divided along traditional lines. The men went out to sea but the women had to keep things going at home and were the dominant voice in their domain. Young children were given freedom to roam; they might have had their own chores but they could also be off. Neil Gunn (and his surrogates in the novels) enjoyed this freedom, especial learning the secrets of the river, the ways of salmon and learning from his older brothers. This closeness to the natural world  gave him a base knowledge very different to that of  London literary critics he had to deal with. They could dismiss the Highlands parochial  but it was the mission of Gunn to show that it was not. A life lived in the Highlands was as rich as one lived anywhere else and with just as much potential to be universal in appeal and understanding.

There must be many theses, books,  and articles on how childhood experience has determined the type of work a novelist produces. Most seem to dwell on misfortune and the psychological scars, which drive a need to creatively reinterpret what happened. Neil Gunn, though, is different as the wellspring of his creativity seems to have come from a sense of belonging, from affection and love, rather than suffering. For sure there was hardship because life in Highlands was hard and his people had been cruelly treated, but within his community there was warmth. But the communal sense of loss also led to the idea of a lost, golden age, an idea Neil Gunn held to strongly. Not an age with any precise dates (I don’t think any ‘golden age’ has ever had precise dates) but an age that might have represented the way relationships between people could have been ordered. It was an idealisation of the ethos of Gaels, Picts, and the old clan system.  A recovery of the deep past to claim it as a living part of the culture of his people was part of his childhood exploration and drove his later creativity.  

For the first 13 years of his life Gunn lived with his parents in the fishing village of Dunbeath, and it is this village and it’s strath that are represented in both Morning Tide and Highland River. The disguise is thin, if there is any disguise at all, and many of the incidents of the young heroes come directly from Gunn’s life. This we know because his last book was a memoir called The Atom of Delight, which covered this period. After that he went to the Lowlands to live with his sister, continue his education before sitting his Civil Service exams and then moving away to first London and then Edinburgh. But those 13 years formed him and after he became an established Civil Servant he wanted to return. He was posted to Scotland and for most of his life lived in Inverness or the Black Isles. His subject was always the Highlands, its history, its people, its plight, and what could be done improve its prospects. 

Those first thirteen years set the course for the rest of his life and it is hardly surprising that writing about his childhood was also the foundation of his literary career. Although he had published a first novel, some short stories and was recognised as prominent  member of the Scottish Literary Renaissance, he had not made a public breakthrough and if things did not change he would have remained minor league. His second novel was causing all sorts of problems because it had been been rejected by every publisher it had been sent to and his career was at a critical stage. But Morning Tide changed everything. It was a Book Society choice and a literary best seller. It was the work that established his reputation. Highland River, four books later, cemented his stature as it won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize and sold enough copies for him to resign from the Civil Service to become a full time writer.

Both books have similarities in subject and incidents but they differ: Highland River is more consciously about the act of memory and the development of the individual.  It is more modernist in approach and interweaves the present with the past growing up in the fishing village and experiences in the First World War. For the purposes of this essay I will concentrate on Morning Tide.

When we meet the Gunn proxy, Hugh MacBeth,  he is a twelve year old boy and it is through him we see a fishing community in decline. Previously a reliable living could be made from the cold, hard, dangerous life at sea but no longer. Mothers didn’t want their sons to follow their fathers and pushed their children away to search for a better life, even though it would mean they would not see them again. The Highlands were economically depressed and so any novel set there had the potential to be bleak (as was rather the case with Gunn’s first two novels), but here it was not necessary for the grim background to be the whole story. The harsh realities are there in Morning Tide but the real subject is the spirit of the community and its resilience, and the life of a young boy, which is full of potential. It is also a eulogy for a way of life at the point of it being lost. As such it is life affirming and the characters have warmth and respect for their own culture. 

It is artfully put together. In the beginning Hugh is described walking along the pebbles looking for shell fish for his father’s bait. From the way he is described you know he has a curious mind but you also know he lives in a small, isolated community,  with the sea in front and the strath behind it could be almost on the edge of the world. On the way home, he meets crew members from his father’s boat, who congratulate him on the help he is giving his father and how he is growing (which almost unnoticed introduces the idea of Hugh’s future. Will he follow the life of his father?)  As he moves up from the shore we learn more about the boy and his friendship/rivalries with other boys (he gets into a fight). He then spies his sister Grace with Charlie Chisholm, who was bough a farm by his father to keep him out of mischief (which introduces a discrepancy of resources). Hugh arrives home and then we are  drawn into the life and the relationships of his parents and the children. It is obviously a warm, loving family but the affection is always understated between them.

The book is in three parts. The first describes the fishing village and culminates in a storm, the loss of a boat and the miraculous exhibition of skill by Hugh’s father, which allows him to bring his boat home safely. The second concerns the diaspora as Hugh’s brother and sister leave for Australia. The third revolves around the illness of his mother, from which she unexpectedly recovers. Previously in the book someone had described the shrivelling of  the fishing economy of the village by likening it to an old person dying. Perhaps the fact that the mother, unexpectedly, does not die also means that the village will in some way continue.

But this is all structure. What matters is what draws you in, and that is the boy himself and the freedom he has to explore his landscape. Which brings us to the salmon. The catching of salmon  is enormously important in Gunn’s fiction both symbolically and as an exercise in vivid, realistic description. Gunn is very good at describing action; he seems to have a clear picture in his mind and a knowledge of what is possible. In both Morning Tide and Highland River a big fish is caught after a tremendous struggle and the pride and sense of accomplishment is life building. Knowledge, luck, cunning, judgement and physical resilience are needed to land a big fish and these are important moral qualities. Neil Gunn was reckoned to be the best poacher in his strath but others said it was his brother. 

Catching the salmon was not only a physical accomplishment it represented something far more. It was taking back that which once belonged to them. After the clan chiefs became landlords on the English model – remote gentlemen – who owned every creature that breathed or passed through their lands. The resettled Highlander were forbidden to touch what they once were able to share. They had been driven out of their traditional holdings. They had been stripped of their rights but their spirit had not been broken. In spite of the danger they could still fish the river.

It is fitting that the memorial statue to Neil Gunn in Dunbeath harbour is of the boy in Highland River carrying home the huge salmon. 

P.S.  I wrote this in mid February, when the world was normal, but put it to one side. Now we are in a lockdown because of Covid and confined to the house except for an hour of exercise a day. Nothing is normal. Things we took for granted no longer happen and some things will probably, permanently, be lost. It makes it all the more appropriate to think of Neil Gunn because his subject was a lost way of life. In different times and for different reasons, his message was that people survive and can carry on with their spirit intact. It is something I need to think about.

P.P.S. The photo is of the statue in Dunbeath harbour and represents a scene from Highland River when Kenn brings home his huge salmon.  I found it on the web (https://www.lowefoto.co.uk/latest4/page739.html) because when I was in Dunbeath my camera battery had run out. I am such a professional!