Novels of Neil Gunn – Pt. 5

Gunn’s Early Novels

The Plight of the Highlands

Sometimes an author’s troubled child reveal more about them than their successes. Although it might not cohere as well as more accomplished works, the comparative rawness can show the bones of subjects the author wants to explore and the obsessions that drive them. In some cases you can see the material that was later reworked more successfully. So it was with Neil Gunn.

His first novel , ‘The Grey Coast’ was a solid beginning. It didn’t sell in great numbers but was quite well reviewed as showing promise. Although it was set in the economically depressed Highlands, the focus was on interpersonal relations around an old fisherman, now living in a small impoverished croft, his niece, who is his housekeeper and her two suitors. Jonathan Cape accepted it because they liked the characters and their interactions and the high level of dialogue meant it could easily be imagined as a play. Even though the poverty of the community was clearly described, it is not grim. It is a relatable domestic drama about the conflict between head and heart, love and practicality. In other words the traditional stuff of novels. However when they were presented with Gunn’s second novel: ‘The Lost Glen’ they were uncomfortable with the underlying rage at the state of the Highlands, and disliked it as a polemic, which they thought was too Gaelic and lacking in appeal for the English reader. So it was declined. But Neil Gunn was a proud man who had great faith in his work and so kept on sending it out to other publishers who kept on batting it back. He was determined and convinced of the importance of the themes, which expressed a deep felt view about the depressed state of the Highlands, and the more criticism the novel received the more defensive he became. Nevertheless there are only so many times you can knock at a door and it might have remained unpublished if his next novel (second published) had not been a hit. He thus had a strong negotiating position about what he would do next but to his publisher’s regret and against all the wise advice that told him his next book would be crucial in building a long term career, this stubborn man insisted on ‘The Lost Glen’ .

It was published to mixed reviews, which cemented his loathing of London literary types and their haughty rejection of the ideals and ambitions of the Scottish Literary Renaissance. He was prickly about it. But not everybody failed to see what he was trying to achieve – some people got the novel and his passion. A partner at Faber & Faber wrote in in 1931 that The Lost Glen:

“is big in meaning and a blasted harassing book. I can tell you this right now that if Gunn isn’t haunted and harassed and touchy as hell about it he’s not human. I think it comes from right under his heart, so you be careful. I speak as a Southerner; I don’t mean your British Southerners, but a Confederate Southerner who stands up if you play Dixie, if you could play it. Seems to me that the theme is similar… it’s big and hot and I feel actively important … The Lost Glen is Gunn’s Hamlet. The story isn’t adequate. It isn’t adequate essentially. I can’t say why: but there’s something too limited and confined about the episodes which are being forced to serve as equivalents of states of mind which they cannot really objectify … It’s damnably fascinating and disturbing” ¹

This is spot on – not only because the story is not big enough but because of the comparison with the American South. Both lands that had been defeated but yet retained a strong sense of identity. In The Lost Glen this defeat is embodied in the central character, Ewan, who had gone to university to escape the poverty and lack of prospects but came home in disgrace without completing his degree. He internalised his failure and could not forgive himself for letting down his mother, who had pushed him to leave to make something of himself. All he could see for himself was a loss of regard in his community who saw in him someone who had squandered potential and failed to see a job through. Because of his burdens there is a hopelessness within him throughout the story.

The plot itself is quite simple: After Ewan comes home his guilt is compounded by being indirectly responsible for the death of his father when he insisted they go out fishing in stormy conditions.The death has other consequences as it means he can no longer escape his situation by emigrating, as he had planned. He has to stay to look after his mother and settles down into his life as best he can by becoming a ghillie (i.e. an attendant on the wishes of wealthy outsiders who come as consumers of the romantic Highland experience – something Gunn thinks demeaning). In the village there lives a retired English colonial colonel who came to the place because he thought he would find the respect a person of his rank deserves, even though he lacks either virtue or ability. In other words he is a pompous empty suit who flees to a remote area because he knows he would be completely undistinguished anywhere else. For him and Ewan, for different reasons the Highlands are a place of refuge. But in these two of main protagonists and its hard not to see something symbolic: the sensitive and clever Ewan represents the old culture of the Highlands which has been beaten down but is somehow hanging-on, whilst the colonel is an example of a bovine colonialism, that wants to dominate and is possessed of a sense of unearned, innate superiority. Obviously they hate each other, obviously they are going to clash. Ewan is friends with a neighbouring crofter, Colin, who is has a daughter, Mary, who has a beautiful voice and gift for old Gaelic songs (and in the normal course of things would have probably become Ewan’s wife). With the arrival of the Colonel’s niece, Clare Marlowe, things change. She is a beautiful, new-woman, with both intelligence and empathy (completely unlike her uncle). Ewan is her ghillie and between them there is an attraction they both know can go nowhere. It would be impossible for him to ascend to her world and she could not happily live in his. The Colonel would be outraged at the slightest idea of any social mingling. But he has his own demons. On one of his walks he becomes hot and thirsty and stops at Colin’s croft for some water. As politeness dictates Mary invites him in but she is alone and the sight of her inflames the Colonel’s desire. His attempted rape is beaten off but is traumatic. Colin is told of it and to lessen his burden he tells Ewan, who is enraged and imagines taking revenge on the old man. Later Ewan hears his own sister is pregnant but as she wont say who the father is, and he assumes this must be the result of another assault by the Colonel. His anger cannot be contained and he goes looking for the man. At the same time the Colonel hears that Ewan and Clare had been seen kissing and is angered at the affront to his class and wants to give Ewan a beating. They meet and Ewan kills the Colonel. He then throws the body off a cliff but in turn slides off himself and is also killed. The story is thus a traditional tragedy and as such is unlike anything else Gunn wrote.

Alongside this personal story there is a political thread. Some crofters illegally occupy land on sheep farms and want to squat. It is a hot issue within the community with both a lot of support for moral right of the crofters combined with a feeling that the law is the law. The local MP holds a meeting to try to resolve the issue and to get the crofters to back down, but he loses his audience when Ewan makes an impassioned speech on the wrongs that forced the crofters to act the way they did and sets out a programme of what should be done to improve their lives. In doing so he speaks right from the heart of Gunn’s own beliefs. It would come as no surprise to find out that the author is a committed Scottish Nationalist.

Both the story and the polemic makes this a passionate book but London publishers thought it’s concerns were too regional. For them and their imagined readers the Highlands of Scotland were a long, long way away and its issues weren’t of general concern. However although the novel may be set in a specific place its theme is large and not at all provincial. It addresses an issue that would become more and more important as the century advanced: If a distinct cultural group are disproportionately suffering within the wider nation state, what is their recourse, what hope do they have, how should they best act in their own interests?

In spite of the strength of the theme there are, nevertheless, weaknesses in the novel as a construct. In particular the characterisation of the Colonel is one dimensional and Ewan’s shame totally out of proportion to the minor offence that caused him to leave university. However there are also examples of fine writing and it introduces many of the themes that preoccupied Gunn throughout his career; themes he kept picking at, trying to get them right. There are also descriptions that keep on recurring in his work like storms at sea, music and ancient songs, the interaction of neighbours, the sense of a lost culture, and the determination of mothers to drive their sons away from the sea to make a better life for themselves. He reworked these to better effect later in his career:

  • Coming back home to a Highland community after failing in the city is explored in The Drinking Well more convincingly and with a more positive outcome.
  • In The Serpent the hero, Tom, also comes back from the city but this time it is because he has to support an ailing father, not because of failure and the novel can handle the clash of ideas of between atheism and socialism of the city and the rigid religion of his the home community.
  • The English military man as an intruder is also revisited in Second Sight and his last novel The Other Landscapes.

One of the advantages of reading early works after having read the later ones, is that you can make connections to the themes of continuing importance and things that were later ditched. As I said at the beginning: the bones show more clearly.

¹ Letter from Frank Morley to George Blake [of Porpoise Press], 1931. Quoted in Hart, Francis Russell., and J. B. Pick. Neil M. Gunn : A Highland Life. London :: John Murray, 1981. Print.

P.S. the image is from Pinterest https://www.pinterest.com/msskyescot/scottish-crofters-of-yesteryear/