Neil Gunn -- Author, Playwright
In addition to his more than twenty novels and other books, Neil Gunn wrote a number of short stories, essays and articles for newspapers and periodicals, poetry, and dramas for stage, radio and TV. All of these are listed in detail in the 245-page A Bibliography of the Works of Neil M Gunn by C. J. L. Stokoe (AUP:1987). Fortunately, most of his books are currently in print and are described below in chronological order. Only three novels are out of print -- his first, The Grey Coast (1926), his second, Morning Tide (1931) and The Well at World's End (1951). His first collection of short stories, Hidden Doors (1929) is also out of print but some of those stories appear in The White Hour which is described below.
The Lost Glen (1932) is the story of decay of Highland ways and values in the 1920s. Ewan MacLeod sent down from the university in disgrace chooses to bury himself in the Highland community where he was brought up, getting occasional work as a gillie. His life and equilibrium are disturbed when the sophisticated English girl, Claire Marlowe, comes from London to stay with her Uncle, Colonel Hicks. As their uneasy awareness of each other grows, there are more sinister and violent things afoot, and Ewan's brooding hatred of the Colonel and all he stands for reaches the bursting point.
Sun Circle (1933) is a story set in the ninth century; nevertheless, it has a timeless quality, a saga that unfolds in a haunting, almost poetical style. At one level the book tells of Northeast Scotland's misty dawn when the ancient, recently Christianized people living along the shores were assailed by the robust, pagan Vikings from across the sea. From the opening pages, the reader is aware of impending doom. As the young girl Breeta plays with her baby brother in the woodland near her home, she sees the Master, aged guardian of the old religion, making his way to the tower the tribal focal point at times of disaster. From this first intimation the story gathers momentum, the men of the tribe converging to make their plans and the conflicts between those old and the new religion becoming more pronounced. And entwined in this tribal saga is woven the gentler story of Breeta's awakening into womanhood and her dawning love for Aniel, her childhood playmate. At a much deeper level, Gunn is exploring a turning point in Scotland's history, a moment of choice when the old religion of sun worship is beginning to give way before the advance of Christianity, and when the age-old civilization of the Picts is threatened by the onslaught of the new and vibrant Norse adventurers. This cultural conflict is reflected in the human story of Breeta, Aniel and the fair Nessa. In the interplay of their relationship Gunn reveals the primal integrity that for him is the only issue at stake.
Butcher's Broom (1934) is a tragic story set in the early nineteenth-century Highland Clearances, one of the most moving of all of Gunn's books. Through its characters he traces; the Highland culture, recreating the essence of the experience of the Gaels, a people whose way of life, though repressed and denied, can yet speak to the present century. Dark Mairi, the still center of the tale, is the mysterious embodiment of a spirit as ancient and as life-giving as the songs of the bards and the tunes of the pipers that stir her grandchildren as they stirred their forefathers. Gay, sad Elie wanders among strangers with her fatherless child while fiery Seonaid, who alone from the roof of her house, defies the landlord's men who have come to turn her out. Theirs is the community that, in the words of the landlord's factor, "must be gutted out -- man, woman and child --" for the wintering of sheep. Yet for all the story's climax, its conclusion is not without tenderness and hope. It transcends time and place to speak to all who care about what is most lasting and precious in humankind.
Highland River (1937) is the story of Ken, who with a scientist's passionate eye for the material world, reviews his life from the difficult 1930s, through the slaughter of the First World War, back to an idyllic boyhood in the Highlands. When the mature man finally reaches the source of the river that has haunted his imagination for so many years, he finds that the well-springs of magic and delight were always there, in the world all around him all the time, inexhaustible and irreverent. The book is written in prose as cool and clear as the water it describes and is the simplest and most poetic of Gunn's novels. It was awarded the James Tait Memorial Prize in 1937.
Wild Geese Overhead (1939)is a powerful novel set in the city of Glasgow, the biggest and most vital of Scottish cities. One Spring day while in the country seeking some peace and some fresh air, Will sees a flock of wild geese heading north. This experience works on him and acts as a catalyst -- enticing him to secure lodgings far away from the hustle and bustle of the city in a hinterland farmhouse, and starting the process which is the heart of the book. Will begins to see the grayness and turmoil of city life from a different perspective and the physical violence to which he falls victim brings the story to its final solution. For during his period of recuperation, Will is able to see all those with whom he has ~come in contact with in a new light.
Second Sight (1940) is a mystery that keeps the reader guessing while the suspense builds and then races at the pace of a thriller to the unexpected conclusion. It is set in a Highland. shooting lodge whose occupants are depicted. in stark contrast to the local people. One of the latter foresees a violent death occurring. But who is it that is going to die? And how and when? The drama is played out against background of strange mists and elemental landscape such as Gunn knew and describes so well. Dominating the story is the presence on the hills of a giant stag, King Brude, who has evaded all attempts to shoot him; and the tenseness of the hunt is heightened by the agony of the stalker, torn between his duty to his employer and his admiration for the noble beast.
The Silver Darlings (1941) is a thrilling story of the herring fishers of the wild Scottish coast where Gunn grew up. Gunn's father was a fishing boat skipper and owner and the son came to know this aspect of Highland life well at first hand. Edwin Muir tells us that "No one else has evoked so sensitively the atmosphere of Highland life; we are taken into the intimate recesses of the characters of this story, simple characters outwardly, but with a thousand hidden or half hidden scrupulosities, prides, and thoughts and half-thoughts ... the story is so fascinating and full of beauty; the setting is wonderfully presented."
Young Art and Old Hector (1942). When the intensities of family life become too much for eight-year-old Art, it is to Old Hector that he turns for comfort. Thwarted from fulfilling his burning desire to go to the River, he seeks out the old man who can still poach a salmon when he chooses. Through Hector's tales and his own experiences, Art gradually learns the painful business of growing up. This book shows Gunn's artistry at its very best, above all his clothing a simple story of Caithness crofter-fishermen in the rich garb of myth. It is also one of the finest evocations of childhood ever written, conveying all the magic and misery and the bursting joys of being a small boy in a great and mysterious world.
The Serpent (1943) is the story of a thinker, a man whose consciousness extends beyond the little world in which he lives, yet whom destiny has apparently abandoned among folk to whom his independence is a mystery and a threat. lt is the fate of Tom, the philosopher and solitary hero, to live out a drama that Gunn finds deep in the mythology of Scottish culture: the ancient drama of good and evil, which demands an embodiment of that which is to be feared. This is, in a sense, a bitter book, because it exposes human destructiveness of an authoritarian culture, the shallowness of certain natures under pressures, the pain and violence that underlies the relations between fathers and sons. But it is also a triumphant book, for it celebrates the forging of acceptance out of suffering and is pervaded with Gunn's own special sense of an endurance in the human spirit in a landscape beyond time.
The Green Isle of the Great Deep (1944) is another story about Young Art and Old Hector but it is a magical tale set in a land between life and death. From its starting point when Hector takes Art on a poaching trip and the two fall into the depths of a salmon pool, it tells of the struggle between the forces of creativity and freedom, and those of order and control. The old man and the boy wake up to find themselves in a bright yet strangely brittle countryside, not unlike their own but with a terrifying, nightmarish quality. As in all of Gunn's works, the mythology unfolds in real landscapes among living people, all of them drawn from his own rich childhood in the Northeast Highlands.
The Key to the Chest (1946) is another story set in a small Highland village but now a darker mood has crept in that was to characterize some of his later novels. The Highlands are no longer seen as a source of inspiration but a prison that confines the spirit and encloses the inhabitants in an atmosphere of prejudice and suspicion. From the opening pages when Dougald the shepherd strides through the stormy dusk to the little village shop, the mood is one of darkness and tensions which persist as the story develops. Dougald's brother, Charlie, is suspected of having murdered a shipwrecked seaman and stolen his sea chest. Here lies all the unhappiness that can assail a man unable to conform to the conventions of his roots. A disgraced divinity student who has lost his faith, Charlie is a man at odds with the world and his forbidden love affair with the ministeršs daughter, Flora, holds the potential for a major tragedy. In their isolated cottage miles from the village, Charlie and Dougald are separate from the community, half-feared, half-despised, their integrity a matter of doubt. Of all the community's inhabitants, only the doctor may come and go as he pleases, accepted everywhere without question. Quietly he observes the mounting crisis, helping where he can but powerless to prevent the final catastrophe that so nearly destroys two innocent victims of the enclosed environment.
The Drinking Well (1947) is a story embodying one of Gunn's most enduring themes - the coming to manhood of a son of a Highlands crofting community, and the conflict between love and rejection that maturity involves. Ian Cattanach is the youngest son of a mother whose deepest determination is that he shall escape the struggle against poverty and the hopelessly narrow horizons of her own life. Although his own inner longing is to follow his father on the land, Ian goes to Edinburgh as a lawyer's clerk. But his raw, passionate nature rebels, and he returns, believing that their is no place for him in his own country. The story is as much about the unspoken tensions between fathers and sons as it is about the injustice of a system of land ownership that abuses the land as well as the people. Yet it is also an optimistic story, for Gunn believes that the miracle of renewal is there, waiting only to be discovered.
The Shadow (1948) is a hauntingly beautiful story in which the violence of war and the spiritual wastelands created from within Marxist circles in London are seen through the eyes of a young Scotswoman, Nan, who, after a nervous breakdown, returns to her native Highlands to regain her health. The first part of the story is told through letters which reflect an atmosphere of warmth and tranquility. But this moment of peace, self-realization and happiness does not last. For when news breaks out of a brutal murder, the 'shadows', created by her experiences in London, lengthen and deepen her mind. Unsolicited and chance meetings with a sinister stranger cast a further blight over the landscape.
The Silver Bough (1948) is the story of Simon Grant, an archaeologist who has come to the Highlands to excavate an ancient cairn on a knoll surrounded by standing stones. He encounters barriers between himself and the locals which are largely overcome when he hires Andy, a big, simple lad of enormous strength. During the digging, Grant learns that he is satisfying a yearning within himself for spiritual renewal. The quiet tenor of the Highland life he temporarily embraces bears a curious similarity to his speculations on how the 'cairn' people lived in prehistory. The dig proceeds and a crock of gold is discovered only to quickly disappear. Was it taken by Andy, the simpleton, in feverish protection of the ancient site? And where is it now? Added to the mystery is the discovery in the cairn of the skeletons of a woman and child. In this book, Gunn underlines his belief in the importance of conserving the continuity of life -- a continuity that can only be maintained if wisdom of the past is neither forgotten or forsaken.
The Lost Chart (1949) is a cold war thriller set in Glasgow shortly after WW II. The plot moves in two distinct planes. Shipping executive Dermott Cameron gets involved in a street brawl, loses a chart of the approaches to a remote Hebridean island of strategic importance to national security and finds himself in the midst of a drama enacted by the British secret service and a communist fifth column operating in Scotland. For Cameron the search for the lost chart is not only for a document of military importance but also for a mental chart of a way of life that had been lived on that island, a chart that represents the vision of a world on the brink of disaster. caught between two irreconcilable forces, Cameron battles his way through the drama with his faith in humanity, bruised but intact, and prepares himself for a final adventure for what he knows is the real chart.
Blood Hunt (1952) is the story of Sandy ; who has resumed to the land of his fathers to live out his remaining years after a lifetime at sea. He makes his home in the peaceful isolation of Highland croft with only his dog, a cow and a few hens for company and his precious store of books. The local village lads soon learn to trust him as a friend and before long Sandy finds himself involved in helping one who is on the run after killing the man who seduced his girlfriend. As Spring comes and the young man's pursuers close in, the story moves to a climax whose pain is dulled by the burgeoning of new life all around. His biographer Francis Hart tells us that this novel "is unquestionably one of his most perfect as story and myth."
The Other Landscape (1954) is the story of Walter Urquhart, a Scottish anthropologist who is sent out on a curious quest by a London literary magazine to find out something about the author of a strange manuscript that had arrived on the editor's desk. Urquhart pursues his task in a remote Highland community amidst crofters, fisher- men, and the residents of the local fishing hotel. the main strands of the story are soon woven together -- the tragic history of the manuscript and its author, the continual awareness of Urquhart of 'another landscape' beyond the visible one, and the subtle humor, so closely related to the tragedy, that is to be all pervasive in the story.
Collections and Other Books
Gunn's other works demonstrate the broadness of his intellectual powers. From his treatise on whisky to the philosophical system that emerges from his autobiography he is clearly a person to whose thoughts are well worth considering.
Whisky and Scotland (1935) is a witty, indignant book that tells what is known about the history and making of whisky. It is at once a celebration of that sacred distillation made from malted barley that the Gaels call uisge beatha, or water of life and a lament for ancient skills and rituals defiled by the conquerors. Its secrets were handed down from generation to generation from ancient times to enliven and enlighten the Gaels; the conquerors first transformed the 'drink made ina man's home' into an affair of public manufacture, then saw it as a source of tax revenue for foreign coffers, and banned the making from Highland homes altogether. It is a book for the lovers of good whisky and the lovers of the Gaelic way of living and being which is not yet beyond recall.
Off in a Boat (1938) was Gunn's second major work of nonfiction. It tells of the three month sailing adventure that he took after he left the Civil Service in 1937 with his wife Daisy and his brother John. The boat had outlived its first youth and its engine was somewhat unreliable. But she went tolerably under sail and it proved to be an argosy of freedom -- of adventure and misadventure -for the three fairly inexperienced sailors in waters of a region that are by no means placid. Gunn's poetic nature manifests itself as he was uplifted or cast down by changing skies, seas and shores, and his descriptions of those things are remarkably evocative as are the photos taken by Daisy.
Highland Pock (1949) is a collection of essays that were written in the period just after he returned from his nautical adventure. He and Daisy had sold their house in Inverness and took residence in a farm house on a brae just outside the idyllic county town of Dingwall in Ross-shire. The essays were written over a period of time and not consciously produced with a collection in mind. Most of them first appeared in The Scots Magazine under a pseudonym and can be read for pleasure simply as a countryman's notes following the patterns imposed on the land by the changing seasons. Each essay has its own interest and can stand proudly alone as one piece in a mosaic of the Highlands. Nothing has been omitted from nature's endless pageant -the sad lingering beauty of December flowers, the breathless speed of a mountain hare, the mystery of a flock of wild geese overhead, the roar of a tractor in a field or a curling stone on a frozen loch. It's all there and the author can rightfully claim to be a packman or peddlar of fascinating and inviting wares for the reader of his Highland Pack.
The White Hour (1950) is an anthology of some twenty-six short stories, the harvest of a long period of creative writing and deep thought by the author. Every variety of story is represented, from those dependent on color and mood to those centered on a plot with cumulative action. The story in the collection that lends the book its name concerns an old woman's premonition of death. Any sense of fear which she may experience is subtly tempered by the knowledge that her life will continue after death through her attractive grand-daughter. There is a simple folk tale Henry Drake Goes Home and Blaeberries is in stark contrast to the horrifying account of unbridled scientific experiments in Dance of the Atoms. Despite their variety, the stories are connected by an unbroken thread of perception.
The Atom of Delight (1956) is the last of Gunn's books. It is an autobiography of sorts but the period it covers deals only with his first eighteen years. In another sense it is a distillation of a system of philosophy which emerged from his thinking over the thirty years that elapsed after his first novel appeared. J. B. Pick, one of his biographers, tells us that it "is one of those rare books which appeals to individuals as written for them alone, speaking directly to their condition and enabling them to realize something they have always known and inexpliciaby lost. In the Polygon Cosmos edition, Alan Spense has written an afterword titled Highland Zen. Spence tells us that of all Gunn's books, the Atom of Delight is the one which I have read most often, returning to it again and again for its clarity, its lucidity, its depth."
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