Whatever Happened to Neil M. Gunn?



An unfortunate thing happened to me a month ago — I left my copy of Neil Gunn’s masterpiece The Silver Darlings behind at a friend’s house in Belgium. I was two-hundred pages into this epic of seafaring adventures and Highland life and itching to finish the novel, but now I had lost it and it wouldn’t be easy to retrieve.


What to do? I tried other projects: Freedom, The Female Eunuch, even Diski’s penetrating travelogue Stranger on a Train, but none would suffice. I was burning to finish the Darlings.


I started my hunt in The Raven secondhand bookshop in Camden Lock where I have often found a good title or two. No good — onto the next secondhand bookshop in my area and one of my all-time-favourites in London, the enigmatic Walden Books on Harmood St. As I stood behind the magnolia trees, thumbing impatiently through racks of books outside, the relaxed t-shirt clad profile of the bookshop proprietor drew towards me.


— Who are you after?


— A Scottish writer called Neil Gunn.


— Neil Gunn… he replied ruminatively, chewing the name about in his mouth like a pastille or pork scratching. Never heard of him. No, haven’t got it, he concluded. Only get a request like that once a year he said and turned back into the shop.


I took my sunglasses off. Next stop: Foils. I was yet to ask for a book they didn’t have.


The next day I took a bus down to Tottenham Court Road. It was raining outside. I shook the rain from my umbrella and walked up to the help desk. I always have a chat with the assistant there if I can, feeling that it must be quite lonely to work on those customer service island help-desks all day long. I strode up.


— I was just wondering if you have a book called The Silver Darlings in stock at the moment.


The officious man in black-rimmed glasses studied the screen.


—No, he replied. Another blank shot. But I can order one in for you?


I was surprised and, by this point, a little annoyed.


— No, don’t worry. I’m moving away from London in two day’s time…


I bustled outside and stood under the awning waiting for the rain to stop. A man with sad eyes standing just a few feet away, gazed at me.


— Terrible weather eh?  I said, striking up conversation.


He laughed.


— Yup. Good bookshop that, he said, pointing a finger beside him.


— Oh yes, I agreed, I love Foils, though I haven’t been for a while…


He raised his eyebrows.


— Been away.




— I’ve just come back from Iceland.


— Iceland he muttered thoughtfully. Back for good?


— No actually, I half laughed, almost nervously, shy of sounding privileged. I’m off to Manchester soon.


— Well best of luck with that! His eyes shone at me brightly. What to do?


— More studying… I said. I felt sheepish.


— Aye, I could see that I was disappointing him, another delusional and unemployable young person he probably thought, dreaming her life away.


— Oh yeh? What subject?


— Creative Writing. Drum beat. I was surprised. Instead of the expected shudder this news seemed to perk him up.


— My uncle was a writer, he said. Self-published he did. Made some money off it but the writing was just for him really, he didn’t want to be famous or anything.


I understood but I felt that I had left that behind me, I was tired of writing for myself.


Onwards I went, rain drifting beneath the canopy of my umbrella and speckling my hair. It was just across the road to the great Charing Cross bookshops.


I started nosing about towering bookshops beside scholarly looking gentlemen. The sound of the sales assistant speaking to someone with authority — an Oxford air — buzzed down towards the basement where I looked with puzzled simplicity at the rainbow-spectrum of spines on display. I left with a book in my hand but it was not the book I wanted.


More resigned now to the failure of my quest, I walked towards Gower St the back way, in the direction of the famous Oxfam Bookshop there. I found and bought one Gunn but it was still not the Gunn I wanted. It was called The Silver Bough. I wondered if the Frazer reference was deliberate.


As a last resort, I made the Waterstones on Gower Street my final port of call.


— Silver Darlings? I hazarded. The assistant leant forward, elbows on desk.


— None at all in stock, I’m afraid, he said looking at me. In fact, there is only one copy in the whole of London, you’ll have to go to the Piccadilly branch for that. There are quite a lot of holdings in our Manchester branches and up North though… he was polite, apologetic, but I was tired and in no mood to brave the busy streets of the west end and Piccadilly Circus.


Instead it was home to Camden where I returned defeated and bookless.


What I couldn’t believe and failed to understand was why this book had such a poor profile. It was a masterpiece, one of the finest novels I had read in years, published by Faber, recommended by authors you could trust (such as Nan Hudson), yet why was it so hideously underrepresented to the book-reading public? It was Neil Gunn’s magnum opus, a novel that took him five years to write, and now it was now virtually out of print – doomed to the literary paupers’ grave.


I thought back to where I had purchased my original copy of The Darlings. It had been back in Reykjavik, I had seen it with a half-price reduction sticker glittering on it on a table in the university café bookstore. I had my own reasons for being interested in the fishing industry at that point, having just returned from the Westfjords; so caught it up and hurriedly bought it.


I think it’s fair to say that The Darlings was the first book that I really read like a writer – with an eye to how Gunn achieved his effects. However, there is also a part of me that believes that Gunn was such a talented technician and appears to achieve his effects so effortlessly, that the reader is drawn naturally towards this kind of meta-commentary on the text. In fact, not since reading Dickens' novels have I felt my heart strings tugged so forcibly this way and that; finding myself with sodden cheeks at one moment and doubling over with laughter at another.


Gunn’s ever-present ability as a craftsman of emotion and affect is also demonstrated by his aptitude as a descriptor of action sequences. This is partly due to good structuration; Gunn has a habit of making his chapters clearly action-focused and action-driven. As a result of all of these heart-stopping compartments of action, I would frequently discover that my internal organs were whirring, partaking in Finn’s excitement as he raised the sails on the Seafoam or swiftly hauled in the crans of silver herring that filled the nets of the Dunster fishing fleet. By anyones' books this is a muscular novel. It puts action before reflection and is psaltered throughout with the mineral, raw dialect words of the Gaelic-speaking Scots communities. That means enough material to keep word-hoarders, linguists and social historians busy for days. Instead of whisky we have ‘Special’ (always capitalized), instead of flapjacks ‘oatmeal bannocks’, instead of chest we have ‘kist’, instead of farmstead ‘croft’,  etc.


I would like to give one example from the text to help us analyse Gunn’s strategy better. It is a long passage which I feel I have to quote in full:


Extract from the chapter “Landing Herring”, Outer Hebrides, pp. 398-9


“The house they entered was a rather poor place, inhabited by an elderly couple, but the spirit in it was rich and soon overflowed. Finn recognised at once that it was a regular ceilidh-house, for the man had little peculiar mannerisms, the eyes of a boy, a tongue for anything that was going, and if it was fun he was happy. May more came in and when the talk had had an innings, they started singing.


They always came back to singing.


There was one song in particular that Finn did not know and he was greatly moved by it.

They were crushed together, sitting where they could, and mostly on the uneven clay floor. And they sang. Their songs were often charged with sadness and beauty, but, whatever they were, a fond affection was around them somewhere.


From this affection, all the goodness of life flowed like the tide. The songs, indeed, had the sea-tide’s rhythm. Even a girl with a sharp mind and personal dislikes and not sitting in the place she wanted to be would be carried away, and presently, what with one thing or another and the way the unseen mind was seen, there would be a movement and a laugh, a skirmish and a change, and likely as not at the end of it she would be sitting in that place, with the man of the house maybe saying something to her and her retorting briskly. For the girls were quick in riposte, having leaned the art of it from their mothers and their mothers’ mothers at the cloth waulking. And in any case if it was in the nature of a girl to be bold, she would, pushed to it, be bold outright and be done with it. Which was often a merry way for everyone concerned, except perhaps one or two.


And Finn saw that they were all happy, that life was fulfilled, and if the door was shut it was on yesterday and to-morrow.”


We can see immediately that there is a lot of artfulness here, and a lot of deliberate intermingling of subject matter and form. The incantatory refrain ‘they started singing… they always came back to singing’, evokes the musicality of the song and the parataxis and frequent use of subordinate clauses (that we see, for example, in the final sentence of the extract) introduces a rhythmic element to the reading process itself. Even the pauses created by the paragraph breaks are dramatic and introduce further rhythmic complexities to the passage, which in turn evokes the rhythms of the songs sung collectively at the ceilidh house. Though Gunn writes in English, there is often the shadows of Gaelic breaking through into the text. Take the sentence: ‘From this affection, all the goodness of life flowed like the tide’. The caesura creates a natural pause in the sentence which along with the alliteration of ‘from… flowed’ mimetically recalls the notion of ebbing and flowing tide (of emotion, ocean, song, collective energy?), but it also runs contrary to the rhythms of home counties English; its stresses are unusual; it has a homely, vernacular expressiveness.


In my humble opinion, something very rare happens in The Silver Darlings, something happens which only happens once or twice in fiction when the book’s subject matter fuses so entirely with the author’s heart, his perspicacity and his uncommon ability to translate reality into words; that is a total grafting of the world of the book onto the imagination of the reader. Osmosis.


As is clear from the Gunn’s biography –  a man born on the east coast and whose father was a herring fisher, Gunn poured his whole soul into the writing of this book. He was ‘thick with it’: the beauty, temporality and simplicity of the highland way of life. It stole his heart and fired his imagination. Yet, as the book’s dedication To the Memory of My Father makes clear, this book is not only an homage to the genius loci of place, it is also a memorialization, an epitaph. But one has to ask, with a crew of characters such as Catrine, Finn and Roddie, symbols of his dead mother and father, has a memorial ever been so full of life?


Neil Gunn arrived at writing quite late on; The Darlings was his most acclaimed novel and he wrote it towards the end of his life. It is arguably the single greatest works of art to come fro the Scottish revivalist movement – yet ironically it is not written in Gaelic but English, with shadows of Gaelic hanging in the eaves of the text, ghosting about in the weight behind the sentences or in the grainy salty textures of new words. But the point is that Gunn was not writing from a vacuum; he wrote his life, his childhood, the things that mattered to him, and not directly but indirectly. Thus he is a great example of a writer who lived and loved what he wrote. The result? An epic masterpiece on par with the greatest evocation of historic times and places I know; it’s as good as Tolstoy’s St Petersburg in War and Peace, Proust’s Cambrai, Dicken’s Great Yarmouth. And why not? We get the feeling that in struggling to do justice to the story of his father’s story and the rigors of seafaring life, Gunn is sometimes surprised by the potency of his own success. There are certainly moments in the text, experimental moments I should say, for example when Finn retells the story of the close-ship-wrecking to an assembled audience in Dale which has already been painstakingly told by the novel’s narrator, that we sense Gunn’s pure delight in spinning a good yarn, or perhaps drawing our attention to the differences between orally and textually crafted stories. This is Gunn all over: his cleverness, his joy in craft, his deft canvassing of reality and fiction. Ultimately the success of this novel is that it makes the writer’s loves, landscapes and secret places, like young Finn’s, the reader’s own.





September, 2015