Gunn, Neil M: The Silver Darlings

Rumours of free whisky at the Monthly Book Group in honour of Burns night, so your eagle-eyed reporter was on the case! Arrived just in time to see the whisky bottles put out (“for later”), so cracked open a travelling companion of Vaucluse, and tuned in to the host introducing “The Silver Darlings”.

 The darlings in question, I was surprised to glean, were herrings, and were written about in 1941 by Neil Gunn. This cove with feelings for fish (whatever next?) was born in 1891 in Dunbeath in Caithness, the son of a fisherman who captained his own herring boat. He moved for his secondary education to Kirkcudbrightshire, then took the Civil Service exam at 16. Before you could say “mine’s a double”, he was a Customs Officer back in Caithness and dealing with whisky. Such a hard life….that it left him plenty of time to be a prolific writer, and he became a full-time writer in 1937 after the success of “Highland River”. And time to dabble in both nationalism and socialism (so… your sharp-as-a-tack reporter spotted…. must have been a national socialist?).

 His work encompassed the novel, short stories, essays, travel and even a history of whisky. He is best remembered for his novels. They fell into three broad groups. The first, and earliest, novels were grim depictions of Scottish life, and the proposer particularly recommended works from this group, such as “The Grey Coast”. The second group of novels, to which “The Silver Darlings” belonged, were written in mid-life, and saw Gunn at his most assured. They dealt again with Scottish themes, but were much more positive in outlook. The last novels were more philosophical and dealt with modern life.

 This book found a very fair wind with the Group. Such a convincing portrait of rural life in the early nineteenth century in Caithness, from which many of the Group had ancestors, was beguiling. Gunn’s sense of place was a particular strength.

 He painted this life as simple but dangerous. He brought into vivid relief the dangers of the sea and the elements. He described avaricious landlords, and a predatory press gang who took off at the beginning of the book the man who had looked set to be the hero. We saw the temptations of the whisky bottle and the flesh counterpointed with the fulminations of a puritanical church. And the tenets of the church were contrasted with the much older myths and superstitions by which the fishermen lived. There was a particularly vivid account of a plague of cholera and how the villagers struggled to cope with its horrors. And then there was the sudden shock of finding the sea silver with herring.

 He was outstanding as a writer of dramatic adventure scenes. One such was the fishermen trying for the first time in their lives to sail round the north of Scotland to Lewis, with little other than verbal advice as a navigation aid. Another was the scene of Finn scaling dizzy sea cliffs in search of water to drink and gulls to eat:

 Roddie’s whole weight threw itself instinctively on the rope, but it was torn through his hands as the Seafoam rose up and up on the towering wave. Along the rock walls it smashed in a roar flinging white arms at crevice and ledge. Swung seaward on the crest of it, they hung for a dizzying moment on a level with Finn. He had seen it coming and flattened to the sloping rock, gripping with fingers and knees and toes. The solid water swept the soles of his feet, but the white spray covered him like a shroud…

 One reader was reminded of the novels of Conrad, with the scenes of the companionship of men on the sea, and how they had to act together against the elements.

 Running as a thread through the somewhat episodic book was the development of the herring industry. Gunn was perceptive and informative about the economics and impact of such an industry, on which the community came to depend. But his central story was the coming of age of Finn.

 His characters were very convincing. He shrewdly charted the interplay of gesture and mood in his story of Finn’s development. This was both in relation to Finn’s quasi-Oedipal resistance of Roddy coming into his mother’s life, and to Finn’s faltering steps to acquiring a girlfriend.

 We felt admiration for his portrayal of childhood, for example in his account of how the young Finn felt on getting a toy trumpet. The analysis of mother/son relationships was an important theme of the novel, primarily in relation to Finn and his mother Catrine. The theme was developed in very striking form when the cold feet of an apparently drowned fisherman were warmed between his mother’s breasts.

 It was also interesting that one of Finn’s first female interests also had the name Catrine, and one member observed that this was perhaps suggested by Gunn’s interest in the works of Jung, who suggested that such a “coincidence” was common. Well, jings, makes you think….

 (Okay, I’ve drained the Vaucluse now……what was that about whisky?…and the famous home bakes??…)

 Gunn’s writing at his best was simple and evocative. It could convey a lyrical feeling for the Caithness landscapes and the world of the sea:

 “They were bound for Stornoway, and it was a brilliant morning, with an air of wind off the land. Green had come through the grey of winter, for it was the beginning of May, and a waft of wood-smoke from a cooper’s fire brought the smell of summer, as if they were setting sail for it…”

 So any reservations at all? Some found the book on the long side, particularly those reading it for a second time. And one found rather irksome the authorial presence, sometimes sententious and sometimes arch, when Gunn was telling rather than showing.

 The characters were perhaps too good to be true. There were no villains in the book. And, when Roddy was depicted as a head-banging drunken fighter, it did not seem quite convincing set against his normal roles of prudent captain and circumspect suitor of Catrine. Gunn had some of the same social concerns as Dickens for the impoverished, but, at least in this case, the novel did not have the same campaigning edge as Dickens.

 Some expressed surprise that Gunn, as a Socialist and Nationalist, did not come down harder on the role of landlords such as the Duke of Sutherland in the Highland Clearances. Gunn did allow one of his characters to criticize landlords regularly, but there were also explanations of why they might have acted as they did.

 This typified the way in which Gunn’s overall mood in this book was one of serenity. He depicted some awful threats to life in the press gang, sea storms and cholera, and several characters met horrible deaths, but the reader always felt that life would turn out all right for the central characters. This was the positive mood that characterised Gunn’s second phase as a writer.

 Had anyone noticed that at the start of the novel Finn could speak only Gaelic, but soon he and his ship-mates seem to be speaking English without difficulty? A continuity problem?….Well, maybe, but Gunn did not himself speak Gaelic and always regretted that……So how many Scots at the time spoke only Gaelic ?…Ah, said our resident history adviser, we do have a figure that, some sixty years earlier in 1755, some 300,000 Scots out of a population of 1.2 million were monoglot Gaelic speakers, ie about 23%.

 And, added our history adviser, how many were aware that while the population of England in 1801 was 8.3million (and that of Scotland 1.6 million), the population of Ireland was over 5 million, rising to over 8 million in 1841 before the potato famine? Surprising….

 So what did we make of the mysticism in the novel, and the section in South Uist with the old man making prophecies and reciting a poem full of symbolism? ……Liked the mysticism….didn’t think the South Uist seer and his symbols worked…reminded me of Gunn’s “The Green Isle of the Great Deep”, which was when I stopped reading him….yes he did have a “Zen’ phase letter on….

 (Get on with it…I only came along for the whisky….)

 So, taking the broad view, did we not think that heroes such as Roddy and Finn no longer existed in the world? Indeed Gunn several times draws a parallel between his Finn and Finn McCoul, the Irish hero of legend. Had we not witnessed the death of the hero in modern times? Well….. it was true that we lived in a much safer world than that of the fishermen and it was difficult to portray as a hero someone who, for their own amusement and gratification, sets themselves a dangerous task such as sailing round the world. But after some discussion we agreed that heroism was still to be found in people who fought for the lives of others during a natural disaster, or during a war.

 However, there was unanimity that this enduringly popular novel was a fine achievement, and a great Scottish novel from the twentieth century renaissance in Scottish writing.

 Ah!!! Here came the famous home-bakes! Tuck in! Yes, don’t mind if I do…

 And why don’t you try comparing these two whiskies? Yes, don’t mind if I do…..(hmmm…thought you would never ask)….

 They’re both Japanese…..

 Run that one by me again?

 Both Japanese…..

 Oh……………………Gunn the Scottish nationalist would not have approved, but Gunn the international socialist might have….

 Oh well, any port in a storm for your eagle-eyed reporter……

 Actually, that one’s quite decent, ok if I just help myself?