What better way to start our tour of Scottish literature than with a novel set before Scotland existed? Sun Circle was Neil Gunn’s fourth novel, originally published in 1933, but something of a departure from the first three, largely contemporary, novels that preceded it. In it he attempts to transport us back a thousand years to a time when Christianity was slowly beginning to take hold on Scottish shores threatened by Viking invaders.
The tension between Christianity and the old religion is quickly seen in the novel. The Master, the leader of the old religion, warns that the Northmen are on their way. As the leaders of the tribe meet, they are summoned by Molrua, the missionary – a message passed on by the chief, Drust’s, wife, Silis, a devoted Christian who has married into the tribe from further south:
“’He expects you to lead them to his hill,’ she concluded. ‘That’s his message.’
‘Do you mean,’ said her husband, turning round, ‘that that is his order?’”
Though they are moved by Molrua’s speech, they still intend to fight the Northmen when they come. That battle is one of the most successful scenes in the novel, Drust leading his men against the more experienced and better armed Vikings to an inevitable defeat. The survivors scatter, and the Northmen lay siege to the Tower, an ancient stone building even then, where Sisil and her daughter Nessa are hiding.
Gunn handles scenes of action intensely and vividly, but unfortunately takes up much of the novel with a love triangle between Aniel, a servant to the Master, Nessa, and her servant, Breeta. Despite Aniel’s pivotal role, his choice between Nessa and Breeta does not relate to the novel’s theme of transition, nor does he agonise much over it, generally fancying whoever is nearest. The girls, too, seem unconvinced, and the whole plotline is made to seem trivial in the life or death situation in which they all find themselves. Gunn’s female characters are often his weakest and his reliance on Breeta in particular to carry much of the story is to the detriment of the novel. Nessa’s appearances, on the other hand, are fleeting, making her desire for the man responsible for both her parents deaths seem irrational rather than profound.
The novel is, however, a brave attempt to bring largely unrecorded history to life. Gunn uses an omniscient narrative voice which moves among the characters, including those of the Vikings – in fact, it is when describing those male relationships he is most successful. The novel ends with the Master prophesying:
“I was looking at the smoke there a little while ago, and far into the years to come I saw the glen smoking again.”
Aniel sets off to bring Drust’s son back from his southern (Christian) education. The holy place of the old religion, the Grove, has been burned to the ground. The glen will burn again in Gunn’s next novel, Butcher’s Broom, which will deal with another time of transformation – the Highland Clearances.