Having read fifteen of Scottish writer Neil Gunn’s nineteen novels, it seemed too good a chance to miss when I discovered that one of those I hadn’t read, The Well at the World’s End, had been published in 1951 – the very year which Karen and Simon had chosen to be the focus of their April ‘Club’. The Well at the World’s End is one of Gunn’s later novels (his first, The Grey Coast, was published in 1926); only two others followed, along with his autobiography, The Atom of Delight, which was the final book to be appear in his lifetime in 1956. Gunn had always been a spiritual writer as well as a great documenter of Highland life: his most famous novels are probably his historical trilogy Sun Circle, Butcher’s Broom and The Silver Darlings, and his autobiographical tale of childhood, Highland River. It’s not entirely surprisingly, then, that The Well at the World’s End can be read as a spiritual quest, albeit a rather strange one which defies easy interpretation.
The novel begins with Peter Munro staring into a well that is “obviously dry.” This is surprising as he and his wife, Fand, holidaying in the Highlands, have been sent there to fetch water by an old woman who lives nearby. When, not a little put out, he returns to inform her there is no water to fetch, she insists, “That well is never dry.”
“…a man can always see where the surface of water, however crystal, touches the sides of its container. There is a difference between air and water. All he had to do was pick up a handful of dry pebbles form the bottom… Then with the air of someone on the brink of some extraordinary revelation he stooped and slowly put his hand down, and his hand went into water.”
Peter is a Highlander himself – his father was a shepherd – but he is now a university professor. Though they have come to the Highlands together, Peter intends to leave Fand for a few days “to go wandering over the hills and through the glens, taking every adventure as it came…” (Throughout Gunn’s work you will discover he views men and women as quite different). It may seem strange that Gunn should encumber Peter with a wife given that for the majority of the novel he will soliloquise while she is firmly in the wings, but the novel is also a celebration of their love for each other.
Though Peter’s intentions aren’t entirely clear, the story can be read as a quest:
“And he saw that was no need to be grandiloquent; no occasion for fantasy. It would be interesting to find out if among ordinary people there were those moments of penetration, the instant when they went through the boundary, the moment when they saw the crystal water in the well.”
What follows is a series of adventures and encounters which can make the novel feel more of a collection of incidents than a driven narrative. Peter encounters the hospitality of shepherds, fishermen, and landladies, but his journey is not without danger, including a fight in a pub, being knocked unconscious by illegal distillers, and a near-death experience at the end. (Also, every time he gets a lift from a local, he feels he is placing his life in their hands).
In fact, the episodic nature of the novel is not illusory: parts of it were based on shorter pieces which Gunn had previously published. A masterful chapter describing a fishing boat in a storm, for example, originates from a Scots Magazine article which appeared in 1935.This, alongside an excellent haunted house story which neatly strides the divide between scepticism and mystery, are among the best parts of the novel. Others, such as the English ex-spy Cocklebuster, a previous acquaintance Peter encounters in the middle of nowhere, seem either dated or just jarring, despite some amusing description:
“It was the very voice, the high ha-ha ‘county’ voice, that had made some of them seriously wonder if the man could in fact whisper.”
(Cocklebuster is also declared to be “as sane as a cliché”). As for an episode where he attempts to rescue a lamb only to crush it death as it saves him from a possibly fatal fall, it’s genuinely difficult to know what to make of it. Generally the novel is difficult to decode: one motif seems to be a pair of silk pants (that’s underwear, for our American readers) which his wife packs in his rucksack for him. These are mentioned so often it’s hard to not be convinced they mean something – but what?
The Well at the World’s End may not be Gunn at his best, but it does make him a more intriguing writer. It demonstrates his constant striving to be both local and universal, an important facet of the Scottish Renaissance of which he was part. It’s probably not the best place to start or finish with Gunn, but an interesting adventure along the way.