Archive for the ‘Neil Gunn’ Category

The Well at the World’s End

April 13, 2017

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.

Butcher’s Broom

January 13, 2013

butchers broom

Butcher’s Broom is Neil Gunn’s novel of the Highland Clearances, an event that changed the landscape of the north of Scotland completely and did much to destroy a way of life. This is a much more successful novel than Sun Circle as Gunn is able to recreate events with greater accuracy, and it is clear that representing the history of that time is important to him. The novel feels carefully researched, and also wide-ranging in an attempt to provide background to the Clearances, including a visit to London where the estate’s owners reside.

This is clear from the early pages where Gunn is keen to recount the historical background of Napoleon’s domination following the French Revolution. This provides not only a reason for the young men of the Highlands to be recruited as soldiers, but also explains the need for Britain to become more self-sufficient in food (as well as driving prices up and making sheep farming more profitable). Gunn’s main focus, however, is the Highland community of Riasgan and Dark Mairi who comes to represent that community and way of life – indeed, she is almost at one with the land:

“…in her steady unthinking darkness, she might have walked out of a mountain and might walk into it again, leaving no sign.”

Gunn spends the first third of the novel creating a picture of the way of life. He describes a community spirit with much kindness and plenty of laughter, joking and singing without ever seeming sentimental. Typically Gunn absorbs Gaelic superstitions into his novel and as early as page 58, in counterpoint to the general happiness, we have a character known for their visions muttering, “Fire! Fire!”

Gunn’s other central character is also a woman, Elie, who falls in love with a young man, Colin (Gunn clearly felt that at least one love story was compulsory per novel), who unfortunately impregnates her before leaving to join the army (to be fair, he doesn’t know she is pregnant). Despite such an apparently supportive community, Ellie heads south in secret to have the baby; by the time she returns with a child the old way of life is already deteriorating and the ‘clearance’ of the glen is not far away.

Gunn describes the clearance of Riasgan in all its horrific detail, largely based on historical accounts. The houses were all burned to prevent them being rebuilt, and everyone, from babies to the bed-ridden elderly were forced to leave – on foot of course. The Highlanders’ helplessness is easy to understand:

“What was the sheriff saying now? Why the devil doesn’t he speak in Gaelic? Can’t you speak in Gaelic? We don’t know what you’re saying.”

Soldiers are brought from Ireland to protect the evictors. Heller, who intends to rent the land, is based on the real-life Patrick Sellar who famously said that an old woman should be left to burn in her home – the line is also used in the novel.

The Highlanders are given land at the coast where they must make a living from fishing, but in the final section of the novel we see that much of their old way of life has disappeared and the young men and women are looking to emigrate. Dark Mairi is symbolically killed at the end by a shepherd’s dogs.

Though Gunn’s central characters often seem too blank (it would be difficult to say what distinguishes Elie or Colin from the other young men and women in the novel), this is still a fine novel of an important event in Scottish history that still shapes the Highlands today. Perhaps more important is its depiction of a way of life now lost to us. It’s not, of course, the only novel of the Highland Clearances, and next I hope to look at two more.

Sun Circle

January 3, 2013

sun circle

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.