The Silver Darlings by Neil M Gunn

faber and faber, 1989, 590 p. First published in 1941. Borrowed from a threatened library.

 The Silver Darlings cover

Set just after the Napoleonic wars, this novel (one of the 100 best Scottish Books) describes the beginnings of the good times when the fishing of herring – the silver darlings of the title – brought a measure of prosperity to the villages between Brora and Wick on the seaboard of the Moray Firth. Many of these families had been cleared from Kildonan to make way for more profitable sheep and would otherwise barely scrape a living by crofting. In particular the novel focuses on Finn, the son of Catrine. The book opens with a scene where Finn’s father Tormad is press-ganged from the sea by a navy cutter. Tormad dies five days later from the blow on the head he received while resisting but this is not confirmed till Finn is a full-grown man. As a result Catrine’s relationship with accomplished fisherman Roddie is not acknowledged – even by themselves – to be what it is until the last few chapters. Incidents in Finn’s life to that point are interwoven with depictions of village life, fishing, sea voyages and the economics of the herring trade. It provided livelihoods not just for fishermen but for the local women as gutters, not to mention sundry curers, coopers, exporters and boatbuilders.

The time was one of religious revival and fervour as hardliners complained, “The Established Church of Scotland … was selling God’s kingdom for the comforts of a manse.” In the person of Sandy Ware we are given an exemplar of these strict killjoys. The austere developments are not altogether welcomed, though. Finn makes a couple of trips to the Western Isles where an old islander complains, “ – there are places in these islands where dancing of any kind is stopped by the new ministers. A terrible blight is coming upon the happiness of the human heart and upon the happiness of the world.”

In common with many Scottish novels the book contains detailed descriptions of landscape and, in this instance, seascapes. The two trips to Stornoway necessitate navigating through the notorious Pentland Firth and various accounts of storms pepper the tale.

On returning from his service in the navy one of Finn’s father’s companions on the boat that was pressed tells him, “Where all is compulsion and enforcement, it’s the bully that rules,” but it isn’t all serious stuff. We hear tell of, “Big John Angus McGrath – an elder in the church, too. Every time he took a dram, he would shake his head and say, ‘Nasty stuff! Nasty stuff!’ To my father’s knowledge he said it for over fifty years,” but the focus is mainly on Finn and the important business of growing up and making a place in the world.

Pedant’s corner:- back and fore (a northern thing, then, x2,) “the eyes in, clined to stare” (the eyes inclined,) “Youlikethatname?” (no spacing,) had entranced (no spacing,) one sharp prog (prod? ) wen (when,) “s even nets” (seven,) Cathechism, Catechism, a missing full stop, (x 4,) an unnecessary line break, couldnot speak (could not,) thier (their,) “We’ll go the Shetlands,” (go to the Shetlands,) Lock Skiport (Loch Skiport appears correctly twice later on the same page!) The spelling gunnels, rather than gunwales, is used throughout.

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  1. Denis Cullinan

    Hello Jack,
    May I recommend a book? I have a feeling you’ve already read it, given the amount of reading you do. The book is John Buchan’s autobiography “Memory Close the Door.” What struck me about Buchan’s early life was how free he was of the distractions that young folk take for granted in these days (music, TV, movies, video games, iPhones, etc., etc.) and yet he felt what called “bliss” in his young days. I suppose you already know that he was the author of “The Thirty-Nine Steps.” BTW, if I may poke my opinion in, I like the remake with Kenneth More a lot better.

  2. jackdeighton

    What a near coincidence. I’ve actually just started reading Buchan’s “John Macnab”. (My sidebar “currently reading” icon lags behind by about a week to allow me time to write reviews.)
    I’ve not read his autobiography – I’m not a great one for non-fiction – but the good lady may have it as she quite likes Buchan – and his sister, O Douglas, even more.
    I may read The Thirty Nine Steps (again?) soon. My mother liked Robert Donat so the earlier film was her favourite. The More one is one of my first memories of the cinema though.

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