Highland River by Neil M Gunn

Canongate Classics, 1996, 246 p, plus vi p Introduction by Dairmid Gunn. First published in 1937.

Though it is couched as a sort of biography of Kenn, a young boy growing up into manhood and early middle age, this is an unusual novel in that its focus is really on the river of the title – almost a character in its own right – and clearly rooted in the author’s upbringing in the town of Dunbeath in Caithness and his knowledge of the Dunbeath Water which runs into the sea there. Evocation of landscape is a major component of the Scottish novel in general but not always as to the fore as it is here. Gunn’s descriptions of the river are precise and detailed so that the reader almost feels present. Not that he neglects characterisation; Kenn’s mother, elder brother and father are sketched economically but powerfully and all the minor characters have the stuff of life. It is, too, a philosphical novel, crammed with the thoughts Gunn puts into Kenn’s head as he recounts his experiences. It joins the long roll of Scottish literature about times lost and a way of life remembered.

The first scene is of a very young Kenn’s struggle with a huge cock salmon in the lower reaches of the river. In the end he manages to land it and this marks his transition into boyhood. (This episode is also commemorated by a statue erected by proud locals alongside the harbour in Dunbeath. I featured the statue in this post.)

This is one of many instances where the catching of fish (whether trout or salmon) is portrayed, the elaborate precautions taken to avoid gamekeepers, the deep knowledge of the likely pools, the intricate procedures needed to spy the fish and entrap it. Another early scene shows the disconnect between geography lessons about the main industries of English cities and Kenn’s daily life. None of that mundane esoterica is relevant to existence in a small village. Kenn finds himself dreaming through such lessons and as a result becomes the subject of his teacher’s wrath, expressed as was the custom of the times via the institutionalised violence of the tawse.

In contrast, despite the reticence bred by Calvinism – “None of the mothers in that land kissed their sons. If it were known that a boy had been kissed by his mother, not a dozen school fights would clear him of the dark shame of such weakness,” a weakness seen as more the mother’s than the son’s, “Nor can Kenn remember having seen his father kiss his mother ….. affection was as shy and as invisible as death,” – his parent’s quiet attitude to Kenn’s academic success and his own reluctance to declare it speak volumes.

As for the rock of the family, “Kenn’s mother did not go to church simply because she believed she was not worthy ….. She had done nothing to make herself unworthy. She was seen in her life as a good woman and without reproach. Yet she believed herself unworthy.” The men, too, did not take communion; their lives, tainted by rough living (and the odd drink,) had “not contained enough solemnity of holiness to justify them in going forward.”

The narrative flits back and forth through time between Kenn’s childhood, his experiences in the Great War and his life as a physicist afterwards, but the transitions are not jarring. They seem to occur organically, scenes flowing smoothly into one another. It is a kind of stream of consciousness, but controlled, always alert to the point. The removal in the Highland Clearances of Kenn’s not so ancient ancestors from the land they had worked since time immemorial, henceforth to make their living through sea-fishing, is mentioned in passing but without it they would not have been in reduced circumstances.

Through it all the river exerts its pull, Kenn’s last journey in the book marking his progress at last up to its source where he thinks, “Out of great works of art, out of great writing, there comes upon the soul sometimes a feeling of strange intimacy.” Here, Gunn’s intimacy with his subject, his feel for his particular hinterland, reaches beyond the Dunbeath Water, beyond the village which shares its name, beyond Scotland, to become universal, recognised by Highland River’s award of the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for 1937.

Pedant’s corner:- In the Introduction; a quote is given partly as “you make me try to see him” (the text actually has ‘you made me try’,) “no so ancient” (not so ancient.) Otherwise; Sans’ (several times, Sans’s,) a missing comma before a piece of direct speech (x 3,) milennia (millenia,) Archimedes’ (Archimedes’s,) acction (action,) “this land of bare moors had their austere effect” (had its austere effect.)

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