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.

Dunbeath, Caithness

Just over the Dunbeath Water from the small harbour lies Dunbeath Castle. This photo was taken from up the hill the road ascends north of the village, where we had parked the car:-

Dunbeath Castle

This is a closer view taken from the harbour:-

Dunbeath Castle Close-up

On a wall by the harbour is this memorial to the SS Gretafield which was torpedoed off Wick on 14/2/1940, set on fire, and finally ran aground on Dunbeath beach. 12 men died.

SS Gretafield Memorial, Dunbeath

A small building had a kind of museum to the small boats people used to use for fishing out of Dunbeath. This is a model of the type. I kept thinking of The Silver Darlings:-

Model Boat, Dunbeath

The Lament: A Scottish Tradition.

I mentioned recently in my review of Christopher Rush’s A Twelvemonth and a Day that it fell into that long list of laments with which the Scottish novel is liberally bestowed – going back at least as far as the poem on the state of the nation written on King Alexander III’s death after falling from a cliff in Fife in 1286, but which may well be an oral tradition older still.

This sense of things lost seems to be an itch which Scottish letters is unable not to scratch.

Many of the books on the 100 best Scottish Books list fall into this tradition; of the ones I have read not only the Rush but also Iain Crichton Smith’s Consider the Lilies, Archie Hind’s The Dear Green Place, William McIlvanney’s Docherty, George Mackay Brown’s Greenvoe, Neil M Gunn’s The Silver Darlings, Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s Sunset Song certainly qualify. Arguably Jessie Kesson’s The White Bird Passes also fits the bill; its title certainly does.

Whether this dwelling on things gone by is due to a sense of lost nationhood or not is a matter for debate but the itch is played out not just in Scottish literature, the lament is a major strand in bagpiping and has a long history in song (eg The Flowers o’ the Forest.) The Proclaimers’ Letter From America – “Bathgate no more” etc – is merely a modern take on the form.

Another important strand in the Scottish novel is that of the döppelganger/the supernatural. Here James Hogg’s Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, which can certainly be seen as a reflection on the duality of the Scots psyche after the Treaty of Union as well as an illustration of Scottish literature’s fascination with the Devil, is the prototypical – and arguably the finest – example though Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is perhaps better known furth of Scotland.

On thinking about all this I realised that, despite being Science Fiction, my own novel A Son of the Rock was also such a lament (though it eschews any truck with the supernatural.) The book was certainly conceived in part as an allegory of the decline of shipbuilding on the Clyde which had occurred in my early lifetime but I had not consciously been aware of any wider resonances while I was writing it. I did though somewhat impertinently consider it as a “condition of Scotland” novel.

Perhaps Scotland’s condition has always been in decline, its writers always noticing what has been, is being, lost. I note here that Andrew Grieg’s Fair Helen is a retrospective lament for the loss of “wit and laughter, music and dance and kindliness” in the Reformation.

Reading Scotland 2015

A lot of my Scottish reading this year was prompted by the list of 100 best Scottish Books I discovered in February. Those marked below with an asterisk are in that 100 best list. (In the case of Andrew Greig’s Electric Brae I read it before I was aware of the list and for Robert Louis Stevenson his novella was in the book of his shorter fiction that I read.)

Electric Brae by Andrew Greig*
A Sparrow’s Flight by Margaret Elphinstone
The Guinea Stamp by Annie S Swan
The Girls of Slender Means by Muriel Spark
The White Bird Passes by Jessie Kesson*
Attack of the Unsinkable Rubber Ducks by Christopher Brookmyre
Buddha Da by Anne Donovan*
Flemington by Violet Jacob*
Tales From Angus by Violet Jacob
Annals of the Parish by John Galt
The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber
Change and Decay in All Around I See by Allan Massie
The Hangman’s Song by James Oswald
Wish I Was Here by Jackie Kay
The Hope That Kills Us Edited by Adrian Searle
Other stories and other stories by Ali Smith
Young Adam by Alexander Trocchi*
The Gowk Storm by Nancy Brysson Morrison*
No Mean City by H McArthur and H Kingsley Long*
Shorter Scottish Fiction by Robert Louis Stevenson*
The Expedition of Humphry Clinker by Tobias Smollett*
Girl Meets Boy by Ali Smith
Fair Helen by Andrew Greig
The Dear, Green Place by Archie Hind*
Fur Sadie by Archie Hind
Greenvoe by George Mackay Brown*
Stepping Out by Cynthia Rogerson
Open the Door! by Catherine Carswell*
The Silver Darlings by Neil M Gunn*
Scotia Nova edited by Alistair Findlay and Tessa Ransford
After the Dance: selected short stories of Iain Crichton Smith
John Macnab by John Buchan
Another Time, Another Place by Jessie Kesson
Consider the Lilies by Iain Crichton Smith*
The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan*
Poems Iain Banks Ken MacLeod
Mistaken by Annie S Swan
Me and Ma Gal by Des Dillon*
Tea with the Taliban: poems by Owen Gallagher
A Choosing by Liz Lochhead
The Cone Gatherers by Robin Jenkins*
Born Free by Laura Hird*
the first person and other stories by Ali Smith

That makes 42 books in all (plus 2 if the Violet Jacob and Archie Hind count double.) None were non-fiction, 3 were poetry, 2 SF/Fantasy, 19 + (4x½ + 3 doublers) by men, 13 + (3 doublers and 1 triple) by women, 2 had various authors/contributors.

100 Best Scottish Books (Maybe)

I came across this list a week or so ago. There are some odd choices in it. The Woolf and Orwell are surely pushing it a bit to qualify as in any way Scottish. And The King James Bible? Yes he was primarily a Scottish King but the endeavour was undertaken for reasons to do with his English realm.

Those in bold, I have read. There’s a lot I haven’t. Time to pull my socks up.

(Edited to add:- Those with a *I have now read.
Edited again to add:- I have added even more than these to the “have now read” list.)

John Galt – Annals of the Parish* (1821) I’ve read The Member and The Radical. See my review here.
Aonghas Pàdraig Caimbeul – An Oidhche Mus Do Sheòl Sinn (2003) This is written in Gaelic and hence beyond my competence.
Kate Atkinson – Behind the Scenes at the Museum – (1995) I read this years ago.
Ian Rankin – Black and Blue* (1997) I’ve not read this Rankin but I have Knots and Crosses.
Laura Hird – Born Free* (1999)
Tom Nairn – The Break-Up of Britain: Crisis and Neo-Nationalism (1977) Non-fiction
Frederic Lindsay – Brond (1984)
Naomi Mitchison – The Bull Calves (1947) Not a Mitchison I’ve read but I’ll need to catch up with more of her work. (As of May 2016 on tbr pile.)
Anne Donovan – Buddha Da* (2003)
Matthew Fitt – But n Ben A-Go-Go (2000) Science Fiction in Scots! Brilliant stuff.
Patrick MacGill – Children of the Dead End (1914)
AJ Cronin -The Citadel (1937) Cronin was from Dumbarton. I’ll need to read him sometime.
Frank Kuppner – A Concussed History of Scotland (1990)
Robin Jenkins – The Cone-Gatherers* (1955)
Thomas De Quincey – Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (1822)
Iain Crichton Smith – Consider the Lilies* (1968)
R. M. Ballantyne – The Coral Island (1858) I may have read this as a child but I cannot actually remember doing so.
Louise Welsh – The Cutting Room (2002) (tbr pile)
Robert Alan Jamieson – A Day at the Office (1991)
Archie Hind – The Dear Green Place* (1966)
James Kelman – A Disaffection (1989) I read years ago. Kelman is essential.
RD Laing – The Divided Self (1960) non-fiction
William McIlvanney – Docherty (1975) Again read years ago. Again McIlvanney is essential reading.
David Hume – An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1748) Philosophy. I haven’t read this.
Andrew Greig – Electric Brae (1997) A superb first novel. See my review here.
Tobias Smollett – The Expedition of Humphry Clinker* (1771) Smollet was from Renton, which is 2 miles from Dumbarton.
Violet Jacob – Flemington* (1911)
Agnes Owens – For the Love of Willie (1998) See my review here.
Ian Fleming – From Russia, With Love (1957) Fleming? Scottish? Only by extraction it seems.
Dorothy Dunnett – The Game of Kings (1961) (tbr pile)
Denise Mina – Garnethill (1998) (tbr pile)
James Frazer – The Golden Bough (1890)
Nancy Brysson Morrison – The Gowk Storm* (1933)
Bernard MacLaverty – Grace Notes (1997)
George Mackay Brown – Greenvoe* (1972)
Alistair MacLean – The Guns of Navarone (1957) I read this many years ago. Decent enough wartime thriller.
J.K. Rowling – Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (1997)
Joseph Conrad – Heart of Darkness (1902) Conrad was the favourite author of the original Jack Deighton (my grandfather.) I’ve read The Secret Agent and always mean to get round to more. But… Wasn’t Conrad Polish?
John Prebble – The Highland Clearances (1963) Non-fiction
Ali Smith – Hotel World (2001) See my review here.
Arthur Conan Doyle – The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902)
George Douglas Brown – The House with the Green Shutters (1901) A Scottish classic; see my review.
Willa Muir – Imagined Corners (1931) (tbr pile)
Luke Sutherland – Jelly Roll (1998)
Chaim Bermant – Jericho Sleep Alone (1964) is on the tbr pile.
James Robertson – Joseph Knight (2003) Robertson is another of those very good present day Scottish authors. My review of Joseph Knight.
Various – King James Bible: Authorised Version (1611) ???? See comments above.
Alasdair Gray – Lanark (1981) Absolutely superb stuff. More essential reading.
Ronald Frame – The Lantern Bearers (1999)
James Boswell – The Life of Samuel Johnson (1791)
Bella Bathurst – The Lighthouse Stevensons* (1999) Non-fiction. I bought this for the good lady and it’s another I keep meaning to read.
George MacDonald – Lilith (1895) The Scottish tradition is to write fantasy rather than SF. I’ll need to catch up with this.
John Burnside – Living Nowhere (2003)
Anne Fine – Madame Doubtfire (1987)
Alan Spence – The Magic Flute (1990) I’ve read his Way to Go.
Des Dillon – Me and Ma Gal* (1995)
Margaret Oliphant – Miss Marjoribanks (1866)
Alan Warner – Morvern Callar (1995) I think Warner’s most recent books The Worms can Carry me to Heaven and The Deadman’s Pedal are more successful.
George Friel – Mr Alfred, MA (1972) (tbr pile)
Neil Munro – The New Road (1914)
William Laughton Lorimer (trans.) – The New Testament in Scots (1983)
George Orwell – Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) I know it was written on Jura but Orwell? Scottish?
Alexander McArthur and H. Kingsley Long – No Mean City: A Story of the Glasgow Slums* (1935)
Alexander McCall Smith – The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency (1998)
Christopher Brookmyre – One Fine Day in the Middle of the Night 1999) Brookmyre is a fun read – if a little too liberal with the violence. But this isn’t even his best book. See my review here.
Catherine Carswell – Open the Door!* (1920)
Andrew O’Hagan – Our Fathers (1999) I have yet to warm to O’Hagan. My review of this book.
A.L. Kennedy – Paradise (2004) Kennedy’s more recent Day and The Blue Book impressed me more.
Muriel Spark – The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961) My review is here.
James Hogg – The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1824) The quintessential Scots novel. The döppelganger tradition starts here.
Suhayl Saadi – Psychoraag (2004)
Nan Shepherd – The Quarry Wood* (1928)
Walter Scott – Rob Roy* (1818) Scott more or less invented the Scots historical novel but I can only remember reading Ivanhoe.
Thomas Carlyle – Sartor Resartus (1836) Anothe disgraceful omission on my part I fear.
Toni Davidson – Scar Culture (1999)
Margaret Elphinstone – The Sea Road (2000) I’ve read Elphinstone’s A Sparrow’s Flight and The Incomer; but not this. (tbr pile)
Jimmy Boyle – A Sense of Freedom (1977)
George Blake – The Shipbuilders (1935) (tbr pile)
Gordon Williams – The Siege of Trencher’s Farm (1969)
Neil M Gunn – The Silver Darlings* (1941) Of Gunn’s work I recently read The Well at the World’s End.
Ron Butlin – The Sound of My Voice (1987) I’ve not read his poetry but Butlin’s fiction is excellent. My review of The Sound of my Voice.
Robert Louis Stevenson – The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde* (1886) Following on the döppelganger tradition from Hogg. Again I can’t remember if I’ve read it or just watched adapatations on TV.
Jeff Torrington – Swing Hammer Swing! (1992)
Lewis Grassic Gibbon – Sunset Song (1932) A brilliant novel. Worth its status as a classic. See my thoughts here.
John Buchan – The Thirty-Nine Steps* (1915)
Virginia Woolf – To the Lighthouse (1927) (tbr pile)
Irvine Welsh – Trainspotting (1993)
Janice Galloway – The Trick is to Keep Breathing (1989) I fear Galloway is an acquired taste. See here.
Jackie Kay – Trumpet (1998) I read this last year.
Christopher Rush – A Twelvemonth and a Day* (1985)
Michel Faber – Under the Skin (2000)
David Lindsay – A Voyage to Arcturus (1920) In the Scots tradition of the fantastical but has a weirdness all its own.
Iain Banks – The Wasp Factory (1984) The much lauded Banks debut. I’ve come to think A Song of Stone may outrank it.
Adam Smith – The Wealth of Nations (1776) The foundation stone of Economics.
Compton Mackenzie – Whisky Galore (1947) (tbr pile)
Jessie Kesson – The White Bird Passes (1958) To be reviewed within the week!
Kenneth Grahame – The Wind in the Willows (1908) I may have read this as a child but can’t honestly remember.
Alexander Trocchi – Young Adam* (1954)
James Kennaway – Tunes of Glory (1956) (tbr pile)
John Gibson Lockhart – Adam Blair (1822) (tbr pile)

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