by James Robertson

A Highland Life: Remembering Neil Gunn

September 15, 2014 | by James Robertson

LET us not waste time speculating on how Neil Gunn would have voted. He would have voted Yes. He was all his life a committed Scottish Nationalist. He defended nationalism against the idea that it was intrinsically bad, that it was anti-internationalist and the fundamental source of evils such as Nazism. He would have been irritated, in the present debate, by the endless criticisms of ‘narrow’ Scottish nationalism and bemused by the unquestioning acceptance of British nationalism, which to many of those same critics is either completely invisible or, at times for example of Olympic achievement, marvellously wholesome and entirely benevolent.

In his 1935 book Whisky and Scotland Gunn noted that ‘any effort on the part of any section – such as Ireland or Wales or Scotland – of the Celtic fringe to form itself into a nation is not merely opposed but bitterly resented as if it were something in the nature of a betrayal of human progress.’ Eighty years on, the story is the same. From the Prime Minister of Australia to Lord Robertson of Port Ellen we have been warned that the enemies of freedom and justice around the world will applaud a Yes vote, that the ‘forces of darkness’ will be cheering from the wings. I suppose it is reassuring to know that they care so much.

Neil Gunn does not strike me as having been a nationalist of the flag-waving, drum-beating variety. He took a more considered, and perhaps also a more long-term, view. When Gunn was born, in 1891, the Union of Parliaments was not two hundred years old. Now it is more than three hundred years old. That makes a difference. When he was a boy growing up in Caithness, there were almost certainly people living whose grandfathers had been born in an independent Scotland.

In a film made in 1971 to mark the writer’s eightieth birthday, Neil Gunn: Light in the North, George Bruce questions him about his interest in matters ‘beyond’ the common life of the community – or what Gunn calls ‘profounder states of mind’. Second sight is mentioned, and Gunn’s interest in Zen is also implied. ‘Is there not a danger,’ Bruce asks, ‘in becoming interested in strange experience, that you detach yourself from the central experience of life?’

‘There is actually none [i.e. no danger],’ Gunn replies, ‘because there is always a compensating balance…’ He goes on to talk about his concern with the unity or wholeness of life. He had never, he says, written two novels on the same subject because there was such a variety of life in the Highlands – a greater variety, he believed, than was generally experienced in, say Edinburgh or London. He then speaks of the contentment that comes from having, as he puts it, entered the region of light, and the sense of freedom that come the further you go into the light. He admits that this is difficult territory, and that he is self-conscious about speaking of it lest he be accused of going ‘mystical’ – a word he has never understood because the state of mind he is describing is accompanied by an intense clarity. ‘All the complications of that kind of philosophy must lead – or you fail – to an ultimate simplicity. And this simplicity has the freshness of a lovely morning when you’re in perfect health and you think it’s marvellous to be alive. Or, as one Zen master put it, I fetch water; I break sticks: miracles.’

When he gave that interview Gunn was not in good health. He was lonely, missing his beloved wife Daisy who had died in 1963, and nearing the end of his own life. Yet you hear these things spoken in his beautiful Highland voice and you know he means them. To agree with him that he never wrote two novels on the same subject is not to deny that certain incidents and situations occur more than once in his fiction: the ascent or descent of a cliff, the storm, the boy and the salmon, the poaching foray and so on. Some of these also occur in his last work, The Atom of Delight,the nearest thing he wrote to an autobiography. These are often the moments of heightened experience alluded to in that interview. And although it is certainly true that no two Neil Gunn novels are the same, despite surface appearances, there is a unifying subject, of course: it is life, the wholeness of life.

When I return to one of his books I am struck by the depth of both intelligence and kindness in his writing. I warm to him. I was fourteen when he died and his name was unknown to me then. I was in my mid-twenties when I first read him. He is one of many writers of his generation whom I would like to have met, and one of the few I would love to have known. It seems that it was necessary for Scotland, and the Highlands in particular, to produce a Neil Gunn in the twentieth century. So long as people exist who value quality of thought and expression, and a commitment to good art, Gunn will last. People born long after his death can and do and will come across one of his books and find themselves in it. I don’t mean that they say, of one of his characters, ‘That’s me!’ I mean that they can recognise, in his words, their own search for meaning in life. And this may apply especially – not exclusively but especially – to those readers who are also from the Highlands and have, like him, a Highland sensibility. This idea of recognition seems important.

Gunn came out of a place. He was rooted, and acknowledged the values of that place and its people, but that rootedness did not narrow his outlook. When Lewis Grassic Gibbon read Butcher’s Broom, Gunn’s novel of the Clearances, he wrote to him: ‘After I finished the book last night I went a walk and thought about it and forgot aesthetic appreciation and was merely filled with anger and pity for those people of yours – detachment in these matters is impossible for me, I’m too close to those folk myself. Great book.’ Those people of yours: there is something fierce in that. The Gaels, the dispossessed, the glen-dwellers reformed as fisher-folk: this history was in Gunn’s blood and spirit. He is a great example of why the culture of any country – of any part of a country – matters, and why patronising attempts to tell us that such local or national engagements are irrelevant diversions from the big questions of our time must be resisted. It is always worth reminding ourselves of the embedded parochial arrogance that so often disfigures the cosmopolitan mind, and of the cultural barrenness of multinational globalism which seeks to make customers, the same kind of customers, of us all.

Society changes, and the ways communities are organised and operate change. Many of us no longer have the rootedness that Neil Gunn had. But even if your roots don’t go deep it is not an easy thing to do, in Scotland or anywhere – to pull them up, shake off the soil and go. You always take some of the soil with you, whether to the coast or to the city or to some other part of the world. For much of Scotland’s modern history, that is what millions of people did. They went away from their origins to make new lives elsewhere. They did this, usually, because they had to, or because the prospect of staying was so much poorer than the possibilities offered by leaving. In recent years there has been a change. Many still leave, but far fewer go away never intending to return. More of us stay because the prospect of being here is better than what is on offer elsewhere. And people arrive here from other places for that same reason. There is a future here and, as far as we can look into the future, it looks good. Does that prospect look better or worse if, in a week’s time, we decide to rearrange our present relationship with the other parts of the United Kingdom, this kingdom that is not so united or together as is sometimes claimed?

Here we are in Inverness, just round the corner from Larachan, the house in Dochfour Drive which was built for Neil and Daisy and where they lived in the 1930s, and just round another corner is the referendum. In his many articles in the Scots Magazine and elsewhere Gunn clearly and calmly made the case for independence – and if nothing else they remind us just how long this debate has been going on. He wanted independence not just for Scotland but for communities and individuals: he wanted political and economic power devolved as far as they could be devolved, not just to Edinburgh but to – his special interest – the Highlands and Islands, to bring sustainable employment and decent living standards to ordinary people. He discussed farming, fishing, forestry, land ownership, transport links, hydro-electricity, appropriate industries – the arguments have not changed that much in seventy years – but he had a wider context, which was self-belief, a spirit of confidence that he thought was often absent from Scotland.

At first glance there seems to be a contrast between the straightforward, down-to-earth tone of his journalism and the occasionally opaque difficulties of some of his fiction; the grasping for meaning that goes on in the novels. But if you accept what he said in that 1971 film, there is no mismatch between the two: Gunn dismisses any danger of detaching oneself from the central experience of life; there is the compensating balance between, if you like, the practical demands of life and reflection on what life is. Most of us cannot live without reflection. Certainly we cannot reflect without having lived.

In their biography, Neil M. Gunn: A Highland Life, published in 1981, Francis Hart and John Pick write: ‘The deeper Neil penetrated into the Highland landscape of heart and mind, the more his books implied that “other landscape” which is seen so simply when the “second self” wakes up and looks at this world, alive in all its dimensions, in its depths and vividness. For the “other world” is “this world” seen by one who is fully awake.’ When Neil started exploring Zen, it was not that it influenced him. ‘It was of value to him because he recognised it. Zen joined him companionably in the place where he was.’

Note that heart and mind are not here an either/or pair. They are not fighting one another. We are often told – or it is implied – that the Yes/No vote in the referendum is a battle between heart and mind, feeling and thinking, emotion and rationality. Not so. You cannot separate out such key elements of human consciousness. It is a false way of looking at how we behave, both as individuals and as a group.

Yet consider the referendum campaign. Why has the debate been conducted so overwhelmingly in terms of economic and social benefit or detriment? Have politicians shied away from questions ‘beyond’ facts and figures lest people think they have ‘gone mystical’? Are they afraid of stirring up unhealthy or unhelpful passions? Perhaps. ‘Civic’ nationalism as espoused by the Scottish National Party has the great advantage of not being about ethnicity, creed, colour or language. Scottish independence is not predicated on arguments of blood and soil. Yet, however coolly rational we may think ourselves, none of us will go into the ballot box without that ‘other’ landscape and life having an influence. Behind the question, ‘Should Scotland be an independent country?’ is another question ‘What kind of country do you want Scotland to be?’ And behind that one lie more questions: ‘Who are we?’ ‘Who am I?’ ‘What am I doing here?’ ‘What is the truth of my experience, of my existence?’ How can I reconcile myself to life?’

Barely seven of the 670 pages of the Scottish Government’s White Paper, Scotland’s Future, are concerned with culture. The strength and vibrancy of Scottish culture are, however, flagged up  so maybe it was felt that there was no need to go on about it. Arguably ‘culture’ underpins everything else that is in the White Paper. If Scotland were not Scotland, with its own national attributes and institutions and its people having a sense of collective identity, there would be no SNP, no devolution and no referendum. It is a curious absence nevertheless.

In the Depression years of the 1930s, in Whisky and Scotland, Gunn wrote: ‘Even Nationalists shy clear of anything so unpractical as a spirit. The material things of life are the deciding factors, the “drift south of industry,” the unemployment, the slums, the classing of one’s country as a “derelict area.” Agreed, with sad cheers. Yet when we see a man beginning to go down at heel and learn his business is going to the devil, we do not form societies to put heels on his boots and charitable money into his affairs, we merely wonder what has happened to him, knowing instinctively that if we can get him right, the rest will follow.’

 ‘That seems simple, yet doubtless it is very difficult,’ Gunn concludes. His point, though, is that if spirit, or culture, or a sense of who we are, are excluded from any vision we have of the kind of country we want, then the vision will be incomplete.

Here he is again, in his final novel, The Other Landscape: ‘For when all aspects of living are narrowed to the economic, the complexity that makes the whole pattern of living… is vitiated if not quite lost.’ Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. A Yes vote or a No vote cast solely on the basis of the likelihood of material gain or loss, whether to the tune of £500 or any other sum, is not a vote for a better country, but a cold and selfish calculation which – it should be said – is utterly uninsurable in either case. We cannot know the future. We can only go towards it, and whether we do so in hope or in fear it will not be without risk.

Later in The Other Landscape, the narrator is returning, hung over, from a night of serious drinking and serious talk: ‘It was a rare summer morning, chill and sweet. A morning for standing grasses and still bushes, wild flowers and a piquant air, earthy and sharp, elusively scented. Hopping slowly, a hare appeared round a bend below. When it saw me it stopped. Its ears went up. Pointed ears of the morning. I could not remain still long, and when I moved it vanished back down the dell..

‘The hare’s world. The innocence of the morning. The freshness. The forgotten, the secret landscape. I was light-headed and liked it. No more thought, that dark disease, that inner cancer.’

This does not suggest to me that Gunn had ‘gone mystical’, that he had abandoned thinking in favour of woolly-headed mysticism – the myth, as his biographers Hart and Pick put it, that in later life ‘Neil Gunn had retreated into esoteric nonsense’. Rather, the opposite: I think he was trying to anchor philosophy to tangible, sense-laden nature. Compare that passage in Gunn’s last novel with this one, from David Hume’s Treatise of Human Nature: ‘Where am I, or what? From what causes do I derive my existence, and to what condition shall I return? Whose favour shall I court, and whose anger must I dread? What beings surround me? and on whom have I any influence, or who have any influence on me? I am confounded with all these questions, and begin to fancy myself in the most deplorable condition imaginable, invironed with the deepest darkness, and utterly deprived of the use of every member and faculty.

‘Most fortunately it happens, that since reason is incapable of dispelling these clouds, nature herself suffices to that purpose, and cures me of this philosophical melancholy and delirium… I dine, I play a game of backgammon, I converse, and am merry with my friends; and when after three or four hours’ amusement, I would return to these speculations, they appear so cold, and strained, and ridiculous, that I cannot find in my heart to enter into them any farther.’

For Hume, the anchorage lay among his friends, in conversation and amusement. For Gunn, it lay in nature, and perhaps in the other landscape which lay within, or as a mirror to, the Highland one he inhabited.

In one of Gunn’s finest works, Highland River, the hero Kenn, in middle age, having been through the hell of the trenches of the Somme, comes home and follows the river of his childhood up onto the moor to its source: ‘There was nothing one could do with the tragic conception of life except acknowledge it…Bow to it, giving nothing away, and pass on the moor like sunlight , like shadow, with thoughts hesitant and swift as a herd of hinds. In this way one is undefeatable – until death comes. And as death is inevitable, its victory is no great triumph.’

‘In the end,’ as Rory Watson has written of this passage, ‘there is no end, and no goal, only the quality of the moment.’ Life is made up of many moments, and most of them are not of great quality or clarity. But the ones that are, the ones that come into perfect focus, these are the remembered ones, and if we are fortunate in our lives they are the ones that make us who we are. I came upon myself sitting there, is how Gunn tried to describe the first time he experienced one of these moments, as a boy sitting on a boulder in a river, cracking hazelnuts. This isn’t just about having the experience: it is about recognising it.

We do not have to be a David Hume or a Neil Gunn to experience these moments, to touch the elemental. Ordinary life is extraordinary if we recognise it. This indeed is precisely what Gunn believed and what he tried to express in his writing. So let me propose that something elemental and extraordinary may happen when we go into those polling booths on 18th September and put our Xs in one or other of the two boxes on that ballot paper. ‘Should Scotland be an independent country?’ It is a big question, certainly, one loaded with possibilities, but in essence it is very simple. How will we answer it?

No opinion pollster in the world can tell us exactly what transaction of heart and mind will take place, perhaps as many as four million times, on that day. Nor can I, and nor am I going to predict the outcome. But here is my proposition: at that moment, in the privacy of the polling booth, calculation – based on all that information, all those facts and figures, that throughout the campaign people have been saying they need – will be supplanted by something else: a gut instinct or feeling. This may make people decide to vote one way or the other, but it will be an elemental choice; reason, as David Hume might have put it, acting as it should, as the ‘slave of the passions’. This is not a grievous or irrational error, by the way: this is being human. If your gut says, I cannot say no to the idea of my country’s independence, or if it says, I cannot make that risky step into the unknown, then your gut is probably telling you a truth about yourself.

Neal Ascherson, in his book Stone Voices, writes of a public meeting here in Inverness, at the Town House, on the eve of the 1997 referendum, when a Scottish parliament was voted back into existence: ‘Then an old man in the front row, grasping his stick, began in a sonorous voice: “Never again will this chance come. Your fathers and your grandfathers look on at you.” I heard a hiss of indrawn breath all around me. He went on: “This is a moral and even a spiritual decision. Let politics look after themselves!”  And the grave men and women in the room began to clap their hands and to cry out in agreement.

And here is something from near the end of my first novel, The Fanatic. The scene is Leith Walk in Edinburgh, on 2 May 1997, the day after the General Election which ended nineteen years of Conservative rule and which, although that other referendum was still to happen, effectively guaranteed the establishment of Scotland’s modern Parliament. A homeless woman, who is not on the electoral roll and who therefore hasn’t voted, is walking towards Leith, aware that some big political event has happened. She reads the billboards and she understands. The sun is shining. She is heading to Leith because she wants to see something down there: ‘There was an old ship due to come into Leith any day now. Or rather, it was a new version of an old ship. Captain Cook’s Endeavour, that had sailed to Australia in seventeen something or other. Somebody had reconstructed it, and was sailing it round the world as a kind of tribute. Or to see how Cook had done it, or maybe just to prove he’d done it. Something like that. She wanted to see the tall ship. If  it wasn’t in today she’d have to come back for it.

‘That was something to look forward to anyway. The thought of it: the tiny wooden shell that men had stepped into two hundred years ago and taken to the end of the earth. You’d feel your way along familiar coasts and then you’d be off into the unknown. You’d go blindly but you’d keep an eye out. If you kept going forward you would eventually get to a place you recognised.’

I think, when we vote next Thursday, it will be as whole people, choosing a future from and for the wholeness of our lives. We will choose without violence, and the next day we will start to live with the choice that has been made. We may choose in hope, or in fear, but either way there will be risk and either way there will be uncertainty. Before we enter the booth, we will have weighed up the arguments, the calculations, the ifs and buts, maybes and howevers, and all of that debate and deliberation may have prepared us to make our mark in one box or the other. Yet, as the pencil hovers over the paper, the arguments will leave us and we will be alone with that big, simple question: ‘Should Scotland be an independent country?’

I think that will be a moment worth savouring; a moment of recognition. Savour it. Recognise it. Be in it.

And then we will have voted, and life will continue. And if we keep going forward into the future, as we must, we will, eventually, get to a place we recognise.


Extracted from the text of the 

Neil Gunn Lecture, given by
James Robertson 

at Eden Court Theatre, Inverness, on Thursday
11th September 2014.

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