Neil M Gunn - The Silver Darlings (1941)
100 Best Scottish Books of all Time
Like Neil Miller Gunn, I’m the seventh of nine children. I know what it means to be caught between the Broons and the Waltons, part Bairn, part John Boy. Growing up, I knew Gunn was a founding figure in the Scottish Renaissance, but the only books of his I read as a boy were Butcher’s Broom (1934), all doom and gloom, and The Green Isle of the Great Deep (1944), which I remembered only for its title. Neither novel suggested that it was fun and games in the Highlands.
By contrast, The Silver Darlings conjures up a Golden Age. One moment sticks in my throat like a fishhook. It’s at the end of the chapter entitled ‘The Wreck’, so called because that’s how it leaves the reader. Duncan’s mother refuses to accept her son has drowned, opening her bodice and placing her boy’s bare feet against her breasts till his breath comes back from the beyond. To this day, I carry a card in my breast pocket headed: ‘How to Resuscitate’. Who needs the kiss of life when you can be warmed into well-being like that? John McGrath’s 1994 stage adaptation reproduced that electrifying episode and captured beautifully the spirited struggle with the sea along a rugged stretch of coastline. In the wake of the Clearances, fishing offered an alternative way of life for the crofting communities displaced by landlords and lambs. The pieces of silver caught in the nets of Finn and the other fishermen are herring, the new currency of Caithness. Gunn, a fisherman’s son from Dunbeath, had his finger on the heartbeat of Highland life and got into Zen Buddhism as he got older, an interest he expounds upon in his autobiography, The Atom of Delight (1956).
Some writers display a rampant individualism that would put Thatcher to shame, so it’s a joy to read an author with such a strong sense of comradeship and community. Lewis Grassic Gibbon called Gunn ‘a brilliant novelist from Scotshire’, but The Silver Darlings is a heart-stopping story that resonates well beyond these shores. Finn, at the novel’s end, sprawls on the knoll at the House of Peace and imagines himself as a white-haired old man: ‘Life had come for him.’ This is a novel brimful of what Finn’s mother calls ‘the sweetness of life’. So when the coast is clear, just put your feet up, drink deep, and enjoy it.
Further reading: Sun Circle (1930) explores Highland life at the time of the Vikings; Highland River (1937) is a nostalgic look at Dunbeam and its strath.
View the complete list of the 100 Best Scottish Books.