Light In The North - Neil Gunn
4th November 2014
Writer George Gunn with Jennifer Ross on Clarsach.
Location: Salmon Bothy, Dunbeath Harbour.
Saturday 8th November 2014 - 2.00 - 4.00pm.
This Saturday is Dunbeath Preservation Trust‘s annual celebration of the life and work of Neil Miller Gunn - native son of Dunbeath, novelist, short story writer, essayist, political activist, whisky connoisseur and retired exciseman, lover of boats and the sea. The event this year is part of a Highlands wide Homecoming festival for 2014: ‘My heart's in the Highlands', and will be held is one of the Trust’s harbour buildings: the gleaming white salmon bothy, tucked just out of sight beyond the ice house at the very end of the harbour road. Usually, the birthday celebration is in the main Heritage Centre building up the road beside the school, with its ornately painted ‘Highland River’ floor-map.
Neil Gunn was born in Dunbeath on 8th November 1891. His father was a fisherman, and the mouth of Dunbeath Water, opening out as it does to the rocky east coast of Caithness, is the inspiration for many scenes familiar to lovers of his novels. From page one, even those readers who have never set foot in Dunbeath, might swear they can sniff the salt air and iodine tang of the shore at ebb-tide as they turn the pages of Neil Gunn’s fist successful novel, Morning Tide, which opens with twelve year-old Hugh MacBeth gathering bait for his father’s fishing lines. Morning Tide, like Silver Darlings and Highland River after them, certainly evokes nostalgia for a pastoral way of life that was coming to an end in Caithness and the rest of the Highlands at the turn of the twentieth century. However, these novels also suggest a disinterested dark menace latent in Nature, and the vulnerability of families economically dependent on the land and the sea. A particularly unforgettable scene in Morning Tide describes the anguish of families waiting onshore as they watch local skippers literally take their chances, battling a violent storm to bring their boats and men into the safety of the boiling harbour.
A great part of Neil Gunn’s particular gift - in both his fiction and non-fiction - is his ability to sketch in a solidly reliable historical setting, and strike it through with vivid flashes of description and characterisation. To those who know Dunbeath and can read between Neil Gunn’s lines, the river, the broch, the Hill of Peace, the salmon pools, the hazelnuts are all faithfully portrayed in Highland River. But what marks the story out as a piece of literary genius – and provokes imaginative engagement - is how the scene of Kenn’s legendary encounter with the salmon on his way to school – which happens early in the novel – becomes heightened in significance, and the salmon and the river itself become symbolically linked with the human story of Kenn growing up within an elemental landscape.
George Gunn is among those whose love for the work of Neil Gunn is engrained. A very different writer from Neil Gunn despite sharing a surname and a county of birth, George Gunn has supported Dunbeath’s Light in the North festival over many years. George Gunn named the theatre company he created in 19?? after Neil Gunn’s first novel: Grey Coast Theatre Company produced many plays throughout its ?? years, many of them on themes Neil Gunn also explored. The blend of Viking and Celtic cultures characteristic of Caithness and Sutherland has been inspiration to both men, and for Light in the North 200? Grey Coast Theatre Company produced the last of three projects working with Dunbeath and Lybster primary schools on a dramatization of Butcher’s Broom – Neil Gunn’s searing indictment of the economic policies that led to people being cleared from their land to make way for sheep.
George Gunn knows Neil Gunn’s work well. He also shares with Neil Gunn a love of Caithness’s natural heritage, and an anger at how often its resources have been exploited with a view to the short term. No backward-looking Romantic, Neil Gunn wrote many clear-sighted essays in which he advocated innovation and ambitious enterprise to support rural communities. In recent years, George Gunn has followed up his local newspaper column – ‘From the Deck of the Pictish Navy’ - by writing regularly for Bella Caledonia, an online newspaper, where he touches on themes that also exercised his predecessor.
"I love this time of year despite the oncoming darkness of Winter because we can celebrate the light in the work of Neil Gunn. His novels, I've always thought, are at their core long narrative poems with characters who have a human music which is perennial. So where better to engage in poetry, music and story than the Portormin bothy in Dunbeath? Its atmosphere is perfect - there will be a fire, food and drink; there will be clarsach music from Jennifer Ross and the sea outside the door!
In my new book "The Province of the Cat" - which I'll share a bit with folk on Saturday - I discuss this cultural combination. It is one of the things which keeps Caithness alive and attractive. The bothy may be peedie but Caithness is a stage for giants."
The Salmon Bothy at Dunbeath harbour will provide an atmospheric setting for George Gunn’s tribute to his namesake. With its wood-burning stove, tilley lamps, tea and home-baking, it seems the perfect place and the perfect time of year to welcome winter, and consider the work of Caithness literature past and present.
The icing on the birthday cake will be clarsach music by Jennifer Ross from Lybster. A student of Cultural Studies with the UHI, Jennifer works at Dunbeath Heritage Centre during the summer season, and is passionate about the importance of maintaining and promoting the culture of Latheron parish, where both she and Neil Gunn were born.
Dunbeath Preservation Trust is grateful to Funders of My heart's in the Highlands: The National Trust for Scotland, Highlife Highland, Highland Museums Forum, Museums Galleries Scotland, Heritage Lottery Fund, The Highland Council, Moray Connections, Homecoming Scotland
Light in the North 2014 is at the Salmon Both, Dunbeath Harbour, Sat. 8th November 2-4pm
Admission £5 - at the door.
Dunbeath Heritage Centre, Dunbeath, Caithness.
Tel 01593 721233 info[AT]dunbeath-heritage.org.uk