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Light In The North - A Celebration Of Neil Gunn's Work

16th October 2008

Photograph of Light In The North - A Celebration Of Neil Gunn's Work

LIGHT IN THE NORTH 2008 - a celebration of the life and work of Neil M. Gunn

Sat. 1st November
Dunbeath Heritage Centre
Dunbeath, Caithness
5 (including Lunch)


Dunbeath Heritage Centre: (01593) 721233
Scotia Review: 07918171347 or editor[AT]

When times are bad we really need our artists. Of course, they're out there all the time, beavering away, the best early-warning system known to man. It's in crises, however, that they come into their own absolutely, opening our eyes to priorities, separating essentials from trivia, sifting the critical from the inane.

Annually, 'Light in the North' celebrates the life and work of Caithness's very own literary super-hero. Neil Miller Gunn, born in Dunbeath in 1891, became one of the key writers of the twentieth century - an indisputable icon of the Scottish literary renaissance. A master storyteller, Gunn had a particular skill in gathering onto his narrative canvas an impression of the folk and landscape of the Highlands of north Scotland, and portraying them - not in kailyard bliss - but as part of the real universal continuum of Past, Present and Future. His child heroes grow up secure in strong community values, but prone to the confinements of crofting subsistence; supported by an understanding of the need to 'get on', but held back by a social system that disregards native wit and the generations of folk wisdom that have sustained life in the straths.

Many of his protagonists wrestle to find in the towns and cities of contemporary Scotland anything measuring up to the elegance and balance available to a man at one with the land he lives on, and with the whole of the natural ecosystem it generates. Men leave the straths to go to fight Napoleon, and come home to cleared land; boys go to university and return strangers to themselves and the families who were so proud to see them go. Fishing communities grow out of cleared farming communities; those fishing communities in turn struggle to survive as the economic tide changes, and the herring boom fades. Boom and bust - recognise the cycle? Yes: when times are bad we really need our artists

This year's festival on 1st November at Dunbeath Heritage Centre brings together one of Neil Gunn's best-known and best-loved works, with one that is little known and remains to this day unpublished. 'Highland River' is a novel known to contain much material that is autobiographical, in that it is an amalgam of characters and incidents drawn from people and instances of Gunn's childhood, growing up in the then fishing village of Dunbeath. 'The Ancient Fire ' is a play, written in 1929, set initially in the slums of industrial Glasgow during the Great Depression of the inter-World-War years, but moving dramatically into an archetypal Highland landscape.

Writer Kenneth Steven will share the first part of the day with Neil Gunn's nephew, Dairmid, who has written the introductions to many editions of his uncle's work. Best known perhaps for his children's books, Kenneth Steven will describe how Gunn's novel 'Highland River' was an inspiration for his own trilogy of novels, 'The Highland Trilogy', from which he will read. Kenneth Steven's novels depict three different Highland stories, one of them imagining the last days of life on St Kilda. Like Gunn, he depicts something of the unique quality of life such places engender, but does not fight shy of showing the harshness that also defines them. Given that the character of Kenn Sutherland, famous as the boy who catches his first salmon on the Highland River, is based on Dairmid Gunn's father, John - brother of Neil - the discussion following Kenneth Steven's presentation should throw up some fascinating insights.

During the afternoon, the festival has something of an exclusive. Actors from Grey Coast Theatre's community troop, The Skraelings, will read extracts from 'The Ancient Fire'. Written in 1929, this play was staged only once. Dairmid Gunn has kindly released to Scotia Review a manuscript copy from the Neil Gunn archive in the National Library of Scotland. Set in times of economic strife and urban poverty that make our global crisis seem a paltry affair, the drama centres on the character of Lachie, a Highlander exiled as co-owner of a men's clothing shop in the sums of Glasgow. The play opens with Lachie testing his fishing gear for a rare trip home to catch salmon. So far so familiar. But Gunn as dramatist is no less ambitious than Gunn the novelist, and there are some touches within the piece that would challenge the most sophisticated modern audience and test even the most modern director. Not to be missed!

Weather during November is not something that can be anticipated. Barring deluge, however, it is hoped there will be time after the play-reading to take a short walk through part of the landscape made so famous by 'Highland River'. Who knows, you might even bump into the ghost of Kenn, staggering home to his mother with his legendary salmon?

Light in the North 2008 is a collaboration between Scotia Review, Dunbeath Preservation Trust and Grey Coast Theatre.

11.00am Writer KENNETH STEVEN on how Gunn's 'Highland River' has inspired his own work, especially his book of stories 'The Highland Trilogy', from which he will read.

DAIRMID GUNN, nephew of Neil Gunn, will lead a discussion.


1.00pm NEIL GUNN's unpublished play, 'The Ancient Fire' [1929] GREY COAST THEATRE's community actors, THE SKRAELINGS, will read from this previously unknown work.

Time permitting, there may be a walk up the Strath afterwards



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