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TITLE
Extract from 'Light in the North'
EXTERNAL ID
PC_NEILGUNNTRUST_01
DATE OF RECORDING
1972
PERIOD
1970s
CREATOR
Neil Gunn
SOURCE
Neil Gunn Trust
ASSET ID
41313
KEYWORDS
audios
literature
authors
novelists
Literary Landscapes

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This audio extract is from 'Light in the North', an educational film made in 1972 in which the author Neil Gunn talks to George Bruce (poet and former BBC producer) about his life and work. The extract is by kind permission of Scottish Screen Archive at the National Library of Scotland and the estate of Neil Gunn.

Neil Gunn: 'This is Dunbeath, the place where I was born and grew up. It's in Caithness, the most northerly county in Scotland. The fishermen and crofters of the community had a long history behind them. My father was the owner/skipper of a fishing boat. The crew he engaged for the fishing came from the west and one or two of them from the outer isles stick in memory to this day. When I started writing I wrote about the Highlands, about the places we fished as youngsters but we were careful not to let our parents hear we were fishing in such dangerous waters.

The bay is about the only place on this coast where the Vikings could land and hauled up the longships. We went there for seaweed and tangles and for the mussel bait the fishermen used for their small lines. As I climbed up the beach I still remember the rumbling sound of the stones. Something of this I tried to put into 'Morning Tide'.

'The beach sloped in clean grey-blue stones rounded and smooth, some no bigger than his fist, but some larger than his head. As he stepped on them they slithered and rolled with a sea noise. The noise rose up and roared upon the dusk like a wave. All around no life was to be seen. There was no movement but the sea's.'

When I wrote that part at the beginning of 'Morning Tide' I was describing a fact. But after, the whole scene in the ebb gathered a symbolism. I saw life itself coming from the sea, then, coming back again over perhaps millions of years until at last it reached the dry land. 'Morning Tide' was a decisive event in my writing.

Finally, I got to the stage when I had to make up my mind whether I would carry on with my work in the Civil Service or make a full-time job of my writing. Well, I decided to go for the novel.

George Bruce: And how did you begin?

Neil Gunn: I bought a boat.

George Bruce: Well, that really sounds a very odd way for a writer to begin and yet, of course, it took you back to your ancestors, didn't it, that particular thing you did?

Neil Gunn: That's right.

George Bruce: How did you proceed?

Neil Gunn: Well, I had a friend, a Skye man, who had called on me and we were talking about things - he's a good Gaelic singer and so on - and before he, just as he was going out I said to him, 'Look, Hugh, do you know of any smart craft that I could buy anywhere for my wife and myself to go through the, do the west coast and the outer islands? And he stopped and said, 'Man, I know the very thing. I saw her in Skye last week. And she's mahogany from the keep up. She has a cabin you can dance in, a water basin that tips up, and a lavatory that costs over £20.

So we left the following morning for Skye and so began some months of a life that is, that remains very memorable. Even that first night in Skye I attended what was really one of the most intimately carried ceilidh that I'd ever really lived through, so much so that - I was expecting three distinguished guests that night in Inverness - and I only remembered their existence at six o'clock in the morning. So, by this time, I think secret diplomacies had been going on with my friends, you see, and the owner of the boat, because there was a final confrontation. And one man said, 'I think that this is the case where the right thing to do - having considered every point - would be to split the difference.' And the owner and myself looked at each other. His hand came out and mine went out, and so I became the owner of the boat.

Now we had to head it home pretty fast and he had a car with six cylinders in it, so that if your toe wandered lightly onto it, it charged like a Spanish bull, and we were not at first in the frame of mind to deal with that, but we split it up into about twenty minutes a time as we drove home, and got home safely. And there was my wife and she smiled before I could open my mouth, and she knew that I had got the boat, I suppose, and I told her that she was engaged as the whole crew.

George Bruce: Now, these three distinguished guests...?

Well, actually they, after I'd told them I'd bought the boat, they were very generous. The first was George Blake, an old friend of mine - they were three directors by the way, of my publishers, Faber and Faber - and George Blake said he would give me an almanac, a special one, and sailing directions for the west coast. Frank Morley said he would set an engine in the bow of my boat for taking pot-shots at enemy submarines. But T S Elliot, being a poet, said, 'And I may give you a keg of rum.'

You see, I wrote of practical experience and behind me were the people who worked the land and fished the sea. My book, 'The Silver Darlings' is about the effects of the herring industry in a small community. It begins by telling about some crofters whose land has been taken from them and who had to try to make a living out of the sea. In the book I describe their first attempt.

'They had never been so far out from land and the slow movement of the sea became a living motion under them. It brimmed up against the boat and it choked its own mouth, then moved away, and came again, and moved away, without end, slow, heedless and terrible, its power restrained, like the power in some great invisible bull.

These men had to try to make a living from the element which was foreign to them. Near the end of the book seamen, however, look back to their native land as they come from the fishing grounds and they understand more about the place where they live. Sailing along the coast of one's native land was a new way of reading history, a detached way, so that instead of being embroiled in it, one looked on. Here, the castle itself, there the ruin, yonder the parish church, and everywhere the croft houses. Morven, the sailors' landfall, was as clear in outline as the pap before it. The long, low sweep of the land rose and fell. One saw its beginning and its end; the ultimate horizon line of moor, the near gully that fell into the sea.

The water of Dunbeath flowed through the Strath in my boyhood. This ancient wall by the riverside guards the Hill of Peace, where once there was a Christian settlement. Judging by the huge mounds of stone it must have been a large one. There's no record of violence against those missionaries whose message was to replace the older religion. All the elements of life seemed to come together here. So a boy was more alive here in the present and in the past than almost anywhere else. The Strath was for me in those early days an immortal Strath. It was youth's playground - a place for natural life.

Near the Hill of Peace was a Pictish broch. The Picts worshipped different gods. We were told it was more than two thousand years old. I remember as a boy going in to the first time through the twelve-foot thick wall. Time fell away. I was in another world.'


Neil Gunn (1891-1973) was a prolific and distinguished novelist and dramatist, a leading writer of the Scottish Renaissance. His novels are set in the Highlands but are philosophical in tone and allegorical in nature, reflecting wider contemporary issues. A native of Dunbeath, Caithness, Neil entered the Civil Service in 1911 and spent time in London and Edinburgh before returning to the North as a customs and excise officer based in Inverness.

His first novel, 'The Grey Coast' (1926), is set in Caithness in the 1920s. He continued to write novels and contribute articles to magazines and periodicals. After the successful publication of 'Highland River' (1937), Gunn took voluntary retirement from Government service to write full time. He moved to Fodderty near Strathpeffer where he continued to develop his career. His final book, 'The Atom of Delight' is an autobiography of his childhood.

In 1948 Gunn's contribution to literature was recognised by Edinburgh University when they awarded him an honorary doctorate; in 1972 the Scottish Arts Council created the Neil Gunn Fellowship in his honour. There is also a Neil Gunn writing prize, run biennially and administered by The Highland Council and The Neil Gunn Trust.

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Extract from 'Light in the North'

1970s

audios; literature; authors; novelists; Literary Landscapes

Neil Gunn Trust

This audio extract is from 'Light in the North', an educational film made in 1972 in which the author Neil Gunn talks to George Bruce (poet and former BBC producer) about his life and work. The extract is by kind permission of Scottish Screen Archive at the National Library of Scotland and the estate of Neil Gunn.<br /> <br /> Neil Gunn: 'This is Dunbeath, the place where I was born and grew up. It's in Caithness, the most northerly county in Scotland. The fishermen and crofters of the community had a long history behind them. My father was the owner/skipper of a fishing boat. The crew he engaged for the fishing came from the west and one or two of them from the outer isles stick in memory to this day. When I started writing I wrote about the Highlands, about the places we fished as youngsters but we were careful not to let our parents hear we were fishing in such dangerous waters.<br /> <br /> The bay is about the only place on this coast where the Vikings could land and hauled up the longships. We went there for seaweed and tangles and for the mussel bait the fishermen used for their small lines. As I climbed up the beach I still remember the rumbling sound of the stones. Something of this I tried to put into 'Morning Tide'.<br /> <br /> 'The beach sloped in clean grey-blue stones rounded and smooth, some no bigger than his fist, but some larger than his head. As he stepped on them they slithered and rolled with a sea noise. The noise rose up and roared upon the dusk like a wave. All around no life was to be seen. There was no movement but the sea's.'<br /> <br /> When I wrote that part at the beginning of 'Morning Tide' I was describing a fact. But after, the whole scene in the ebb gathered a symbolism. I saw life itself coming from the sea, then, coming back again over perhaps millions of years until at last it reached the dry land. 'Morning Tide' was a decisive event in my writing. <br /> <br /> Finally, I got to the stage when I had to make up my mind whether I would carry on with my work in the Civil Service or make a full-time job of my writing. Well, I decided to go for the novel.<br /> <br /> George Bruce: And how did you begin?<br /> <br /> Neil Gunn: I bought a boat.<br /> <br /> George Bruce: Well, that really sounds a very odd way for a writer to begin and yet, of course, it took you back to your ancestors, didn't it, that particular thing you did?<br /> <br /> Neil Gunn: That's right.<br /> <br /> George Bruce: How did you proceed?<br /> <br /> Neil Gunn: Well, I had a friend, a Skye man, who had called on me and we were talking about things - he's a good Gaelic singer and so on - and before he, just as he was going out I said to him, 'Look, Hugh, do you know of any smart craft that I could buy anywhere for my wife and myself to go through the, do the west coast and the outer islands? And he stopped and said, 'Man, I know the very thing. I saw her in Skye last week. And she's mahogany from the keep up. She has a cabin you can dance in, a water basin that tips up, and a lavatory that costs over £20.<br /> <br /> So we left the following morning for Skye and so began some months of a life that is, that remains very memorable. Even that first night in Skye I attended what was really one of the most intimately carried ceilidh that I'd ever really lived through, so much so that - I was expecting three distinguished guests that night in Inverness - and I only remembered their existence at six o'clock in the morning. So, by this time, I think secret diplomacies had been going on with my friends, you see, and the owner of the boat, because there was a final confrontation. And one man said, 'I think that this is the case where the right thing to do - having considered every point - would be to split the difference.' And the owner and myself looked at each other. His hand came out and mine went out, and so I became the owner of the boat. <br /> <br /> Now we had to head it home pretty fast and he had a car with six cylinders in it, so that if your toe wandered lightly onto it, it charged like a Spanish bull, and we were not at first in the frame of mind to deal with that, but we split it up into about twenty minutes a time as we drove home, and got home safely. And there was my wife and she smiled before I could open my mouth, and she knew that I had got the boat, I suppose, and I told her that she was engaged as the whole crew. <br /> <br /> George Bruce: Now, these three distinguished guests...?<br /> <br /> Well, actually they, after I'd told them I'd bought the boat, they were very generous. The first was George Blake, an old friend of mine - they were three directors by the way, of my publishers, Faber and Faber - and George Blake said he would give me an almanac, a special one, and sailing directions for the west coast. Frank Morley said he would set an engine in the bow of my boat for taking pot-shots at enemy submarines. But T S Elliot, being a poet, said, 'And I may give you a keg of rum.'<br /> <br /> You see, I wrote of practical experience and behind me were the people who worked the land and fished the sea. My book, 'The Silver Darlings' is about the effects of the herring industry in a small community. It begins by telling about some crofters whose land has been taken from them and who had to try to make a living out of the sea. In the book I describe their first attempt.<br /> <br /> 'They had never been so far out from land and the slow movement of the sea became a living motion under them. It brimmed up against the boat and it choked its own mouth, then moved away, and came again, and moved away, without end, slow, heedless and terrible, its power restrained, like the power in some great invisible bull.<br /> <br /> These men had to try to make a living from the element which was foreign to them. Near the end of the book seamen, however, look back to their native land as they come from the fishing grounds and they understand more about the place where they live. Sailing along the coast of one's native land was a new way of reading history, a detached way, so that instead of being embroiled in it, one looked on. Here, the castle itself, there the ruin, yonder the parish church, and everywhere the croft houses. Morven, the sailors' landfall, was as clear in outline as the pap before it. The long, low sweep of the land rose and fell. One saw its beginning and its end; the ultimate horizon line of moor, the near gully that fell into the sea.<br /> <br /> The water of Dunbeath flowed through the Strath in my boyhood. This ancient wall by the riverside guards the Hill of Peace, where once there was a Christian settlement. Judging by the huge mounds of stone it must have been a large one. There's no record of violence against those missionaries whose message was to replace the older religion. All the elements of life seemed to come together here. So a boy was more alive here in the present and in the past than almost anywhere else. The Strath was for me in those early days an immortal Strath. It was youth's playground - a place for natural life.<br /> <br /> Near the Hill of Peace was a Pictish broch. The Picts worshipped different gods. We were told it was more than two thousand years old. I remember as a boy going in to the first time through the twelve-foot thick wall. Time fell away. I was in another world.'<br /> <br /> <br /> Neil Gunn (1891-1973) was a prolific and distinguished novelist and dramatist, a leading writer of the Scottish Renaissance. His novels are set in the Highlands but are philosophical in tone and allegorical in nature, reflecting wider contemporary issues. A native of Dunbeath, Caithness, Neil entered the Civil Service in 1911 and spent time in London and Edinburgh before returning to the North as a customs and excise officer based in Inverness. <br /> <br /> His first novel, 'The Grey Coast' (1926), is set in Caithness in the 1920s. He continued to write novels and contribute articles to magazines and periodicals. After the successful publication of 'Highland River' (1937), Gunn took voluntary retirement from Government service to write full time. He moved to Fodderty near Strathpeffer where he continued to develop his career. His final book, 'The Atom of Delight' is an autobiography of his childhood.<br /> <br /> In 1948 Gunn's contribution to literature was recognised by Edinburgh University when they awarded him an honorary doctorate; in 1972 the Scottish Arts Council created the Neil Gunn Fellowship in his honour. There is also a Neil Gunn writing prize, run biennially and administered by The Highland Council and The Neil Gunn Trust.