Authors: Neil M. Gunn
Foreword Â© 2003 Dairmid Gunn
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Neil Gunn, one of Scotland's most distinguished 20th century novelists, wrote his first book in 1926 and his last 30 years later. Although certain themes remained central to his writing, the author's emphases and interests changed with the passage of time. In other words, the development of his vision followed several paths and reflected the influence of a succession of external events that encompassed the Recession and political crises of the 1930s, the Second World War and the beginning of what came to be known as the Cold War. Throughout Gunn's long writing career, which could be described as a spiritual odyssey, the quest for freedom, happiness and completeness was always there.
By the time he came to write
The Silver Bough
in 1948, he had established himself as a novelist of considerable standing. His
(1930) was a Book Society choice and his
(1937) the winner of the prestigious James Tait Memorial Prize. Notable among his other books were three epic recreations of Highland history,
(1933) covering the genesis of Caithness,
(1934) the âClearances' and the immensely successful
The Silver Darlings
(1941) the herring boom of the early 19th century.
The Green Isle of the Great Deep
(1944), which preceded George Orwell's
, illustrated the indestructible strength at the heart of a Highland commumity and its old and youthful representatives in the face of the deadening threat of totalitarianism. This ambitious novel was read with great interest by the famous Swiss psychiatrist, Carl Jung.
The Silver Bough
represents a new development in Gunn's writing, a development that can be explained, at least in part, by the events leading up to the end of the Second World War. The dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima had shown the ugly side of nuclear physics and dampened hopes for the development of nuclear science for peaceful ends alone. Gunn, who had a strong mathematical bent, was fascinated by nuclear physics, but was saddened by the threat to mankind of nuclear weapons of mass destruction. Paradoxically, he saw a value in mapping out a future for humanity through looking back to ancient times and beyond for perspective and meaning. In his childhood he had been familiar with the brochs and cairns of his native Caithness; as a mature writer he had been fascinated by standing stones near his home in the hills near Dingwall in Ross and Cromarty. Archaeological sites and speculation about them had appeared in several of his books. He understood the value of archaeology.
At the heart of
The Silver Bough
is a hilltop cairn surrounded by standing stones. Its excavation is the task of Grant, a middle-aged archaeologist, who is the principal protagonist in the novel. The excavation dominates the story but as important is Grant's relationship to the local community. Among its members are his crofting landlady and her beautiful granddaughter, Anna, and her fatherless child, Sheena, the local laird, Martin, and the mentally retarded Andy, whom Grant employs as his manual labourer. Each has a part to play in the mosaic of seemingly unrelated events, and each in a curious way contributes to Grant's speculations on how the Neolithic people of the cairn lived their lives.
The simple charm of the life led by the crofting family and the quiet tenor of Highland life have a timeless quality about them, which links the present with the past and provides a meaningful influence on Grant's musings. One of his epiphanies is described in this way. âThe wind flattened and combed the irrepressible grass, and the rain was a driving mist against the dark-brown mountains. All at once he (Grant) saw old Fachie by the sheltered gable of his house, his left arm outstretched and his dog rushing low to the earth to round up a cow or stirk that had gone into the young corn. There were no other figures to be seen and in a moment the little drama with the old bent figure might have been of any age back to Neolithic times.'
Andy too connects present with past, although unwittingly. His shambling gait and inability to express himself other than by gesticulations and grunts feed Grant's imaginative mind with thoughts of the original community of the cairn.
As imaginative as Grant's ideas is the plot of the book, which is as intricate as a Celtic ornamental design. To the mysteries of the skeletons of a mother and child found in the cist in the cairn is added the question of the identity of the father of Anna's child, Sheena. Embroidered in the theme of deserted mother and child is the myth of the Silver Bough, a story lovingly told to the little girl by her great grandmother. It concerns a king who, in his desire to acquire the magic bough and its silver bells â and thereby happiness â sells his wife and daughter to the King of the Sea.
A second mystery develops round the discovery and loss of a crock of gold from the cairn. After the find, the crock is seized and hidden by Andy. Efforts to induce Andy to divulge the hiding place meet with no success and the search is on â a search that will end when a standing stone unexpectedly claims a âsacrificial' victim.
Both strands of the plot bring into vigorous play the main characters in the story. Grant's musings and speculations spread outwards like ripples in a loch and affect the lives of those he meets. In particular, they give some meaning to the life of Martin, who is mentally and emotionally scarred by his experiences in the war. The more Grant applies himself to the unsolved mysteries of the skeletons and the gold, the more he embarks on a process of self-discovery.
Although the mythical theme running through the book is serious, the incidents and conversations surrounding the main action of the story are laced with humour. Particularly amusing are the conversations with fellow archaeologists in deviously learned talk. Even nature imitates the humour of the intellectuals. âThe green of the grass was greener, fresher, as wind and rain swept under the hurrying sky. The grasses flattened themselves, wiggled in green mirth that held on. The rowan tree was a more solemn riot, full of convolutions of itself and high bursts of abandon, but sticking to its own root at all the odds. For a miraculous moment the cat appeared on the garden wall. A blackbird whistled and was gone. Between the bursts he heard the pounding thunder of the sea.'
The legend of the Silver Bough and the quest in Celtic mythology for the crock of gold are vital ingredients in Gunn's belief in the importance of understanding the past and preserving the continuity of life from antiquity to the present â a continuity that can only be maintained if the wisdom of the past is neither forgotten nor forsaken. For him the preservation process is sustained more by myth and living tradition than by the written word in scholarly books. A sentence from the preface of
The Golden Bough
by the famous anthropologist James Frazer sums up Gunn's views on the value of living tradition most accurately. âCompared to the evidence afforded by living traditions, the testimony of ancient books on the subject of early religion is worth very little'. To that, Grant of
The Silver Bough
adds, âAnd not only of early religion.'
imon Grant, who had handled many skulls in his time, was immediately taken by the shape of the head, the colouring, and the fineness of the features. He got a close view of it as he turned to lift his rucksack off the seat and make room for the man beside him. “Lovely day,” he said, with a friendly smile.
The dark eyes steadied upon him for an incurious moment. “Yes.” Then the man settled himself and the old country bus rattled on.
Grant turned his face away and stared through the glass, disconcerted by that objective look. There had been no feeling in it, no human interest, yet a very little more of it would have scattered his wits. A demobbed officer of his county regiment, he thought . . . descent through Highland landowners . . . definitely archaic, he decided, using a vague word for a start. They had entered on a vast stretch of vacant moorland, backed by mountain ridges of no particular height in the flattening summer heat. The heather was a dead dark brown and, in the clear sunlight, held the tone of the man's eyes.
Every seat in the bus was occupied, with two young fellows standing near the door, talking to the conductress in low voices and laughing now and then. He had been enjoying their country mannerisms, the Highland drawl, and had particularly observed the way they flattened themselves against glass and woodwork as the man beside him had entered.
Like himself, most of those on board were clearly visitors or tourists and it had been interesting to watch their behaviour, to glance at the shape of their bones, their colouring; to time, as it were, their reactions; for all this required no conscious effort, but on the contrary was once more a familiar amusement for one who had been ill and was restored to the sunlight with a pleasant and possibly exciting gamble ahead. For from the given factsâand Colonel Mackintosh, his chief, was celebrated for his scientific caution as an archaeologistâthere was at least a sporting chance of finding a small hoard of skulls, each one of them, except for the possible “intrusion” of a round head, as long asâand now the word came to himâthe
one on the man beside him.
His happy discovery was interrupted by two young women who suddenly saw a distant cow and a solitary cottage in a green depression of the moor where water meandered, and in the hubbub of wonder created by the word “lonely” Simon Grant said, “Excuse me, but I am going on to Kinlochoscar, and I just wondered if you might know Mr Donald Martin of Clachar House.”
The dark eyes considered him. “Yes.”
“Can you tell me if he happens to be at home?”
“Not at the moment, I believe.”
“Ah. Thank you.” Grant moved on his seat, flustered a trifle, and said, as he glanced out of the window. “I have a letter of introduction.”
The laughter over the cow and cottage ceased as amazement at the reality of loneliness held eyes to a long, unwinking stare. He saw one of the two lads in front turn his back, lower his head and whisper something to the conductress. She gave him a short jab with her elbow, which he seemed to enjoy; but presently, as she turned to cast a negligent glance over the bus, her eyes steadied for an instant on the man beside him. Her face was noticeably flushed.
Grant was not upset by his companion's manifest desire not to engage in conversation. For himself, he never quite understood this silent mood of long-suffering which seemed to afflict so many of his countrymen when travelling, though he had often pondered it. In the present instance, however, it was something more, even quite other, than a taciturnity. The dark eyes had seemed to move over his face in an inscrutable guessing, a detached courtesy, yet set far back in them there had been for a moment something hard and solitary like a standing stone in an arid waste. This was what had flustered him, even if he now realised that he had probably seen no more than his own reflection. Besides, his thought was inclined to run to standing stones!
Slowly, mile by mile, the moor rose to its height, to a loch with pines and a gamekeeper's house, the entrance to a concealed shooting lodge, and then the road tipped over as it passed between the mountains and began the descent of the gorge. The scenery was magnificent. An hour later they drew up before the hotel at Kinlochoscar.
Simon Grant had not written to the hotel, which was quite a large one, as early June had never been part of the “rush season”; but for the last few miles he had overheard enough talk to worry him. When he got out of the bus, he slung his rucksack over his shoulder and made for the reception office.
“No. I'm afraid I haven't booked. I didn't thinkâ” The tall dark-haired manageress smiled and shook her head. “We're absolutely full up.”
“Not even a cornerâanywhereâuntil I look round?”
“No. We have quite a few sleeping out. “
“You meanâno chance even of private houses?” And now he was visibly concerned.
“Afraid not. But you could ask the postmaster. We have had to refuse many bookings.”
“Really,” said Grant. He scratched his close-cropped pointed ginger beard; his blue eyes quickened and glanced; his short slim body, his arms, moved with a restless energy.
“Since the war . . . people can't get abroad . . . the same everywhere, I hear . . . unless you book it's quite hopeless . . .” Recognising something unusual in the middle-aged figure before her, she was doing her best to explain; but now other travellers were pushing up to the desk. Grant suddenly awoke to them, smiled, thanked her, and then from a yard or two called, “The postmaster?”
She smiled to him between the heads of her guests. “You could try.”
The postmaster stopped serving a small girl with groceries and also shook his head, but ultimately told him to try Mrs MacPherson. After Grant had been to four houses, he realised that he was taking part in an old Highland game: no one liked to leave him without hope. It was a haphazard attractive village at the head of a sea-loch. When he got back to the hotel he saw a solitary suitcase on the stretch of gravel where the bus had drawn up. He had quite forgotten that he possessed such a thing. Having wiped his forehead and resettled his hatâan old tweed affairâhe picked up the suitcase and struggled with it towards the hotel entrance where a porter was good enough to take it from him. He intercepted the manageress in the hall; she smiled sympathetically and said she half feared all along that his hunt would be hopeless. He wiped his forehead again, dropped his hat, and smiled. They discussed the situation. His only hope, it appeared, seeing, as he said, he did not mind where he slept, was at the small township of Clachar, which, unfortunately, was three miles away. That, Grant assured her, would suit him excellently. “Remember, I'm promising you nothingââ” she was beginning to explain, when he responded with a certain eye-flash: “But I could try?” He had a rather high-pitched but pleasant laugh. In the end it was agreed that he could partake of the early afternoon tea provided for guests arriving by the bus, leave his suitcase in the hotel, and then set out on foot for Clachar, seeing he would rather not wait until six o'clock “or maybe a little later”âwhen an hotel car would be available. She turned back to him, “If you're absolutely stuck for a bed for the nightâI'm promising you nothing, remember, for, to tell the truth, I'm frightened to ask how the maids are sleeping in the atticââ” “But I shouldn't mind an atticâeven thoughâeven ifââ” His momentary earnestness broke as he stumbled, and they both laughed. The touch of colour enhanced her appearance, and as he went to wash he decided that for one so busy the manageress was a charming woman.
Refreshed and with the rucksack firmly settled on his back, Simon Grant apologised to the manageress for troubling her once more but wondered if by any chance she could tell him where he might find Mr Martin of Clachar House.
She gave him a glance. “Why, yesâI saw him about a few minutes ago.” She walked to the hotel door. “There he is,” she said quietly, drawing back a pace. And Grant saw a man coming round the corner of the hotel and setting out alone along the Clachar road. It was the man who had sat beside him in the bus.