Neil Gunn's Houses

In a creative life that spanned over thirty years Neil Gunn lived and wrote in the Highlands of Scotland. For him the Highlands area was the world within which he could indulge his thoughts on matters of philosophy and gain his extraordinary perceptions of time and space. In his foreword to Highland Pack, a collection of essays, Gunn writes: 'Yet when I was asked to consider writing a personal book on the Highlands, I was sadly embarrassed as there is hardly a corner of that wide and varied area that does not contain for me some memorable experience. I would scarcely know where to begin, what to stress.' Gunn, of course, did write a form of autobiography, The Atom of Delight. I use the word form as the book does not fit the idea of conventional autobiography based on readily identifiable facts of a public or private life. In their excellent biography of Gunn, A Highland Life, Francis Hart and John Pick described The Atom of Delight as being more reflective philosophy than autobiography. They themselves did an imaginative and comprehensive job in piecing together the life of this most elusive of men and lam greatly indebted to them for helping me to improve my understanding of the author, my uncle. I confine myself to bringing together something about my uncle's life in terms of the various houses in which he lived and wrote. Houses have their influence on sensitive and creative people and, sometimes, such people leave behind an atmosphere that lingers. But that is subjective stuff.

Far almost all his writing life Gunn lived in four houses, all of which are to be found in the Easter Ross and Inverness areas. In these houses—Larachan in Inverness, Braefarm House and Kincraig near Dingwall, and Kerrow House in Glen Cannich—Gunn wrote about all parts of the Highlands and particularly about his beloved Caithness. His most successful books The Silver Darlings and Highland River breathe of Caithness with its endless moors, alluring straths and forbidding cliffs. This most northern of counties, the county of his childhood, occupied an important place in Gunn's thinking, being for him the principal source from which he drew his ideas and embarked on his philosophical adventures. The four houses and their environs were also important to him-in most cases as havens of peace and tranquility; they also, each in its own way, contributed ideas and provided stimuli for his writing. In this article I include too a description of the house in which he spent the last years of his life, Dalcraig near North Kessock on the Black Isle. Although he did not write any books there, he did some literary work and, above all, charmed and enriched so many of his friends who were fortunate enough to call on him.

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In 1926, encouraged by the sale of his first novel The Grey Coast, the author and his wife, Daisy, had a bungalow built at the northern end of Dochfour Drive in Inverness. When Larachan was completed, there were few other houses in the drive and the view towards the Caledonian Canal and the hill beyond was over green fields. At that time he was employed as an excise officer and, thanks to the convenient location of his office at the Glen Mohr Distillery near the Muirtown Bridge, could walk to work. Some afternoons he would return early from his work to do some writing. It is almost certain that his desk was in the small upstairs room to the front of the house. From its dormer window he would have seen the masts of boats in the Canal and beyond that Craig Phadrick, where King Brude of the Picts was said to have had his fortress. The subject of Brude and his meeting with St Columba and his missionaries fascinated him with his sympathetic interest in Pictish civilization. The reaction of one culture or race to another is part of the main theme of Sun Circle, written during the Larachan years.

There was more to life at Larachan, however, than the author's excise work and writing. The bungalow was a venue for gatherings of the more thoughtful and artistic people from Inverness, and beyond.

The sitting room to the left of the front door (as seen from the road), with its book-lined walls, absorbed many a weighty or light-hearted conversation on cultural or political topics. Gunn's interest and participation in the activities of the Scottish National Party was then at its greatest and Larachan had the distinction of being called by John MacCormick 'the spiritual home' of his group. This flattering description by the politician reflects not only the depth of the deliberations and conversations that took place in the house but also the atmosphere created by the host and hostess that made such fruitful exchanges possible. Visitors from further afield were to enjoy this atmosphere. The great poet T. S. Eliot, then a director of Faber and Faber, stayed with the Gunns but had to be accommodated in a caravan in the garden. The accommodation during my visit there was even more austere. As a child of about two I had to sleep in a drawer in one of the bedrooms—an experience of which I have only a hazy recollection.

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In 1938 Larachan was sold—a step taken because of Gunn's decision to give up his post with the Civil Service to become a full-time writer. His success with Highland River, which won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize in 1937, provided the final stimulus for this change of direction. His years at Larachan as a part-timer had been productive; among books published were such successful works as Morning Tide, Sun Circle, Butcher's Broom and Whisky and Scotland. The last mentioned will always bring to mind the author's associations with Inverness—the walks along the Canal from the Glen Mohr Distillery, and the office there. The book, fortunately still in print, is written with the imagination, veneration and delicacy of feeling that a connoisseur of wine would be happy to employ to describe the 'grands vins' of France.

Gunn's change of direction was done in style and with a marked element of risk. He bought a twenty seven foot motor boat. The boat, The Thistle, was to take Gunn and his crew of wife and brother (my father) on an odyssey that was to last three months and take them through the Caledonian Conal and round the Inner Hebrides. The immediate result of the voyage was the publication of Off in o Boat. The book is more than a delightful travelogue; it explains why the author withdrew from what had been a crowded, satisfying and varied life and why I used the phrase 'change of direction'. The new life with its total dependence on writing for income and satisfaction meant the withdrawal—at least for a time—from many activities that had so pleasantly filled his life and the loosening of many ties of friendship. The latter effect, alas, has not always been understood.

In 1938, with the voyage behind them and the boat sold, Gunn and his wife rented Braefarm House, a five bedroomed stone-built house situated on high ground to the north of the strath connecting Dingwall to Strathpeffer. The house faces south and from the front room to the eastern side of the house, which the author used as his study, views can be obtained of Dingwall, the Cromarty Firth and Knockfarrel, the hill across the valley. Behind the house there is a gradual ascent through typical farm and croft land to the moors (now partially afforested) and distant hills. The house has the advantage of not being isolated, whilst enjoying all the blessings of a remote spot. It was ideal for Gunn and the daily routine he developed. This took the form of writing in the mornings and walks in the afternoons, which gave him the opportunity of meeting crofters and observing wild life in all its variety. An idyllic place for a reflective man and during these years on the Heights of Brae there was much on which to reflect. The War was on and the evils of totalitarianism had been made manifest. The importance Gunn attached to the wholeness and completeness of the human psyche continued to be nurtured at Brae by his contact with the countryside and its crofting community and is reflected in varying degrees in all the books he wrote there. These books included such masterpieces as The Silver Darlings, Young Art and Old Hector, The Serpent and The Green Isle of the Great Deep. The last mentioned was the author's answer to the totalitarian state and was (and, alas, still is) a very topical book.

The two books, however, that reflect most immediately his life at Braefarm House are Highland Pack and The Shadow. (Certain features of the Heights' landscape are also recognizable in The Serpent.) Highland Pack, written in 1949, faithfully describes the countryside around Braefarm House and gives a good idea of the author's habits. For a reading public tired of the restrictions and dreariness that are part of the aftermath of war, the essays in this book had a cheering and restorative effect. Let me quote one extract: "Jibydo is a cock chaffinch who considers it his special duty apparently to treat our house to a regular round of song. Round is the only word for he starts upon the ancient ash tree by the north east window, does a careful swoop to the aged elm beyond the south west window, and when he has exhausted his second urgency of song, does a double swoop to the old plum tree in the vegetable garden at the back, where he performs with equal vigor". Jibydo has been immortalised in that essay; Daisy, Gunn's wife, finds herself recorded for posterity in The Shadow. 'She is comfortably slim and though well over forty the gold in her hair hasn't faded much … she is a tirelessly energetic worker and yet she can stand quite still." These two lines catch the essence of Daisy, who for me always symbolised the spirit of the house, and indeed of the garden. The way things were arranged—her husband's deep and comfortable arm chair, which only he used, with its back to the south east bay window where the desk was, the pipe rack by the east gable window and the tastefully hung pictures by his great friend Keith Henderson—all bore witness to her touch. For Gunn she lived up to the inscription he wrote on her copy of The Shadow, 'For one who chases all the shadows away.

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But Daisy couldn't chase away the shadow of having to desert their happy home at Braefarm House, where they had been tenants, and seek another house. Gunn's biographers claim that this was a watershed in the author's life. "His writing was never the same, his health and Daisy's were never the same. At Brae he had reached a peak of popular success and esteem. Now a decline began." In 1949 the Gunns bought Kincraig. It is an attractive house built in very much the same style as Braefarm House, but with a very different situation. Wedged between the Dingwall—Evanton road and the Cromarty Firth, the house looks towards Dingwall, with the windows in its seaward gable enjoying an uninterrupted view of the firth and the Black Isle. The garden in front of the house is long and narrow and below it, but above the shore, is a stretch of pathway that simply calls for the brisk stroll, quarterdeck style. Gunn's room was the front room on the seaward side of the house. The room itself bore an extraordinary resemblance to the one he had used so fruitfully at Brae, and with Daisy's deft and tasteful touch with the furniture, the author could have felt that his room at Brae had been transferred. But there were differences. The position of the house made long walks possible only if the main road and mud flats (when the tide was out) were used, and there was the noise of traffic on the road. Compensating for these disadvantages were attractive views and access to the firth, with its immense variety of bird life. The tall figure fishing from the shore in an old rain-coat and an equally old hat with brims down fore and aft was a familiar sight to the passerby. The compensations, however, were not enough. Only two books were written at Kincraig—The White Hour, a revamped version of an earlier set of short stories, Hidden Doors, and a novel, The Well at the World's End. The novel concerning an aging intellectual's quest for renewal cannot conceal the author's desire to be off and away again with all the adventure and irresponsibility of youth. In 1951 the Gunns were off again, but only as far as a new home in Glen Cannich.

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Kerrow is a fine large house a hundred yards from the right bank of the River Glass and about a mile upstream of the little villlage of Cannich. A stretch of salmon fishing goes with the house. For the Gunns the Kerrow years were of mixed fortune. Significant repairs to the house prolonged the settling-in period. A long and successful tour of the West and certain public commitments helped to absorb Gunn's interest. He was particularly enthusiastic about his work with the Commission of Inquiry into Crofting Conditions, as he could see such work leading to a regeneration of community life in the Highlands. Interests, however, were not a real substitute for creative work. Unfortunately, the atmosphere at Kerrow was not entirely conducive to such work. Problems with a neighbour and a prolonged disagreement with his gardener caused his thinking and conversation to be troubled, if not dominated, by the trivial to the exclusion of all that meant so much to him. In casual chats during walks along the birch-linked bank of the river or along the long drive towards the public highway linking Tomich to Cannich he would too often concentrate his remarks on the behaviour of this neighbour and his attention on tangible evidence of the guerrilla warfare waged against him. Ill health, the death of several friends and a motor accident all eroded the tranquil atmosphere Gunn so anxiously sought. Even the river ultimately became a demanding attraction. It had to be fished successfully and records kept to make the house easier to sell. Fortunately, his brothers John and Alick were only too delighted to help him with this pleasant task.

I did not know Kerrow as well as I did Braefarm House and Kincraig but I always felt that it wasn't quite the house for the Gunns. For a start, it was more a family house and much too big for a couple of people, and the garden was difficult to manage. As always, Daisy worked wonders with the interior and made the rooms facing south east to the back of the house comfortable and suitable for her husband's work. Unfortunately, problems with the gardener prevented her from making her usual distinctive contribution to the beauty of the garden. Despite all this, Gunn managed to write three books at Kerrow—Bloodhunt, The Other Landscape and The Atom of Delight. The last two mentioned showed a continuation of an emphasis on philosophical speculation that had begun with The Silver Bough, written at Brae, and The Well at The World's End, completed at Kincraig. Bloodhunt, however, was very different from the other two, and could be described as the most closely knit and classical of his novels. The central figure, a retired sailor, finds himself in a situation not of his own making, in which he is denied the peace after which he so earnestly hankers.

The similarity between the sailor's predicament and Gunn's at Kerrow is striking.

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After his departure from Kerrow in 1959, Gunn did not write any more books but it would be wrong to attribute this in any way to the last house in which he lived. Dalcraig, a welcoming and manageable house built between the Wars, is situated above the shore road from Kessock Ferry to Muir of Ord and commands an extensive view of the Beauly Firth. When the house was bought, there was no road bridge linking Inverness to the Black Isle and the area around the house was peaceful. Long walks again became habitual but this time they were strictly on the flat along the shore—either westwards towards Ben Wyvis and surrounding hills or eastwards towards Kessock and the firth's outlet to the sea. It was an appropriate spot for the Gunns and one that they were only to enjoy for a few years. In 1963 Daisy died. Fortunately, the house she left behind maintained the atmosphere she had created and again there was a strong resemblance between the study and his' rooms at Braefarm House and Kincraig. The room chosen at Dalcraig was the front room to the west of the house with its view of the firth and its gable end window looking out on to the garden. In his later years as a widower he relied heavily on the company of his friends and relatives and particularly on that of my father, who after my mother's death, spent much time at Dalcraig. When on leave from the Royal Navy I took great pleasure in spending a few days with my uncle. For me the visits were restful, restorative, and, above all, great fun. The rhythm of life was slow, but not too slow. Reading in the morning, a walk before lunch, a rest for him, a walk in the early evening, a generous dram, a meal, and then, best of all, a conversation. The cessation of such visits after the death of my uncle in 1973 was the end of something for me that could never be replaced. I can only take pleasure now in regarding the five houses I have briefly described as being in some way memorials to him and his wife and all that they meant to many people in terms of enrichment, kindness and good company.

Dairmid Gunn

First published Authors and Houses 2: Neil M Gunn in The Scottish Review, Vol. 37/8, 1985 pp38-45.