Dunbeath Strath

Neil Miller Gunn was born on 8th November 1891, in a house in Dunbeath village, Caithness. The semi-detached house is next door to the Grocer's Shop on the north side and now has a commemorative fanlight above the door.

Harbour jpg

In his novel Highland River Neil Gunn mirrors the growth Kenn from childhood to manhood with his passage and exploration up to the strath to the river's source. Dunbeath River and Dunbeath Strath were his models for the book. Neil Gunn starts Highland River at the Well pool below the bridge but Dunbeath River starts at the estuary mouth where Dunbeath harbour is situated. This is where Neil's father James the skipper of a fishing boat plied his trade.

All the life of that little Highland World met where the river met the sea. When the harbour swung to high tide and the boats came in with their shots of herring, human activity brimmed over as the herrings over the cran basket . . .

- Highland River

Mill jpg

Up from the harbour and just before the Telford bridge, which carries the old A9 road, is the Well pool. This is the pool where the famous opening scene in Highland River takes place where Kenn has his battle with the salmon. The Neil Gunn Memorial Sculpture situated at Dunbeath Harbour depicts this epic struggle.

Above the bridge on the north bank is the Meal Mill with with the lade leading into it. The mill was built about 1860/70 and was in use untill the early 1960s.

The miller, a tall thin man, was ploughing in the field behind the mill, which was a high grey building. Its top door was open and they heard the trundle of the hurley on the knotted wooden floor.

- Highland River

Strath jpg On up the river there is a tree-covered island dividing the flow and above that the site of the former mill sluice and intake pool. The deep circular intake pool and was a regular port of call when Kenn and Beel or Angus where on one of their hunts. There they would peer into the dark peat coloured water in the hope of catching a glimpse of a fin or tail.

Once they had crossed over the rising ground beyond the Intake, the world they usually inhabited was shut off. On the other side of the river rose steep green braes. On the near side, meadowland was bounded at a short distance by a rocky incline where birch and hazel trees grew. Beyond the trees crofting began.

- Highland River

House of Peace jpg

Further on up the north bank of the river, past the mill race, you come upon a mound with walls radiating from it and the remains of a building at it's summit. This is Chapelhill or the 'The House of Peace' as it is also known. It is here that the young Finn falls asleep after his episode with the butterfly in The Silver Darlings. The site is thought to have been the location of a monastry and there is evidence of a cemetery beside it. Also in The Silver Darlings Catrine and Roddie come across the site:

Presently they came to a high stone wall, very thick at the base, and running back from the river to a large knoll on their right. There were other evidences of similar walls about this knoll, as though in times long past it had been a fortress or strongly protected place of some kind fallen into ruin. The tumbled stones were a grey-blue softened with lichen. She asked him what it was.

'The old folk call it Chapelhill', he answered. 'It seems that there was a church here at one time, though I have heard it said that long ago it was a monastry and the name it had was the House of Peace.'

- The Silver Darlings

Broch jpg

Across the footbridge over the Houstry Burn is the broch of Dunbeath situated at the top of the hill between the burn and Dunbeath water. The broch is overgrown and in need of repair and has a more recent wall built round it but is is still possible to appreciate its thick walls and overall construction. The broch features in Sun Circle as part of Drust's residence and in Highland River Kenn and Beel venture into the beehive chamber in awe of its construction and history.

Neither would care to enter the place alone nor to linger there. The stones were so near, the entrance so small. From two thousand years back time's fingers could touch them in less than instant. More than once, indeed, Kenn almost felt that touch, jerking his shoulder and body from it and smothering it behind him with a cry-a cry, not necessarily, and never quite altogether, of fear.

- Highland River

Strath jpg

The strath continues inland past Balcraggie Lodge and its pool past another footbridge to the gorge known as Prisoner's Leap. From here the river climbs up to the distant moors and to its source and the source of life.

The immense distance drew Kenn's spirit out of him. he had come into the country of legendary names. As Angus murmured them, pointing from under his nose with heather stalk he nibbled., the excitement went out from Kenn like heat vibrations from a moor, and left him exposed to the feel of hidden watching eyes . . .

- Highland River