Highland River

Dedications are seldom read and rarely informative. The one in Highland River is an exception in that it contains the key to an understanding of this unusual book. Dedicated to my father John it talks of a northern river and a poaching expedition to the source of delight. The quest, whether successful or not, seems all important.

As Gunn explains, some of the characters may have strayed in from Morning Tide, a novel written six years earlier and set in the same area as that of Highland River, the Caithness village of Dunbeath and its hinterland. The central character, Kenn, boy and man, is portrayed in such a way that the reader can be forgiven for thinking that here is a sort of autobiography written in the third person. The book, after all, is seen through the eyes of the young and the older Kenn, an anchor figure in human terms, in the same way as the Highland river fixes the book firmly in the strath of the Dunbeath Water. The book's theme is the intricate relationship between a specific boy and a specific river. Kenn is essentially my father as the fundamental experiences undergone by both boy and man belong entirely to him. The epic struggle between boy and salmon, the horrific experiences in the trenches during the First World War including the final meeting with the older brother who was to be killed shortly afterwards, the graduation ceremony at a Scottish university and the exhaustive debates on the potential of physics in an exciting new world all directly concern him. It says much for the author that he is able to transmute these experiences so effectively and convincingly into the warp and woof of the book. Other relatives or friends could have stepped into Kenn's personality, including Gunn's youngest brother Alec, by far the most expert of all the brothers with rod and gaff, but what is important is that the boy represents an archetypal boy living in a clearly defined Highland community at a certain time. It is the experiences of the boy and the adolescent that are retained by the grown up man as both a pool of strength and a help in a quest for the source of life and being.

The river is central to the boy's experience. Everything relates to it. It is his world of adventure and wonder. Even on stormy nights he can hear the constant, rushing noise of the river flowing below the village, nights when he feels he has much in common with all the furry creatures that are seeking shelter from the elements in their burrows or dens. Then, there is the well by the river, to which he is often sent to draw water. It is at the pool near the well that he triumphs over the cock salmon and as the victor of this combat ceases to be a child and becomes a fully fledged boy. The relationship with the mother alters, but she remains the symbol of hearth and haven and the anchorstone of the family. 'All the history of her people is writ on her face. The grey seas are stilled in her eyes quietly against the quiet trees the struggle of the days lies folded in her hands.' The allusion to grey seas is charged with meaning as Kenn's father - clearly my paternal grandfather - is skipper and owner of one of the boats using Dunbeath harbour. If the river is central to young Kenn's life, the sea occupies another dimension; it is about him in the same way as the sky is above him. It is in his father and it is whence the salmon come to begin their final journey to the source of the river. The river and the sea juxtaposed, one personal, the other elemental -both part of an eternal landscape and seascape.

The idea of a river and its significance to life is not new. Wordsworth, whom Gunn greatly admired, writes:

There are differences here. Wordsworth was not writing about the stream of his youth and the Wye is a mighty river compared with the Dunbeath Water. The northern stream, however, is small enough to relate intimately to an individual life; it is manageable in terms of getting to know it from estuary to source. The Dunbeath Water comprises three distinct stretches. The first links the estuary to the Broch where the Burn of Houstry joins the Dunbeath Water; the second stretches from this confluence to the gorge and the third from the gorge to the source. The boy gradually becomes acquainted with these stretches of river, moving with some trepidation from the lower reaches towards the source.

The word Broch brings to mind an earlier civilization, a Pictish one, that flourished in Caithness before the Vikings began to make their incursions in the ninth and tenth centuries A. D. There are other reminders in the strath of times gone by including the Hill of Peace near the Broch and Pictish houses near the upper reaches of the river. Even the place names reflect the history of the area. The Nordic 'Loedebest' and the Celtic 'Ballachly,' so different in origin, but so close geographically. Kenn is aware of signposts of the past and finds them of greater appeal to his historical imagination than the educational diet offered of the genealogical trees of English Kings or battles fought in distant places. In the same way, geography for him is a greater knowledge of the hills, glens and moors of his own area rather than such a fact that Leicester is famous for the manufacture of shoes. Aids to stimulating this historical imagination take the form of scents and sounds. Among the scents are heath smoke and the smell of the primrose:


From the 'golden age' to the Somme and Ypres - what a contrast in thought and fact! Yet in the midst of destruction and slaughter the young soldier Kenn draws strength from the reservoir of his childhood experiences and never forgets his Highland river. I remember my father telling me that the skies about France and Belgium enchanted him as much as those over his beloved strath and moorland. The constant thud of the howitzers, for he served in the Royal Artillery, reminded him of the pounding of the sea against the grey cliffs of Caithness. Even bird life continued in the copses and isolated trees of a devastated landscape. Again the saving grace of a transference of thought from battlefield to 'golden age.'

Such intimations of a Highland paradise were not to reach Kenn's brother, Angus, in reality, Ben, an older brother of Neil and John. For him, the present is everything and the major aim of his existence is to survive at all costs. Among the costs, alas, is an unwillingness to derive sustenance and comfort from a Highland childhood. The following dialogue between him and Kenn tells all.

Angus's attitude is a death in life, a total abnegation of all that is positive and life enhancing, an abandonment of a search for self fulfilment. His ghastly death a few weeks after the meeting is simply the setting of a seal on a life that had already been extinguished. In contrast, Kenn possesses an inner reserve, a reserve that gives strange poignancy to T. S. Eliot's line from Four Quartets, 'The river is within us, the sea is all about us.' Kenn's fate in the War is to be gassed and transported to a military hospital in Leicester, the city in which he had been taught at primary school that shoes were made. No footwear now, but the kindly attentions of doctors and nurses in white coats, an assembly of the heavenly host clad in white; womanhood in its most caring and tender mood. Women again at the centre of things.

With the physical and mental horror of war behind him Kenn enters the realm of physics and imbibes all the excitement of new discoveries in nuclear science. The period between the Wars was an exhilarating period for some, but it had its dangers. The choice of the title The Waste Land for T. S. Eliot's ambitious poem is clearly apposite. Modern man had backed himself into a spiritual cul-de-sac or waste land in which no spiritual refreshment was available, since God's existence had been eliminated by reason.

Kenn returns to his Highland river not just for comfort but more to explore the source of his being, of all being. The river is now being looked at in its upper reaches in desolate moorland and near ancient and no so ancient ruins. But the ruins are the stuff of legend and folklore that constitute a living tradition strong in his native country. A kindred spirit, the contemporary Russian writer Leonid Borodin in describing an idyllic childhood spent near Lake Baikal writes, 'I'm telling you the legend, and every word of it is truth, otherwise it wouldn't be the legend. The legend is the greatest truth of all.' Kenn identifies himself with his forebears and derives spiritual comfort from this feeling. He seeks a God not in a Biblical sense but rather in the form of a Being who produces moments of delight, a stream of epiphanies that cannot be explained, but just happen. The pilgrimage goes on and the source of Highland River is reached. The reader eagerly awaits the final vision from the older Kenn standing there. But his is unrevealed by the author, who has taken over Kenn again, and perhaps this is as it must be. For the hunt is more important, perhaps, than the revelation. All this adds meaning to that final sentence of the dedication to my father. 'However if I only could get you to see the hunt as a poaching expedition to the source of delight we got from a northern river, I feel that you might not be altogether disappointed should you come back (as we have so often done in our time) with an empty bag.'

Dairmid Gunn