The Other Landscape

The Other Landscape was the last novel written by Neil M Gunn (1891-1973). Completed in 1954, it marked the end of a virtual stream of novels that had begun in 1926 with a powerful and imaginative piece of writing, The Grey Coast. The titles of the first and the last suggest much. The first title has a suspicion of pessimism - a darkness, something threatening and ominous. The last hints at something beyond pessimism and optimism, something intangible and perhaps inexplicable. Between 1926 and 1956 Neil Gunn wrote many books, usually set against a Highland background, but always containing a theme that could be encompassed by the adjective metaphysical. Because he used the Highlands of Scotland as the setting of many of his novels, he was described from time to time by the less discerning critics as being a regional author. That, he certainly was not. He was a profound writer, prodigious in output and always looking for a new challenge or ploy. His themes covered many aspects of human life in all its tribulations, aspirations, and speculations. He may have used the same background many times, but he never wrote the same book twice. He wrote a brilliant trilogy about the northern community in which he lived during his childhood. It began with a book, Sun Circle, that explored imaginatively the turbulence caused by the invasion of the Vikings in the 8th and 9th centuries and the eventual mixture of cultures and races that gave birth to the new Northland, which now constitutes the Orkneys and Shetlands, and the Scottish mainland counties of Caithness and Sutherland. In the second book of the trilogy, Butcher's Broom, he described most vividly the end of a settled period, when in the 19th century people were driven off the land to make way for the demands of agricultural improvements in terms of the introduction of sheep - a period entitled 'the Clearances', which saw the end of the trust that had existed for centuries between the heads of clans and their people. The third part of the trilogy, The Silver Darlings, was the escape by the dispossessed peoples from land to sea to benefit from a boom in the fishing industry in the same century. Running through the trilogy was the metaphysical theme of the significance of tradition, folk belief and continuity in an ever changing external world.

Other books were to be written on such differing subjects as the restorative effects on the Highland psyche of an idyllic childhood in a northern community, and the clash of traditional, proven beliefs and customs of that Celtic community with those of insensitive intruders from other parts of the United Kingdom and with ideas emanating from such authoritarian regimes as Fascist Spain, Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia. Although Gunn is a name of Nordic origin, Neil Gunn always identified himself with the Celtic tradition, finding in its mythology and the Scottish version of one of its languages, Gaelic, subtle ways of combating the false values of a confused period between the Wars, so aptly described by T.S. Eliot in his poem, The Waste Land.

The end of the Second World War marked a watershed in Gunn's writing. With some exceptions, the books were deeply reflective; stories seen though the eyes of educated people sympathetic to the way of life, traditions and mores of Highland communities. In this respect three books stand out - The Silver Bough (1948), The Well at the World's End (1951) and the book for which this is the introduction, The Other Landscape. The principal protagonists in the first two books are an archaeologist and a professor of history, both middle-aged men. The Other Landscape centres round the observations of a young middle-aged anthropologist. Although none of the three books can be described as a thriller, there is plenty of action in each accompanied with an element of self questioning or self mockery. There is, however, a big difference between the first two and The Other Landscape. The last mentioned book is written in the first person, and this is a vitally important factor. The book may revolve round the anthropologist, Urquhart, but the central character of interest, whose life and death dominate the book, is a composer, Menzies, whose thoughts and ideas pose insoluble questions. The use of the first person places Urquhart and the author, Neil Gunn, at a distance from the composer and leaves the reader to speculate on conversations that concern the existence of God or some sort of system, the role of God, and the ultimate meaning of life. It can be said that the author in this complex book is making a last tilt at understanding or coming to terms with the impossible.

The adjective last is important as it brings to mind Shakespeare's last play, The Tempest. In this play Shakespeare through the lips of Prospero, a dispossessed duke, is uncertain about an earlier assertion that the sonnets would last for ever; he saw as being more important a sympathy with human frailty, human simplicity and human unreason. He had come to terms with his human creations, good and bad, that had emerged from his amazingly fertile imagination. The heart had triumphed over the eye. There is a poignancy and acceptance of the mysteries of life in the beautiful lines 'We are such stuff as dreams are made on; and our little life is ended with a sleep.'

Neil Gunn in The Other Landscape comes to terms with many types of people who caused him concern, unpleasant situations and historical calamities. For the book, the backdrop draws from many of his earlier books. There is the fishing hotel full of outsiders without any interest in the local community. There is the aggressive military cum diplomatic type, unsure of himself in certain areas of speculative thought, an uncertainty he covers up by trying to impose his will on those blessed with a more imaginative perspective of life. There are conversations on impossible subjects in unusual places - all set against a rugged and awe-inspiring background of sea, cliffs and moor. All this is softened by the consciousness of neighbourliness within a Highland community and the undoubted allure of Highland girls..

The book presents itself as a profit and loss account of all the previous books, although, if I may pursue the metaphor, this last entry contains an element that upsets the delicate balance between debits and credits. The central character, the composer Menzies, cannot accept the death in childbirth of his beautiful young wife, Annabel, either stoically or with an acceptance of faith as shown by Job in the Old Testament. For him Annabel had been the undying source of a spring of creativity. Certain questions tormented him. If there was a god, was He a wrecker? If God were rational, how could Annabel's death be explained? Was there another system to penetrate to find the explanation? The dead Annabel had to remain in his imagination as she was already in The Other Landscape.

This 'last fling' from Neil Gunn will forever leave the reader pondering on the realities of life and death, and the inexplicable tragedies within life. One consolation to the plight of the tormented Menzies lies in Neil Gunn's belief in the continuity of life through womanhood, and an ability among certain people to accept tragedy and turn it into something positive by means of tradition, song and story derived from that more recently coined expression, 'the collective unconsciou's. Urquhart, the intellectual who sparred with Menzies, marries a beautiful local girl, Catherine, who had known Annabel and resembled her. The baton had been passed; another race had begun. The last two paragraphs bring this unusual and turbulent book to a peaceful close. The words are Urquhart's.

Dairmid Gunn