The Poaching at Grianan

When I was approached by a student from Napier University acting on behalf of third year publishing students for permission to publish The Poaching at Grianan by Neil Gunn, my first reaction was to turn down the request, politely and firmly. Although I was delighted by the interest shown by the students, I found it difficult to overcome an inbuilt resistance to the publication of a book that fell short of the quality and standard of most of Gunn’s published work. The author, my uncle, had never talked to me about this work although I must confess that I had never broached the subject specifically with him; also, discerning friends had argued that the book could give a misleading impression of Gunn’s work to those unacquainted with it. What eventually made me change my mind was a mixture of the enthusiasm of the students, the knowledge that the book would be distributed only amongst those with a deep interest in Gunn and, quite illogically, a certain sympathy for a creative work that had languished for so long ‘outside the garden gate’.

The Poaching at Grianan has had to wait a long time for publication as a complete novel. Written as a serial in 1929, it is the product of a very early phase in the author’s long and productive writing career. His first novel, The Grey Coast appeared in 1926 and his last work, The Atom of Delight, a spiritual autobiography, thirty years later. In comparison with the many books written in that long period, The Poaching at Grianan is disappointing. Despite some fine passages of descriptive writing, it fails to satisfy the serious reader nurtured on such books as Morning Tide, Highland River, The Silver Darlings, and The Green Isle of the Great Deep. Nevertheless, it is an important book for those with both a serious interest in the development of Gunn’s work and in the man himself. In their sensitive and highly acclaimed biography of Gunn, A Highland Life, the biographers, Hart and Pick, have done much to piece together the life of an elusive man who lived among his books. Their task was as difficult as that which confronted the biographers of Marcel Proust. The Poaching at Grianan could make a modest contribution to a greater understanding of Gunn and perhaps be a source of pleasure for a reader coming across Gunn for the first time.

The book was written shortly after the publication in serial form of The Lost Glen (1928), a novel which after revision, was to appear in book form in 1932. As there is a similarity between the two books, remarks made about The Lost Glen prior to its acceptance as a complete book have an undoubted relevance to The Poaching at Grianan. These remarks take the form of accusations levelled at the author for being too celtic, too political, too nationalistic and not romantic enough to satisfy the requirements of a reading public outside Scotland. He was also accused of ‘fine writing’ or ‘over writing’, a defect which pointed to the influence of Fiona Macleod (1855–1905). These accusations are well covered in Alistair McCleery’s informative introduction to this book. Thus, I shall confine my observations to the provenance of the feelings that gave rise to Gunn’s creation of character and mood in The Poaching at Grianan.

Gunn left his native Dunbeath in Caithness when he was 12 to be educated privately at the home of an elder sister and her doctor husband in St John’s Town of Dalry near Dumfries. Thence to a career that was to take him away from Caithness for almost 20 years. During this absence, his memories of the Caithness of his youth were almost certainly transmuted into a landscape of beauty and delight. For him Caithness was what Orkney had been for the poet, Edwin Muir (1878–1959), whose memories of an island landscape had been distilled in One Foot in Eden. To return in 1921 to find this earthly paradise transformed into a landscape of run-down farms and crofts and silted up harbours, all reflecting a general economic decline, deeply disturbed Gunn and brought to the surface latent feelings of what had been, his ancestry and heritage – feelings that had to be expressed in creative -activity.

The response took various forms. He became actively involved in the Scottish nationalist movement in terms of thoughtful and authoritative contributions; both written and verbal, to the ‘great debate’ that was to lead to the formation of a political party. The contributions reflected a great awareness of a rich cultural inheritance, which encompassed a time when Celt and Norseman had settled their differences and established a community in the Northlands. Despite his surname being of Norse origin, Gunn felt himself to be a Celt. This explains, at least in part, his love-hate affair with the work of Fiona Macleod (1855–1905) and the appearance of Gaelic in one or two fleeting instances in The Poaching at Grianan. All this was reinforced by the great friendship he enjoyed with Maurice Walsh (1879–1964), the Irish writer. This deep friendship fed Gunn’s interest in Irish culture and politics; it was satisfying fare for the Celtic side of his nature.

This feeling for the past or historical imagination introduced into Gunn’s writing then, and later, a sense of dispossession on the part of a people deprived of their inheritance at the time of the Clearances. The umbilical cord between chief or landowner and the people had been broken to give way to a state of alienation between them. The Lost Glen is a bitter book, an angry young man’s book that hits out at the intruder who has come to trespass on the rights and dignity of the indigenous community. The conflict between the intruder, English in this case, and the returning Highlander ends in death and tragedy. The Poaching at Grianan uses roughly the same ingredients as those in The Lost Glen. The return of the well informed Highlanders in the form of antique dealer Callum Mackinnon and youthful journalist Don McCallister, the estate in the hands of an American landowner and a landscape of river moor and hill – but there are differences. Mackinnon and McCallister are not the only people dispossessed. The former landowner, Macdonald of Grianan, and his enchanting daughter, Eilidh, have had to surrender the ancestral home to an American millionaire and content themselves with living in a lodge on the estate. This ingredient creates a framework for a love story and illustrates the sense of kith and kin that exists between the Macdonalds, the hereditary landowners and the two incomers. At the end of the book this sense is turned into a note of optimism when the young McCallister and the not so young Mackinnon look like ‘starting again’ at Grianan.

Another difference can be recognised in the choice of title. The title, The Lost Glen, hints at a feeling of sadness and pessimism. In contrast, the title, The Poaching at Grianan, engenders a feeling of life and adventure. In this context, poaching is a gesture by those dispossessed of a heritage to claim what is theirs by an ancient and indisputable right. It is a manifestation of spirit and a deep-rooted sense of regaining something that has been lost. The place name Grianan is the Gaelic word for sunny spot and adds something to the mood of mischief and fun that permeates the book. There is a prevailing holiday atmosphere, and Gunn too seems to be on holiday. This brightness is reflected in the obvious delight Gunn takes in describing the landscape of river pools, birches and hazel trees, moors and hills. Within the book the landscape of Grianan; bathed in freshness and sunlight is contrasted with the gloom and darkness of the narrow streets and closes of Old Edinburgh, a city Gunn never really liked.

The other contrast brought out in the book is the relationship between the third incomer to Grianan, a city ‘revolutionary’ and idealist, Finla Gillespie, and his Highland friends. Finla’s presence reminds the reader of the two Scotlands, the Scotland of the cities and urban sprawl and that of the Highlands. Gunn was deeply conscious of being a Highlander and in the differences between his attitudes to certain essentials from those of his friends elsewhere in Scotland. Finla’s presence adds yet another dimension to the book without steering it towards gloomy debates on the predicament of the deprived people of industrialised Scotland. Gunn simply stands back and lets the book ramble on as an exciting yarn, punctuated by moments of melodrama. The thread of humour running through the book (and Gunn had a subtle sense of humour) prevents the development of the serious and gloomy undertones so marked in The Lost Glen and allows the book to take on a Buchanesque hue. Gunn, the Highlander, the returning native and the visionary, however, remains at the heart of this book, themes from which re-emerge in later and more successful novels.

The Poaching at Grianan suffered from not having been subjected to a critical and severe revision by its author and by never having appeared as a complete novel. It now appears in book form as a carefully edited and beautifully presented publication. It brings to mind the Edinburgh edition of the Waverley novels, which is making Scott’s work more attractive to the reading public. I am sure that this edition will be an attractive and useful reference tool for researchers interested in Gunn’s work and in Scottish novels in general. I feel honoured to have been involved in what has been described in Napier University as a ‘live project’ and am grateful to the students and two of their lecturers, Alistair McCleery and Ian Gunn, for ‘dusting down’ this early unsung work and making it more readily available to scholars everywhere. I should like to finish this preface with a simile. For me, The Poaching at Grianan is like an unfinished and neglected portrait that gave life and beauty to many others from the same brush and which, with some greatly needed restoration, does not look too bad now in its own right.

Dairmid Gunn