The writing career of Neil Gunn, one of Scotland's greatest and most imaginative authors of the 20th century, spanned thirty years, ending in 1956 with the publication of his so-called 'spiritual autobiography', The Atom of Delight.
The early years of his writing saw his strong association with a Scottish movement in creative writing, which came to be known as the Scottish Renaissance. For him, the main significance of the movement lay in the belief that Scotland possessed a national identity of its own, distinct from that of England, and had something to offer the world in terms of its historical and cultural experience. Gunn's own experience was firmly rooted in the Highlands of Scotland, an area where the vestiges of an ancient Celtic culture were still to be found. His sympathies lay with his own people and their way of life, and he was at his most persuasive and strongest as an author when writing about them in the context of both the present and the past. Such books as Morning Tide and Highland River bear witness to this. Through a thoughtful awareness of his own origins, he was able to identify certain values and beliefs that had relevance to contemporary life.
It seems, therefore, like a departure from the normal when he writes a novel set in a shooting lodge, where the main protagonists are a group of people from England, whose visit to the Highlands centres round the excitement of the hunt in a remote deer forest. Is this novel, Second Sight, written in 1940, really such a departure for Gunn?
With such a setting and such characters, the reader can be excused for thinking that Gunn has abandoned his concern for the Highlands in favour of a deer forest thriller on the lines of John Buchan's John McNab. The ingredients are certainly there; a shooting lodge party of wealthy English people, a team of Highland stalkers, a legendary stag to be hunted and a background of glen and corrie, shrouded from time to time by impenetrable mist. It is the title Second Sight that hints that this is no ordinary deer forest thriller. This psychic gift, or curse, is a phenomenon that is closely associated with the culture and history of the Highlands. The ability of some people to foresee events introduces in the novel an extra dimension that dominates the plot and influences the ambience in which this exciting story takes place.
The principal character, Harry Kingsley, is a sympathetic stranger to the Highlands; through mixing with the local community in an easy and pleasant manner, he becomes aware of some of the intricacies of Celtic attitudes and culture. He also becomes aware that one of the stalkers possesses the so-called gift of 'second sight' and has foreseen an accident of immediate relevance to the occupants of the lodge. The local prophecy colours all actions and conversations within the story, either directly or indirectly.
Kingsley's positive and sensitive approach to the local people is counterbalanced by that of one of his companions in the lodge. Geoffrey Smith, who dislikes and distrusts the local community, despises any belief for which there is no rational explanation. The clash between Kingsley's tolerant and enquiring attitude and Smith's intellectual arrogance provides an important motif for this novel of suspense, or 'inverted thriller'.
A derivative of Smith's contempt for belief in 'second sight' is an obsession to kill the much vaunted stag, King Brude. Smith's hunt is tinged with a desire to prove that his rational approach to life is superior to that of a culture impregnated with superstition and ignorance. His approach is gloomily negative. In contrast, Kingsley's approach is more in accordance with the wonder of a landscape of moor and hill, transformed from time to time by sunshine and mist. He also has the advantage of being in love with the laird's daughter, Helen Marway. She too can transform that landscape. 'For here was Helen Marway, in the bright sun, running with invisible deer, running beyond men, in the light.'
Landscape is always important to Gunn and is the backdrop to most of his novels. In Second Sight it virtually assumes the role of one of the protagonists. The atmosphere enveloping the land - be it light and shadow, swift transitions from light to half light, mist, rain, tones and flowing lines - contribute to the dramatic essence of the novel. All the characters are aware of it in one way or another, but Harry Kingsley, in particular, is affected by it. 'The cone of Benuain was islanded before them to the north west, and mountain tops and long skerries floated on that white sea as far as the eye could travel. A feeling of the marvel of the first creation came upon Harry in an atmosphere not productive or hectic, but timeless and still. A creation not being created, but creating itself from within.'
The theme of second sight is continually present throughout the novel; after setting the scene for the development of the plot, it lingers on in various guises and is particularly evident in the deeper conversations among the inhabitants of the lodge and their friends. It stimulates a clash between spiritual and material values and brings to mind T S Eliot's concern over the spiritual sterility of Western man in his great poem, The Waste Land, popular in the 1920s, the period in which the novel Second Sight is set. Despite its Highland setting and the exquisite descriptions of that most beautiful part of Scotland, Second Sight is not the most Highland of Gunn's novels in terms of writing from the 'inside' or 'within'; it gives, however, a Highland landscape a symbolic significance and sets the perceptive reader off on a hunt for renewed vision.