Neil M. Gunn, The Silver Darlings, Slightly Foxed Shop

The Call of the Sea

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It’s a wonderful thing when a book so fires the imagination that it becomes more real than the world around you, when the mind is totally absorbed, the page dissolves, and you begin to exist differently. It was mainly a thing of long childhood summers, when I was a musketeer, then a Viking, a wizard, a centaur – once even a quickfooted warrior mouse. Sadly it stopped in adolescence, when these things weren’t done. Apart from one time at university where I became a sperm whale for a while, the pleasure of being transformed and transported has become a rare one.

Imagine my surprise and delight, then, when I picked up Neil M. Gunn’s The Silver Darlings (1941) and became a nineteenth-century herring fisherman on the east coast of Scotland. It might seem odd to be so taken with a book about Scottish herring fishing in the 1820s, but Gunn’s prose is simple and captivating, the details precise and unassuming. The novel is an adventure story, a love story, a coming-of-age story – a story about the sea and the land, and the terror and struggle that go with making a living from them.

I bought my copy in a second-hand bookshop on Byres Road, on a smudgy day in late November when I’d just moved to Glasgow from London. I read it as my first Scottish winter closed in, and it made me long not for the milder south but for the rugged north – I wanted to go to sea immediately, even as the snow fell, if only for the adventure, for the ancient thrill of boat and sail, and the heft of the elements.

The Silver Darlings is one of those rare novels with a first chapter that would work perfectly as a short story. The atmosphere is instantly compelling, the physical and emotional detail sharp: Gunn is a master at showing how actions are just flickers across the surface of a character’s psyche, markers of something much bigger that exists in the emotional depths. The book opens with Tormad and Catrine, newly married, deeply in love. Tormad is about to leave on a fishing boat for the first time: ‘he knew by the way [Catrine] walked with her head up exactly how she was feeling. She did not want to break down, to discourage him, but the tears would beat her if they got half a chance.’

Tormad goes to sea anyway, and as they set off the crew are charmingly fresh, optimistic, full of boyish pride that makes them keen not to be laughed at by the more experienced herring fishers. Gunn captures the mix of emotion as they cast off: the anticipation, excitement and camaraderie, then the fear, the silence and the turmoil of a fishing trip. They put a line out and catch what feels like a whale on the end of it – there’s a hint of terror, ‘What if it was a whale?’ – only to lose the line and be left with nothing but the ‘heaving immensity’ of the ocean, ‘treacherous and deep as death’.

They cast the one old net that they have and spend the night adrift on the waves, telling one another all the ‘queer things they ever heard about the sea’ with voices ‘quiet and full of wonder and warm friendliness’. They fall asleep and then wake to the chill of dawn on the water, and are dismayed to see that the floats of the net have disappeared. Tormad hauls on the net, and then:

Their eyes widened and their breath stopped. Tormad began appealing to the God of their fathers. Then his voice cleared and rose. ‘It’s herring, boys! Herring! Herring!’ The net was so full of herring it had pulled the floats under the surface . . . They forgot everything, except the herrings, the lithe silver fish, the swift flashing ones, hundreds of thousands of them, the silver darlings. No moment like this had ever come to them in their lives.

But as quickly as their luck has come it is gone. A ship looms large in the distance, approaches them, dispatches a dinghy and they are bludgeoned and press-ganged into the navy. In an instant, Tormad is torn out of the story, the chapter ends, and we’re left on the shore with Catrine.

It’s startling to have a character that you’re fully engaged with whipped away after just thirty pages. But Gunn has us enthralled: we feel Catrine’s loss, feel the emptiness left behind in Tormad’s wake. Then the pace of the prose shifts from short story to novel, and we have three people at its centre: Catrine, her son Finn, and Roddie. Catrine is wild-spirited, a deep and complex arrangement of conflicting emotions, raising Finn in the constant fear that he’ll go to sea like his father and disappear. By contrast Roddie is solid, steady, independent-minded – the most admired seaman in the community, showing only the occasional flash of anger that lays bare the bar-brawling Viking in him. And then there’s Finn, caught between the two, growing up over the course of the novel, from a toddler chasing a butterfly to a lithe teenager working out what it is, exactly, to balance independence with a tightening net of relationships.

The book is full of ritual and repetition, from the daily routine of milking the moody and temperamental cow at first light to smooring the fire with sods of peat at the day’s end. Over this daily rhythm flow the bigger waves of the annual calendar: the market days and feasts and carnivals, the opening of the fishing season, the great tumultuous bustle that breaks the cold monotony of daily survival. There are rituals before going to sea, and many more rituals once you’re out there: all the half-believed superstitions have a fresh urgency, even if they are incompatible with the Christian world back on land.

Once the crew float free of that stable world, superstition becomes a way to make a terrifying world bearable, and repetition makes the strange familiar – and that rings true for the book as a whole. These little rituals become more real each time, a subtle transformation that took me in close, so that it was me smooring the fire in the hearth with peat, me bedding down in the kitchen, listening to the slow rhythm of the sea pouring itself, over and over, on to the shore.

There’s a deeper rhythm in the book, though, deeper than the episodes at sea or on land. It’s as though the story catches the rhythm of the waves – swelling, cresting, crashing, only to begin again. From the first chapter, the first wave, the first crash, comes the next and the next and the next, with each chapter absorbing the one before, transforming and transporting its energy into the next episode, the next adventure.

And so we have Catrine, taking up the first half of the book, with all the rhythm of onshore life, a visitation of the plague, the cow escaping, falling in love with Roddie but being unable to commit. The wave of Catrine’s narrative subsides, and up swells Finn. Off he goes to join Roddie’s crew, sailing from the east coast to the Western Isles, around the wild, saw-toothed edge of northern Scotland, through a storm, in an open boat. It’s a gripping adventure, a larger version of that first chapter, with the same excitement and terror and camaraderie.

The most vivid moments, though, the ones in which I was so totally absorbed as to become Roddie, came with catching the herring. Nothing matches that tense moment of checking the nets, then the despair at their emptiness or the magic of finding them full and glittering in the dawn. There is fresh excitement and amazement every time they haul great flickering heaps of herring into the boat, the silver darlings that transformed a community of agricultural serfs into an enterprising network of international exporters. And it is the freedom that this new industry brings, this sense of being let loose from a life of croft-bound servitude to a life full of opportunity that gives the book its appeal. I was completely caught up in it, sitting in my own croft – or third-floor tenement flat, at least – living as Finn and Roddie and Catrine inside my head, dreaming of my career at the helm of a boat of my own.

Sadly, I’m 150 or so years too late to join the rush for herring, so I had to settle for a weekend trip. I went to Cromarty, where Gunn lived and wrote, and stood on the shore looking out at the bleak expanse of sea, listening to the slow rhythm of it pouring itself, over and over, on to the shore.

 © Galen O’Hanlon 2015, Slightly Foxed Issue 45


About the contributor

Galen O’Hanlon is a reader and writer who lived in Scotland, and has now relocated to London. He is saving up for a boat and 30 crans of herring.

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