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Neil Gunn's 'Highland River'

'These small straths, like the Strath of Dunbeath, have this intimate beauty. In boyhood we get to know every square yard of it. We encompass it physically and our memories hold it. Birches, hazel trees for nutting, pools with trout and an occasionally visible salmon, river-flats with the wind on the bracken and disappearing rabbit scuts, a wealth of wild flower and small bird life, the soaring hawk, the unexpected roe, the ancient graveyard, thoughts of the folk who once lived far inland in straths and hollows, the past and the present held in a moment of day-dream.—Neil M Gunn, 'My Bit of Britain', 1941.

Neil M Gunn (1891-1973), whose reputation as one of Scotland's most important twentieth century authors was established in books such as The Silver Darlings and Morning Tide, was born and grew up in Dunbeath. He went to school in the very building in which the Heritage Centre is now based. The landscapes and seascapes of Dunbeath and its hinterland were his inspiration.

In his 1937 novel, Highland River, Gunn's young hero, Kenn, makes a pilgrimage to the source of the Dunbeath Water and, in a way, to the source of himself and his cultural heritage. The river becomes a complex symbol: simultaneously a river of time, of space, of memory, of humanity and of consciousness as the literary critic Douglas Gifford has observed.

In his final book, The Atom of Delight, Gunn returned to the metaphor of the river and Kenn's hunt for the elusive "salmon of wisdom." In this autobiographical work of 1956, he described his own childhood experience of the thrill of being "off and away" to the strath and the strange, haunting prospect of one day catching a glimpse of that far country "where rivers rise".....

"In the Highlands of Scotland a strath is a small glen. For a small boy - a boy up to ten or twelve years of age - a strath is ideal in size, because its physical features are not so vast or extensive but they can be encompassed on foot yet are extensive or 'far off' enough never to be exhausted in interest or wonder or the unexpected. A glen can be too big, its mountainous sides too high, its cataracts or river too fierce or deep to cross, its distances too bare and forbidding for a small boy to know with any intimacy more than his own home part of it. Our Strath we knew throughout its length - or very nearly. To walk its full length to the river source - always called the Waterhead - was the ultimate adventure and the thought of it inhabited the mind with a peculiar strangeness. Unlike the old lady who did not believe that Jerusalem was on this earth, we believed the Waterhead was - but only just, so we could laugh at the old lady very loudly in our appreciation of the joke. For a small boy three miles up a strath and three miles back, with loiterings and deviations, was a very long journey, indeed a whole day's adventure, with a meal missed and a hunger that made a leanness of the belly that could be felt inside. And outside, too, by one's own hand, or by the hand of a companion invited to 'have a feel.' We were given to 'proving' things in this empirical way.

"These first two or three miles were the rich ones. After that the trees thinned, the strath grew shallower, and glimpses of the moor were caught. It was a vast moor, austere as a desert, and the farthest rim of the horizon lit itself on the far edge of the world. Leftward the ridges of near hills shut off the mountains beyond, and somewhere in that country where moor and mountains met the river had its source. But the rich part was so infinitely varied in attraction that only in odd moments did we think, or dream, of one day setting out for the Waterhead."


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