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Neil Gunn: The Silver Bough

In my opinion this is one of Gunn’s finest and it is nice that it is back in print (in the UK at least) after having been out of print for so long.. What Gunn does – something often attempted but rarely successfully carried out by other writers – is to make the link between the ancient and, in part, legendary history of a country (in this case Scotland, of course) and its present. A good example of how this has been done elsewhere and, for Scotland no less, is the legendary but massively underrated film by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger – I Know Where I’m Going.

Like I Know Where I’m Going, this story is about an exile – in this case archeologist Simon Grant – coming back to Scotland. Grant has specifically returned to excavate a cairn on the land of Donald Martin, a mysterious and somewhat reclusive laird, recently returned from fighting in the Far East. Unable to find lodgings, he lodges with Mrs. Cameron, her daughter, Anna and Anna’s young daughter, Sheena, who is soon to be revealed to be somewhat of a free spirit and very much in touch with the legendary world. Grant also elicits the help of Andie, a strong young man who is mentally subnormal and unable to communicate in grunts. Andie turns out to be key, not only for the plot but also as the symbol of a prototypical early man.

The plot is fairly melodramatic. Grant excavates the cairn, finds skeletons and pot of gold, is attacked and said pot of gold is stolen. Press gets involved and the whole business becomes a cause célebre. But what Gunn does superbly is to bring out the ancient and legendary Scotland and link it to the present – from the cairn and its contents to the legend of the silver bough, bringing along a colourful cast of characters from the old-style Highland Scots to the new journalists who each, in their own way, contribute to making Scotland what it is. One of the writer’s jobs is to show his country the link between their past and their present. Gunn does the job superbly for Scotland in this book.

Publishing history

First published 1948 by Faber and Faber