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Neil Gunn: Grey Coast

This was Neil Gunn’s first novel and it was a pretty good effort. The story is simple. Maggie is an orphan and lives with James Sutherland, her Uncle Jeems. Jeems apparently made some money from fishing (we see him counting out the gold pieces on several occasions) and has bought a croft where he and Maggie now live. Two men love Maggie. The first is Donald Tait, known to all as Daun Tullach, a well-to-do farmer, who is the preferred candidate of Uncle Jeems, not least because of his wealth and because he keeps doing favours for Jeems in order to woo Maggie. Maggie, however, prefers Ivor Cormack, a poor fisherman with little future. The simple story more or less recounts how the two woo Maggie and which one wins her.

Gunn, however, is not just concerned with a simple story but is eager to paint the economic and social background of his story. At the time the story is written, the days when fishing could bring money are in the past. The fleet has dwindled, the fishing grounds have moved further out, there is competition from more technologically advanced ships and the men are leaving, for Glasgow or for Canada. Ivor himself jumps ship when the fishing fleet goes out and has little success and goes off to the Glasgow boats. (You will be glad to know he comes back.)

Gunn’s portrait of Maggie, who resembles a watered-down Maggie Tulliver, is somewhat weak but the portrait of the three main men is excellent. Jeems, who, at least on the surface, resembles Silas Marner, showing that Gunn had read his George Eliot, is a well-portrayed miser, while the young and restless Cormack and the eager Tullach are both good. There is an excellent scene where Jeems is telling Tullach a story of two men fighting but Tullach is thinking all the time of Maggie and Gunn masterfully switches between Tullach’s thoughts of Maggie and his reaction to Jeems’ story. It’s a good first novel but much better was to come.

Publishing history

First published 1926 by Jonathan Cape