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Neil Gunn: The Other Landscape

This was Gunn’s last novel and it definitely has a tendency to sum up much of his earlier work. Walter Urquhart is a young anthropologist whose friend, David Townbee, a literary editor, has received an impressive manuscript, signed by Douglas Menzies but with no return address. He twice writes to Menzies in the Scottish highland town he identifies from the postmark but there is no reply but nor is the letter returned. Urquhart volunteers to go and track down Menzies and the story starts with his arrival at the hotel. For various reasons he does not immediately get to Menzies but, when dies, he finds that Menzies is a famous composer (writer of the Cliff Symphony) who has become somewhat of a recluse since the tragic death of his wife (he had to leave her when she was about to have a baby to help rescue a ship that was foundering in one of Gunn’s trademark storms and she died in childbirth). Basically it turns out that Menzies is not interested in pursuing his writing career and is heading for a tragedy.

However, there are a few odd plots. Also staying at the hotel is the know-all former Diplomatic Service English major who uses the service of a local gillie, Lachlan, with whom he seems to be in permanent argument. When the major disappears, apparently in a boating incident, Lachlan is suspected. Lachlan has a daughter, Catherine, who assists Menzies (she was friendly with Menzies’ wife) and with whom Urquhart falls in love. This is not one of Gunn’s best books. There is far more philosophising than in his previous works – on such weighty topics as artistic creation and the origin of man. However, he does manage to get in a few of his favourite themes. The title indicates one of the themes, namely the disappearance of the old highlands since the Highland Clearances, symbolised by the ruined croft that Urquhart mistakes for a cairn. The English versus Scottish angle as well as town versus country are both well to the fore. An interesting book as a summation of a career but not a great one.

Publishing history

First published 1954 by Faber and Faber