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Neil Gunn: Highland River

There is not much of a story to this novel. It merely recounts the growing up of a Scot called Kenn – his boyhood in a small Scottish fishing village, his student days in Glasgow, his experiences in World War I and a brief glimpse of his later life. But what this novel does and what shows Gunn in his maturity is a wonderful portrait of a young man fully in tune with his natural environment. Kenn explores the river of the title, which he divides into three parts – the part near his home, the further part where even old people go and then the remote part where only the intrepid (Kenn, his brothers and the gamekeeper trying to stop them from fishing for salmon) venture.

In the same way as English writers such as Henry Williamson or Richard Jefferies, Gunn paints a portrait of a young man whose enjoyment in his natural environment is paramount. Yes, he kills but his killing is not wanton killing but the struggle of a man against the elements, usually salmon in this case. Kenn takes joy in the pools and streams of the river, in the fish in it, the birds flying nearby, the flowers growing in the meadows – anything natural. Gunn cleverly makes the marked contrast with the world out there – the slums of Glasgow or the dreary English industrial cities of Birmingham and Leicester he learns about in school or the horrors of the war, where his brother is killed and he is temporarily blinded by mustard gas. This is a book not to read for the story – there is barely a story – but to read for the joy of a man in his natural surroundings, a theme which has sadly almost died out in contemporary literature.

Publishing history

First published 1937 by The Porpoise Press