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Neil Gunn: The Silver Darlings

This is one of Gunn’s most successful and best novels. It has many of his favourite themes – the economic decline of the Highlands, the Highland clearance, young mother left on her own with her son, terrible storm at sea in which some men are drowned and the cruel and often absent landlords. It is the early 19th century, shortly after the Battle of Waterloo. Catrine and Tormad are young newly weds. Tormad is a herring fisherman. Most of the people of the village have been evicted in the Highland Clearances and have moved to the coast. The herring fishing industry is just getting started. Tormad and his friends set out fishing one night. However, they are attacked by a British naval ship and press-ganged into the Navy. Exit Tormad from the story. Catrine is left to fend for herself and goes to live with Kirsty, a family friend. Jump a short while, where we find that Catrine has a son, Finn.

Most of the book is about Finn and the herring fisheries. Catrine, naturally, has an aversion to the sea and tries as hard as she can to keep Finn from the sea but eventually she has to relent and he becomes a fine and brave fisherman, with his own boat. We follow Finn through his fishing career, his brave scaling of the cliff to get food and water for his ship-mates, how he manages to get his own boat, his fighting and drinking and all the efforts to find the silver darlings, the herrings. There is also his relationship with Roddy, his mentor and, eventually, his stepfather, for one of Tormad’s ship-mates turns up many years later and reports that Tormad died five days after their capture, injured in fighting the press-gang. Finn has to make his peace with Roddy and his mother and, in another theme common to many Gunn novels, the complex relationships within the community are what makes this novel one of his finest.

Publishing history

First published 1939 by Faber and Faber