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Neil Gunn: The Drinking Well

Iain Cattanach is the young hero of this novel. He is intelligent but not particularly interested in school, hard working, a lover of his country, honourable and honest but he has in him a daredevil streak which gets him into trouble. His parents – his father is a crofter and sheep farmer – have worked hard to bring up their four children and make sure they have good livelihoods away from the depressed Highlands. The first three have gone on to better things, leaving only Iain, the youngest. He is doing his Higher School Certificate and his mother wants him to get a job in Edinburgh but Iain does not want to leave his native home. However, his mother persuades him and also persuades Major Grant, the landlord’s agent, to find him a job in a law office in Edinburgh, which he does. But Iain’s daredevil streak comes to the fore and he and his friends go poaching and are nearly caught by Major Grant. One of Iain’s friends pushes Major Grant into the river to prevent him from seeing Iain and Iain has to rescue him as he is caught in the river. The boys escape but the incident haunts the rest of the novel.

In Edinburgh, Iain generally fits in but is not particularly happy, though his advice is sought on matters relating to the Highlands and sheep breeding in particular. He flirts with socialism and Scottish nationalism and studies sheep breeding techniques. However, his legal career is brought to an abrupt close when he finds one of the senior clerks concealing information about a case which relates to a friend of his back home and reacts to taunts by pushing the clerk through a glass door. He returns home where his father is shocked and, even after he rescues his father from drowning and then safely brings the sheep flock home through a ferocious snow storm, his father is critical of him. But it all works out in the end. He stays at home and, of course, he gets the right girl.

This is a fine novel though Gunn gets carried away with the preaching, interesting though it is. Iain’s flirtation with socialism and Scottish nationalism, his ideas on sheep farming and the economic management of the Highlands as well as the”good” landlord’s idea on his role all get a full airing. Gunn’s city-bad-country-good views, while found in several other novels, are also to the fore here and there is no doubt in Gunn’s mind that Iain is much better off spiritually if not financially in the Highlands than in Edinburgh. However, his portrait of the Highlands people, the community spirit they share, despite crushing adversity, and the economic travails they have to bear as well as the well-rounded portrait of Iain all make this a novel well worth reading.

Publishing history

First published 1946 by Faber and Faber