The Silver Darlings by Neil Gunn (1941)

As I’ve been such a sporadic member of the blogging community this past year, it was by happy accident that I learned of the review-a-long organised by FictionFan and friends for The Silver Darlings by Neil Gunn.  An even more fortunate accident from my perspective meant that Rose’s copy of the book was lost at sea for a while which delayed the original date for posting reviews and enabled me to have almost finished reading when the new date was announced.  That date was Monday last, and here – better late than never – is my contribution.

I’d never heard of this book or the author and I am so pleased to have made the acquaintance of both.  I’m sure I’ll be reading more by Neil Gunn.  For now, suffice to say of him that he was a prolific Scottish author, regarded as a leading light in the Scottish renaissance of the 1920s and 30s.  An Amazon reviewer argues that he would undoubtedly have won a Booker prize had it been available in his era.  I would not disagree.

At almost 600 pages, this is a lengthy book and it’s slow-moving.  In her review, Fiction Fan remarks that whilst seeing its merits, she found the book too slow-moving for her taste and lacking in plot.  Both are valid points.  It’s certainly more difficult to hold the reader’s interest if you choose to author a very long book with very little plot.  It’s a testament to Gunn’s skills that he held FF’s interest regardless.  He certainly held mine.  And Rose’s.  Links to their reviews are below and both are worth reading.

If I had to characterise this book it would be as a coming-of-age tale but it will touch different people in different ways, such is its breadth and scope.  It put me in mind of a Dickens novel.  The novel’s length and the fact that I was coming to the end of a Dickens saga (Dombey in case you’re interested) might be significant here, but there are other parallels.  The simplicity of the plot presented against a wide social background; characters which felt so real that I’m convinced I must have met them somewhere; superb dialogue and a striking sense of place all put me in mind of the early Dickens books.  Gunn is far more subtle though. He has some points to get across but chooses not to wield the sledgehammer which Dickens occasionally uses to bludgeon his reader.

Equally, Gunn does not caricature in the manner of Dickens but he writes in a style which would suit a Dickens novel.  I had to remind myself that this was written in 1941; it has the feel of a book written much earlier.  And that’s fitting.  The story takes place in the far north of Scotland during the fishing boom which occurred in the late 18th and early 19th centuries in the aftermath of the Scottish Clearances.  The archaic style is not difficult to read.  It balances Gunn’s decision to write in standard English, largely avoiding dialect and yet never letting the reader forget that we are in the far north of Scotland.  This accessibility has likely contributed to this being one of his most popular novels.

During the Clearances, which are but lightly referenced here, crofting families, who had eked out a living from the land for generations, were forced either to emigrate or move to the coast where they turned to the seas for their livelihood.  Gunn’s tale begins when Tormad leaves his young, pregnant wife to try his hand on the sea.  The opening chapter illustrates the risks and dangers of the sea for those born into a different way of life and the fear which runs alongside those risks.  Catrine is terrified of her young husband’s determination to go to sea and pleads with him not to go.  Tormad knows the risks but he also knows he must provide for her and his child. 

He soothed her as best he could, and the Gaelic tongue helped him for it is full of the tenderest endearments. “You see,” he wispered in her hair, “it’s all for you – and himself. There’s nothing here, Catrine; nothing in this barren strip of land for us. And the men who are going to sea are making the money. Could I do less than them when I have the strength in me not to see them in my way?”

chapter 1: The Derelict Boat

I assumed Catrine’s fear was of the sea itself; I was not prepared for Tormad and his crew to be taken by a British ship: pressganged into the navy for up to twenty years.  Other boats, manned by more experienced fishermen recognised the vessel and made for home.  Tormad and his crew were experiencing the delight of their first sizable catch of herrings – the ‘silver darlings’ which give the novel its title – and failed to take action until it was too late.  Catrine is left in limbo, neither a wife nor a widow.  She leaves their croft and her family and the unhappy memories and begins a new life with an old friend, Kirsty, where her son, Finn, is born and grows to manhood.

I found so much to enjoy in this book.  Every character felt real, with strengths and weaknesses, quirks and fears, humour and temper.  Gunn writes with a light touch but conveys motivation with depth and sensitivity and explores the full gamut of human emotion.  Characters of all temperament, of either gender, of all ages are equally portrayed with life and vigour, compassion and warmth.  (Not something which can be said for Dickens.)  Finn as a child is as convincing as Finn approaching manhood.  The fears and the strength of Catrine, his mother, are written with great tenderness.  Roddie is the third main character: skipper of his own boat, a consummate fisherman revered by the community and adored by young Finn but not without demons and weaknesses of his own.  The changing relationships between these three uncoil at a leisurely pace as the years pass and circumstances change. 

Minor characters receive equal attention.  There seemed to be no shadowy characters in the background as extra padding.  However small their role, each had his or her personality and distinctive quality.  Conversations are frequently written verbatim and for the most part I thoroughly enjoyed this. The naturalness, the camaraderie and especially the humour had me laughing out loud.  I was less taken with the sermons and the economic chat but it was a crucial aspect of the story and certainly merited its place.

Gunn seems as strong when presenting the picture of a community as he is when depicting individuals, using his minor characters to flesh out prevailing views and other significant events, again with a light touch but with vivid detail.  My interest was caught by the personal stories but there is plenty in this book for those more interested in the broader social and economic situation.

Gunn creates landscapes with a painterly eye.  Deft and detailed brush strokes create a bucolic background to Finn’s childhood.  Poverty is neither forgotten nor hidden but is balanced by the resilience of the people and the harsh beauty of their surroundings. 

This is indeed a leisurely, meandering book.  (We are back to Dickens perhaps.) There is so much that delighted me that I was happy to wander here and there and simply enjoy the journey.  But it is the set pieces which stand out for me and set this book apart.  There are several of them.  The majority, as is fitting, involve the sea.  At least one is quite different, when cholera reaches the area.   In each of these episodes, Gunn does not step back from his use of rich detail. Instead, the pace quickens, the tension rises and a slow burn becomes, for a while, a roiling page turner.  I’m reminded of the sea itself.  Calm and gentle one minute, lulling me into slumber; desperate and deadly the next. I read with my heart in my mouth.  Perhaps it’s indicative of how closely I felt I’d come to know these characters that their moments of peril felt so intense, so acute.  Or perhaps it’s just indicative of the quality of Neil Gunn’s writing.

He had heard of a Gaelic poem that described all the different kinds of waves there are. But no poem could describe them all. Take this one coming at them now – now! -its water on the crest turned into little waters, running, herding together, before – up-up! over its shoulder and down into the long flecked hollow like a living skin.

chapter XV: Storm and Precipice

I can see that this book will not be for everyone.  For me (and for Rose) it was a joy and I am very glad to have read it.  My sister lives close to Helmsdale, one of the locations of the book; her youngest son’s name is regularly abbreviated to Finn and he is the same age now as Finn was as the story closes. I’m sure these connections added to my pleasure in the book and have demanded that I buy her a copy for her forthcoming birthday though I feel certain she must already have it.

As I reached the closing chapters I really didn’t want the book to end. It will be one of my reading highlights of this year.  My thanks to Fiction Fan and Rose (and to Alyson and Christine who are also a part of the review-a-long but who’s comments I’ve not yet read) for the introduction to a book and an author I might never have encountered. 

Fiction Fan’s review

Rose Reads Novels review

43 thoughts on “The Silver Darlings by Neil Gunn (1941)”

  1. I came upon Gunn because I was researching a trip to Scotland and found his “Highland River” – a poetical autobiography – I really recommend it 🌿 My 15 year old son loved it too (inspired him with his schoolwork after reading about Gunn’s dedication.) Thank you for a lovely reading blog 📖 🤍

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  2. An inspirational review Sandra and I’m looking forward to reading it at sometime. I loved the prose in your excerpts. I bought a copy following your note in a previous blog, but at 600 pages it’s just too daunting with my current inability to concentrate ( I’ve been reading Hamnet for the last two weeks!!).I’m just waiting for the day to return when I can sit down quietly with a book for a couple of hours and be transported, instead of wandering around like a lost soul. I think this just might be the book to begin with. I promise to be in touch soonxxx

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    1. When you do feel able to settle down with this one, Pat, I think you will find it easy to read and it’s perfect for those moments when we just need to be transported out of ourselves and our surroundings. I loved the sense of peace I felt with this one. It is a slow-moving book though – do let me know what you think when you’ve read it. (And I’m sure it’s me who owes you and email so don’t feel pressured) xx

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  3. I’m glad you loved this too, Sandra, I think we all got something from it. I see what you mean about it seeming like a 19th century novel, in style and scope it certainly could have passed for one quite easily. Interesting you were reading it at the tale end of Dombey, which is also full of references to the sea of course, and is probably among Dickens’ more introspective novels. The narrative tension within the Silver Darlings did seem quite slight in one sense, as it was essentially about Fin becoming a man, and Catrine’s uncertain status caught between the worlds of wife and widowhood, but spending so much time with them allowed me to care about what happened to them, plus the history of the herring industry was delivered in such a way that it never took over from character development.

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    1. Apologies for the delay, Alyson. I hadn’t made the link to the sea with Dombey – yes of course! In Gunn’s book the sea is almost a character in its own right. Whilst Dickens is a master of description in the grimy streets of cities, he didn’t bring the sea to life for me. Like you, I found Gunn able to maintain my attachment to the characters throughout whilst expanding my understanding of life in the area at this significant time. I was fascinated by the differences in life in Dunster and Wick and on the various islands.

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    1. I highly recommend it, Kaggsy. When you’re in the mood for a long, quiet and beautiful novel 😊 Definitely an author that every Scot should encounter at least once!

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  4. I read this one back in 2017, I think it was one of my favourites for that year. I also enjoyed his Highland River and Off in a Boat. I’m so glad you enjoyed The Silver Darlings so much.

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    1. I’ve just popped over to read your three reviews, Katrina – really helpful, thank you 😊 The Silver Darlings will be one of my books of the year.

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  5. I’m glad you enjoyed it so much Sandra – it seems to have gone down well with everyone! (Unlike poor Tender is the Night! 😉 ) I see what you mean about Dickens, although I never find him slow moving – there are too many plots and sub-plots going on for that, which is kinda what I felt this one lacked. Of course, that’s not what he was trying to do, so I’m not criticising the book for that – it just meant it wasn’t quite as page-turning for me as it otherwise might have been. But I did enjoy all the social and economic stuff – that’s probably what I took away from the book most, in fact, never having really known how the fishing industry worked in those early days. And, like you, I loved the set pieces – the thrills on the sea and the tension in the cholera section. I also liked that it was a rather more positive spin on post-Clearance Scotland than I’m used to – generally speaking we emphasise the tragedies of that period, and ignore that for some people – a lot of people – it actually opened up great new opportunities even if they took a while to see that.

    Glad you joined in – lovely review!

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    1. Apologies for the delay in responding, FF. I’m mindful re Dickens that I still have the best to come so I suspect in due course I will feel as you do when it comes to comparing him and Gunn. The set pieces were wonderful! I certainly learned from the social and economic elements but key for me was that although Gunn didn’t sugarcoat the hardships of the impact of the clearances, he brought out the resilience of the people. I am so pleased that I managed this one. And I’m quietly delighted that I missed Tender is the Night! 😂 Looking forward to the next one!

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        1. Oh my! 😳 It’s not one that I’ve read and not one that I’ve particularly wanted to read. Satire is never my strong point and umm….. it’s rather long! 😫 First look suggested 800 pages, next edition comes in at 900! 😲 On the plus side, kindle edition costs pennies and I don’t currently have a doorstopper on the go or a classic …. 🤔 Nothing ventured and all that …. Downloaded! 😃

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          1. Hurrah! It’s many years since I read it but I loved it – Becky Sharp is one of my favourite female characters in fiction. None of your Dickens droopiness about Becky! There’s also a fabulous TV adaptation from many years ago now, starring Natasha Little as Becky – up there with the 1995 P&P for enjoyability! 😀

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          2. You’re building strong case! I did catch a little of the more recent tv adaptation but something up there with P & P is a real incentive. If I run out of steam with the book itself, I can reward myself with the tv version!

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  6. This is a wonderful review, Sandra, I’m so happy you were able to take part (and glad to have been of assistance to you because of the delay in the arrival by sea of my copy).
    Your comparisons with the Dickens books you’ve been reading recently are interesting, but your comparisons of the story to the sea are inspired! It seem so obvious now you’ve pointed this out .
    It hadn’t occurred to me that Helmsdale was a real place. How amazing that your sister lives near there and that you have your very own Finn in the family 🙂
    Like you, I’m keen to read more by Neil Gunn. Hopefully sooner rather than later.

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    1. Everyone seems to feel much the same about this one, Rose. It was a real joy to read this book. So far as I know, all the places are real. I have been to some of them albeit some years ago but I was struck by the authenticity of the descriptions. Of course, Gunn, was born in the region and lived there most of his life. It’s always a bonus though, when you feel a personal link to a book, as you did with the memories of fishing. (My ‘Finn’ does fish and has a small boat which he is repairing with his brother. I very much hope though, that he never attempts any cliff climbing! 😨

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      1. I should have looked up the places on the internet when I read the book, but just assumed they were fictional. How lovely to recognise them from your visits.
        I hope not! Fictional Finn’s climb up and down the cliff was terrifying. That and Roddie wanting to fight everyone when he was drunk left my heart in my mouth.

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    1. Glad you enjoyed it, Janet. I’m not proud of my lack of knowledge when it comes to Scottish history and this book has piqued my interest.

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  7. I’m delighted you enjoyed the story as much as I did, Sandra. I was immersed in the land and sea scapes, caught up in the characters and loved the rhythm of language and overall serenity of tone (even in the midst of high adventure). I don’t think I would have minded if this story was based on fantastic rather than realistic elements, but the fact that it did closely represent a period in Scottish history brought an added depth of engagement and interest.

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    1. I entirely agree. Christine, about the serenity of tone. It seems that we all thoroughly enjoyed this . I’m so pleased I was able to join in 😊

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  8. I enjoyed reading your review Sandra and I am glad you liked the book. Long books are not my favourite thing at the moment after two massive disappointments. I don’t mind a slow (or even non-existing) plot though as long as the characters are interesting.

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    1. Plodding through a long book which doesn’t grab you is grim, Stargazer. But this one was a joy! Hopefully you will very soon find some gems to redress the balance in your own reading 😊

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  9. I never knew that there was a Scottish renaissance, nor had I ever head of him. The book sounds perfect right about now. I don’t know if you saw my review of “The Great Circle,” but I highly recommend it too.

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    1. You are not alone in not having heard of the Scottish renaissance, Elizabeth, it was new to me too. I plan to follow it up soon. I do recommend this one: a long and essentially quiet novel but uplifting and engrossing. As usual, I am playing catch up but I have your blog open as I write and will look at the Great Circle review in particular.

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  10. Thank you for such a wonderful review Sandra, this is a must for my next classics challenge list! Calm and gentle and then desperate and deadly sounds fantastic and is certainly inspiring me but perhaps the biggest compliment is that you believed the characters to be real, that’s my favourite type of reading, to be so wholly engrossed in other lives.

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    1. Thank you, Jane! I agree with you – when characters feel this real it’s special. Gunn succeeded for me in finding the ideal balance between the characters’ interior and exterior lives. I think you would enjoy it 😊 (My classics club list has languished for so long! But I will get back to it.)

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  11. Thanks for this interesting and thoughtful review Sandra. I have long been drawn to many of the 19th-century English novels and its interesting that this Scottish novel from the 1940s has something of the quality of those earlier novels. I will keep an eye out for Neil M. Gunn – thanks.

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      1. The size put me off too, but I began to read last week, and it’s wonderfully absorbing-just the right pace and level of detail. I can pick it up and put it down as the mind and mood takes. There’s no mad desire to know what happens next, because it moves along at life pace- what will be, will be- but pauses to admire the view on the way. A gem.

        xxx

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        1. Yes! Exactly, Pat! I began reading in February, finished in June. With pauses along the way. And never lost track of story or characters. So pleased you’re enjoying it, Pat xx

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