B-Sides: Neil M. Gunn’s “Highland River”

Freud taught that childhoods shape our adult selves with unresolved trauma. But this novel shows that childhood joy can shape adulthood, too.

At first light on a frosty morning in early spring, from one of the scattered cottages of a fishing community in the far north of Scotland, a boy, barely nine years old, is sent to fetch water from the well. But something catches his eye in the nearby river: a salmon nearly as long as the boy is tall. His protracted struggle to land the fish provides the gripping opening of Neil Gunn’s 1937 novel Highland River. Kenn’s success makes an immediate material difference to a Highland fisherman’s family in the first decade of the 20th century: new boots for the barefoot Kenn. The enduring gift brought by the salmon from the Atlantic depths, though, is the struggle itself. That experience remains at the core of Kenn’s being for the rest of his life in ways that this novel sets out to explain.

Gunn himself grew up in a world very like Kenn’s. Highland society, history, and culture provide the material for all of his 20 novels, in various modes. There is the realism, influenced by Thomas Hardy and D. H. Lawrence, of Morning Tide (1931); laboring-class epic in The Silver Darlings (1941); and dystopian fantasy in The Green Isle of the Great Deep (1944).

Highland River is at once Gunn’s most personal novel and his most formally adventurous. Its explanation of the significance of its opening adventure does not take the form of a first-person Bildungsroman of the classic sort, tracing the childhood origins of the consciousness now narrating that development. Instead, Gunn cuts back and forth between vivid evocations of the boy’s physical sensations and impulses, and the retrospective meditations of the adult Kenn, now a nuclear physicist, explicated in the third person and the present tense. At one point the older Kenn’s perspective becomes that of a hawk, circling high over the glen up which his boy-self is exploring, a tiny figure in the landscape, viewed with a combination of love, and curiosity, and pity—the adult Kenn knows that at 19 this boy will be gassed on the western front.

Although Highland River frequently puts the reader inside the child’s experiences, sometimes it acknowledges the mystery of developing selfhood by inviting us simply to look at the hints of that inner world that show through in movement and expression. So too the narrator occasionally retreats from the adult Kenn’s own perspective to register his subjectivity only in its outward signs: “His lips moved in their characteristic humour, but in his eyes was a deep, secret tenderness.”

Gunn wanted to explore the life of the senses when most detached from who we think we are. What stays in the mind after reading “Highland River” are its luminous depictions of moments of joy.

In remembering childhood experience, the adult scientific Kenn is on his guard against the lure of nostalgia, and “sensitive to false symbolism.” The past, more obviously than the particle, is changed by being looked at. The 21st-century reader is likely to be on their guard against the importance Kenn gives to ancestry as the source of the boy’s responses to his world. In the moment of first glimpsing the salmon, “all his ancestors came at him. They tapped his breast until the bird inside it fluttered madly” with an inherited hunting instinct. Those ancestors include the Gaels and Vikings of historical times, but also the indigenous before them, the Picts. And for all his suspicion of symbolism, the older Kenn cannot help but see his parents as archetypes of masculine and feminine, the hunter and the homemaker, members of a similarly idealized “folk.”

Given what was happening in 1937 Europe, though, it is not surprising that Gunn is alert to the dangers lurking in “the vexed factor of race.” Accordingly, his “folk” are never nationalized—Gunn was one of the most prominent Nationalist writers of his generation, yet Scotland is barely mentioned in this book. Instead, they are imagined as survivals of the peaceful and egalitarian hunter-gatherers who inhabited the global golden age imagined by the Diffusionist theory of human history popularized by W. J. Perry in The Children of the Sun (1923). Highland River follows Perry in understanding the Great War as the latest horror visited on humanity by “civilization,” a social form based on homicidal violence from the start. With another world war already in prospect, Kenn places some of his hope for the future in a counterrevolution that would return the descendants of the global “folk,” including the industrial working class, to a renewed state of peaceful coexistence. The rest of his hope goes further afield. You might say Highland River is what remains of William Wordsworth’s pantheism once “Nature” turns out to be indifferent to humanity: that is why Kenn has to become a physicist.

Civilization (power, wealth, violence) is present in the young Kenn’s community, too, and indeed provides the context in which the struggle with the salmon can create a boy’s identity. Kenn’s first response upon glimpsing the fish is fear. This is in large part a kind of metaphysical fear of the “monstrous reality” of this creature, “but it was also infinitely complicated by fear of gamekeepers, of the horror and violence of law courts.” By entering the river, the salmon has become the property of the landowner who owns its fishing rights, and Kenn commits a crime by catching it.

It is however the joy of the experience that Kenn takes with him into a school day where he twice suffers the violence of traditional Scottish school discipline: the heavy leather strap or tawse struck two or three times across the open palm. This punishment is provoked by the “state of abstraction” in which Kenn is remembering his adventure, and the “faint smile” that makes his inward pleasure visible, “a glimmer that shone in the eyes and brought a warmth to the delicate features; there was secrecy in it and memory and remoteness.” But the punishment has the effect of reinforcing the self-possession that enrages the schoolmaster in the first place. Being hit “freed [Kenn] from this school life and any obligation to the master; made him whole and secret and hostile.” Self-identity, for this novel, is produced by the cherishing of a memory of delight as a secret, as the core of my being, unavailable to others but by that very token what renders me an individual able to stand apart from and judge my society. Even though the moment of delight may be at the time an experience of a complete loss of self in the activity of trying to catch a salmon or conduct a scientific experiment.

Highland River is not, as this description may suggest, simply a philosophical novel. Later in his career, Gunn found in Zen Buddhism—or rather, in the simulacrum propagated in the West by Eugen Herrigel’s Zen in the Art of Archery (1948)—ideas with an affinity to his own. He folded them into his autobiography, The Atom of Delight (1956), which recalls many experiences also reflected in Highland River. While remaining a committed Socialist and Nationalist, Gunn was stung by the horrors of totalitarianism into seeking the grounds of our values in something beyond ideology. He wanted to explore the life of the senses when most detached from who we think we are.

Accordingly, what stays in the mind after reading Highland River are its luminous depictions of moments of joy. Here is young Kenn after another adventure chasing fish:

As he thought over the day’s doings in the nest of his bed, he was full of glee. “Hah-haa!” he breathed, wide-mouthed; he constricted and blinded himself with his mirth; turned in upon himself like an adder, seeking the central core of himself, so that he might burrow into that, crush his laughing mouth against it, and go blind in the last tension of fun.

Then he drew back, open-mouthed and listening, like a troll, and heard nothing in the world but the river.

Contract and expand, systole and diastole: the river flows.

The river! In the night of the world. Listen!


His own personality rose out of the river within him. He was a little shy of it, as he might be of some dark boy-stranger with a waiting smile.

He turned his head away, silently laughing. In the middle of laughing he fell asleep.

In the 20th century, Freud taught us that our childhoods shape our adult selves in the form of unresolved trauma, which we must overcome by talking them through. But surely childhood joy can shape our adult selves too, perhaps in ways that we cannot talk about, although we can seek to recover the joy. Gunn’s idea is much closer to Nietzsche’s in Beyond Good and Evil: “The man’s maturity: that means to have found again the seriousness that one had as a child at play.” Replace seriousness with delight and you have the core of Highland Rivericon

This article was commissioned by John Plotz. Featured-image photograph by Dave Drury / Unsplash (CC0 1.0)