The Silver Darlings

The Silver Darlings is a novel by Neil M Gunn that became a film and (as here) a play.

It is an essay in social realism. It tells of the clearances that forced many to live at Scotland's edges and take to the fishing of herring. It was a fishing that offered both the prospect of modest prosperity and cruelly the unpredictability of the sea.

Set in the early nineteenth century, the story revolves around Catrine who loses her husband to a press gang, takes refuge with a relative, finds a new man, who she eventually marries on learning of her husband's death, and determines that her son, Finn, will not be taken by the sea.

But both her lover and her son have the sea in their blood, try as she might, she can keep neither from it nor persuade Finn to take up the path of education (using a small legacy she has acquired).

She is a typical 'Gunn mother' in that her version of her son's betterment (usually entailing escape through education) clashes with the son's desire to cleave close to his community and to nature.

The Silver Darlings was a transitional book for Gunn where the elements that moved beneath the surface of his realism began to peek out and become more prominent; namely, his highly embodied spirituality, whereby we come to recognise that there is another world enfolded in this one, that gives a new dimension to our seeing of, and being in, the world. It was a prominence that slowly alienated his readership (in the kitchen sink realities of the materialising 1950s) but which deserve now to be re-evaluated. Unlike his admired Hermann Hesse, he did not enjoy a swinging 60s and a new readership. His texts were probably perceived as too parochial (and too spiritually tentative) for that.

I have been watching the 1947 film of the book. It was a labour of love, taking two years to complete, and whilst being chronologically challenged when it comes to costumes (they are all over the place), it is a very moving, direct portrayal of the book's essence - Finn's coming of age, the harshness of the life, shot through with people's irresistible capacity to find celebration (and love). And a mother's consistent, constant concerning love for the safety and well-being of the two men in her life and her struggle to reconcile herself to their chosen destiny.

It is, also, a covert hymn to Gunn's nationalism - the herring industry (in which Gunn's own father was a trawler skipper) was built in the teeth of the clearances by ordinary Scots - which gives it a topical edge that of a country's self-reliance and the virtues of the local.


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