The Silver Darlings, referred to in the title, are herring. Neil M.Gunn’s most popular novel was published by Faber & Faber in 1941. Think about that. T.S.Eliot was the main man at Faber & Faber. The phony war with Germany was over. Britain was in retreat and awaiting imminent invasion and possible starvation as U-boats sunk tens of thousands of tons of merchant shipping. Gunn dedicated the book ‘to the memory of my father’. And men like him, men of deep faith that have been torn from the land by bailiffs and absent landlords, but still cling onto hope ‘because no landlord owned the sea’ (or so we thought). William Faulkner’s, much quoted requiem to neologisms, still holds true, ‘The past is never dead. It’s not even past.’
The first trickle of the herring boom allowed ordinary men and women to cling to the land, by going to sea, in much the same way the oil boom regenerated the Scottish economy. Its surplus squandered by Thatcherite monetarist policies that continue causing misery to the poorest while rewarding the richest for nothing much more than being rich. This is a love story, but it’s also a lesson in economics.
Chapter 1, The Derelict Boat. Toland aged 24, ‘felt full of a great competence. Catrine was only nineteen,’ and pregnant. Like many others they’d survived the winter on shellfish and seaweed. Colic and dysentery their bed companions when they ate the wrong things.
‘Old men, trying to live on nothing to give the young a better chance, had become unbelievably gaunt, so that children would run from them frightened.’
Catrine clings to Toland. She’s hysterical. ‘All along these coasts—the coasts of the Moray Firth—there was a new stirring of sea life.’
The sea is their common salvation. Listen to the almost biblical language of Gunn.
The landlords who had burned them out in order to bring a suitable desolation for sheep (italics my own).
[They] had set about making a harbour at the mouth of the river, the same river that, with its tributaries, has threaded the island valleys. Money had been advanced by him (at 6 ½ per cent, interest) to erect buildings for dealing with fish.’
I thought this would be a book about Catrine and Toland, but by the end of chapter 1, he’s gone from Dale. And Catrine is with child. She travels to a strange country, Dunster, to stay with her older friend Kirsty. Kirsty has a large croft with only her father to keep, but they also speak the common language of the people, the Gaelic. Catrine is almost raped on the way from Dale to Dunster by a shepherd. But it’s subtly done. These things didn’t happen in Britain at the end of the Napoleonic era, not to good girls.
She meets skipper Roddie Sinclair. And old woman instructs Roddie to take her to Kirsty’s father’s croft. He’s no rapist (well, to jump ahead twenty years, she says ‘no’ but means yes, I’m not sure how that would translate nowadays). Roddie declares he’s married to the sea, but we know that he’s the strongest, bravest and best skipper, while she’s the bonniest, (mirror, mirror on the wall) she’s the prettiest of all.
But she’s still married to Toland. He’s been taken by a warship, while fishing off the coast, press-ganged into the Royal Navy. Catrine has a vision that he’s dead. But Roddie and Catrine’s lives must run in parallel, because that’s what the good book says.
Catrine gives birth to Finn. The good book follows his life as he grows up, and establishes a relationship with Roddie. A preacher teaches arithmetic with examples from the sea.
‘How many women are in a gutting crew, and what do they do?
Three. Two gutters and one packer.
What do they jointly earn for gutting and packing one barrel of herring? You!
Fourpence, said the fisherman.
How many herring are in a barrel?
… There can be 800.
What does a woman get for gutting 100 herring?
… Now we have in our midst, a distinguished craftswoman in net making… How much is this woman paid for a net?
Finn raised his hand. ‘The number of knots along the top is 1801. The number down that 504…The total is 909 500 knots.
How many knots does she have to tie to earn one penny, ignoring fractions?
Mag had to tie 5790 knots to earn one penny.’
Finn had listened to endless arguments over the years. Mr Hendry at first said that they might as well haul their boats and close down. From four shillings on the barrel the [government] bounty had gone down to three shillings, to two shillings, to one shilling, to nothing.
Finn’s coming of age is marked by a seeming downturn in fishing. He falls in love, but cannot admit it, especially to himself. This is Toland and Catrine, but for the next generation, and for our generation. The story of love does not grow old and weary in the way our bodies do. In the way his mother’s body does. Only Roddie seems to defy the laws of aging. A hard man and hard taskmaster, he has the patience of Job.
When Roddie and Finn clash, as they must, both have some growing up to do. Catrine, ever virgin, despite being married and having a child, is the ballast.
The Silver Darlings is rooted in Scotland’s past, when those that owned the land, owned the people on the land, and created ‘a desolation’ of wealth. Much as now. They still do, even as fishing has dwindled to less than 1% of GDP, with boats coasting tens of millions of pounds that can catch and package fish for the market while still at sea lying rusting in dock. The lie of Brexit, fouling the nets. Gunn’s requiem for his father and his father’s father way of life and fishing so they might live and prosper. It’s all here. Open the book and read one of the classics of Scottish literature.