Great Scottish Writer—Neil M.Gunn (1941 [1989]) The Silver Darlings.

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.

James Hunter (2019) Insurrection: Scotland’s Famine Winter.

Professor James Hunter revisits a student historical dissertation to remind us that it wasn’t just Ireland that suffered from famine, after potato crops failed year after year in the late 1840s, but most of Europe suffered from the fungal spores of Phytophthora infestans. The poor people of the Scottish Highlands and Islands did not experience to the same scale as the Irish Holocaust, but many of the structural problems were the same.

The aristocracy—landed gentry—who owned the land, owned the people on the land. And what they termed ‘surplus population’ was pushed off the land to less arable ground with nothing to sell but their labour. Marxism begins its case studies here with surplus profit and the rentier class. Communities became wholly dependent on the potato to feed their families. And there was no cut off point. The potato blight continued to decimate crops in the 1850s. Unlike Ireland, a subjugated nation with a constant military presence, Scotland had soldiers but they were located mostly around Edinburgh and Glasgow. They had to be kitted and transported to the North of Scotland to deal with food riots.    

The Spectator, 6th February 1847, for example, reported

Food riots have been spreading in the North of Scotland to so great an extent that several parties of military have been dispatched from Edinburgh. In some parts of the country is described to be nearly in a state of insurrection.

James Kennedy, The Highland Crofter, best describes what it was to be poor and to be the property of an often absent landlord.

 Frae Kenmore to Ben More

The land is a’ the Marquis’s;

The mossy howes, the heathery knowe

An’ like bonnie park is his;

The bearded goats, the towsie stots,

An’ a’ the braxie carcasses;

Ilk crofter’s rent, ilk tinker’s tent,

An ilka collie’s bark is his;

The muir-cock’s craw, the piper’s blaw,

The ghillies hard day’s wark is his;

From Kenymore tae Ben More

The warld is a’ the Marquis’s.

The fish that swim, the birds that skim,

The fir, the ash, the birk is his;

The castle ha’ sae big and braw,

Yon diamond crusted dirk is his;

The roofless hame, a burning shame,

The factor’s dirty wark is his;

The poor folk vexed, the lawyer’s text,

Yon smirking legal shark is his;

From Kenmore to Ben More

The world is a’ the Marquis.

But near, mair near, God’s voice we hear

The dawn as weel’s the dark is his;

The poet’s dream, the patriot’s theme,

The fire that light the mirk is His

They clearly show God’s mills are slow

But sure, the handiwork is His;

And in His grace our hope we place,

Fair Freedom sheltering ark is His;

The men that toil should own the soil,

A note as clear as the lark is this;

Breadalbane’s land –the fair, the grand –

Will no’ be aye the Marquis’s.

Hunter uses a novelistic technique to hook the reader into what happened. An August day in 1847, three women walking from Nowtonmore to Kinlochlaggan in the Scottish Highlands. They spoke in Scots, but Gaelic was the language of the common people of Highlands and Islands. They did not know each other, but they had a kinship and mission. Their destination was Aredverike Lodge. Thousands of acres that came with the Lodge were let to the Marquis of Abercorn. He was friends with Prince Albert and Queen Victoria. The land had been cleared of tenants for sheep. Sheep had been cleared for red deer. The three women hoped to appeal to Queen Victoria’s maternal sisterhood. David Sutherland aged 24, John Young 21, and John Main fishermen from the Moray coast had appeared in Scotland’s High Court on charges of mobbing, rioting and assault at the end of March 1847. They pleaded guilty and were sentenced to seven years’ transportation. The women hoped for their husband and sons to be given a royal pardon, or that the Queen should intervene to reduce the severity of the punishment. Transportation to Australia was a life sentence, not just for the prisoner, but for his family.

In ‘A Winter of Starvation,’ George Pole visited Barra on 13th January 1847. He was a representative of the Crown and had experience working in Ireland. His experience of Barra was similar. ‘Nearly every scrap of arable land had been given over to potatoes.’

Climate and geography, limited the availability of land. Just as in Ireland, the poorest tenants in crofts had the poorest thinnest soil and paid the highest rents. Potatoes were a wonder crop. It gave enough carbohydrates and proteins to supply a body with nutrients. Deficiencies in fats and Vitamin A could be offset by buttermilk, for example. John Percival in his book about the Irish famine suggested a working man might eat 14lb (6.5kg) of potatoes every day. Highlander and Islanders were well known to be taller and in better health than city dwellers (hence their recruitment into the Glasgow police force, where they literally looked down on most people). Hunter makes the same point about the reliance on an unvarying diet with use of a joke. A school boy, when pushed by his schoolmaster to tell him what he ate with his potatoes, had thought about it for some time, and then crooned, ‘a spoon’.

Pole found evidence of starvation on Barra, the common signs of diarrhoea and typhus fever when he entered a house. Outside the houses shells from the beaches, picked over and eaten. The myth there would be cockles when there were no potatoes was quietly put to bed with the dead and dying. Sir Robert Peel had tried to offset famine in Ireland by helping set up a network of food stores. His successor at the Treasury, Charles Trevelyan, favoured a laissez-faire approach of minimal state intervention in Ireland or the Highlands and Islands.

Neil M.Gunn in The Silver Darlings recounts what this meant in fictional terms.

‘The ground sloped down to a narrow flatness before it tumbled over a steep face of earth and broken rock to the sea-beach. All that primeval hill-side of heath and whin and moss was slowly being broken into strips of cultivated land by those who lived in little cabins of stone and turf dotted here and there with rounded backs like earth mounds… They had come from beyond the mountain which rose up behind them, from inland valleys and swelling pastures, where they and their people had lived from time immemorial. The landlord had driven them from those valleys and pastures, and burned their houses, and set them against the sea-shore to live if they could and, if not, to die.’

Many of the displaced lived locally. Men, women and children in Barra, for example, collected kelp, which produced a valuable alkali. The harvest sold by their lairds made them richer. They blocked emigration. When the industry collapsed in the 1820s with the introduction of a chemical substitute, these workers became a surplus population living in want. And like the Irish, demonised, regarded as lazy and workshy.  

Similarly, in the winter of severe frost and snow of 1846-47, family after family went hungry because the wood that made the new types of fishing boats had to be imported. The cost was too great. Despite living on the shore of the richest fishing grounds in the world, they starved. Those that had boats could not put to sea because of the weather. The demand for fish such as herring, which was salted and put into barrels for export, had also collapsed, with the abolition of slavery.  Lassez-faire.  

The laws of supply and demand dictate that when there is limited supply and high demand the price rises in step. The price of oats and grains such as barley shot up in value. Farmers were able to make windfall profits. Their response was to no longer sell oats and grains in small quantities, but to export their goods wholesale were a greater profit margin could be made. Super profit. It made economic sense.  

On Saturday, 30th January 1847, for example John Chisolm planned to 400 quarters or five tons of barley to Leith from Burghead aboard a cargo ship. But he wasn’t allowed to do so. Local people organised themselves to prevent the export of crops. Troops prevented insurrection in Ireland. In Scotland, the common people’s demands were often met through collective action and strength. Hunter notes the ringleaders were often shoemakers, talking cobblers. Women and children also played an active part. Oats and grains grown locally, stayed locally. Price wasn’t determined by market forces, but determined by notions of fairness and what the people could pay.

The conservative backlash around issues of property and law and order were the arrests of people like Sutherland, Young and Main. Sentencing was suitably severe—as a deterrent. But a passive population had become radicalized. And with mass insurrection in most of the Northern towns, mass starvation of men, women and children would have been exacerbated—as it was in Ireland, where local men raised crops to pay their rent to a factor and absent landlord and for them to be exported for windfall profits. He who pays the piper calls the tune, but not always is the tune to the rich men’s liking as it is now.