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‘It is a lovely strath. The flat river lands widen and narrow, the path goes by and through hazel woods where nuts ripen in harvest weather, discloses sudden meadows where rabbits look and vanish, swerves round and on, but ever holds by the river. The slopes that shut out the strath from the moors are steep and wooded to their summits.’
That’s Neil M. Gunn, born in 1891 in Dunbeath, writing about the river valley that runs to the sea, by the village and the harbour. His father was a fisherman, and in books like The Silver Darlings and Highland River the sea surges up, with the thunder of its waves breaking on the shore and the cries of the gulls following the herring boats.
And the relation of fishermen and the sea goes deep into his thinking. He writes of the qualities of the men who went to sea, and how ‘the discipline and austerity, the cleanness and precision of action, arose necessarily from the traffic with the sea. They were the only qualities that could hope to counter the impersonal fury, the impending, curling-over, smashing destruction of the sea.’
And in Highland River the main character, the fisherman’s son Kenn, finds very similar qualities in a physics researcher. ‘He liked this man, his quiet ways, his thoughtlessness of bodily comfort, over against the eagerness, the precision, the unending struggle with his uncharted sea.’
The physicist probing unexplored worlds is like the fisherman looking out at the sea.
‘A seaman’s eyes develop a far-sighted steadiness, through which the waves seem to roll and wash.’
And later in the book, Kenn, by now a physicist himself, sets out the challenge:
‘Nothing can be equally important with investigation into the nature of things. It is also the most difficult. It is also so infinitely slow. The greatest step any one man can take into the unknown is almost negligible.’
Yet we take it, and the task goes on, like the fishermen going down to the sea each morning.
This is a very powerful image, of science going out to face an endless sea, of shifting changing conditions, constantly challenging, and always with the prospect of something new ahead – a situation of freedom and adventure. ‘Through freedom the adventure continues,’ he says in his last book, The Atom of Delight, a work that is both philosophical and autobiographical.
‘The way goes into the future, and the end of it cannot be known. One can know it only as far as one has gone.’
That image of the quest for knowledge and understanding is also expressed by Neil Gunn as a journey upriver, travelling up the Dunbeath Water from the known lands near the harbour, up to the source of the river, to somewhere untouched by people, a place of newness and discovery.
You can make the journey today, starting from the mill at the back of the village, going over a narrow footbridge and past a ruined broch tower, up to the open land at the head of the strath. You can also find out more about Neil Gunn and the history of the area at the Dunbeath Heritage Centre, situated in the old school above the village, where you can look out over the harbour and the sea.