The Silver Darlings by Neil Gunn

The Silver Darlings by Neil Gunn is an epic novel set in Caithness during the highland clearances at the beginning of the herring boom.

The novel follows the life of Finn beginning before his birth with his father’s sudden capture by a press gang while out fishing for herring off the coast of Scotland and continuing through to Finn’s coming of age and eventual marriage. As Gunn weaves this story of history, heartache, and a culture’s attachment to the sea we get a glimpse into the life of the men and women who learned to make a living from the unpredictable sea.

Catrine, Finn’s mother, is a major character in the novel. It is Catrine who must forge a way for herself and her child after her husband’s abduction. Together she and Finn survive the plague that hits their village and when Finn comes of age and longs to become a fisherman it is Catrine who must face her dread of the loss which the sea can cause.

One major theme of the novel is how Catrine and Finn’s relationship plays out, especially as a close friend of the family, Roddie, makes known his intentions to marry Catrine. This intention affects Finn’s relationship with his boyhood hero, Roddie, and with his mother.

Another major theme of the novel is Finn’s coming of age and how he grows into the responsibilities of adult. The reader watches as Finn is drawn inexplicably to the sea and becomes a leader among the other boys at sea. And we watch Finn wrestle with his attraction to Una, one of the young herring gutters. Finn must rise to maturity in all his relationships and come out ready to take on responsibility for his own household.

At nearly 600 pages long this book is no quick read. But, it is a worthwhile and enjoyable novel and Gunn has done a good job of keeping the book moving along. The reader will come away with vivid pictures of sailing on the open sea, of the crowds of women that met the boats as they returned with fish to process, and of the old way of life these fisher families belonged to.

Travel Notes: this is an excellent historical fiction choice if you want to learn more about the fishing that took place all around the Scottish coastline. This book is set in the area of Caithness but also includes travel to the Stornoway and the Outer Hebrides. This book was made into a movie by the same name in 1947.

The Singing Sands by Josephine Tey

The Singing Sands by Josephine Tey is a vintage mystery set in the highlands of Scotland. Tey was the pseudonym for Elizabeth MacKintosh, a Scottish-born mystery writer. The Singing Sands is MacKintosh’s final novel and was published after her death in 1952.

The adventure begins when Inspector Alan Grant heads north on doctor’s orders for a restful break in the highlands. His work at Scotland Yard has had a negative effect on his nerves and he hopes that several weeks of fishing and time with his cousin’s family will be just the recovery he needs. However, on his way north he encounters a dead body on the train, along with a piece of verse written on a newspaper found nearby. Although Grant is on holiday he can’t shake the dead man from his mind, nor can he erase the lines of the verse (which include “the singing sands”) from his head.

MacKintosh intersperses beautiful descriptions of the Scottish highlands with her telling of Grant’s holiday with his relatives and how he begins to casually investigate what he believes to have been a murder. Little by little Grant heads in the right direction and finds his holiday including a trip to the Hebrides and eventually a return to London where he must convince the authorities that the man on the train was indeed murdered and did not die of natural causes. The case seems impossible to solve but with the help of a fellow holiday-maker Grant is able to bring the mystery to an end.

“So Grant had the island to himself, and for five days in the company of the whooping wind he quartered his bleak kingdom. It was rather like walking with a bad-mannered dog; a dog that rushes past you on narrow paths, leaps on you in ecstasy so that you are nearly knocked over, and drags you from the direction in which you want to go.”

“He washed in the two pints of tepid water that Katie-Ann brought him and went downstairs rejoicing. He felt on top of the world. He ate the Glasgow bread, still another day older this morning, and the Edinburgh oatcakes, and the Dundee jam, and the Canadian butter, together with some sausages from the English midlands, and enjoyed them. Having given up his expectation of primitive elegance, he was prepared to accept primitive existence.”

Travel Notes: perfect reading for travels in the Highland and Islands as Inspector Grant flies over to a small Hebridean island in his quest for the “singing sands.” Apparently, the Isle of Eigg has “singing sands” which you can visit.