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. You can listen to a song about the herrings called The Silver Darlings here.

Katherine Wentworth by D. E. Stevenson

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Katherine Wentworth is a gentle romance set in mid-20th century Edinburgh and the Highlands. The book opens with a widowed Katherine living with her stepson and twins in Edinburgh. Unexpectedly, Katherine’s stepson is notified he is heir to his grandfather’s estate. After a strained and disheartening visit to the family seat in the countryside, Katherine wonders if she will lose her stepson to a life neither she nor her late husband wanted for him. Meanwhile Katherine has revived a friendship with a mostly selfish old schoolmate (Zilla) who also happens to have a kind and thoughtful brother in the picture (Alec). Zilla insists on sending Katherine to her highland cottage for a summer holiday and it is there that Katherine’s stepson must unravel his future and Alec must decide if he will take the next step with Katherine.

The author, Dorothy Emily Stevenson, was born in Edinburgh in 1892 and went on to write over 40 gentle romance novels during her career. And yes, she is related to Robert Louis Stevenson, her father being Robert’s first cousin. Dorothy’s books are comfort reading: the kind of book you want to curl up with on the couch when the gentle breezes of autumn bring a little chill to the air and you don’t have the mind strength for more strenuous readings.

Dorothy’s novels are filled with common, everyday experiences of her time. They are mostly set in little towns and villages throughout Scotland and England and many of the books echo Dorothy’s own experiences as a military wife.

Fans of Stevenson’s works are many. Thanks to some of them, you can have access to gargantuan spreadsheets that list every book, every location mentioned, characters, plots, etc. If you aren’t that interested in D. E. Stevenson, you may find this website of interest in learning more about her and her books.

Travel Notes: a good portion of this novel takes place in Edinburgh, several of the characters travel to Moffat for a day trip, and the remainder of the novel takes place in the Highlands.