1891 - 1973
A writer who incorporated Zen philosophy into his novels before it became fashionable, Gunn remains as one of the mystical figures in the literary history of Scotland. Born in Dunbeath, Caithness, the sea, the rivers and landscapes of northern Scotland are an integral part of his writings. From his early teens he lived in Kirkcudbrightshire with an older sister and her husband. There, he received private tuition from two locals, one a poet. Success in Civil Service exams took him first to London, then Edinburgh in 1909. Like Robert Burns before him, he was appointed an Excise Officer, serving in the Highlands from 1911 to 1921.
Posted to Wigan, Lancashire for two years, he married Jessie Frew, the two moving back north to Lybster, Caithness, where his writing began in earnest. His poaching was also apparently on the up at this time too, as he was (allegedly) the best poacher in Caithness. He was also secretly involved in various Nationalist activities, perhaps partly through meeting Hugh MacDiarmid and others in Inverness, and was instrumental in forming the Scottish National Party.
His first recognised success was Highland River in 1937, after which he gave up his full-time work in order to write. The two moved to Dingwall, and finally the Black Isle, where they lived from 1959 on. In his writings, Gunn demonstrates his wide and deep knowledge of Highland history and folklore. The constant undercurrents of sea and a boy's experiences and development are well shown in Morning Tide (1931), where in a village dominated by the sea the story depicts a boy's growing experience of reality.
Unfortunately, for some unfathomable reason, Gunn has never been a favourite of the literary press or publishers for that matter. He is not even mentioned in Martin Seymour-Smith's Guide to Modern World Literature. There are some bright stars still twinkling however; Canongate, Polygon, Souvenir Press, with others, have reissued most of his books.
In The Green Isle of the Great Deep (1944), a sequel to the earlier Young Art and Old Hector (1942), Gunn has woven both a fantasy and a commentary on the wartime situation, with a dig at the inhumanity of some fashionable leftisms. Gunn's dedication to The Green Isle reads 'For Old Hector and others like him who were friendly to many a Highland boy, this phantasy'. It is set in a tyrannical state operated by brainwashing methods.
Some of his books are less allegorical and more historical; The Silver Darlings (1941) for example is of the heyday of the herring industry in Caithness, in the early 19th century. Sun Circle (1933) tells of 9th century conflicts of Viking and Pict.
Gunn stayed close to his people and his land; it runs through his works just as the rivers ran through his childhood days and the sea met the coast. If some reference books have missed the point, it is to their detriment. His autobiographical book The Atom of Delight is as much about Zen as it is about the author. It was published in 1956.