Neil Gunn, the son of a Caithness fishing boat skipper and one of Scotland's most distinguished 20th century novelists, was a prolific writer. His first novel was published in 1926 and his last major work, an autobiography, 30 years later. His period of creative writing spanned the Recession, the political crises of the 1930's and the Second World War and its aftermath. Although nearly all his novels are set and enacted in the Highlands of Scotland, he can never be described as a regional writer in the narrowest sense of that description. His novels invariably depict two worlds - the world of here and now and that in which the meaning of life and essence of living are explored. Never was that exploration carried out more thoroughly than in 1944, when he wrote his famous anti-utopian novel, The Green Isle of the Great Deep.
In the 1940's he was at the height of his creative powers and highly esteemed for the 12 novels he had written. He had been a leading light in the Scottish Literary Renaissance, the inter-war revival movement in Scottish literature, had won the prestigious British James Tait Black Memorial Prize, and had 2 books listed as 'book of the month' by the Book Society of London.
The second of the listed books, Wild Geese Overhead, written in 1939, was set in Glasgow; it was Gunn's riposte to accusations of escapism and avoidance of contemporary problems in earlier books. In a city where violence and poverty were rife, and during a time when the Second World War was imminent, Gunn sought a solution to the ills of industrialised society that gently eschewed the work of social planners in favour of a personal approach - an approach that depended on the attainment of an individual freedom that would make its possessor a more useful contributor to community life. It was his first attempt to answer the 'social conscience' critics of the 1930's.
Throughout that decade Gunn had been deeply conscious of the spiritual malaise that prevailed in Western countries, so vividly described in T S Eliots' Waste Land. He was conversant with the utopian ideas of H G Wells, and Aldous Huxley's anti-utopian novel, Brave New World. The dangers posed by the totalitarian state had become all too apparent in Nazi Germany, and there were disclosures that all was not well in Soviet Russia. The horror of unrestricted power and its associated means of torture had been made abundantly clear in Arthur Koestler's Darkness at Noon, a novel that affected Gunn profoundly. The invitation to write a serious and carefully focused anti-utopian novel was accepted by Gunn, but the ultimate challenge to do so came about in a curious way - almost accidentally.
In 1941 after the immediate success of his great novel, The Silver Darlings, Gunn was approached by Chambers Journal to write something with a distinctly Highland flavour. He obliged with a series of stories involving the dialogue between and old man, Hector, and a young boy, Art, both living in the type of Highland community so familiar to him. For themes for the dialogue Gunn drew on his own experiences and his knowledge of the notes to Carmina Gadelica ,a collection of Gaelic songs, hymns and incantations. The result was an enchanting mix of childhood wonder and the wisdom of old age. The stories were published in book form under the simple title of Young Art and Old Hector. The book, a great success, gave rise to criticism from one of his fellow writers and great friend, Naomi Mitchison, who saw the friendship between an old man and a young boy as unusual, and the essence of the dialogues, escapist. In addition, she saw the book as being inappropriate for a country at war. Gunn reacted to this criticism in a most imaginative way; he simply transferred Hector and Art from their Highland community to a mythical totalitarian state; in 1944 the two protagonists continued their adventures in The Green Isle of the Great Deep.
The title of the book was the name given to the Celtic paradise, and the novel takes the form of a fable, using legends from Celtic mythology and the imagery of the Bible. It is a complex story, unfolding simultaneously on several planes of action and thought. It is an adventure story, featuring the antics of Art escaping from the states authorities; it shows the process of brain-washing, using the techniques of rigorous questioning and subtle persuasion; it is a study of the limits of resistance to mental torture of a healthy mind; it is a critique of an all-powerful authoritarian state, operating for the so-called good of the governed, and it has as one of its protagonists, God himself.
The plot is simple. Hector and Art on a poaching expedition fall into a pool in their favourite Highland stream and drown. They wake as if from a dream to find themselves in a green land covered in fruit trees with an abundance of delectable fruit. They are met by an unsmiling 'coast watcher', who tells them to make their way to the principal place of authority on the island, the Seat on the Rock, using the highway and the inns along it. At Art's instigation, the couple avoid the recommended route, and head across country, eating the fruit from the trees as they go. The inhabitants of the Green Isle seem cowed and lifeless, inviting Hector's description of them as 'clean empty shells on a strange sea shore.' Hospitality is eventually offered by a married couple, Mary and Robert, who display the virtues so well known to Hector of kindness and hospitality to strangers. In time Hector learns from them that eating from the fruit from the trees is strictly forbidden and that the staple and obligatory diet is processed food. Processed food guarantees obedience; fresh fruit offers the choice of free will. Mary, drawing from traditional healing skills, possesses an elixir that enables her and her husband to partake of both processed and fresh foods without their losing the inner freedom of thought and choice.
In Hector, Art and Mary, Gunn creates a trio of freedom fighters who respond positively to the threat imposed by authoritarianism in different ways. Hector's fault under interrogation is his concern for others, even to the extent of revealing Arts hiding place. Stretched to the limits of his endurance, he claims a right, strangely allowed by the Authorities, to summon God as his final source of appeal for divine justice. Art has an intuitive distrust of the Authorities and resists their approaches with the natural spirituality of a child, depending on his spontaneity and inner being to create a wall of freedom round himself; he is the personification of legendary hope. Mary acts throughout with an enlightened sense of caring that wells up from within herself, a caring that could be called charity or love. All three reflect Christian attributes without any element of passivity or blind obedience; all three present a strong indication of the potential of the untainted human psyche to resist tyranny in any form.
The climax of the book comes with Hector's dialogue with God. From it Hector hears much of what he already knows and has transferred to Art. In his hand-over is the supreme legend of the nuts of knowledge falling into the pool of life and being swallowed by the salmon of wisdom. God confirms that knowledge without wisdom and love leads to a divorce of the head from the heart and the intellect from the spirit, a divorce that can lead to destruction and cruelty. To the rich mix of knowledge and wisdom Hector suggests the addition of magic, which for him is 'the scent of the flower, the young feet of the runner and the deep smile on the face.'
But God has ideas that complement those of the truly free individual. He appreciates the need for effective governance through the machinery of the state, but insists that collective control must be tempered by access to the prudence and judgement of a council of the wise, a council immune from power seeking and self aggrandisement, and voluntary. With such blocks in place, His task is fulfilled, and the progress of mankind in collective terms is left for the wise to guide and the state to implement.
Like Aldous Huxley before him Gunn has to seek a mean between the importance of the continued existence of the small community at peace with itself and the political state exercising its powers to produce stability. The need for this balance can be extrapolated to encompass the fear of small nations of being subsumed into larger groupings for economic or political reasons. Gunn addressed this fear when participating actively in the creation of the Scottish National party in the 1930's; his nationalism was centred round the conception of the small nation state being humanity's last bulwark for personal expression against impersonal tyranny. This fear of impersonal control from afar is reflected in the uneasiness shown by certain member states of the European Union with regard to acceptance of the Union's Constitution; the same uneasiness, but this time with regard to loss of identity, is shown by those who see dangers in the standardisation inherent in globalisation. In these times of immense change The Green Isle of the Great Deep has a strange relevance and can be read with as much interest and pleasure as it was over 60 years ago.