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Ken is a scientist, with a scientist's dispassionate eye for the material world, as he reviews his life from the difficult 1930s, through the slaughter of World War I, back to an idyllic boyhood in the Highlands. When the mature man finally reaches the source of the river that has haunted his imagination for so many years, he finds that the wellsprings of magic and delight were always there, in the world all around him at the time, inexhaustible and irreverent. Awarded the James Tait Memorial Prize 1937, Highland...
Ken is a scientist, with a scientist's dispassionate eye for the material world, as he reviews his life from the difficult 1930s, through the slaughter of World War I, back to an idyllic boyhood in the Highlands. When the mature man finally reaches the source of the river that has haunted his imagination for so many years, he finds that the wellsprings of magic and delight were always there, in the world all around him at the time, inexhaustible and irreverent. Awarded the James Tait Memorial Prize 1937, Highland River is written in prose as cool and clear as the water it describes, and is the simplest, most poetic, and perhaps the greatest of Neil Gunn's novels.
KENN MUMBLED AND GRUMBLED and kept his eyes shut, for being rudely wakened out of sleep was a thing that often happened to him. He had been up late last night because everyone had been busy over the departure of the boats in the morning for the distant fishing. There had been such comings and goings and preparations that the excitement had kept sleep away much longer than usual. In this little Highland community young boys were not sent to bed early. Kenn was barely nine years old, and though he might be shouted at to take himself off at ten o'clock, he would often hang out until eleven. Last night it had been nearly midnight before sleep had curled him up in a corner of the kitchen, and his father had had to carry him to bed.
It was only when his mother's voice said something about the boats going away that he knew he must get up, so he muttered, `What are you wanting?' His mother told him that she wanted fresh water from the well. What an excuse for wakening a fellow! He could almost have cried. And when he did stagger out of bed and found from the greyness of the light that it could not be much more than six o'clock, his vexation became bitter. He stood in his shirt, whimpered moodily as he scratched himself, then slowly pulled on his trousers and his blue fisherman's gansey.
In the kitchen his father and mother were talking. He paid no attention to them, but picked up the bright tin pail and made it clatter against the jamb of the door as he went out.
The dawn air was cold and the touch of frost in the ground was such a shock to his bare feet that henearly cried out. He should have put on his boots, holed as they were. He hoped his parents were watching him through the window and seeing what he had to endure.
In this mood he arrived at the well, which was at the foot of a steep bank by the side of the river. Carelessly he bumped the pail down on the flat stone, and at the sound, as at a signal in a weird fairy tale, the whole world changed. His moodiness leapt right out of him and fear had him by the throat.
For from his very feet a great fish had started ploughing its way across the river, the king of fish, the living salmon.
Kenn had never seen a living salmon before, and of those he had seen dead this was beyond all doubt the all-father.
When the waves faded out on the far side of the stream, where the bed was three feet deep, Kenn felt the great silence that lay upon the world and stood in the midst of it trembling like a hunted hare.
So intensely did he listen to the silence that he might well have caught a footfall a mile away. But there was no slightest sound anywhere. His eyes shot hither and thither, along horizons, down braes, across fields and wooded river-flats. No life moved; no face was watching.
Out of that noiseless world in the grey of the morning, all his ancestors came at him. They tapped his breast until the bird inside it fluttered madly; they drew a hand along his hair until the scalp crinkled; they made the blood within him tingle to a dance that had him leaping from boulder to boulder before he rightly knew to what desperate venture he was committed.
For it was all in a way a sort of madness. The fear was fear of the fish itself, of its monstrous reality, primal fear; but it was also infinitely complicated by fear of gamekeepers, of the horror and violence of law courts, of our modern social fear. Not only did his hunting ancestors of the Caledonian Forest come at him, but his grown-up brothers and his brothers' friends, with their wild forays and epic stories, a constant running the gauntlet against enemy forces, for the glory of fun and laughter and daring—and the silver gift of the salmon. A thousand influences had his young body taut as a bow, when at last, bending over a boulder of the old red sandstone, he saw again the salmon.
Fear rose at him afresh, for there was a greyness in its great dark-blue back that was menacing and ghostly. An apparition, an uncanny beast, from which instinct urged him to fly on tiptoe. The strength of his will holding him there brought a faint sickness to his throat. He could see the eyes on each side of the shapely head and knew the eyes must see him. Still as a rock and in some mysterious way as unheeding, the salmon lay beneath him. Slowly he drew his head back until at last the boulder shut off sight of the salmon and released his breath.
As before, he looked all around him, but now with a more conscious cunning. A pulse was spirting in his neck. There was colour in his sensitive features and a feverish brilliance in the dark-brown eyes beneath the straight fringe of darker hair. Tiptoeing away from the boulder, he went searching downstream until he found a large flatfish stone, and returned with it pressed against his stomach.
When he had got the best grip, he raised it above his head, and, staggering to the upper edge of the sandstone boulder, poised it in aim. Then he did not let it drop so much as contrive, with the last gram of his strength, to hurl it down on the fish.
Though untouched, the salmon was very clearly astonished and, before the stone had right come to rest, had the pool in a splendid tumult. For it was not one of those well-defined pools of gradual depths. There were gravel banks in it and occasional boulders forming little rest pools behind them. There was no particular neck, as the bed of the stream merely rose to let the water rush noisily down and in. The tail was wide and shallow.
It was a sea-trout rather than a salmon pool, as became apparent in that first blind rush, when the fish thrashed the water to froth in a terrific boil on top of the gravel bank, cleared the bank, and, with back fin showing, shot across the calm water towards the well where he had been resting. So headlong was his speed that he beached himself not two yards from Kenn's pail. Curving from nose to tail, the great body walloped the stones with resounding whacks.
So hypnotised was Kenn by this extraordinary spectacle, that he remained stiff and powerless, but inwardly a madness was already rising in him, an urgency to rush, to hit, to kill. The salmon was back in the shallow water, lashing it, and in a moment, released, was coming straight for him. Right at his feet there was a swirl, a spitting of drops into his face. The fish saw him and, as if possessed by a thousand otters, flashed up the deep water and launched himself, flailing wildly, in the rushing shallows of the neck.
And then Kenn went into action, caution and fear forgotten. It was in truth a madness not unlike the salmon's. In his blind panic, the fish had no regard for bodily stress; in his blind exaltation, neither had Kenn.
Less than a hundred yards beyond the shallows of the neck was a long dark pool, and in it lay escape. If the brute had been calm, been travelling by night, it could have made the passage with ease. But now, having lost its head, it defeated itself by its own strength and added to its panic by bashing its nose against boulders.
Kenn approached the scene with such speed that before one toe could slip on slime the other was forward to thrust him on. Landing knee-deep in the final jump, he tore a stone from the bed of the stream and, blinded by the salmon's splashings, let drive.
He missed by over a foot and there followed a jumble in which, in his excitement, he not only threw guttural challenge but lunged fiercely and recklessly, to be left grovelling on his back as the salmon shot downward.
In his leap for the bank Kenn stumbled and was thrown severely. But he had no consciousness of pain; only of loss of time, of awful fear lest the salmon should escape.
And running down the bank it seemed to him as if the salmon had escaped. No trace of `way' on the pool. Nothing.... Was that a swirl—far down? Making his way out of the pool!
On his toes again, Kenn sped downward, came in below the fish, and picking up a stone half the size of his head, went straight to the attack.
The water was now growing narrower and deeper, but it was tortured by boulders and sloping flagstones. The passage to the sea was easy and hardly half a mile long, but Kenn complicated the boulder pattern by adding with violence small boulders of his own. Twice the salmon flashed past him, and now Kenn was not merely wading into the water, but falling and crawling and choking in it, yet ever with his dark head rising indomitably.
An altogether strange and ungainly beast to the desperate fish from the dark continental ledges of the Atlantic, where life had been lived for years in a halcyon calm, and red shrimps had fallen like manna about him, to be nosed and eaten at leisure. If the salmon had an instinct for an enemy at all, it must have been for some animal like the otter, swift and sure in attack and deathly in grip. This rushing, sprawling, stone-throwing inhabitant of another world had fingers that slid off the back like caressing fingers of seaweed. Unable to bite yet pursuing relentlessly. Shake him off! A rush and a heave and the salmon bared his girth on a sloping flagstone. From the bottom, Kenn had raked a stone barely the size of his small fist, but he threw it with all his vigour and it scored a first direct hit by stinging smartly blue cheek against red gills.
Back off the flagstone came the salmon with his nose pointing upstream, and he followed his nose. At the best of times it is awkward for a salmon to go downstream, but upstream, given depth and shoulder room, speed becomes a frenzy. This fish turned it into a debauch and reached the Well Pool like a demented torpedo.
Kenn had chosen his battleground and laid down the conditions of the fight.
And it was a saga of a fight, for of all that befell Kenn afterwards, of war and horror and love and scientific triumphs, nothing ever had quite the splendour and glory of that struggle by the Well Pool, while the tin pail that the tinkers had made watched with bright face from the kneeling-stone and his mother, murmuring in her anger, put last night's water in the kettle.
For Kenn had no weapons of attack other than his little fists and what they could grab from the river bottom; no rod, hook, net, or implement of constraint or explosion. It was a war between an immature human body on the one side, and a superbly matured body of incredible swiftness and strength on the other. In physical length, laid out side by side, there would have been little difference between them.
But neither of them was laid out yet! Indeed so far there had been little more than the courteous slap on the cheek as gage of battle, and it had been delivered by Kenn.
The initial strategy, however, for such warfare was his, not from learning or experience but out of instinct, and it could be summed up in the words `keep him on the run'. All his tactics brought this about as their natural result, whether he was careering wildly up and down the bank, pausing to hurl a stone, or dashing into shallows to get at close quarters. The frenzy of both had first to be worn down, before the cunning brain could stalk the tired body.
A curious mood of fatalism comes upon a salmon that has committed its life to a pool. Up and down it will go, round this boulder, by the side of that, turning here, turning back again there, but never making any attempt to leave the known ground. No barrage of stones will drive it forth, however successfully timed. The dangers of the shallows are the dangers of the unknown, of death. If the pool be just deep enough a salmon will pass between swimming human legs rather than be driven forth, and in this restless fashion will ultimately tire out its enemies.
But if the Well Pool had not sufficient depth over a wide enough area to permit of this endless swimming, it had on the other hand its own suggestions for escape. The water was amber-coloured, for it was the tail-end of a mighty spate, and drained from peat-banks in distant moors; being for the most part shallow, it had a considerable flow; and the scattered pieces of rock against the ground inequalities offered a tired fish many a natural hiding place.
Indeed several times Kenn had his heart in his mouth when it seemed that the salmon had altogether vanished. In the dark shadow of a leaning stone where the amber water gurgled past, a dark-blue back was but a darker shadow. Then Kenn would spot the tail or the curve of the nose or the pallor of a fin; would be overcome with an emotion keener in its thrust than ever; would back away and hunt his stone. Splash! and the salmon was on its journey once more, betrayed by its great size.
This phase of the battle went on for a long time, until Kenn knew all the resting places and there began to grow in him a terrible feeling of power, terrible in its excitement, in its realisation that he might be successful, and even more terrible in its longing.
There came a time when Kenn, having got the fish resting where he wanted him, went downstream to choose his stone, but no longer in blind urgency. He handled two or three before lifting one against his breast.
The salmon lay by the outer edge of a greenish underwater slab. By approaching it on a slant towards its tail, he could keep its head out of sight. Warily he did this until he came to the edge of the stream. But now he knew that however he stooped while wading in, the eyes would be disclosed. He did not hesitate; he let himself down into the water and, the stone against his stomach, slithered over the gravelly bottom on his stern. It was an autumn morning, after a night of hoar-frost, but when the water got fully about his body he felt it warm. Foot by foot he thrust himself on, until at last he could have put out a hand and touched the tail; and the tail was deep as his face and as taut.
Slowly he reared up on his knees, fighting down the sinking sensation that beset him, his hands fiercely gripping the stone. Anxiety now started shouting in him to heave the stone and be done, but, though trembling, he rose with infinite care, little by little, disclosing the back fin, the nape of the neck where the otter bites, and at last the near eye. The fish did not move. Inch by inch the stone went up until at last his own eyes were looking from underneath it. Then in one thrust he launched stone and body at the fish.
The thud of the stone on the great back was a sound of such potency that even in that wild drenching moment it sang above all else. For the stone had landed; the stone had got him! Spewing the river water forth, stumbling and falling, he reached the bank. Then both of them went berserk.
This great fish had not the slippery cunning, the evasiveness, of a small salmon or grilse. It tore around like a bull in a ring. Kenn began to score direct hits more often. He was learning the way. He could throw a stone ahead; he could madden; he could stalk warily and hear ever more exultingly the singing thud.
The fatal part for a salmon is the nape of the neck. The time came when Kenn landed there heavily with the narrow stone edge; the salmon circled and thrashed as if half paralysed or blinded; Kenn with no more stones at hand launched a body attack and received one wallop from the tail that sent him flat on his back; the salmon was off again.
The end came near the neck of the pool on the side opposite the well. Here the low bank of the river widened out into a grassy field. The tired fish, with pale mouth gaping every now and then, went nosing into shallow water, where some upended flagstones might provide a new and dark retreat. But there was no hidden retreat there and Kenn, well down the pool, waited with wild hope. If it lay anywhere thereabouts until he got up, it would be finished! And it lay.
It actually lay in full view between two stone edges, its back fin barely covered. Kenn hit it as it moved and then fell on it.
His hands went straight for the gills; one found a grip under a cheek, the other, slipping, tried for a hold on the body, and there and then began the oddest tussle that surely that river could ever have seen.
Under the burning grip of human hands, the salmon went frantic and threw Kenn about as if he were a streamer tied to its neck; the upended stones bashed his arms, his legs, the back of his head; the bony cheek dug into his wrist; but nothing could now dim the relentless instinct in him to roll both bodies from the shallow water on to dry land.
And this in time he accomplished. When his hand was shot from behind the cheek it drew gills with it.
The salmon flailed the dry stones with desperate violence, but Kenn was now in his own element, and ever he brought his body behind the body of the fish and shored it upwards, thrusting at the gills until his hands were lacerated and bleeding.
He dragged that fish over fifty yards into the grass park before he laid it down. And when it heaved in a last convulsive shudder, he at once fell upon it as if the fiver of escape still lapped its tail.
Some two months before, a certain Master Douglas MacQuarry, twelve years of age, son of the sporting tenant of the estate, and duly attended by his gillie, had landed with the customary rod and tackle a salmon of ten pounds. It was a feat of sufficient importance to win flattering recognition in the county press. Kenn's mother had read the account aloud and then she had turned to her son and had said, `You would never be able to do a thing like that.' It certainly was not meant as any sort of challenge. It might have been very difficult for the mother herself to have explained the curious momentary feelings that prompted her, perhaps out of some dim half regretful recognition that no son of hers could ever achieve such social renown. From her expression, he had turned away, stung.
And now on this busy morning, angered against him for not returning with the well water, she suddenly saw him rounding the corner of the house towards the door of the back porch, face down, hands knotted behind his head, dripping wet and staggering. The salmon's nose was under his fight ear, its tail was sweeping the ground behind. She gave way to him as he lurched in. Releasing his crooked fingers and heaving with a shoulder, he set the great fish with a mighty thump on the smooth blue flagstone at her feet. Then he glanced up at her and in a voice harsh with ironic challenge, remarked, `There's your Master Douglas MacQuarry for you!'
She looked at the frightening size of the fish on the floor; she looked at her son. His dark hair was flattened to rat tails; his brown eyes were black against the excited pallor of his face; water seeped from his clothes; his body seemed no longer boyish but immature and fragile, his bones thin brittle stalks. Yet there was a flame, an intolerant fighting spirit, that knit him together, and separated him from her in a way that suddenly pulled at her heart.
She looked back to the fish and whispered, `Where did you get that?'
`In the river.'
`Who else?' Did she think Master Douglas MacQuarry had helped him!
`You're all wet. Every stitch of you.'
`Oh a little,' he admitted indifferently. `I'll go back for the pail!'
At that moment his father came round the house.
`Come here, Davy,' said the woman to him quietly.
The father came up. He looked at the fish; he looked at the boy. `God bless me!' he whispered. `Eh?'
`I'll go for the water,' said Kenn gruffly.
`Where did you get him?'
`In the Well Pool.'
`God bless me, boy!'
His father was a great and daring seaman; when he read the Bible and prayed he was a bearded patriarchal man; in danger his spirit flashed indomitable and challenging. Now his features softened in a slow winning smile, touched to the breath of wonder. His son felt it without looking at it, felt it in the breath of his voice, and a weakening warmth ran about his heart.
`Did anyone see you?' asked his mother.
It was likely! `No,' he muttered.
`How did you land him?' asked his father.
`With my hands.'
His father looked at the hands. Kenn, seeing for the first time that they had been bloodily combed by the gills, put them behind his back.
`And he's wet to the skin besides,' nodded his mother in a rising tone that implied all this was none of her doing. She plainly could take no responsibility for him. The father could do that. This was obviously his son. But in the indifference of her voice that thus rose subtly to match her son's gruff indifference to her, was a curious crushed pride. `You'll go in and change every stitch on you this minute.'
Kenn paid no attention to her.
`Was there no one there at all?' his father asked in his quiet voice, still hushed in wonder.
The man looked at the fish. They all stared at it. It beat everything!
`Do you think,' said the mother thoughtfully, `that Sans would like a bit?'
As her husband stared at her, his mouth fell open. The movement of a hidden meaning could be felt in the silence.
`I'll go for him,' said Davy, and with his seaman's nimbleness was rounding the back of the house and out of sight before either of them moved.
`You'd better go into the kitchen and take off your clothes,' she said to Kenn; but the reflective kindliness had crept back into her voice, and he did not even answer as he shifted from one foot to another. The pail at the well was forgotten. `Are you cold?'
`No,' he answered.
`I'll go and get some dry things for you.' Because of the secret thought on her mind, she was now abstracted.
`They're coming,' said Kenn.
Sans, the merchant, was a big broad-shouldered jovial man. The folk liked him because in hard times he gave them credit. The boys liked him because when they proffered a halfpenny for nuts he gave them as many as his fist would hold, and he had a big fist. In this way he was different from other country merchants. And now he came with a smile on his face and his shoulders properly hunched in conspiracy. The sight of him made Kenn tingle.
When he saw the size of the fish, he muttered in astonishment a comical Gaelic oath, then laughed and brought down his hand on Kenn's shoulder. He shook Kenn. He stooped and looked into his eyes. `Good for you, my little hero!' he chuckled.
`He'll wet your hands,' said the mother.
`I'd like to wet his whistle!' said Sans, and laughed again. `What's the weight of him, do you think?'
`He's maybe twenty pounds,' said Kenn's father tentatively.
`Twenty! If he's not over twenty-five I'll eat my bonnet!' declared Sans.
`I'd say maybe twenty-two at the outside—no more,' repeated Davy modestly.
`We'll weigh him.'
`No, no, boy,' said Davy hastily. `Some one might see us.'
Sans looked at him, then turned with a wink to the woman. `He's hiding his pride fine.'
`Pride indeed!' said she, with high indifference. `More need to be ashamed of the young rascal. I only hope he'll come to no bad end.'
This verbal art delighted Sans, and, stooping, he caught the fish by the gills. Its burden made him groan.
`Wait!' said the father hastily and he stole to the corner of the house and spied around. Sans' great body shook with soft laughter at this display of anxiety. He winked again. `Come away, Kenn!' The woman stood watching the three of them slipping round the next house—it was yet little more than half past seven—towards the back door of the merchant's shop.
On the wooden scales used for weighing bags of meal, the merchant laid the fish. `Twenty, did you say? Very well.' He put on twenty pounds—and pressed the beam—and chuckled. He added the seven weight. Nothing happened. Two more to make twenty-nine. Then, gently, one for thirty and the beam trembled.
`Bless me,' said Davy softly.
`Thirty good,' said Sans.
All three gazed at the salmon. It was a cock fish, fresh from the sea, with the very colour of strength in its scales. Youth's silver sheen had darkened into full-bodied splendour. Even underneath, the white shimmer came from an oozing goodness in the flesh. Strong flakes, that would break on a white curd, and feed hungry men, feed families. No delicacy for jaded palates here. The strength and vigour of the sea; the rush of turbulent waters; the overleaping power.
`Get your knife,' said Davy.
`What for?' asked the merchant.
`Get your knife, man, and hurry.' Davy turned to his son. `Run you home and change your clothes.'
Kenn went home and washed his hands. The shallow scratches stung, but they no longer bled.
`Your dry things are ready,' said his mother, coming from the kitchen into the back porch. `You're shivering.'
`I'm not,' chittered Kenn.
`You are so,' said his mother. She skinned the gansey off him.
`I'll do it myself.'
`You'll come and stand in front of the fire. It'll be bad enough if you are reported for poaching without me having you ill on my hands.'
The warmth of the fire in the kitchen was grateful, though he did not feel any discomfort. Cunningly he kept his teeth from clicking. What he had done was still incredible to him, as a memory of some high vision. Yet he knew he had done it. He took his time, and only in his eyes could the shining of the vision be seen. The mother busied herself with the table, the porridge pot, and the kettle.
When he had got his clothes off, she came at him with a towel. But he complained and would not let her rub him. `I'll do it myself,' he grumbled. She looked at him a moment, and gave him the towel.
`Hurry up, then,' she said.
With a sort of manly reticence, at which she now and then threw a secret glance, he rubbed himself. Once, gone quite still, she stared out through the window with an odd pensive expression.
Before he was dressed, they heard his father's footsteps come in at the back door; then his voice, `Are you there, Ellen?'
She went out and closed the door between the kitchen and back porch behind her.
Kenn now strained his ears to hear what they were saying, but his father spoke in a low voice. Kenn knew that times had been bad and that his mother would be left with little money in the house when his father went away, maybe only a few shillings in the purse that was always hidden in the best room. They were in debt to the merchant, and the other day he had overheard Sans himself saying that if he did not get some money in soon, God knew what was going to happen. The words had secretly troubled Kenn very much because, with all the wealth of his shop around him, Sans seemed to Kenn to be in a position of everlasting security. He was not dependent on catching fish like the fishermen, or on the price of calves, like the crofters. He could make decisions as to whether he would give things or not. Kenn had often thought how nice it would be to be Sans, and when a poor person, who had no money at the time, came to get something of which he was in grave need — as Kenn was in need of boots—to hand him a pair, saying, `Take them. I know you'll pay when you can.'
His mother came in with a fine new pair of boots in her hand. `See if they'll fit you,' she said, putting them down beside him. She rubbed the feet of a pair of stockings and threw them beside the boots.
He examined the boots carefully. They were wonderful boots. Each had a toecap and a heelcap of iron. Along the outer edges of the sole ran a double row of tackets or studs, but the stud heads were not of the usual round shape, they were squared and thus very distinguished, like those worn by certain gamekeepers and shepherds. No other boy at school had them this shape. Moreover, inside the double row were single rows in a new pattern. It was a fascinating pattern, like what shooting tenants might wear.
He sat down and drew on the stockings, then he tried the left boot first, as grown men did. It certainly was very roomy. He waggled his toes inside it.
`How are they?' asked his mother.
`Fine,' he answered.
His father came in, drying his hands, for he had messed them at the cutting of the salmon. He was quiet now, but underneath the quietness there was eagerness still. He not only asked Kenn how the boots fitted him, but got down on his knees and with strong tender hands felt for Kenn's foot under the leather.
`Are they not too big for you, boy?'
`No,' said Kenn. `They're just easy.' He tried to shove his big toe forward a bit.
`They're just a little too big, but not much,' said Davy to his wife. `What do you think?'
Knowing all that had passed in Kenn's mind, she answered, `They're better to be too big than little, because before he gets another pair he'll have to grow into them. Mind, I'm telling you that!' she warned her son strongly.
`You'll have to go easy with them, boy, and not be kicking stones,' said his father gently. `Try the other foot.'
Kenn pulled on the right boot. `It's a tighter fit, this one,' he said.
`I believe it is,' agreed his father. `Tie them up. Aren't they the great laces, what?'
The laces were made of real leather with wired points. They were greased and soft and supple and left marks in the joints of Kenn's fingers. He could smell the grease off them, as if they had been specially prepared for snow and wintertime.
They were long and had to be wound twice round the tops of the boots before tying.
`Walk up and down and see if they're easy.'
Kenn walked. The boots were awkward and stiff and clicked on the stone floor like clogs. `They're fine,' said Kenn in a shy voice.
`Are you sure? Because we can get them changed.'
`No, they're grand.' He walked as if he never felt them on him. `I'll go for the pail now.'
He closed the middle door behind him and glanced quickly about the back porch. Lifting a cloth, he found that only a small part of his great salmon had been carried back from Sans' shop.