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Mrs. J. Campbell

The prospect of last year's Field Club excursion up Dunbeath Strath sent me back to re-reading Neil Gunn's "Highland River" and once again I was overwhelmed by the sheer magic of his use of words and the beauty of his descriptions.

For those who have never had the pleasure of reading this exquisite book and for those who have read but have perhaps forgotten I offer the following quotations to be lingered over a and returned to again and again.

" It was a wild coast of gaunt headland and echoing cliff and the bay with its river mouth was a break that would hardly be detected were one standing on some distant headland and looking along the immense sweep of the wall. Here and there were skerries or reefs where even on fine summer days the green water broke in foam and occasionally, in front of the headland itself, a stack would rise sheer like a sword out of the hand of the sea.'

Strength was the keynote of this coast, a passionless remorseless strength, unyielding as the rock, tireless as the water, the unheeding rock that a failing body would smash itself to pulp upon, the transparent water that would suffocate an exhausted body in the slow rhythm of its swirl. There was a purety about it all, stainless as the gull's. plumage, wild and cold as its eye.

To lie extended above the uprising floor of the ocean was to experience the lovely sensation of floating between earth and heaven as lonely gulls overhead breasted the sun in snow white arcs. Even the crying of the gulls down in the rocks grew faint with sunny distance, became the echo of an echo of something forever lost.

It is a lovely strath. The flat river lands widen and narrow, the path goes by and through hazel woods where nuts ripen in harvest weather, discloses sudden meadows where rabbits look and vanish, swerves round and on but ever holds by the river. The slopes that shut out the strath from the moors are steep and wooded to their summits. It is not a glen of the mountains, craggy, stupendous, physically impressive. There is nothing here to overwhelm the romantic mind. Its beauty is an inward grace in oneself akin to what is indefinable in the memory of a masterpiece. Beauty, intimate and secretive, has a lingering, lovely mirth, at the core of it hope and fulfilment meet and tread a measure, while heads turn with glistening eyes to look for any or no excuse to laugh. In some such mood the Creator must have looked upon his handwork and called it good.

A thrush was singing from the tree in the plantation. There was a touch of green in the blue sky over towards the wash. It shone through the wintry branches making dark patterns of the bare twigs. In the air was a faint smell of the awakening earth, a wintry premonition of spring like a scent of distant whin fires not real so much as remembered from former springs and somehow from springs going far back in time.

The great plain of Caithness opens before our eyes. This is the northland, the land of exquisite light. Lochs and earth and sea pass away to a remote horizon where a suave line of pastel foothills cannot be anything but cloud. Here the actual picture is like a picture in a supernatural mind and comes upon the human eye with the surprise that delights and transcends memory. Gradually the stillness of the far prospect grows unearthly. Light is silence. And nothing listens where all is of eternity.

Suddenly while the mind was lifting to the cold bright light of spring, to the blue of birds' eggs and the silver of the first salmon run there came out of the tangle on a soft waft of air the scent of primroses. One quality of the scent of the primrose for which there is an adjective is "innocent". The innocency of dawn in a strath on a far back morning of creation. The freshness of dawn wind down a green glen where no human foot has trod. The grasses and green leaves in the clear morning light have a quality of alertness like painted ears. Any they sway, alive and dancing - cool and deliciously happy.

Throughout this world of slow rising moors the river ran. Its strath, however, was now growing shallow, the slope of trees on the right less steep and less high and the wide grey green flat land had the bare loneliness of a place haunted by peewit and curlew.

The cry of the peewit is the cry of the living human, anxious, swift, floating to earth. The long cry of the curlew passes overhead, disembodied and unearthly.

He looked about him at the far slow rising moors and beyond to where the shapely peak of Morven was half veiled in mist. He saw the shower coming from the mountain towards him, a thin curtain trailing its lace along the heather.

From the high summit watch the dawn come up behind the Orkneys, see the mountain ranges of Sutherland the grey planetary light that reveals the earth as a ball turning slowly in the immense chasm of space, turn again to the plain of Caithness that land of exquisite light and be held by myrian lochs and dubh lochs glimmering blood red."

How fortunate it is that there are writers who can put into words what we lesser beings feel about the beauty that stirs us in our Club writings.

This item was first published in the Field Club Bulletin April 1984.
Note -
The late Jess Campbell was a leading light in the Neil Gunn Society and wrote a newsletter for the group until about three years before she died.  The collection of Neil Gunn books and writing, notes etc are now held by the Dunbeath Preservation Society as the society ceased to operate.