CAITHNESS is surely one of the most beautiful and elemental of all Scotland’s constituent territories. Perhaps the best place to begin is with its literary ambassador George Gunn’s non-fiction book, The Province of the Cat: A Journey to the Radical Heart of the Far North (Isle of Lewis: Island Book Trust, 2015). It begins like this:

“Caithness is a stage for giants. Set on the plateau of her flagstone floor she has her audience in the great stalls of the rest of Scotland to the south with the Northern and Western isles hanging from the balcony of history, related and interested spectators as the epic play-opera of the Province of the Cat is acted out. Our script for this great production is chiselled from the very rocks beneath our feet and woven from the cold clean air we breathe and written in the blood of the countless people who have added to our story. The huge cathedral sky above us tells the world that the characters who inhabit these enacted fables are indeed giants for only giants can impress upon the audience of the rest of the world the need for truth. On this stage only giants can be seen.”

As the Atlantic clashes with the North Sea and their struggle boils and rages in the Pentland Firth, the “blood meld” of Norse and Celt colours the hair, eye, temper and psychology of the people: “It is how the people make art which interests me.” And so, “From the Neolithic to the Atomic age the making of beauty has been a constant. The stone work, the pottery, the poetry, the music, the painted variations of lived experience …”

Gunn takes us on a walk through the county, its geography, history, weather, cultural production, and bibliography, and shows how that cultural production has been presented by what we might call the “accountants” of the territory. That history is written by the victors is a familiar cliché based upon truth but that it is best understood by the losers is less frequently acknowledged. Gunn is no loser but as a native and inhabitant he has the artist’s authority to be an honest witness with a personal perspective and investment in what he describes. His exposure of past historians’ class bias and the influence of their interpretations of the lives of generations who have lived in this part of Scotland balances against Gunn’s own human sympathy with the people of the Province, his immediate forebears’ generations, his own contemporaries, and their children and the generations to come.

He introduces us to actual human presences, but he also knows statistics and the priorities of power in the culture-shaping impositions, not least when he comes to the single central economic dominance of the nuclear power station of Dounreay, its history of installation, its inductions of sickness, physical and social, its current status of disfunction, and its very long-lasting legacy of poison in the earth itself. He puts a moral challenge squarely in front of his readers.

It’s a marvellously rich book, carefully structured, beginning with “The Point of Cats”, walking us through “The Coast of Widows” along “The Grey Coast” and exploring the hinterland of “The Granary Beyond the Flow” until we reach the last chapter, “Atomic City”. It’s a poet’s exposition of the geology, languages, cultural history and politics of a particular part of our nation. Gunn takes full account of its greatest modern novelist, the author’s namesake Neil, but comes into a contemporary location with his assessment of what Dounreay has meant for recent generations, and will mean for generations to come.

Gunn asks what nuclear power is for

IT is rhapsodic, elated and exhilarating, yet also grim, sometimes pessimistic, almost despairing. Perhaps the book closest to it in terms of a vital introduction to a territory is George Mackay Brown’s An Orkney Tapestry, but Gunn is more determined than Brown to write critically of the continuing history of exploitation, exercised through the power of what Norman MacCaig once called “a foreign and remote government”. The Province of the Cat is one of those books that opens up a part of Scotland often neglected but essential to our understanding of Scotland in its complex entirety.

The same prerogative animates After the Rain: New and Selected Poems 1991-2016 (Edinburgh: Kennedy and Boyd, 2018), which collects work from five previous volumes published since the early 1990s. There are beautifully evocative poems of the land and seascapes but the whole book is infused with a political urgency and accuracy of intent. “The Silver Birches of Kildonan” begins like this:

The birches do not stand still & do nothing
they grow & change & are beautiful
there is no stand-off here
only nature wrapping itself around itself
eager within the sap of its own world
which is everything beside the brown river
moving time through their branches
passing the sky across Sutherland
filling the air with the ancient alphabet
of those whose fingers wove the strath
into yellow & green patches
sewn like the ragged flag
the birches fly for memory
as Kildonan shines out of the earth

The sense of natural growth and change, the time, air and earth of the world experienced through human senses, is vivid and respectfully annotated; in counterpoint, there are the explicit political poems, notably “The Queen Mother Drives Through Dunnet Head 1968”: “The gouchy bitch now striven small / turns the corner from / one decade to the next” and the wee boy George, “mucky shoe’d & far too shy / to whisper, bow & arrowed / a peeping redskin behind / an all-too Scottish hedge” watches her go past in her Land Rover, rumbling through a small village: “Uncaring she rides past” and motors on

to Mey
& there in the bay
beneath me fat & redundant, anchored
by Scrabster’s smiling side, grinned

the Britannia

Alongside the raw, fierce poems and the non-fiction prose with their blazing integrity, the fiction and plays demonstrate how varied and rich Gunn’s writing career has been.

His novel The Great Edge (Ochtertyre: Grace Note Publications, 2017) is the epic of the Province of the Cat. As one of the central characters observes, “The sky is as vast here as the land is broad.”

Gunn asks what nuclear power is for

Whenever I have travelled through Caithness, I’ve had the sense I have sometimes had in parts of America: SPACE is the central fact, and use capital letters for it, for it allows us to experience an extraordinary openness, a plenitude of potential in all directions. And at the same time, a sense of potential lost.

Here what has gone includes not only generations but whole civilizations, yet leaving traces and signs we can still find and read, if we’re careful and search with keen eyes.

Navigating this world and its history is the novel’s prerogative and it does so by charting five stories, one in the myths of antiquity, one in the early days of Christian pilgrimage, and three in the present and near future, culminating in a “magic realist” nightmare vision of all five coming to an apocalyptic confluence. There are survivors, but regeneration comes at a cost.

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OF the three contemporary stories, one is centred on the decommissioning of Dounreay, one tells of a young archaeologist’s attempts to find and excavate the treasures of the Cave of Gold and her friendship with an old fisherman who takes her by boat to the cave, and one centres on an artist, an exhibition of his paintings in Edinburgh, and his inspiration – for want of a better term – in the Maighdeann Mhara, which is to say, the Mermaid, although that word conveys nothing of the ambiguity of her gift of vision and demand of sacrifice.

It is an epic novel. Its generic neighbours are James Robertson’s And the Land Lay Still, Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s Scots Quair trilogy (Sunset Song, Cloud Howe and Grey Granite), and Neil Gunn’s trilogy, Stone Circle, Butcher’s Broom and The Silver Darlings.

Gunn asks what nuclear power is for

George Gunn takes greater risks formally than any of them by starting with such disparate narratives and bringing them together so gradually, and into such a devastating conclusion that a fair amount of patience and investment is demanded of the reader, not always quickly repaid. That is only fair warning, because the novel’s richness and conviction are sustaining virtues, and the compassion, frustration and anger that burn through it like woven wires keep you turning the pages. No chapter is too long, some are very short, so there are tensions between the narratives as they interconnect and veer away from each other, and the awareness of their approaching collision is hinted at, confirmed and developed right through to the final pages.

Carefully structured in 50 chapters, the deliberation involved here is impressive enough in itself, but combined with the immediacy of the writing, the result is not only compulsion but a sense of substance and an affirmation of human value.

Gunn founded the Grey Coast Theatre Company in 1992 and was artistic director till 2010, while the company mounted 35 productions, many of them by and for children. His published plays include Songs of the Grey Coast and The Gold of Kildonan (1992) and Egil Son of the Night Wolf (2010).

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HIS “opera for voices”, Atomic City (Edinburgh: Fairplay Press, 2010), should be read alongside the novel. Apparently it was performed in Caithness and other places to considerable acclaim but heavily criticised in the metropolitan centres. There’s a sorry predictability about that. Centralised self-importance rusts or negates the necessary sympathetic understanding that people’s lives “elsewhere” require different forms of approach, but the big problem Gunn presents to us is this: how can an entire culture become so self-suppressing?

It applies to Scotland as a whole, of course. Hugh MacDiarmid once commented that the bizarre history of Scotland’s self-suppression was the subject of all his effort to revoke it. Gunn has a more specific object for analysis: what the nuclear industry is, what nuclear power is for, what the Official Secrets Act means, and in contradistinction, what human worth is, perennially, across millennia, particularly in Caithness.

The opposition – or dialectic – is more complex, in fact, because Gunn, living in this place, knows more deeply, more vividly and is reminded more regularly than most of us living “elsewhere”, that not only human beings but nature too will bring destruction upon us. When human potential generates such a liability as nuclear power, and natural disaster falls without prediction, as it does, the result is almost always catastrophic. Witness Fukushima, Hurricane Katrina, Aceh. And Dounreay – and Faslane – are neighbours of all Scotland’s people, and all human beings who care.

Gunn’s novel, plays, poems and non-fiction, not least his columns “From the Province of the Cat” regularly published online in Bella Caledonia, are all ways of encouraging that care. We need it.