Obituary: Angus Dunn, poet and novelist

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Born: Clydebank, 1953. Died: Pluscarden, 2015

The Victoria Hall, Cromarty, was thronged with merging communities last Saturday. People had gathered from many parts of the Highlands and further afield to celebrate the life of Angus Dunn, a maker who died as a result of motor neurone disease on the 27 August.

Some knew him as a creative carpenter, others as an eccentric inventor, a colourful dancer, a sharp editor, an inspiring tutor. I knew him as a gifted writer who thrived in a community of writers. As an editor of Northwords magazine and a tutor at creative writing centre Moniack Mhor, he often helped others see their own work anew and realise its potential power. These roles showed a sensitive and constructive side to his nature as well as a wicked but never malevolent wit.

Angus Dunn’s short stories appeared in many anthologies and small, crafted editions, spaced over more than 30 years of sustained writing. He was a winner of the Neil Gunn prize and the second winner of an RLS award. His written work encompassed poems, some very spare, haiku-like in form, and others in a more free shamanistic voice. Both stories and poems focused on very specific observations of the natural world and human behaviour but they are startling because even the familiar is seen as if for the first time.

Roof Tree uses a sustained comparison in a way akin to Andrew Marvell. Angus worked as a joiner for many years so he well knew that a roof tree is a specific structural timber. But there are also connotations of shelter and family and an echo of Tennyson. The makar brought his love of craft, in poetry as in woodworking, to the service of his vision.

As a young man, he made two trips to India. A story based on the first revealed his wry side, balancing his sense of adventure in all things. I heard him perform this story often and remember the line, “I was on my way to India along with half the youth of Europe. The other half was on the way back, sick with dysentery or disillusion.” It should have been no surprise when his first novel, Writing in the Sand, Luath Press, 2006, released the playful side of his imagination. Rather than an extended form of his very short stories, at least thrice distilled, it is a hallucinogenic romp through the Black Isle. But another powerful poem moves seamlessly though impossibly from the Himalayan ridges to the Scots peak An Teallach. He is a Highland magical-realist.

The stories were gathered in The Perfect Loaf, (Two Ravens Press, 2008). These are still available and there will be no sell-by date. They will last but they may be increased with previously unpublished stories. The novel is still in print. Angus expressed regret that he had not yet gathered his poems. As his physical abilities were diminishing, his co-editors and colleagues from many years in the Highland writing scene pulled forces to help edit and produce an edition of selected poems in time for him to see its final electronic version, prior to printing. Friends from very varied communities rallied to help him and his partner Nikki, through the trials of the terminal illness. Walkways were built and conversations were available until rest was needed. Angus was as reckless in his driving of his electric wheelchair as he was with his puns.

In High Country (a handsome publication from the vibrant, Highland-based Sandstone Press) he has left another exquisite piece of work. Its editor, fellow-poet, Chris Powici writes: “Angus’ poems are informed by wonder and curiosity, about language, history, science, nature and myth.”

The poetry is valued by the poet John Glenday, now also based in the Highlands:

“Angus Dunn’s magical poetry lures us into a world where crows are fruit, the wind is a wire, the moon has a voice and water holds memory. In effect, all these poems are poems of love and each one serves to remind us that precisely because we have been granted everything, we can take nothing for granted. Visit Scotland take notice – Dunn’s poetry is the best advertisement for this country I’ve ever read.”

He was married to Joy Nelson, another member of the Aberdeen University writing group, for many years. Their children, Ben, Hannie and Becka left us with a shared portrait of their father, in spoken and sung language. This was a moving part of the “leaving do”. Others at the Cromarty event remembered him as the best of company at a party – there for the setting up, the rescue of a hedgehog from the toilet pit and also present at the clear-up.

Angus Dunn was born in Clydebank, 1953, to Alison Vernon and Alistair Dunn. He was schooled, with his five siblings, in Aultbea, Cromarty and Aberdeen University. Sympathies of a Scotland-wide community are expressed to his surviving family, to his partner, Nikki, to and to his many bereft friends.