Caithness, says the poet and playwright George Gunn, is a place of stories; and he grew up surrounded by them. Gunn was both in Thurso in 1956; and before he reached school age, his mother – a Wick fish-gutter’s daughter who became a district nurse – would read to George and his older brother from children’s versions of the Iliad, the Odyssey, and old Norse legends, sent from Edinburgh by one of her two university-educated brothers.
George would also accompany his mother on her rounds, getting to meet everyone in the community, and to hear all of their stories; and then there was the music and singing, as his crofter father played the pipes, and his mother was a great singer. “You have to understand,” he says, “that this was a really brilliant education; and that what we got at school couldn’t really measure up to it at all.”
The young George Gunn, though, knew what he wanted to do. “At primary school, I wrote a poem about a big monster that came and ate the place up,” says Gunn. “And even then, I knew that writing poetry was my destiny. I’ve done many other things, of course; but they are all secondary to the writing, and I generally do them purely to enable me to carry on with it.”
Among the many things Gunn did was to work as fisherman on a trawler after he left school; then in the late 1970s he went offshore, to work on the oil rigs. “It was terrible,” he says, “but it was no worse for me than for any other young Scottish working class man drawn into that industry.”
In 1979, George Gunn had already published a collection of poems, titled Explaining To Joni; and by the end of the 1980s, he felt able to give up the offshore work, and to begin to piece together a freelance career as a poet, playwright, broadcaster and writer-in-residence. In 1992, he co-founded the Grey Coast Theatre Company, dedicated to telling stories of the north of Scotland in theatrical form, and continued as its artistic director until 2010. His book about Caithness, The Province Of The Cat, was published in 2015, his novel The Great Edge in 2017, and a major collection of his poetry, After The Rain, in 2018. Gunn is also a writer of visionary essays and political polemics for a range of print and online publications.
For this Session, though, Gunn reads the title poem from his new poetry collection Chronicles Of The First Light, published this summer. The collection is divided into three sections, each immersed in the deep physical reality of Caithness life – the soil, the rock, the sea, the light – and in the timeless power of the natural forces that make and shape human life.
“These are poems about Scotland and Caithness,” says Gunn, “and about the way we’re heading. I wanted to capture that present acoustic. In a sense, the poems are actually about physics, and about what we see when we see light; light is history, and when we look at it, we’re looking at the past, here in the present. And I also think that to be a writer in Scotland just now is to be an optimist; you have to be. I feel like a rower crossing the Pentland Firth in a small boat; I’m just trying to row over, from history, towards the future.”
Chronicles Of First Light is published by Drunk Muse Press, www.drunkmusepress.com
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