Writer Neil Gunn’s voyage of discovery revived

Neil Gunn sailed the Hebrides with his family in 1937. Picture: Jane Barlow
Neil Gunn sailed the Hebrides with his family in 1937. Picture: Jane Barlow
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THE three-month sailing trip around the west of Scotland that led to Neil Gunn’s classic book Off in a Boat is the inspiration behind an ambitious new arts project.

Gunn, a fisherman’s son, became a leading figure in the Scottish literary renaissance after he quit his civil service job to embark on a sailing trip around the Hebrides in 1937 with his wife and brother.

The resulting book, Off in a Boat – the “simple record of a holiday in a boat” – heralded a successful writing career.

Now, more than 40 years after his death, Gunn’s Hebridean odyssey is being re-enacted by composer and musician Mike Vass in a tribute to the author of books including The Lost Glen, Highland River, Butcher’s Broom, Silver Darlings and The Key of the Chest.

Vass, a former Scottish composer of the year, has won a £22,000 grant from arts agency Creative Scotland for a project which will see him use Gunn’s original voyage of discovery to develop a new suite of music.

Vass will be following Gunn’s route as closely as possible on a 35-foot long sailing boat, accompanied by his father David, who owns the vessel.

Born in 1891 in the fishing and crofting village of Dunbeath, Gunn was revered for his ability to capture life in the Highlands in the first half of the last century. He drew inspiration from the music and culture he found in the west coast communities to which he travelled on a converted lifeboat.

Vass, who hails from Nairn, has vowed to embark on a “mirror voyage”, revisiting the same communities and staging concerts featuring the writer’s reminiscences, as well as songs, music and poetry relating to each area.

Starting in the north of Skye, his journey will take him to Eigg, Arisaig, Mull, Iona, Oban, Kentallen, Fort William and back up the Caledonian Canal to Nairn.

Once Vass returns from the trip, which he aims to record via photographs, film and audio, he will spend a month composing a musical piece inspired by his experiences. He will then play in Nairn, Edinburgh, Mull and Skye, as well as on board a Caledonian MacBrayne ferry in a performance that will be broadcast live on the internet.

He said: “The award means I will be able to develop the project to its full potential.”

Vass’s project is among five one-off traditional arts projects to receive the backing of Creative Scotland.

Other projects which have been awarded funding include a series of exhibitions exploring the contribution made by the people of the Western Isles to the First World War effort, which has secured £24,500.

The seafaring and fishing heritage of Newhaven, on Edinburgh’s waterfront, will be the focus of folk musician and visual artist Johnny Gailey. He will join forces with the community to create new work, and has been backed to the tune of £11,385.

Leonie Bell, director of arts at Creative Scotland, said: “History is kept alive and the future is shaped through projects such as these.”