The Silver Darlings by Neil M. Gunn was first published in 1941. The setting is mainly the coastal areas of Caithness in the north-east of Scotland in the early 19th century. It’s a time of upheaval, especially in the Highlands of Scotland. Inland crofters have been moved out of their crofts and land and have been transported to the coast where they are expected to take up fishing as a living, despite the fact that they know nothing about it. As crofters they had worked the land, but that land was required for sheep by their landowner, often the head of their clan.
These ‘clearances’ caused terrible strife but in The Silver Darlings the original fishermen of the village have been remarkably calm about the influx of newcomers and have shared their knowledge of the sea with them.
I really enjoyed the first half of this book more than the second half, I suppose because I was more interested in the domestic side of it. Early on some of the transplanted fishermen have been press ganged into the Royal Navy – as was quite common in those days. That leads to disaster for newly married Catrin as her husband Tormod is one of the ones who has been snatched, leaving the pregnant Catrin to struggle on on her own. She gives birth to a son Finn, but she’s in a limbo as she has no idea if her husband is alive or dead. This puts a break on the possibility of a relationship with Roderick who is the most skillful of the local fishermen.
As Finn grows up the local fishing industry goes from strength to strength. The silver darlings of the book title is the nickname given to the herring that brought riches to the area, not only for the fishermen but for the women who gutted the fish and for the various others involved, such as coopers and fish smokers.
This book is beautifully written, and it’s easy to imagine the landscape and seascape. I’m always impressed not to say aghast at the size of the trawlers that fishermen ride the North Sea in nowadays, but that is obviously nothing compared with the wee fourteen foot long sail boats that Roderick and his crew went out in, often fighting mountainous seas and always in danger of not making it back to land safely.
The Silver Darlings was chosen as a readalong for the Read Scotland 2017 Challenge. Jack read the book last year and if you’re interested you can read his thoughts on it here.