Kirsty Gunn in conversation with Jane Goldman

Rachel Wilson visits the Edinburgh Central Library to find out more about Gunn’s latest novel ‘The Big Music’

Kirsty Gunn (

On the evening of 28th November, an audience gathered in the reference library of the Edinburgh Central Library; hosted for the evening were writer Kirsty Gunn and Woolf scholar Jane Goldman, there to discuss the former’s latest novel, The Big Music, published in July of last year. Shortlisted for the James Tait Memorial Prize and widely acclaimed by reviewers, The Big Music borrows its structure from piobaireachd (pronounced pee-broch) bagpipe music. Otherwise known as ceòl mór, the English translation of which serves as the novel’s title, the music is a traditional and complex Scottish art form which Gunn attempts to rescue from its modern day reputation as the somewhat unwelcome soundtrack of Edinburgh’s Princes Street and tourist shops. 

The ambition is clearly a personal one for Gunn, whose father is a renowned piobaireachd piper. The story follows a piping family whose legacy is as vast as the Highland landscape where the history plays out. As Goldman is quick to point out the book in its physical form is equally as expansive as the music that inspires it, including a plethora of footnotes, maps and appendices covering nearly a hundred pages. Gunn indulges the audience, holding up a page dedicated solely to excerpts from her fictional piper, John Sutherland’s piobaireachd composition. She also informs us that her father has composed music and her sister Merran, an artist, has worked on an interactive installation in Dundee, all to accompany and evoke the world Gunn has created within the pages of her novel. 

Goldman makes flattering comparisons of Gunn, not only to Modernist luminaries Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield, but to Scottish greats Alasdair Gray and Neil Gunn, too. The question of modernist influence is picked up on by Gunn in her insistence on discussing the problematic label ‘novel’ for her work. She contends that the categorisation is ill-fitting for the work, citing the form’s status as a bourgeois product. She argues that the novel has become a symbol of consumerism, a form to be ‘bought and owned’, ‘finite and valued in monetary terms’. Given the prolific nature of both Gunn’s project and the form on which it is based, it is hard not to concur with her. 

Given the work’s anchoring to Scotland both geographically and culturally, we are surprised when asked by Goldman if the work could be classed as local, national, or even parochial, Gunn responds that the land of her piece is ‘not pinned down by any national marker.’ Politically, Gunn is a unionist and expresses her mistrust of the independence cause by dismissing the idea that the hills that provide the backdrop for the book belong definitively to either real or imaginary realms. In short, she wishes her art to exist outside of the parameters of political propaganda, hoping that her reader will not be compelled to search for the exact hill that sparked her imagination, as many have done for Virginia Woolf’s lighthouse. 

The evening draws to a close as the discussion is opened to the floor. Asked of the reaction from Scottish critics Gunn states, modestly, that she has been delighted by the overwhelmingly positive response to The Big Music. She does admit, however, laughing in acknowledgement of the irony, that the only unfavourable review she received has come from an unexpected source: The Piping Times.  

First published in The Journal, December 2013