Little knowledge is a dangerous thing. In this particular case my little knowledge was a vague recollection that Neil M Gunn had a literary reputation. I have never read any by him or even a critical evaluation but I knew his name and had the idea that he was a proper writer. So his 1935 book on whisky was bound to be interesting – wasn’t it? Well I suppose it was. It was interesting in the way that listening to Diane Abbot flailing around trying to remember costing, or Boris Johnson blustering to obscure the fact that he had no idea what was in the Queens Speech, is interesting. There is a fascination with the awful.
‘Whisky and Scotland’ is the worst book on whisky I have ever read – full of generalisations, prejudice, and assertions that leave me unwilling to believe anything unless there is corroboration elsewhere. Now the virtue of whisky is that it is the most sociable of drinks and that a group of friends sitting around, appreciating and sharing, will engage both their senses and their fancy in talk on any number of topics. However at the end of a long night the grip of rationality can be loosened and the mind dulled. This book reads as if it was written after a very long session. A very, very long session.
In fact it is not about whisky so much as it is a romantic lament for Celtic culture and a yearning for Gaeldom. There is nothing wrong with that – it’s a deep part of his personal identity – but there is a lot wrong with being so sloppy about it and allowing the whole enterprise to be knocked out of shape.
Take for example the section on the early history of distilled alcohol where there are variants in many ancient civilisation. However the early Arabian roots (and the name alcohol) are widely acknowledged. This though is not good enough. Surely the Celts must have got there first!
“How the early Celts went about it, of course we do not know, though if they devoted anything like the terrible concentration one of their young bards had to devote to learning his thousands of lines, I should not be in anyway surprised hear from some Eastern scholar that a certain adventuring Arabian brought home with him once upon a time from the fastness of the northern barbarians a still head complete with worm (condensing pipe).”
but that is but a little foretaste of what the book is about. The second part, and fractionally the largest, is concerned with Scottish identity:
“Fundamentally we are concerned with the commons of Scotland, whether in the Yllis of the Statutes or the Ayrshire of Burns. They and their whisky are one … Before we can know what whisky has meant to Scotland, presumably we must first have some idea of what Scotland means to herself.”
It is at this point that I realise that I had not paid careful attention to the title. It is perfectly accurate. The book is about both whisky and Scotland, or more precisely an imagined Scotland.
“Can it be that Scotland, which is being turned into a desert with alarming rapidity, has this destiny in front of her, that the cairngorm will come the philosopher’s stone? The ways of destiny are inscrutable – and any day now they may turn from preoccupation with conquering to the art of civilising. Scotland has never yet led the world as Greece did or Venice. is her time coming at last when in the face of a world given over to mass emotion and mass thought, to strident Fascism, religious Communism, self-heating Clissoldissm, she will assert once more individual responsibility and the individual soul? She has the tradition. She has the water of life. How fascinating it would be to watch her take hold of herself and set out on the great enterprise!”
There is nothing I can do to tether that paragraph to the world as I know it. But that is my fault. I know this because Neil Gunn has already told me:
“I know that to many minds I have been indulging in a piece of special pleading for the Celt, or his more homely representative the Gael. Perhaps I have. But what I should really like to understand is why it should arouse a curious sort of instinctive hostility. Is not the reader conscious of a very slight (or not so slight) impatience at the mere idea of having to discuss ‘this Gaelic civilisation business’? From my experience – and at the moment I believe I am perfectly, even pleasantly detached, – the reader is.”
I will have to live with that but my advice is to treat Neil Gunn as a curiosity and an example of how writing can become very, very dated.
P.S. the portrait of Neil Gunn used it illustrate this post was painted by David Macbeth Sutherland as was found at https://artuk.org/discover/artworks/neil-gunn-18911973-166142#image-use
P.P.S. Neil Gunn might well be a proper author and may have written good novels but I now have no desire to find out more. For me, in this case, a little knowledge is the safest option.