Neil Gunn was a novelist. His life’s work was fiction but he was an understandable, coherent individual, reserved yet sociable, someone generally liked, whose personality was within a normal recognisable range. He did not seek the latitude from being an artist to play the role of a bohemian, in fact he strongly rejected such a prospect and believed in being both practical and grounded. He was not an outsized personality who would dominate any room he entered. The other three people involved in Tormore project were far more flamboyant. Lewis Rosenstiel radiated energy as a business mogul in charge of a large empire, whose wishes were automatically enacted by others. Behind the mask of wealth he was a ruthless psychopath. Brendan Bracken would dominated social gatherings with incessant talking but kept the mystery of his inner self; his public personality was largely a fictional creation, with his origins and childhood erased. For these men their life was their art. For Gunn on the other hand fiction was his job. He had no desire to be something he wasn’t.
This doesn’t mean he was uninteresting – far from it, his achievements were significant and his exploration of Highland life profound. It just means at his core he was authentic.
The broad outline of his life is:
- Born in 1891 in Dunbeath, Caithness, where he lived for the first 13 years of his life, Neil was the son of a fishing captain at a time when the industry was declining and the boats had to take longer and longer trips away. Nevertheless he was born early enough to see both the hive of activity involved the taking and handling of fish and the way of life that had followed the Clearances a century before. He was deeply aware of Highland culture, its industry, the sea, the working of wider economic forces and a sense that there was once a golden age. It was in his guts and his life work was to explain it to the world and do what he could to preserve it.
- His siblings were Janet (known as Jessie), born 1879, Mary, 1882, James, 1883, twins David and Donald 1885, Benjamin, 1888, Neil 1891, John 1897, Alexander 1901. His mother Isabella (whom he described as a “brainy Stewart”) was ambitious for her sons and determined they should not go to sea (this is also a recurring theme in the novels). James led the way by joining the Civil Service, John became an inspector schools and Alex a teacher. They were a talented family and with the girls marrying a police inspector and a doctor they all moved into a more comfortable, middle class world. Isabella had her wish although it was tempered by losing her other three sons in the First World War.
- Throughout his life his brother John was Neil’s closest friend.
- At 13 Neil was sent away to live with sister Mary and her husband in Galloway where he didn’t have friends his own age and mostly interacted with adults and had some tutoring from a published essayist and poet, and whose long term impact was to show Neil that literature could be a lifelong interest and occupation. He then passed the civil service exam and completed his escape from the declining industry of Caithness. (The mark of this decline is that when he was born the population of the county was 37,000 but forty years later in was only 25,000)
- Between 1907-9 he lived in London where the clerking work was arduous and routine but he enjoyed these years, with the companionship of other young men in a similar position, making their way, alone, for the first time.. He had to be frugal because his wages were only 15 shillings a week, with lodgings (including breakfast and tea) taking 12, but within those constraints he was free. He developed his sporting prowess (something of which he was always proud) and played for an amateur football team. In his memoir, The Atom of Delight, he devotes several chapters to these years, so they clearly made a deep, formative impression.
- He moved to Edinburgh before the final exam, which would allow him to become an established Civil Servant. It was here, rather than in London, that he became fully aware of abject poverty and wide inequalities of wealth. As a counterbalance to this he also enjoyed the companionship of some older civil servants who extended his education in the appreciation of wine, cheese, music and, of course, whisky. But above all there was conversation. It is remarkable what rich interior lives can be led by outwardly conforming, dully dressed office workers.
- He passed his Civil Service exam in 1910 and was assigned to Customs and Excise in Inverness where he travelled around the Highlands on a number of temporary postings. During his twenties he was a young man possessed of a stable income, freedom, and a motorbike.
- During this period period he met his lifelong friend, Maurice Walsh and they enjoyed their freedom without showing any overt signs of wanting literary careers but that is what happened After Walsh returned to Ireland, in 1922, they both took to writing in earnest, encouraged each other and both became published novelists.
- In 1921 he married Daisy Frew. They were obviously devoted to each other and were co-dependent until her death in 1963.
- His first permanent post was, rather surprisingly, in Wigan and he became fully aware of grinding poverty and class war as the town was in the midst of a long coal strike. He liked the people. He found them tough, warm, friendly and full of humour but whenever he heard later heard eminent Scots comparing the wealth of England to the poverty of Scotland he always assumed their only contact was with shooting tenants or the upper strata of London and the Home Counties. So for a total of 4 years he lived in England, for the rest it was only a Highland life.
- However his exile only lasted two years and in 1923 he returned to the Highlands to become the Excise officer at Glen Mhor distillery, Inverness,. The posting ideal as he had enough time to write and enjoyed a friendship with the owner, John Birnie, who shared with him his deep knowledge of whisky and whisky making. In Gunn’s view was that Glen Mhor as a single malt took some beating. After the success of Highland River, which proved to this fiscally cautious man he could sustain a living, he left his post in 1937 to concentrate full-time on writing.
- Whisky, single malt whisky was a deep and abiding passion of Neil’s life which was why was why he was asked to write a book on the subject for the Voices of Scotland series edited by Lewis Grassic Gibbon. Whisky and Scotland: a practical and spiritual survey was published in 1935 and is one of the early classics of whisky literature. Take a note of the subtitle though as its ambition is to range beyond the straightforward, practical aspects of the subject into the slightly more mystical realms (though he did hate the word mystical in connection with his writing).
- The friendship with Christopher Grieve (Hugh MacDiarmid) started in 1924 after Grieve published some of Gunn’s stories. In the beginning they were as close as brothers, fighting to establish the distinctive voice of Scottish literature, which became known as the Scottish Literary Renaissance (a movement that started with Grieve and other poets but later became more associated with novelists – a shift that was not a little resented by Grieve). By the thirties though the two had fallen out and there were all sorts of slights and insults.Their relationship remained thereafter fraught and was complicated by some bitter political differences but at some fundamental level they both remembered that had once been close allies. Grieve sent Gunn a letter of condolence on the death of Daisy and Gunn for his part had help ensure Grieve was given a Civil List pension. Although no feud is ever one-sided and Gunn could certainly be prickly and stubborn about his work, the difference in the nature of the two men could be shown by their reactions to the other being given a degree. Neil wrote an appreciative piece called ‘For Christopher’s Cap’ when Grieve was given an honorary degree in 1957. When Gunn received his honorary LLD from Edinburgh the event was studiously ignored by Grieve and his supporters.
- Neil Gunn published the first of his twenty novels in 1926 and became, perhaps the most significant Scottish novelist of the first half of the twentieth century (the only other candidate was Lewis Grassic Gibbon whose trilogy A Scots Quair probably now has a higher profile). His subject was the Highlands and its culture and although each book was different in topic and style they all circled around the same theme. After 30 years he stopped. Sales had fallen and he felt himself neglected and out of synch with the times. Nevertheless at his peak in the thirties and forties he had gained considerable renown and his achievements were formidable.
- Alongside his writing he played a role in public life, although by temperament he liked to work in the background. As a supporter of Scottish independence he joined The National Party in 1929 and helped found its Inverness branch, which became one of the powerhouses the movement. He then served on the central committee and played an important part in the negotiations which led to the merger with the Scottish Party and the formation of The Scottish National Party.
- Other public roles included sitting on committees (remember he had been a civil servant). During the war he was appointed to a committee tasked with examining the requirements of post-war hospital provision in Scotland. In 1951 he served on the Taylor Commission into crofting condition, which made important recommendations to try to arrest the decline of that way of life. He had also been a long term member of the British Council.
- His interest in Zen Buddhism was sparked by reading Zen and the Art of Archery when it was first translated into English in 1953 and in later years it became increasingly important. He was attracted by the book because it described the practical matter of the mastery of a skill but beyond that there was a much deeper philosophy of life. This perfectly matched Gunn’s twin themes of practicality and the more spiritual aspects lying beneath the surface. As his memoir, The Atom of Delight, makes clear though, he responded to Zen Buddhism because he recognised in it something he had already experienced as a child when he had had a flash of insight whilst cracking hazel nuts. In his novels characters have similar moments. It is, for example, the central transformative moment in Wild Geese Overhead, when Will, who has moved from the city to the country hears the birds and has a moment of revelation that changes his understanding of himself.
- Daisy died in 1963, an event he probably never recovered from, and Neill died ten years later in 1973.
It can be seen from this summary that Neil Gunn led a rich and productive life. There are three areas I think need further exploration: Scottish nationalist politics and the early days of the SNP and how this exacerbated his feud with Christopher Grieve; his literary career; and finally his writing on whisky. Of these subjects only the last has a place in a whisky blog. But when has that ever mattered?
The photograph come from the Dunbeath Heritage Centre. I chose it because most of the pictures we see of Neil Gunn are of him as an old man. It is interesting to see him looking out, with the world before him.
Francis Russell., and J. B. Pick. Neil M. Gunn : A Highland Life. London :: John Murray, 1981.