Neil Munro, novelist, poet, journalist and newspaper editor, died on the 22nd of December, 1930.
Neil Munro the writer has two distinct audiences and perhaps adherents of one are unaware of the other. Under his own name, he was a serious writer of novels in the genre of romantic history and one of the most visible literary figures of his time. Under the pseudonym ‘Hugh Foulis’, a name that functioned simply to distinguish his other work, he is very well known for his ‘Para Handy’ stories. His qualities as a serious author can’t be denied, especially as he received high praise from his most worthy contemporaries. Obituaries uniformly claimed him to be the successor to Robert Louis Stevenson and at his memorial service in Glasgow Cathedral, the noted critic, Lauchlan MacLean Watt, described Munro as “the greatest Scottish novelist since Sir Walter Scott”. R. B. Cunninghame Graham echoed that by stating the Munro was “the apostolic successor to Scott”. Munro went on to achieve a worldwide fame, which persists today with something of a revival in more recent times. As a journalist, he covered a wide portfolio, including art and firsthand commentary on the Scottish social scene in and around Glasgow and the Highlands.
Munro’s best novel is generally considered to be ‘The New Road’, which is set around the time of the ’45, with its title referring to General Wade’s ‘new road’ through the central Highlands from Stirling to Inverness; now the A9. It is the story of Aeneas MacMaster and his quest for information about the mysterious death of his father; a Jacobite. It can indeed be compared to the novels of Scott, particularly his ‘Waverly’ novels, which portray similar tales of gradual disillusionment with the ‘romantic Highlands’. Both Munro’s mother and his grandmother were Gaelic speakers, and affection for the language can be felt strongly in his writing. Munro was also a poet, but at that, he was less successful. After his death, John Buchan edited a miscellaneous collection of his poetry for Blackwood’s, in which the stand out piece is probably ‘The Only Son’, which is a thinly disguised lament for his son Hugh, tragically killed at Loos in 1915. In a further endorsement of Munro’s qualities as a writer, Buchan commented that “His prose seems to me more strictly poetic than his verse”.
Neil Munro was born in the little town of Inveraray, perhaps at Inveraray Castle, in the building known as Crombie’s Land, on the 3rd of June, 1863. He was brought up by his mother and grandmother in a one roomed house in McVicar’s Land. He was educated at the Parish School in Inveraray and for some periods went to the little school in Glen Aray where the teacher, John McArthur, taught the Bible in Gaelic. When he left school in 1877, Neil got a position as a clerk in the office of William Douglas, a local lawyer and the Sheriff Clerk of Argyll. During his time there, he learned Latin from Traynor’s Maxims and taught himself shorthand in preparation for a career in journalism. A good career as opposed to a job was hard to come by in the Highlands at the tail end of the 19th Century and in June, 1881, Munro moved to Glasgow in search of better prospects.
His first job in ‘the second City’ of the Empire was as a cashier in a firm of ironmongers, but it didn’t take the determined Munro long before he jumped the railings to became a reporter on ‘The Greenock Advertiser’. He moved on to the ‘Falkirk Herald’ and then the ‘Glasgow Evening News’, where he became Chief Reporter at the age of twenty-three. He had tried his hand at writing a thriller and also sent humorous sketches to ‘The Globe’ in London, but it was ten years before his first success with an innovative collection of short stories called ‘The Lost Pibroch and Other Sheiling Stories’, which was published in 1896. His first novel was called ‘John Splendid’, which is said to have been the first truly authentic Highland novel and which appeared in book form in 1898, after it had been serialised in ‘Blackwood’s Magazine’ the previous year. Munro was encouraged to cut back on journalism and concentrate on writing.
Following the publication of ‘Gilian the Dreamer’ in 1899, Munro’s output consisted of a number of historical novels exploring the impact of change within the Highlands, loosely connected with the prelude and aftermath of the Rising of ‘45. Those were ‘Doom Castle’ and ‘The Shoes of Fortune’ in 1901, and ‘Children of Tempest’ two years later. Seemingly having had enough of Jacobitism, Munro switched from historical romance to a more light hearted set of characters with his ‘Para Handy’ stories, which first appeared in 1905, under the pen name of Hugh Foulis, in the ‘Looker On’ column of the ‘Glasgow Evening News’. They were published in three book collections as ‘The Vital Spark’ in 1906, ‘In Highland Harbours’ in 1911 and ‘Hurricane Jack of the Vital Spark’ in 1923. Munro’s ‘alter ego’ of Foulis produced more comic characters such as the opinionated Beadle and waiter, Erchie MacPherson, and the big hearted, commercial traveller, Jimmy Swan.
In 1908, was honoured with an L.L.D. from the University of Glasgow, an award he also gained from the University of Edinburgh, much later – better later than never – and almost too late, in October 1930. Munro’s most accomplished novel was also his last. It was another story of the Highlands set immediately post Culloden and it appeared in 1914 under the title, ‘The New Road’. During the First World War, Munro returned to journalism and visited the Front on several occasions as a war correspondent and in 1918 he became the editor of the ‘Glasgow Evening News’ until he retired in 1927. Neil Munro died at his home, ‘Cromalt’ in Craigendoran, in Helensburgh, on the 22nd of December, 1930. He was buried in Kilmalieu Cemetery, Inveraray, and in 1935, ‘An Comunn Gaidhealach’ erected a monument in Glen Aray to his memory. The inscription reads ‘Sar Litreachas’ – excellent literature.