Neil Miller Gunn (Neil M. Gunn), author, novelist, critic, and dramatist, died on the 15th of January, 1973.
The writer, Neil Miller Gunn, was and probably still is, better known as Neil M. Gunn, with not so many folks being aware of what for the ‘M’ stood. His productive period spanned a time of great upheaval and change, from the economic and political crises of the 1920s and 1930s, to the Second World War and its aftermath. Undoubtedly, his life and times, but also importantly, the tradition and heritage of the Highlands and Islands, shaped and influenced his creative writing and fuelled his unique inspiration and prose. Neil M. Gunn is certainly remembered as one of Scotland’s most distinguished novelists and many biographers argue that he was one of the most influential of his day. Indeed, he is rated alongside Lewis Grassic Gibbon (J. Leslie Mitchell – of ‘Sunset Song’ fame) as one of the two most important Scottish authors in the first half of the 20th Century. Furthermore, beyond the borders of Scotland, Gunn is often acknowledged as an important contributor to 20th Century British literature.
Neil Gunn was also one of the central figures of the ‘Scottish Literary Renaissance’, sharing the contemporary and political views, as expressed in his essays and fiction, of the likes of Hugh MacDiarmid, Edwin Muir, Eric Linklater and Naomi Mitchison. Those ‘Renaissance Artists of the Pen’ believed in a Scottish resurgence and revival, to be driven by economic and political independence, and supported by a vibrant, revitalising culture as expressed through literature and the Arts. Although, they weren’t naive enough to think books alone would affect a change and that, of course, led to their involvement in politics. However, above all, it is for his writing that Neil Gunn is best remembered.
Like MacDiarmid, Neil Gunn developed a lifelong commitment to Scottish nationalism, when he got involved with the National Party of Scotland (a forerunner of the Scottish National Party) back in the 1930s. And also like MacDiarmid, he was biased towards the ideals of socialism. Gunn managed to produce over twenty books in his career, several of which can be considered literary classics. Gunn’s fiction is primarily based in the Highland communities of his youth, and promotes the preservation of traditional life and customs, of which he was a fierce defender, despite never learning to speak or write Gaelic. Neither did he write in Scots or Lallans in the manner of MacDiarmid.
Gunn simply cannot be pigeonholed to any kind of quaint, nostalgic genre as his novels often convey a stark reality through their characters and settings. Notwithstanding that, their is redemption, which renders worthwhile the seeking out of his books, as according to a biography at www.neilgunn.org.uk “his novels reflect a search for meaning in troubled times, both past and present” thus reflecting his own era and that of the turbulent past. Involving the Clearances, reflections on Highland culture and the survival of its fishing and crofting communities, Gunn’s books are allegorical tales, encompassing elements of morality, philosophy, and metaphysical speculation – they are more than mere stories.
One of Neil Gunn’s most well known and widely read novels is about fish, more specifically, herring, which gives its title, ‘The Silver Darlings’. That epic novel, the first of a Highland trilogy, was widely acclaimed as a modern classic and is set during the fishing boom of the late 18th and early 19th Centuries. It was written in 1941, the year before his tale of eight years old Art and eighty years old Hector, unsurprisingly entitled, ‘Young Art and Old Hector’. It is a socio-political commentary as exemplified by Hector on the making of whisky; “This is our old native drink, made in this land from time immemorial. For untold centuries we had it as our cordial in life, distilled from the barley grown round our doors. In those times, because it was free, it was never abused. That is known. Deceit and abuse and drunkenness came in with the tax, for the folk had to evade the tax because they were poor.” Continuing the theme of ‘the old man and the boy’, Gunn wrote ‘The Green Isle of the Great Deep’ in 1944. That both preceded and presaged George Orwell’s ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’, curiously enough written in the Highland Islands. It is also an anti-Utopian novel, whose rural characters struggle against the pressures of a totalitarian state.
Neil Gunn was born in Dunbeath on the 8th of November, 1891. After attending primary school in Dunbeath until 1904, Neil moved to live with his older sister in St John’s Town of Dalry, in Kirkcudbrightshire. There, he studied privately until he passed his Civil Service exams, in 1907. After that, he moved to London, where worked for a number of years before joining His Majesty’s Customs and Excise and returning to Scotland, in 1911, which is kind of ironic, considering the views of his Hector. Gunn worked as an Excise Officer in the Highlands including, from 1921 until 1937, as ‘Officer in Residence’ at the Glen Mhor Distillery. Earlier, during the First World War, he was exempted from active service and seconded to a variety of tasks, such as routing ships around minefields. He became a full time writer in 1937, following the success of Highland River, which won him the prestigious James Tait Black Memorial Prize. Gunn’s career also extended to journalism and, throughout his career, he wrote articles for diverse journals such as ‘Scots Magazine’, ‘Anarchy Magazine’, ‘The Glasgow Herald’, ‘Saltire Review’, and ‘Scots Review’. His involvement in local politics saw him serve as a member of the Committee on Post-War Hospitals, in 1941, and the Commission of Inquiry into Crofting Conditions, in 1951.
In later years, Gunn became involved in broadcasting and also published a spiritual autobiography, entitled ‘Atom of Delight’, which led to him being referred to as ‘The Highland Zen Master’. His contribution to literature was recognised in 1948, through the award of an honorary doctorate from Edinburgh University and, after his death on the 15th of January, 1973, the Scottish Arts Council created the Neil Gunn Fellowship. Gunn is commemorated in Makars’ Court, outside The Writers’ Museum in Edinburgh’s Lawnmarket.