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Issue 59 - Neil M. Gunn (1891-1973)

Scotland Magazine Issue 59
October 2011

 

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Neil M. Gunn (1891-1973)

The Highland Zen master

Neil Gunn was one of the most prolific fiction writers of the 1920s and 1930s, famed for his central place in the ‘Scottish Renaissance’.

He didn’t come from auspicious beginnings. His father was a herring boat captain when the traditional fishing industry was in sharp decline.

Gunn grew up concerned about the state of his nation and the loss of traditional Highland ways.

Though he was born in the village of Dunbeath in Caithness, after finishing primary school he moved in with his older sister in St John’s Town of Dalry, Kirkcudbrightshire. Gunn was the seventh of nine children born to his fisherman father and stoical domestic-servant mother, both of whom influenced characters in his fiction later on.

In his heart and mind, Gunn never truly left the Highlands, though he passed his Civil Service exam in 1907 and moved to London. There, his eyes were opened to new philosophies and the temptations of the big city, before he joined Customs & Excise in 1911 and was posted back to his home country. He moved around a lot and was responsible for directing ships around minefields during the First World War, so he was not expected to fight first-hand.

Gunn received a permanent posting at the Glen Mhor Distillery and in 1921 married Jessie Dallas ‘Daisy’ Frew, the daughter of an Inverness jeweller. At around the same time he began to publish short stories, while trying to reconcile his dual commitments to socialism and Scottish nationalism.

Though his published works are really his only claim to fame, Gunn lived a full life and gave much back to the community he loved. He sat on the Committee on Post-War Hospitals in 1941 and the Commission of Inquiry into Crofting Conditions in 1951.

As his writing style became established, Gunn’s love of the Highland culture and language was clearly apparent. Though he could not speak Gaelic and deeply regretted that, the rhythm and syntax of his writing strongly reflect the traditional Scottish speech that he loved. The fact that he wrote in English no doubt extended the influence of his work and brought that flavour of Highland heritage to a much wider audience than would have been possible otherwise.

Gunn did not become a full-time writer until 1937, when Highland River achieved great critical acclaim and won him the James Tait Black Memorial Prize.

His early works such as The Grey Coast (1926) and The Lost Glen (1928) portray a rather bleak image of the Highlands, so devastated by the Clearances and economic decline. But later works are a little more optimistic, such as The Silver Darlings (1941) which is set during the herring boom of the late 19th century.

Once he could concentrate on writing as his only career, Gunn and his wife moved to a rented farmhouse near Strathpeffer and Gunn embarked on his most prolific period of work.

He branched out into journalism and broadcasting. During the 1930s and ‘40s he had pieces published in diverse journals and magazines, such as Scot’s Review, The Glasgow Herald and Anarchy Magazine in London.

In later life, Gunn developed a fascination for Zen Buddhism, earning him the title of ‘the Highland Zen Master’. His last full length work is an autobiography called The Atom of Delight (1956), in which he explains how the innate talents to be found in small self contained communities might stem from a long established code of familiar actions and reactions. He gives the example of a fiddle player who can play a rapid reel without conscious thought; in fact, over thinking the process would destroy it. Gunn revels in the delight to be found in this thought-free state.

Having written 22 novels, four other books and countless essays and minor works, Neil Gunn died on 15 January 1973, aged 81.

His memory lives on at the Dunbeath Heritage Centre and the Clan Gunn Heritage Centre & Museum in Caithness.