Neil Gunn

Neil Gunn (1891 - 1973) : is one of the foremost Scottish novelists of the 20th century. He was born in Dunbeath, in Caithness, and attended school there and at a private school in the Borders. In 1907 he travelled south to work for the Civil Service in London, but three years later the lure of the Highlands tempted him north once more and, as a Customs and Excise inspector, he travelled widely throughout the Highlands and Islands.

A writer of short fiction since early in adult life, Gunn had stories published in many magazines and journals before his first novel The Grey Coast came out to great acclaim and some financial success: he built a house on the proceeds. He wrote several more novels and a short story collection before leaving his job to become a full-time writer in 1937.

Gunn was a prolific writer – at one stage he produced 11 novels in as many years – and in total was the author of almost 30 books, including the extended exploration, Whisky and Scotland, and a spiritual autobiography, The Atom of Delight which reflected his interest in Zen Buddhism.

He is one of the key writers of the Scottish literary renaissance and is often associated with Hugh MacDiarmid. Indeed, the two men became friends in 1924, at the beginning of both their writing careers, but it was a friendship, like so many of MacDiarmid’s, that would dissolve some years later.

If MacDiarmid was the arrowhead of the Scottish literary renaissance – flinty, hard and sharp – then Gunn was the arrow’s shaft: his prose was made of a more pliable material than MacDiarmid’s poetry; his timeless, allegorical novels contributed emotional substance and carried the movement beyond issues of language and nationalist politics that MacDiarmid’s work frequently became stuck on. In some ways the two men are opposites of each other, but in other ways their work can be seen as complementary. Where MacDiarmid soared, drunk at times on his own intellect, Gunn explored the psychological and social depths of the human condition.

Gunn was concerned specifically with Scotland, as a location – it was, after all, the place he knew best – but his themes are universal, they could apply anywhere: good against evil, humankind versus nature, the individual against authoritarianism, change and transformation, the quest for self-knowledge, etc. The settings vary dramatically – the herring fishing communities of the north-east (The Silver Darlings), the Highland Clearances (Butcher’s Broom), and the industrial cityscape of Glasgow (Wild Geese Overhead) – but the themes remain relatively similar. It is as if the message of all his fiction is that the more humankind changes, the more radically different the (historical) circumstances, the more easily we are able to see what makes us what we are. Strip away all the historical clutter – post-war Europe, 9th century Argyll, 18th century Edinburgh, whatever – and we remain fundamentally, primally, primitively human, with the same eternal strengths and frailties.

In this way, his characters can also be seen as archetypes, in other words, they not only move and talk and act like real people they also have some symbolic function to carry out in the story – they might represent unity, separation, the home, the wilderness, etc. The names he gives his characters are not chosen randomly from a telephone directory; names are the first clue that his characters are representative of some essential element or quality, for example, in Highland River, the book’s hero is called Kenn, after the Scots verb meaning to know: Kenn is a seeker of knowledge. But Gunn’s trick was to realise that if modern readers were to grasp the deeper meanings in his novels, they would have to enjoy them as stories in themselves. His characters then are fully rounded fictionalised human beings: they have a past, a personality, characteristic ways of behaving – on one level. On a deeper level they stand for the ancient struggles that mankind has always faced.

Gunn frequently used historical settings but he was specifically interested in the living tradition: by looking to the past we are better able to understand ourselves today; by turning away from the lessons of history we walk blindly towards the future. More important in Gunn’s fiction is the natural setting. The landscape, an inescapable force in Scotland and a dominating one in Scottish literature, is an essential part of the make-up of Neil Gunn’s fiction. From the mothering influence of the earth to the seduction of the sea, the cruel realities and the gracious comforts of human life have their embodiment in some form in the landscape. Gunn’s point, simply, is that we are inextricably tied to our environment; we are made – spiritually, and in many ways, literally – of the same stuff that surrounds us. The dramatic possibilities that the landscape of Scotland offers are endless and Gunn explores and exploits them in his fiction.

The effect Gunn had on Scottish culture was considerable. Arguably, he did more for the acceptance of Scotland as a country with a literature and a culture distinct from the rest of Great Britain than MacDiarmid or any of the modern Makars did. He developed the modern historical novel and told stories that were timelessly resonant. He employed with great skill the techniques of the Modernist European writers in a Scottish context, paving the way for later writers like William McIlvanney, James Kelman and Alan Spence. Above all, he gave Scotland an epic fiction that wasn’t bound up with questions and anxieties of who we, as Scots, were – but who we as human beings were. And, controversially, perhaps, for a Scottish writer at that time, he did it in English.

Gunn’s later work saw him experimenting with genres, particularly the detective novel. But the work which stands out in the latter stage of his writing career is his autobiography, The Atom of Delight (1956). This beautiful book describes the ordinary events in his childhood, such as playing in the rivers and the straths near his home, that would later shape and guide the writing of his extraordinary fiction.

Further Reading

Comprehensive biography of Gunn.
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Neil Gunn Homepage
Includes a chronology of Gunn’s life as well as short extracts read by Gunn himself.
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Dunbeath Heritage Centre
A beautifully designed website. One feature allows you to follow the journey of Kenn, hero of Highland River, in dramatic black & white photographs and extracts from the novel. The Heritage Centre occupies the building where Gunn attended school.
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Association for Scottish Literary Studies
An in-depth discussion of Gunn and his fiction, Bloodhunt and Highland River in particular
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