Neil Munro

Neil Munro (1863 - 1930) : was born in Inveraray, Argyll. Along with Burns and John Galt, he is one of the few writers in Makars’ Court from the west coast of Scotland. The culture, society and landscape of his home territory would play a major role in shaping his literary fiction.

Munro is probably best-known, by Glaswegians in particular, for his satirical tales of a Clyde coast puffer ship. The adventures of the Vital Spark and its crew under the helm of the hapless Para Handy began as a column in the Glasgow Evening News on 1905.

The tales revive the age old Lowland prejudices towards Highlanders. The skipper, Para Handy, is a figure of ridicule and his Gaelic-inflected English is mercilessly satirised. The stories drew an enthusiastic local following, however, and were filmed on three separate occasions by the BBC. The first outing, as Para Handy: Master Mariner, was in 1959 – almost 30 years after Munro’s death – when puffer ships like the Vital Spark would have been a common sight along the Clyde coast. The characters were given a second outing in 1965 in another series, called simply The Vital Spark. With this series, the writers updated Munro’s original tales to reflect the changing economic realities of the Clyde, which were making the ship and its crew something of an anachronism. Munro’s stories were filmed for a third time in 1995 as The Tales of Para Handy with “Rab C Nesbitt” actor Gregor Fisher in the lead role.

The TV series have served to fix Munro’s name in the popular consciousness, but they have also had the effect of eclipsing his other, more serious writing. Indeed, Munro used the pseudonym “Hugh Foulis” for the Vital Spark stories so that he could keep his literary endeavours separate in the eyes of his readers.

Munro’s fiction falls roughly into two camps: the couthy, pawky, humorous send-ups like the Para Handy stories, and his other books which were also published under the pen-name “Hugh Foulis” and based on his newspaper columns: Erchie, My Droll Friend (1904) and Jimmy Swan, the Joy Traveller (1917). On the other side there is a writer with a much more serious approach to his craft: in the words of one of his contemporaries Munro was “the apostolic successor to Walter Scott”, through Munro won neither the acclaim nor the lasting reputation of Scott.

The dominant theme in Munro’s historical fiction is the causes and effects of change in the Highlands; from his first novel John Splendid (1898), to his last and what is widely considered to be his best work: The New Road (1914). In this case the instrument of change is a road which is being built from Stirling to Inverness, and which will inevitably and symbolically cleave the Highlands in two, and bring about the end of the indigenous way of life. The book is more of a historical thriller, with many plot twists and a savage denouement that you expect more from modern bestseller fiction. Its hero is the rather Classically (and, again, symbolically) named Aeneas McMaster, who is on a quest to discover the identity of his father’s murderer. Aeneas’s journey throughout the novel is one which takes him from a bright-eyed, romantic love of the Highlands, to a more critical appraisal of the forces at work there, and he comes to regard the landscape and the people who occupy it more cynically. Similarily, The Daft Days (1907), set in near-contemporary Inveraray, is again a slightly tongue-in-cheek picture of a small town.
Munro’s other historical novels include his Jacobite trilogy Doom Castle (1901), The Shoes of Fortune (1901), and Children of Tempest (1903).

Further Reading

Neil Munro Society
Massive online resource of articles, lectures, pictures and more – related to Munro in particular, Scottish literature in general.
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Biography & Synopses
This site is affiliated with the Neil Munro Society. Contains extensive biog and brief synopses of his novels.
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Scottish Libraries
Good general introduction to Neil Munro and his work.
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The Vital Spark
Review of the most recent filmed version of “Para Handy”, Munro’s famous tales of the Clyde.
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