I first encountered the work of Neil Gunn some eight years ago. Although critically acclaimed in his lifetime, Gunn’s contribution to, and influence on, the first half of twentieth century Scottish literature has to a certain extent been eclipsed by the work of Lewis Grassic Gibbon.
Gunn was a socialist and committed to the cause of Scottish nationalism at a time when both were unfashionable, causes which, many of you will have gathered, I have more than a little sympathy for. He was also, as the excellent Whisky & Scotland: A Practical and Spiritual Survey proves, an early proponent of malt whisky at a time when single malts were virtually unknown, no doubt aided by his years as a Customs & Excise officer. His time at the Glen Mhor distillery afforded him ample opportunity to write, and is surely my dream day job.
Gunn, along with contemporary Hugh MacDiarmid was part of the Scottish Renaissance - a movement that sought to take Scottish fiction “out of the kaleyard” and into contemporary themes free from the romanticised and flowery tales that had come to typify Scottish literature. Despite all of his novels being set in the Scottish Highlands, Gunn experimented continuously with style and subject matter, his later work being particularly influenced Zen Buddhism. In many ways this was to be his undoing. Despite the commercial and critical success of novels such as Butcher’s Broom and The Silver Darlings, Gunn defied the expectations of his publisher and readers by more metaphysical tales such as The Serpent and The Green Isle Of The Great Deep, the latter a dystopian warning that pre-dates Nineteen Eighty-Four by five years. As sad as it might seem inevitable, this led to a dwindling interest by both Gunn’s agent and his public, resulting in such a poor reception to his spiritual autobiography The Atom Of Delight in 1956 that he never wrote another full length work up until his death in 1973.
Perhaps somewhat perversely, while many readers expect, even demand, that their favourite authors produce a variant of the same book or at least return to favourite characters in order to continue their story, it is the diversity of Gunn’s novels that has made him both a favourite and an influence on my own work. From the rich prose of
and Sun Circle to the more simple and
heart warming text of Young Art And Old
Hector, Gunn explored the human condition and all its drives with a knowing
nod to the Scottish character. Highland River
It was through such works that I first began to experience a shift in my own perception, the acknowledgement of something of worth within my own heritage and culture, the ability to tell a story in my own dialect and set in the land in which I grew up. More than this, I came to challenge myself and remove self-imposed limits on my writing, enabling me to write stories that previously I might have considered beyond my means. For this, more than anything else, I will always be indebted to Neil Gunn, regardless of any future direction. This is why the books I write may not always be in a genre you wish to read, feature settings you are familiar with, or deal with subject matter with which you might readily associate me with. What they will be is written to the best of my ability in order to tell the stories I need to tell.
Like the song says, ‘You can’t always get what you want, but sometimes you get what you need.’
Don’t think of this as hubris so much as kindly dictatorship.
For those wishing to investigate the work of Neil Gunn, I have listed some of my personal favourites. Others are perhaps better known but these one’s resonated particularly strongly.
Young Art And Old Hector
The Green Isle Of The Great Deep
The Silver Bough
The Well At The World’s End