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Wednesday 7 May 2014

Neil Gunn Takes a Look at The Highlands

By the age of forty-six Neil Gunn quit his job as a Civil Servant in the Customs and Excise Service, sold his house Larachan in Inverness, and purchased a converted lifeboat the Thistle to embark upon a sailing tour of the Hebrides in 1937 along with his wife. The result inspired his classic book Off in a Boat (1938) – the ‘simple record of a holiday in a boat’ – heralded a successful writing career.
A fisherman’s son from a large family of nine to James Gunn and his second wife Isabella Miller, Neil Miller Gunn (1891–1973) was born in the fishing and crofting village of Dunbeath in the county of Caithness. Early in his boyhood he went to Galloway, and then to the Edwardian streets of London and Edinburgh. At only fifteen years of age he became a clerk in the Civil Service, and at nineteen was promoted to an officer in the Customs and Excise. From 1923 until 1937 – when he resigned to devote his time to becoming a full-time writer – he supervised a Highland distillery, and became an authority on whisky.
Neil Gunn was a prolific and distinguished twentieth-century novelist and dramatist, a leading writer of the Scottish Renaissance. His novels such as The Silver Darlings (1941) and The Atom of Delight are set in the Highlands but are philosophical in tone and allegorical in nature, reflecting wider contemporary issues. Gunn entered the Civil Service in 1911 and spent time in London and Edinburgh before returning to the North as a customs and excise officer based in Inverness.
Gunn was obviously no stranger to the Highlands and stayed in various locations just to the north of Inverness for the remainder of his life. He was born and bred a Caithness Highlander and therefore would be better placed than many to review Calum Maclean’s The Highlands. The review was transmitted on the Scottish Home Service on the 24th of June, 1959, and is here reproduced from the BBC transcript:

I hadn’t got through the introduction to this book before I knew exactly where I was, and so settled down to enjoy myself. But let me quote the remark that did it, thrown off by the author in a way that would have brought a laugh at any ceilidh. It refers to one of the three great poets of Scottish Gaeldom. Here it is: “Duncan Ban MacIntyre, a Presbyterian and tenant on the Campbell Breadalbane estates, fought in the Hanoverian ranks at the battle of Falkirk. He ran away as fast as he could, chuckling inwardly over the discomfiture of the Hanoverians or, as he called them, ‘the English-speaking folk’.”

The touch of exaggeration, the humour, is a characteristic way of saying that for the true Gael, whatever side he may have found himself fighting on, there was always finally one side, and in his heart he knew it. Chiefs were brutal for their own ends, religious zealots thundered away, Westminster could divide and destroy, but the folk themselves cared finally for their own way of life, their own tongue, for that warmth of human relations which their poets and their story-tellers and their composers made memorable.
This then, is what the author, Calum Maclean, never forgets as he wanders about the Highlands. As a Celtic scholar and member of Edinburgh University’s School of Scottish Studies, he rarely misses what he is looking for. In the process he displays the gorgeous spectacle of the Highlands: Lochaber, Morar and Moidart, northward through the glens to Wester Ross and Sutherland. Over a score of full-page photographs do their wonderful best to bear him out. But scenery is not what he is really after, nor is he much concerned to discuss Highland economics today, and once or twice I caught myself disputing the accuracy of some historical point; but all that is, in a real sense, by the way, for that the author is searching for, with his recording gear, is the hidden Highlands, for the men and women who can still tell the ancient stories for nights on end or sing hundreds of Gaelic songs, and the truly astonishing thing is the quantity of the essential spirit of the old Gaelic culture that still survives. This, I feel, is what gives the book its permanent value, over against so many books published in our day about the Highlands. For, after all, unless the Highlands had a distinctive way of life, that would enrich the human spirit today, why bother with a Crofters’ Commission or other bodies concerned to keep the old Highland stock on their own land and sea?
If I appear to commend the spirit of this book highly, let me add that, as a Caithness man, I failed to find the word Caithness in the index, though the book’s title is THE HIGHLANDS. But then they always were a tolerant and active folk up in Caithness – today, in fact, the only radio-active folk in Scotland, –  and it may be that the School of Scottish Studies had it in mind to devote a whole volume to this remarkable county.

The review is short and sweet as well as being extremely positive. Perhaps because of illness that first struck in 1956, and consequently disrupted the writing process of The Highlands, left Maclean in an invidious position where he had to rein in his ambition to cover the whole of the Highlands. Caithness which Maclean must have visited is all but absent and other areas such as Kintyre, Braemar are barely mentioned. Nevertheless, Gunn obviously sympathised with a kindred spirit and a writer who explored the Highlands from an insiders’s perspective. In short, Gunn recoginsed all that was good about Maclean’s book – the humour, the emphasis upon Highland folk and, more importantly, their stories and songs that were ignored by conventional books, just as popular it would seem then as now, about the Highlands. If Calum Maclean heard the broadcast then, rest assured, he would have been pleased indeed.

Neil Gunn.
Calum Maclean. Photograph by Dr Werner Kissling taken in Kirk Yetholm in 1956.
Dustjacket of the first edition of The Highlands, showing Glencoe.

Calum Maclean, The Highlands (London: B. T. Batsford, 1959)
NLS, ‘Neil M. Gunn reviews “The Highlands” by Calm I. Maclean, published by B. T. Batsford Ltd., Dep.209/Box 10/1(d)
Neil Gunn Truast []

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