Neil M. Gunn

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Neil M. Gunn
Neil M. Gunn.jpg
BornNeil Miller Gunn
(1891-11-08)8 November 1891
Dunbeath, Caithness, Scotland
Died15 January 1973(1973-01-15) (aged 81)
Genregeneral fiction
SubjectScottish Highlands
Literary movement20th century Scottish Renaissance
Notable worksThe Silver Darlings (1941)
Notable awardsJames Tait Black Memorial Prize for fiction
SpouseJessie Dallas Frew (m. 1921–

Neil Miller Gunn (8 November 1891 – 15 January 1973) was a prolific novelist, critic, and dramatist who emerged as one of the leading lights of the Scottish Renaissance of the 1920s and 1930s. With over twenty novels to his credit, Gunn was arguably the most influential Scottish fiction writer of the first half of the 20th century (with the possible exception of Lewis Grassic Gibbon, the pen name of James Leslie Mitchell).[1]: 326, 333, 339 

Like his contemporary, Hugh MacDiarmid, Gunn was politically committed to the ideals of both Scottish nationalism and socialism (a difficult balance to maintain for a writer of his time). His fiction deals primarily with the Highland communities and landscapes of his youth,[1]: 325  though the author chose (contra MacDiarmid and his followers) to write almost exclusively in English rather than Scots or Gaelic but was heavily influenced in his writing style by the language.[2][3]

Early life[edit]

Neil Miller Gunn was born in the village of Dunbeath, Caithness. His father was the captain of a herring boat, and Gunn's fascination with the sea and the courage of fishermen can be traced directly back to his childhood memories of his father's work. His mother would also provide Gunn with a crucial model for the types of steadfast, earthy, and tradition-bearing women that would populate many of his works.

Gunn had eight siblings, and when his primary schooling was completed in 1904, he moved south to live with his older sister Mary and her husband Dr. Keiller, the local GP at Kenbank in St John's Town of Dalry, Kirkcudbrightshire. He continued his education there with tutors including the local schoolmaster, and the writer and poet J.G.Carter "Theodore Mayne". He sat the Civil Service exam in 1907. This led to a move to London, where the adolescent Gunn was exposed to both the exciting world of new political and philosophical ideas as well as to the seamier side of modern urban life. In 1910 Gunn became a Customs and Excise Officer and was posted back to the Highlands. He would remain a customs officer throughout the First World War and until he was well established as a writer in 1937.[4]


Gunn married Jessie Dallas Frew in 1921 and they settled in Inverness, near his permanent excise post at the Glen Mhor distillery.[citation needed]

Beginnings as a writer[edit]

During the 1920s Gunn began to publish short stories, as well as poems and short essays, in various literary magazines. His writing brought him into contact with other writers associated with the budding Scottish Renaissance, such as Hugh MacDiarmid, James Bridie, Naomi Mitchison, Eric Linklater, Edwin Muir, Lewis Grassic Gibbon, and George Blake.

Blake and George Malcolm Thomson were running the Porpoise Press, whose mission was to reestablish a national publishing industry for Scotland, by now an imprint of Faber & Faber, and they became Gunn's publisher in the early 1930s. The first novels Gunn published were The Grey Coast in 1926 and The Lost Glen in 1928. During this period, Gunn was active in the National Party of Scotland, which formed part of what became the Scottish National Party.[5]

The professional writer[edit]

Part of the Neil Gunn memorial above Strathpeffer, erected by the Neil M. Gunn Memorial Trust.

Following the publishing success of Highland River (for which he was awarded the 1937 James Tait Black Memorial Prize for fiction), Gunn was able to resign from the Customs and Excise in 1937 and become a full-time writer. He rented a farmhouse near Strathpeffer and embarked on his most productive period as a novelist and essayist. Butcher's Broom and The Silver Darlings are historical novels dealing with the Highland Clearances.[6] Young Art and Old Hector and The Green Isle of the Great Deep are both fantasies based on Scottish folklore.[7] Gunn's later works in the 1940s and into the 1950s became concerned with issues of totalitarianism.[1]: 338 

The Highland Zen master[edit]

Gunn's final full-length work was a discursive autobiography entitled The Atom of Delight. This text showed the influence which a reading of Eugen Herrigel's Zen in the Art of Archery had upon Gunn. His utilisation of these ideas was not so much mystical as providing a view of the individual in a "small self-contained community, with a long-established way of life, with actions and responses known and defined". He took the playing of fiddle reels as an example: "how a human hand could perform, on its own, truly astonishing feats – astonishing in the sense that if thought interfered for a moment the feat was destroyed". This thought-free state could be a source of delight.Zen in the art of Neil Gunn

In his later years, Gunn was involved in broadcasting and also published in diverse journals such as Anarchy Magazine in London, The Glasgow Herald, Holiday (USA), Saltire Review, Scotland's Magazine, Scots Review, and Point magazine in Leicester.

In his later years Gunn lived on the Black Isle. He died in Raigmore Hospital in Inverness on 15 January 1973, aged 81.[8]


Gunn is commemorated in Makars' Court, outside the Writers' Museum, Lawnmarket, Edinburgh. Selections for Makars' Court are made by the Writers' Museum; the Saltire Society; the Scottish Poetry Library. The Neil Gunn Trust was established in 1986, and in October 1987 a monument to the writer was unveiled on the Heights of Brae, Strathpeffer.[9]

The Neil Gunn Writing Competition was established in 1988 by Ross & Cromarty District Council (later becoming the Highland Council) and the Trust. The competition is now organised by High Life Highland and the Trust.[10]

Kenn and the Salmon, from the characters in Highland River, a statue erected in memory of Neil Gunn at Dunbeath


Short stories
  • Hidden Doors (1929)
  • The White Hour (1950)
  • The Tax-Gatherer
Essays and autobiography
  • Whisky and Scotland (1935)
  • Off in a Boat (1938)
  • Highland Pack (1949)
  • The Atom of Delight (1956)

Literary criticism[edit]

  • Burns, John, Neil M. Gunn: Celebration of the Light, in Hearn, Sheila G. (ed.), Cencrastus No. 11, New Year 1983, pp. 29 - 31, ISSN 0264-0856
  • Burns, John, Celebration of the Light: Zen in the Novels of Neil M. Gunn, Edinburgh: Canongate, 1988
  • Gifford, Douglas, Neil M. Gunn and Lewis Grassic Gibbon. Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd, 1983, ISBN 9780050031988
  • Laplace, Philippe, Les Hautes-Terres, l'histoire et la mémoire dans les romans de Neil M. Gunn. Besançon: PUFC, 2006
  • McCulloch, Margery, The Novels of Neil M. Gunn: A Critical Study. Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press, 1987
  • Price, Richard, The Fabulous Matter of Fact: The Poetics of Neil M. Gunn. Edinburgh University Press, 1991
  • Scott, Alexander and Douglas Gifford, Neil M. Gunn: The Man and the Writer. Edinburgh: Blackwood, 1973

Further reading[edit]

  • Gunn, Neil M. Selected Letters, ed. J.B. Pick (1986), Polygon Books
  • Hart, Francis; Pick, J.B. (1985). Neil M. Gunn: a Highland Life. Edinburgh: Polygon. ISBN 0-904919-95-1. (originally published John Murray, London, (1981))
  • McCulloch, Margery, The Novels of Neil M. Gunn, in Lindsay, Maurice (ed.), The Scottish Review: Arts and Environment, August 1980, pp. 46 - 50, ISSN 0140-0894
  • Pick, J.B. (2004) Neil Gunn. Northcote House, for British Council. ISBN 0-7463-0989-9
  • Smith, Donald (1983), Naomi Mitchison and Neil Gunn: A Highland Friendship, in Hearn, Sheila G. (ed.), Cencrastus No 13, Summer 1983, pp. 17 - 20, ISSN 0264-0856
  • Stokoe, C.J.L. (1987), A Bibliography of the Works of Neil M. Gunn, Aberdeen: Aberdeen University Press


  1. ^ a b c Wittig, Kurt (1978) [1958]. The Scottish Tradition in Literature. The Mercat Press.
  2. ^ "BBC Two – Writing Scotland – Neil M Gunn". BBC. Retrieved 17 November 2012.
  3. ^ "Neil M. Gunn profile". Archived from the original on 13 May 2012. Retrieved 21 June 2015.
  4. ^ "Writing Scotland: Neil M Gunn". BBC Two.
  5. ^ Neil Gunn webpage, Retrieved 29 June 2015.
  6. ^ MacGillivray, Alan (1997). Teaching Scottish Literature: Curriculum and Classroom Applications. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. p. 74. ISBN 0-585-08674-5.
  7. ^ Stableford, Brian (2005). Gunn, Neil M. The A to Z of Fantasy Literature. Plymouth: Scarecrow Press. p. 187. ISBN 0-8108-6829-6.
  8. ^ "Neil Gunn dies at 81". The Glasgow Herald. 16 January 1973. p. 3. Retrieved 1 May 2017.
  9. ^ "Neil M Gunn Trust". The Neil Gunn Trust. Archived from the original on 30 May 2015. Retrieved 7 March 2015.
  10. ^ "Neil Gunn Writing Competition". High Life Highland. Archived from the original on 14 February 2015. Retrieved 7 March 2015.
  11. ^ "Blood Hunt (1986)". BFI.

External links[edit]