Neil M. Gunn

Born: 1891 in Dunbeath, Caithness Died: 1973 First Book: The Grey Coast (Jonathan Cape, 1926) Born on 8 November 1891 in Dunbeath in Caithness, Neil Miller Gunn is recognised as one of the most important writers to emerge in twentieth-century British literature, and was a leading light in the Scottish Renaissance of the 1920s and 1930s. He held a lifelong commitment to the ideals of Scottish nationalism and socialism, and as a prolific critic, dramatist and author of over twenty novels he was arguably one the most influential Scottish writers of the early twentieth century. After completing primary school in Dunbeath in 1904, Gunn moved to live with one of his sisters and her husband in St John’s Town of Dalry in Kirkcudbrightshire. Here he was privately educated until he passed his civil service exam in 1907. He then moved to London, where he was introduced to both a thriving metropolis and new political and philosophical thinking. In 1910 he left the civil service to begin a career as a custom and excise officer in his native Highlands. He spent several years in a number of temporary positions around the Highlands and during the First World War he was charged with routing ships around minefields, which exempted him from active service. In 1921 he married Jessie Dallas Frew. They settled in Inverness, near his new permanent posting at the Glen Mhor distillery. Throughout the 1920s he published several short stories which sympathised with Hugh MacDiarmid’s bid to establish an enlightenment or ‘renaissance’ in Scottish literature, and he became friendly with an array of literary figures including Eric Linklater, Edwin and Willa Muir, Naomi Mitchison and Nan Shepherd. His early novels examined the effects of economic stagnation in the Highlands, which was caused by the general decline of Scotland’s traditional fishing industry. In his novel Morning Tide (1931), he portrayed a greater sense of optimism for Highland life. He considered these themes in an historical context and setting in three novels, Sun Circle (1930), Butcher’s Broom (1934) and The Silver Darlings (1941). In 1937, after the success of Highland River, Gunn resigned from his job and took up writing full-time, renting a farmhouse near Stathpeffer. Here he began his most productive and successful period as a writer, producing a prolific body of work, the vast majority of which dealt with the Highland communities and landscape of his youth, often comparing images of utopian Highland life to those in the city where, he felt, morality was often compromised. He was a fierce defender of Highland life and tradition, and although he never learned to speak or write Gaelic, his novels are filled with the fluid rhythms and syntax of Gaelic speech. The essays and novels which he wrote promoted the preservation of traditional Highland life and customs. In the latter years of his life he became involved in broadcasting, and although Atom of Delight (1956), his autobiography, was his last full-length piece of work, he continued to produce essays and articles for a number of nationwide publications until his death on 15 January 1973. The Dunbeath Heritage Centre now contains a permanent exhibition of his life and works.