Neil M. Gunn

Neil M. Gunn
Born Neil Miller Gunn
November 8, 1891(1891-11-08)
Dunbeath, Caithness, Scotland
Died January 15, 1973(1973-01-15) (aged 81)
Occupation novelist
Nationality Scottish
Citizenship British
Genres general fiction
Subjects Scottish highlands
Literary movement 20th century Scottish Renaissance
Notable work(s) The Silver Darlings (1941)
Notable award(s) James Tait Black Memorial Prize for fiction
Spouse(s) Jessie Dallas Frew

Neil Miller Gunn (November 8, 1891 - January 15, 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 (James Leslie Mitchell)). 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). Gunn's fiction deals primarily with the Highland communities and landscapes of his youth, though the author chose (contra MacDiarmid and his followers) to write almost exclusively in English rather than Scots or Gaelic (a language he lamented never having learned).[1] Despite his lack of Gaelic he was heavily influenced in his writing style by the language.[2][3]


Early life

Neil Gunn was born in the village of Dunbeath in the county of Caithness, the northernmost county of mainland Scotland. 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 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 one of his sisters and her husband in St. John's Town of Dalry, Kirkcudbrightshire. He continued his education there with tutors and 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.

Gunn married Jessie Dallas Frew (or "Daisy") in 1921 and they settled in Inverness, near his permanent excise post at the Glen Mhor distillery.

Beginnings as a Writer

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 the founders of the Porpoise Press, whose mission was to reestablish a national publishing industry for Scotland, and they became Gunn's publisher until their absorption by Faber and Faber in the mid-1930s. The first novels Gunn published were The Grey Coast in 1926 and The Lost Glen in 1928.

During this period, he was also active in the National Party of Scotland, which formed part of what became the Scottish National Party.

The Professional Writer

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.

Gunn's later works in the 1940s and into the 1950s became concerned with issues of totalitarianism.

The Highland Zen Master

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.

Gunn's 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.

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 (U.S.A.), Saltire Review, Scotland's Magazine, Scots Review, and Point magazine in Leicester.

Neil 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.

See also

  • C.J.L. Stokoe, A Bibliography of the Works of Neil M. Gunn, (1987), Aberdeen: Aberdeen University Press.


Kenn and the Salmon, from the characters in Highland River, a statue erected in memory of Neil Gunn at Dunbeath
  • The Grey Coast (1926)
  • The Lost Glen (1928)
  • Hidden Doors (short stories) (1929)
  • Morning Tide (1930)
  • The Poaching at Grianan (1930 as serial in Scots Magazine) (2005)
  • Sun Circle (1933)
  • Butcher's Broom (1934)
  • Highland River (1937)
  • Wild Geese Overhead (1939)
  • Second Sight (1940)
  • The Silver Darlings (1941)
  • Young Art and Old Hector (1942)
  • The Green Isle of the Great Deep (1943)
  • The Serpent (1944)
  • The Key of the Chest (1945)
  • The Drinking Well (1946)
  • The Silver Bough (1948)
  • The Shadow (1948)
  • The Lost Chart (1949)
  • The White Hour (short stories) (1950)
  • The Well at the World's End (1951)
  • Bloodhunt (1952)
  • The Other Landscape (1954)
Essays and autobiography
  • Whisky and Scotland (1935)
  • Off in a Boat (1938)
  • Highland Pack (1949)
  • The Atom of Delight (1956)


  • 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))
  • Neil M. Gunn; Selected Letters, ed. J.B. Pick (1986)
  • Pick, J.B. (2004) Neil Gunn. Northcote House, for British Council. ISBN 0-7463-0989-9.
Literary Criticism
  • 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
  • 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


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External links

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