|Neil Miller Gunn was born on 8th November 1891 in the village of Dunbeath, Caithness, the seventh of a family of nine children. Neil’s father, James Gunn, was skipper of a fishing boat, which meant that he was away from home for long periods of time. The upbringing of the family was entrusted to Neil’s mother, Isabella Miller Gunn. Neil had a very high regard for his mother and wrote that “Where she was everything else was about her naturally, each in its own right and glad to be there.”
At the age of five Neil set off for school, where he turned out to be a very able pupil, especially in maths and essay writing. Neil left school when he was thirteen and set off for Galloway, there to live with his sister Mary and her husband, the local doctor. While staying with his sister, Neil came under the influence of two men who helped to mould his character at this very critical stage. The first was his tutor, J.G.Carter, a literary man, who wrote for the local paper; the second was the headmaster of the local school in Dalry, who taught Neil Latin, and, among other things, how to fish with a rod. It is just possible that from the latter came part of the character of Old Hector.
It is not perhaps widely known that, as a young lad, Neil learned to play the fiddle and had a great love of the instrument.
In 1906 when Neil was 15 years old, he passed the Civil Service exam and was posted to London. After two years he was transferred to Edinburgh, working in the Income Tax Department. During his stay in Edinburgh Neil became interested in the Customs and Excise Service; he passed the necessary exams and was posted to Inverness with responsibility for a large part of the Highlands. Neil familiarised himself with his ‘parish’ travelling all over it by motor bike. It was during this time that Neil met a fellow Excise Officer, Maurice Walsh, who was to become a great friend.
In 1921, in Dingwall, Neil met a young woman called Jessie Dallas Frew. Her father owned a jeweller’s shop there and, at the time, was Provost of Dingwall. The two young people were obviously meant for each other, and were soon married. Their first home was in Wigan, followed by Lybster. Then in 1923 they moved to Inverness, when Neil became the Excise Officer for the Glen Mhor Distillery. He worked there for the next 16 years.
Neil’s first novel The Grey Coast was published in 1926. This encouraged Neil and Daisy (as Neil always called his wife) to build a bungalow at Dochfour Drive in Inverness; they called the house ‘Larachan’.
The Grey Coast was a hard almost bitter book, probably caused by the shock Neil received when he returned to Lybster and, instead of finding again the ‘land of his childhood’, which perhaps he had grown to idealise, he found a people fallen on hard times, struggling for survival. It was felt that Neil had to get all that out of his system before he could write anything else, and, if that is so, he was successful, because in 1931 Morning Tide was published; this was a most powerfully written positive book and was the ‘Book Society’s Choice’. It was also honoured by PEN at Helen Cruickshank’s Edinburgh flat.
Morning Tide was followed by Sun Circle, then Butcher’s Broom, Neil’s very personal way of dealing with the Clearances. Then in 1937 came Highland River, which won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize.
On June 1937 Neil decided to leave the Customs and Excise Service and become a full-time writer. He invested in a boat and, with his wife Daisy as crew, set off to explore the West Coast of Scotland. From this adventure came Off in a Boat.
In 1938 the Gunns sold their house in Inverness and moved to Brae Farm House. This two-storey stone-built house is situated three miles from Dingwall to the north of the Strathpeffer road. Neil and Daisy grew to love this house and the surrounding countryside more than any other house and surrounding area they had ever lived in or ever would live in. During the next twelve years Neil was to write eleven of his twenty novels in this house.
The Shadow was published in 1948; the story was set in the countryside behind Brae Farm House, leading to the Skiach river and Ben Wyvis.
Neil and Daisy’s life in and around Brae Farm House is recorded in Highland Pack.
Neil did his writing in the morning, sitting in a big armchair in front of the fire with a writing pad on his knee and pencil in his hand. He wrote until lunch time. After lunch they would set off for a walk up through the field behind the house, crossing the road near to the site of the monument, then on and up to the moor and the river Skiach beyond. From these expeditions came The Serpent.
Neil held women in very high regard and seemed to understand what was going on in their thoughts, what mattered most to them. This was shown in The Serpent, where Neil describes the relationship between Tom, the Philosopher and his mother.
Many of the people who regularly corresponded with Neil, and whose opinions he obviously valued, were women. Nan Shepherd, a writer herself, was particularly appreciative of Neil’s writing.
Naomi Mitchison corresponded with Neil over many years, and may have been responsible for provoking Neil into writing The Green Isle of the Great Deep, although he playfully evaded admitting this.
Perhaps the book that appealed to more people than any other was The Silver Darlings – an epic story of the herring fishermen of Caithness: the people who had been forced out of their crofts down to the seashore during the Clearances were left to try and make a living as best as they could from the sea.
“The people would yet live, the people themselves, for no landlord owned the sea.”
The Silver Darlings
Two of Neil Gunn’s most successful characters – Young Art and Old Hector – the young boy and the old man, are such good companions. Neil said that once he had thought of the two characters, they practically wrote the book themselves. Their wanderings finally take them through the pool, where swims the ‘Salmon of Knowledge’, to that other land – The Green Isle of the Great Deep. This was Tir-nan-Og (the Land of Eternal Youth), gone terribly wrong, where the inhabitants are not allowed to think for themselves; they are brainwashed by eating a gruel like porridge and were forced to travel to the ‘SEAT’. Echoes of Totalitarianism!
Neil Gunn died on 15 January 1973. His brother John said of the funeral: “It went off very well. There was an air of quiet happiness around. Neil would have been pleased”.
His youngest brother, Alex, said of Neil: “He was a tall man . . . but he was never contained between his hat and his bootlaces. I think there is still a lot of him around”.
Perhaps there is no better way to end this short Biography than by the way that Neil describes how old Tom’s life came to an end in The Serpent, seated at the Chambered Cairn with his back leaning against one of the Standing Stones on the moor behind where the Neil Gunn Monument now stands.
“For at the end of the day, what’s all the bother about? Simply about human relations, about how we are to live one with another on the old earth. That’s all, ultimately. To understand one another, and to understand what we can about the earth, and, in the process, gather some peace of mind and, with luck, a little delight.”
The Author, Neil Gunn
Map showing the location of Dunbeath, Caithness
Glen Mhor Distillery as it was.
Google Map of the inner Moray Firth where Neil spent most of his life – Inverness, North Kessock and of course Brae Farmhouse.