What can be said about Neil Munro? In a Canadian obituary, it was written:
“Neil Munro – the very name o’ him is grand to hear. A grand name, wi’ something baith braw and hamely in it. A name wi’ a sniff o’ peat reek, the bloom o’ heather, a skirl o’ the pipes, an’ a glint o’ the claymore. A tartaned name, that stirs Scottish blood.”
Blimey! That’s a fair claim for this Scottish writer who is little known, or at least celebrated, today. It’s the sort of praise you could imagine being laid upon Walter Scott, or even written by Scott in one of his more purple patches. But Munro was born almost 100 years after Scott, and was a man of industrial Scotland as much as anything else. Working at one stage in an ironmongers not 200 metres from where I write this, he then became a journalist in Greenock, Glasgow and Falkirk. His knowledge of the Central Belt would feed into some of his fiction, but it is in the past where the best of Neil Munro is to be found.
If you know the name, it is likely because Munro wrote ‘The Tales of Para Handy’, couthy, comic stories set aboard the Clyde Puffer, The Vital Spark. These were adapted for TV in the 1960s with Roddy McMillan as the titular skipper, and again in 1994, this time with Gregor Fisher, and they were hugely successful slices of kailyard Scotland set at sea. Their popularity has overshadowed the rest of Munro’s writing, which is a shame as he is someone it is worth seeking out. He was called, by noted critic and Glasgow minister Lauchlan MacLean Watt, “the greatest Scottish novelist since Sir Walter Scott”. That claim may not be shared by many, but it does give some idea as to how highly he was thought of at the time of his death in 1930.
His last novel, ‘The New Road’, is his best. Set in 1773, which places events 30 years after the Jacobite rebellion and at the time of the Highland Clearances, (two events are pivotal to what unfolds), it is the sort of murder/mystery that Scottish writers have done so well, from the earliest Walter Scott to those who fall under the umbrella of today’s Tartan Noir. The new road of the title refers to the military road which General Wade tore into the Highlands to destroy the Clans in the 1700s, and it is along this road that events unfold. Anyone who has read Scott’s ‘Waverley’ will be familiar with the landscape and themes, but Munro has greater humour and brevity than is to be found in that earlier novel.
Actually, it is not Scott, but Robert Louis Stevenson that ‘The New Road’ most closely resembles, as Scottish history is examined through the modern day ideas of 1914. The central characters of Aeneas Macmaster and Ninian Macgregor Campbell bear more than a close resemblance to Alan Breck Stewart and Davie Balfour from Stevenson’s ‘Kidnapped’, but the novel it most reminds me of is ‘The Master of Ballantrae’, in that Aeneas and Ninian are really one character divided, as are the brothers Durie in RLS’s book, and between them they represent all sorts of Scottish concerns. It may be old hat to even allude to ‘two’ distinct Scotlands, yet this idea was positively embraced by Scott, Stevenson and Munro respectively, and many others, and just because we may have heard this theory many times since, we shouldn’t dismiss it wholly.
Music time, and it was tough to get anything which I could relate to the book, no matter how tenuous, but here goes. In Munro’s novel there is a character called Lovat, which means I can play Lyle Lovett covering ‘More Pretty Girls Than One’ here. It may be a stretch, but this is a great track:
One of the reasons Munro fell out of favour is a by now familiar one. His fiction and themes didn’t fit in with the ideas of that arbiter of Scottish Literature, Hugh MacDiarmid. He saw Munro as in thrall to Scotland’s past and MacDiarmid’s desire for Scottish modernism made any romanticising of Scotland’s past anathema to him. Many critics hung on MacDiarmid’s every word, and although ‘The New Road’ was praised by John Buchan, who called it ‘one of the finest romances of our time’ and Francis Russell Hart, amongst others, Munro’s reputation declined as the 20th century progressed. But, just as his contemporaries JM Barrie and Lewis Grassic Gibbon have been revaluated and rediscovered in recent decades, surely Munro deserves the same. We all deserve a bit of romance in our life.
All of these columns can now be found in one place over at Indelible Ink.
The books that we deal with in ‘Indelible Ink’ can be bought from the Dear Scotland shop:
Next Month’s Novel: I have a love/hate relationship with literary categories. On the one hand, they are very useful on giving people an idea of what to expect from a writer or book, on the other, they don’t allow for much subtlety. If they are to be applied, it’s important to pick them apart to do the writer in question justice.
Next month’s novel, ‘The Cry’, by Helen Fitzgerald, is one such book, ill served by calling it Tartan Noir. For one thing, it is set in Australia, for another you could call it a psychological thriller, a horror or a black comedy. In reality, it is all of these things and much more.