Death of Neil Munro
Passing of a Great Novelist
Genius in Journalism
Politics, crime, the economy were all relegated to second place. Over the next few days the News would publish four separate appreciations of Munro from prominent Scottish writers of the day such as R B Cunninghame Graham and J J Bell.
Although Munro was buried in a simple family ceremony at Inveraray, on the same day civic dignitaries, representatives of Glasgow and Edinburgh Universities, the churches, An Comunn Gaidhealach and the press attended a crowded memorial service in Glasgow Cathedral.
Munro’s death was treated as a major event and all the Scottish and British newspapers carried appreciations of his work and accounts of his career. All would probably have agreed with the comment of one writer who observed: “Neil Munro is dead, and a light has gone out in Scotland.” A much-loved author had died and his death seems to have moved the nation in a quite remarkable way.
There was little in Munro’s background or early life to suggest the high place in Scottish literature, or in the national consciousness, that he came to occupy; indeed his birth and childhood could hardly have been more disadvantaged.
Born on 3rd June 1863 in the Argyllshire town of Inveraray, to Ann Munro, an unmarried domestic servant, Neil Munro grew up with the problem of illegitimacy and in very modest circumstances. He never knew who his father was, although local rumour has persistently suggested a member of the family of the Dukes of Argyll.
In the 1871 Census the young Neil was recorded as living with his grandfather, a retired crofter. Ann Munro married the widowed Malcolm Thomson, the Governor of Inveraray Prison, in 1875, but at the 1881 Census Neil was staying with his great aunt Bell MacArthur, a former agricultural worker. This family background, with its roots in the Argyllshire countryside, meant that Munro was brought up bi-lingually. Gaelic culture and the Gaelic spirit informed much of his writing, although he never published any works in that language.
After attending school in Inveraray, Munro about the age of 13 entered the local law office of William Douglas as a junior clerk. This was an odd appointment. Nothing in Munro’s background made a career in the law likely; his fellow clerks were from a more conventional middle-class background – a doctor’s son and a lawyer’s son. The job was in fact wished on Munro. He later wrote he was:
…insinuated, without any regard for my own desires, into a country lawyer’s office, wherefrom I withdrew myself as soon as I arrived at years of discretion and revolt.
Nor was it just any country lawyer’s office. William Douglas was a central part of the Argyllshire establishment: Clerk to the Commissioners of Supply, Clerk to the Lieutenancy of Argyll, and later, Sheriff Clerk and Justice of the Peace Clerk. Perhaps the string-pulling that had landed the bright young Munro such a coveted job was connected with the mystery of his father’s identity.
Munro was an avid reader and worked his way through the contents of the local circulating library and soon was starting to write and submit material to local newspapers. A career in journalism and ambitions to write had more appeal than the dull routine of a lawyer’s office. In May 1881, like so many other bright young people from the Highlands and Islands, he left home to go to Glasgow in search of success. Munro may have been an economic migrant from the Highlands to Glasgow but his heart remained in Inveraray and his first published poem, “The Phantom Smack,” contributed pseudonymously to the Oban Times in 1883, was set in his native area.
Munro spent a couple of years doing office work in Glasgow before getting his first break into full-time journalism. Sadly this first job, on a Greenock paper, did not last, because the paper closed. However by May 1884 he had a post on a Glasgow paper and was well enough established to marry Jessie Adam in 1885. In November of that year the Munros left Glasgow when Neil took a post on the Falkirk Herald. He returned to the Glasgow News in 1887 and when, in 1888, it was taken over by the Glasgow Evening News Munro became Chief Reporter.
Journalism, however, never fully engaged Munro’s attention. He wrote poetry throughout his life and in the early 1890s was writing detective stories and science fiction for English newspapers and magazines. At the same time he was experimenting with short stories on Highland themes set in his native Argyll and submitting these to the Edinburgh-based Blackwood’s Magazine – one of the leading periodicals of the period. Eventually he was successful and by 1896 he had produced enough of these stories for Blackwood to bring out a short-story collection The Lost Pibroch and other sheiling tales. Munro was seen as a significant new talent, writing in a distinctively Highland manner, and achieved a very considerable success with this collection.
However his real break-through came with his first novel John Splendid. After serialisation in Blackwood’s Magazine this was published, to great critical acclaim, in 1898. Set in Inveraray in 1644-45, the period of the wars of Montrose, it is at once an exciting tale of war and adventure and a penetrating look at aspects of Highland character.
Encouraged by the success of The Lost Pibroch and the serialisation of John Splendid Munro took the decision in November 1897 to resign his staff post on the Evening News to concentrate on his literary fiction. Apart from his regular reporting duties he had been a prolific free-lance writer, undertaking such varied enterprises as reporting sermons for The Scottish Pulpit and adapting a pantomime for the Glasgow stage. He would continue to write widely for newspapers and magazines in Scotland and England and contracted with the Evening News to contribute two weekly features. One of these – “Views and Reviews” – became a highly influential literary column, while the other “The Looker-On”, was to be the home for Munro’s best -known writing.
A succession of historical novels set mostly in and around Inveraray and dealing with significant periods of change in the Highlands followed. 1900 saw Gilian the Dreamer appear – a story of a sensitive youth growing up in post-Napoleonic-war Inveraray; Doom Castle – set in Dunderave and Inveraray after the ’45 rising – was published in 1901. In 1902 Children of Tempest saw Munro’s setting change to the Outer Hebrides with a story arising from the Jacobite Loch Arkaig treasure. By this time Munro was seen as the leading Scottish historical novelist of the day and being spoken of as the natural successor to Robert Louis Stevenson.
Neil Munro c.1907
In 1902 he created a character for his “Looker-On” column who would open up a new field for Munro. Erchie MacPherson, a Glasgow waiter and Church Beadle, made his appearance on 10th February 1902 and proved an instant success. Erchie was used by Munro as a light-hearted way of commenting on politics, manners, current events and even international affairs. In 1903 Blackwood approached Munro about publishing a collection of the Erchie stories in book form. However it was felt that issuing these under his own name might be unwise and the pen-name of “Hugh Foulis” was adopted. There was really little mystery about the identity of “Hugh Foulis” – Foulis was the ancestral seat of the chiefs of Clan Munro (the Hugh element came from Munro’s eldest son’s name) and in any case although the “Looker-On” column was unsigned it had been identified as being by Munro on a number of occasions.
Twenty-nine Erchie stories were published as Erchie, My Droll Friend in 1904. Blackwood arranged a massive publicity campaign, so great was their confidence in the book that they printed 107,000 copies and although sales in England were not as great as had been hoped, nearly 50,000 copies were sold in the first year.
Munro continued to write Erchie stories for the next 20 years, although no further collection of them in book form appeared in his life. All the 142 Erchie tales written by Munro for the News appear in a new edition of the stories published by Birlinn Ltd of Edinburgh in 2002.
In 1905 Munro created a new character for his column – Para Handy, Master Mariner. The adventures of Para Handy, Captain Peter Macfarlane, and the crew of the puffer Vital Spark would win for Munro a public profile far greater than that generated by the serious literary works. A collection of Para Handy stories appeared in 1906 with further collections following in 1911 and 1923. They were an instant success in the News and in book form and have continued to delight succeeding generations of readers even though the world they describe has now almost totally vanished. The stories were adapted for BBC television three times between the 1960s and 1990s.
Munro, a shrewd judge of his own work, recognised that one of the obstacles to the complete success of Erchie had been the difficulty of Glasgow dialect. He skilfully moderated the language of Para Handy so that there are few obstacles to the enjoyment and appreciation of these timeless stories of the Vital Spark on her voyages around the Clyde and West Highlands.
Munro’s literary status was underlined in 1908 when he was made an honorary Doctor of Laws by Glasgow University – a significant honour in a period when such degrees were awarded rather more sparingly than they are today. Inveraray also recognised its famous son by granting him the Freedom of the Burgh in 1909.
In 1914 Munro published what is generally recognised to be his masterpiece -The New Road – an exciting tale set in the period between the 1715 and 1745 Jacobite risings. The new military roads being built by General Wade form an integral part of the plot and also serve as a metaphor for the changes that must inevitably come to the Highlands. The hero Æneas and his wily companion Ninian Macgregor Campbell, an intelligence agent for the Duke of Argyll, travel north from Inveraray and the young and impressionable Æneas comes to see beneath the glamour and romance of the old Highlands to some of the darker aspects of Highland life.
The New Road was enthusiastically reviewed – the novelist John Buchan described it as “one of the finest romances written in our time” and described Munro as “beyond question the foremost of living Scottish novelists.”
The outbreak of the First World War in 1914 marked the end of Munro’s real creative career. He returned to full-time work on the News – becoming editor, a post he did not manage to resign until 1924. He also undertook three periods as a war correspondent on the Western Front. His son, Hugh, a medical student at Glasgow University, served as a Territorial Army officer in the Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders and was killed in action in 1915 – a loss from which Munro never fully recovered.
Although Munro kept up a steady output of brilliant journalism and Erchie, Para Handy and his third “Looker-On” character, Jimmy Swan, would continue to appear regularly and delight readers for as long as Munro was associated with the News, there was never to be another novel from his pen. In 1915 he started planning a new historical novel -The Search - featuring Ninian Campbell from The New Road. Set in 1746, after the battle of Culloden, the plot concerns the hunt for the fugitive Charles Edward Stuart. Despite frequent encouragement from his publisher this was never finished and only eleven chapters existed in typescript and manuscript among Munro’s papers at the time of his death. This fragment appears in print for the first time in an anthology of Munro’s writing, That Vital Spark, published by Birlinn in 2002.
Neil Munro was both a remarkably prolific writer and a remarkably successful one. He managed to embrace a wide range of styles – from his early pulp-fiction to accomplished historical novels. He contributed regularly to a wide range of magazines and was an influential literary critic. Neil Munro as novelist and journalist achieved both critical and commercial success – from being a young Glasgow newspaperman living in tenement flats in Glasgow’s New City Road, he had by 1918 settled in a magnificent Regency villa set in 3 acres of ground overlooking the River Clyde in Helensburgh, a house he renamed Cromalt, after a stream in his native Inveraray.
William Power, a significant figure in the renaissance of Scottish writing between the two world wars, wrote that:
“Munro’s unique function…was in transmuting the real spirit of Gaelic into beautiful and expressive English speech; but he was a prince of letters also in Doric Scotland…”
The Lost Pibroch and Erchie may seem to exist in very different worlds, but both are the work of a master craftsman. The distinction between Neil Munro and Hugh Foulis should not blind readers to the merits of both genres.
Munro, celebrated at his death as the heir to Scott and Stevenson, perhaps inevitably suffered a period of critical decline. Many authors suffer this sort of posthumous decline but Munro’s was particularly steep. By the 1980’s all his novels were out of print and only a paperback edition of Para Handy kept his name in print. Eventually Munro’s reputation recovered. Most of the novels and literary short stories have been reprinted, the complete editions of the humorous fiction have proved successful and further volumes of fiction and essays on Munro’s life and work have appeared. The Neil Munro Society, formed in 1996, has attracted an international membership, runs an active programme of events and publishes a twice-yearly magazine, there is even a Neil Munro website www.neilmunro.co.uk
Munro was attacked in his own lifetime by Hugh MacDiarmid (C M Grieve) for not dealing with the great national and Highland issues of the day and escaping to safe historical settings for his fiction - an attack that overlooks the serious critique of Highland life and the perceptive focus on various key moments of change in the Highlands which underpins much of his writing.
The market place has a habit of being the final arbiter and the renewed availability of much, though not yet all, of Munro’s work suggests that he has now won through to a secure place in Scottish literature. In both the literary fiction and in the brilliant journalistic sketches of Para Handy and Erchie he seems set to continue to engage and delight future generations of readers. The Scottish writer J J Bell (the author of Wee Macgreegor) in an obituary article on Munro in February 1931 pulled the various elements of the man together when he wrote:
… he leaves behind him the work and memory of a rarely fine novelist, a real poet, a notable and, above all, happy journalist.
(c) Brian D Osborne