Posts Tagged ‘Neil Munro’

Rest and Be Thankful: intro.

May 8, 2008

Officially it is the A83 Trunk Road. For centuries however travellers have known it as the Rest and Be Thankful and have welcomed the chance to draw their breath and enjoy the view as they crossed the summit at 860 feet on the road that leads from Loch Long to Loch Awe via Glen Croe and past the picturesque Butterbridge into Glen Kinglas. There can be few roads in Scotland so well documented by travellers over the centuries or so affectionately named as the Rest.

 

 

 In the beginning, of course, there wasn’t a road at all.  There was just a track, a path, made by generations of travellers, and beaten out by herds of black cattle being taken by drovers from Argyll to the trysts and cattle markets of the Lowlands.

 

The making of a road, in any sense that we would now recognise it, had to wait until the eighteenth century. Some work was done in the 1730s on roads in Argyll by local government agencies  – the Commissioners of Supply.  However the real impetus for road building came after the 1715 and 1719 Jacobite Risings. General George Wade was sent to Scotland to examine the military situation in the Highlands.  His report made a number of recommendations, including the construction of forts at various points and the development of a network of roads to link these strong points. 

 

In 1743 it was decided to construct 44 miles of military road from Dumbarton to Inveraray, via Loch Lomondside, Tarbet, Arrochar, Glen Croe and thus down to Loch Fyne. Major Caulfeild, Wade’s Inspector of Roads and successor as mastermind of the Highland roads network, was ordered to survey the route and work started that summer – although progress was interrupted by the outbreak of the 1745 Jacobite Rising.

 

 

To read the rest of this article please click here.

Conrad and the Clyde: intro.

May 4, 2008

The Clyde is not the first river one thinks of in connection with Joseph Conrad – the Congo perhaps, or one of the fever-ridden mangrove-swamp streams of the East Indies – but not the Clyde.  Not even the most prejudiced Edinburgh imagination surely can see Glasgow’s river as the “Heart of Darkness”.

But Glasgow and the Clyde had their part in Conrad’s life and work and this connection with the Clyde, its ships and its people, is less well known than it might be.

As a writer of the sea Conrad could hardly fail to depict the Scots who built and manned so many of the world’s ships.  As a mariner trained in sail Conrad had no particular love for the steam engine; as his friend the Glasgow-born artist Muirhead Bone wrote in an obituary appreciation:

 

He had none of a Kiplingesque enthusiasm for material powers – with him it was Man and the Elements, with the apparatus always a bit inadequate.

 

So perhaps, despite the splendidly named Captain MacWhirr in Typhoon (1903), we need not look to closely to Conrad for the archetypal Clyde-trained Scots engineer – otherwise a staple of imaginative writing from Kipling’s McAndrew to StarTrek’s Scotty.

 

 

The rest of this article is filed as a page on this blog. Please click here to read it.

 

Doom Castle

April 24, 2008

Like most of Neil Munro’s fiction Doom Castle, first published in 1901, is set in and around his home town of Inveraray.  The period is 1752 and the Doom Castle of the title is in reality Dunderave Castle on Loch Fyneside, just a few miles from Inveraray.

Dunderave Castle, the “Doom Castle” of the novel

The after effects of the 1745 Jacobite rising are still to be felt and the hero of the book Count Victor de Montaiglon comes to Scotland on a mission of revenge to seek out and kill a mysterious Scot who has been betraying the Jacobite exiles in Paris and turns up at Doom Castle, the seat of a Jacobite sympathiser Baron Lamond. He also finds in the Castle Lamond’s daughter Olivian and his pawky Lowland manservant and general factotum Mungo Boyd.

Doom Castle was warmly received when published – the British Weekly commented that “Since Kidnapped and Catriona there has been no Scottish novel of more unmistakable genius.”  Like most of Munro’s fiction it had gone out of print and I was delighted to be able to write a new introduction to it for its 1996 reprint by B&W Publishing.

Click on the cover below to go to Amazon.co.uk where this book can be ordered.

Neil Munro: intro.

April 11, 2008

The front page lead story in the Glasgow News of 23rd December 1930 was on the death of the Scottish novelist Neil Munro. Its triple-decker headline read:

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.

         

 

For the remainder of this article please click here

 

 

Entertaining Dr Johnson:intro.

April 7, 2008

Bringing a friend home to meet your father can be a fairly stressful occasion, one that is made much worse if your relationship with your father is a difficult one and you just know that your friend and your father aren’t going to get on well.  The potential social embarrassment is made infinitely worse if the father in question is a distinguished Scottish judge with traditional attitudes and strong views and the friend is known for his notoriously anti-Scottish views.

James Boswell

This was the explosive situation that James Boswell, advocate and author, got himself into in 1773 when, at the end of his tour of the Highlands with Dr Samuel Johnson, he and Johnson arrived at his father’s Ayrshire home, Auchinleck House, to stay for six days.  James Boswell’s father, Alexander, who had the title of Lord Auchinleck from his position as a judge of the Court of Session, was sixty-six years old. James, who was now thirty-three, had been in more or less constant conflict with his father since his teenage years – a relationship not helped by Alexander re-marrying after the death of James’s much-loved mother.  Alexander thought that James was too fond of loose living and running off to London and should instead concentrate on his family responsibilities as a recently married husband, and as heir to Auchinleck, and on his career at the Scottish bar.

For the rest of this article please click here

Para Handy

April 3, 2008
Para Handy Scottish icon!
Yes, Para Handy is surely one of the most remarkably resilient comic characters ever created. He first appeared in the columns of the Glasgow Evening News in 1905 and has never been out of print since.
munro-cropped-small.jpg 
Created by the Scottish novelist and journalist Neil Munro the Para Handy stories tell of the adventures of Para Handy,  Captain Peter Macfarlane, and the crew of the puffer Vital Spark.
OK – what’s a puffer?
A small steam lighter mainly used to carry general cargoes around the West of Scotland.
Despite the fact that the puffer has disappeared from our waters (apart from a couple of museum ships) and the world that they inhabited has changed almost beyond recognition, the stories have retained their freshness and humour in a quite remarkable way.
puffer.jpg

A typical puffer.

My co-editor, Ronnie Armstrong, and I were delighted and thrilled to discover 19 original stories, which had previously been unpublished in book form, in the files of the News  and have included these, along with comprehensive notes and introductory material and archive photographs in our Birlinn edition of the Complete Para Handy.

Click on the image below and you will be taken to Amazon.co.uk where you can buy this book.

For more about Neil Munro check out the Neil Munro Society website http://www.neilmunro.co.uk/

John Splendid

April 1, 2008
John Splendid was Neil Munro’s first novel, published in 1898 after serialisation in Blackwood’s Magazine.  Like most of Munro’s fiction it is based in and around his home town of Inveraray in Argyll and is set in the troubled period of the 1640s and the Civil War. War however in Argyll took on much of the character of a clan battle. The Campbell stronghold of Inveraray is burned by the Royalist forces under Montrose, assisted by Alasdair MacDonald or MacColla, who saw the struggle between King and Parliament as an opportunity to strike back at his clan’s traditional rivals the Campbells, represented by Archibald, the 1st Marquis – Gillespeg Gruamach (Archibald the Grim).
As I write in my introduction to the B&W reprint of John Splendid the story starts in 1644 when: “… Colin, heir to the Laird of Elrigmore returns to his native parts after a long absence. Five years of study in Glasgow University had been followed by seven years of campaigning in Germany and the Low Countries as a soldier of fortune campaigning in one of the Scots regiments fighting in the Thirty Years War.” He returns to Argyll where his family were allies to the Campbells and finds himself in another war zone and meets McIver of Barbreck, a distant cousin of the Marquis and the John Splendid of the title.
Munro’s cast of characters reveal the Highlands in all their complexity – John Splendid for all his military prowess is shown to be less than noble, always ready with the answer that the Marquis wants to hear, while the Marquis, fated to be a war-leader of a fighting clan, has all the instincts of a lawyer and a politician. When his town of Inveraray is burned he takes the prudent but unheroic course of sailing away to seek reinforcements.
John Splendid was a bold choice for Munro’s first novel – the same story of Montrose and Argyll had been dealt with by Sir Walter Scott in  A Legend of Montrose – but it is tribute to Munro’s skill that his version is capable of being compared with the Scott novel.

Click on the box below to go to amazon.co.uk where this book can be ordered

For more information about Neil Munro go to the Neil Munro Society website www.neilmunro.co.uk

Patrick MacGill: the “Navvy-Poet”

March 30, 2008

A writer who swiftly transported his Irish working-class hero from the squalor and danger of life as a navvy, building the Blackwater Dam for the Kinlochleven aluminium works, to a scholarly position at the centre of the English ecclesiastical establishment in St George’s Chapel, Windsor might be thought to be in danger of losing credibility. If the young hero also overcame a background of grinding poverty and limited education to become a best selling novelist and poet the writer could perhaps expect quite a lot of rejection slips.

Yet what would be unbelievable fiction was the reality of the life of the ‘Navvy-Poet’, Patrick MacGill, who shot to national fame with the publication of his autobiographical novel, Children of the Dead End, in 1914.

MacGill was born into a poor subsistence farming family in the rural community of Glenties, County Donegal around April 1890. He described his education in Who’s Who as ‘three years at a mountain school.’ When he was twelve, he was put out to add to the family income by doing casual work on local farms. After a couple of years of this he was considered old enough to be sent to the hiring-fair at Strabane, County Tyrone, and spent the next few years working for a variety of masters as a farm labourer. As a teenager he came to Scotland with one of the tattie-howking squads who made the yearly trip from Ireland to harvest potatoes on the farms of lowland Scotland. 

To read the rest of this article please click here

 This article originally appeared in The Scots Magazine in September 2001.

Click the images below to get to amazon.co.uk to buy these books

       

 

Children of the Dead End

March 28, 2008
A number of years ago I was asked by Birlinn to write introductions for reprints they were doing of novels by the Irish writer Patrick MacGill. At first sight this seemed an unlikely project for Birlinn but in fact MacGill’s best works –Children of the Dead End and The Rat-Pit are based on his own experiences as an Irish labourer working in early 20th century Scotland. They are deeply-felt books which take no prisoners in their description of the poverty and degradation of members of an under-class and the social, economic and religious forces which keep them in that condition.
Having a great interest in the works of Neil Munro I was delighted in the course of my researches into MacGill to find a connection between MacGill and Munro.  MacGill was interviewed for the Scottish socialist weekly Forward in June 1914 and told how some years earlier he had sold his first, self-published, collection of poems  “Every night I went round the houses in Greenock district and tried to sell my book…one way and another, I sold about one thousand copies of the book, one of which fell into the hands of Neil Munro, who reviewed it in the Glasgow News.”
This took me to Munro’s column in the News in February 1911 where he wrote: “
At present working as a navvy on a repair gang on the Caledonian Railway between Greenock and Wemyss Bay there is young Irishman who has been a manual labourer since he left school at the age of twelve, and yet has had the time to cultivate no inconsiderable degree of literary taste, and even to write and publish a small volume of his own poetry.”
In a transformation that would not be believed in fiction MacGill in a short time went from being a navvy to working at Windsor Castle as secretary and librarian to one of the Canons of St George’s Chapel.
For more about MacGill’s remarkable career read the introductions to the four novels Birlinn reprinted – Children of the Dead End, The Rat-Pit, The Great Push, and Moleskin Joe.
For an article on MacGill and his work click here.
Click on the image below to be taken to the amazon.co.uk website where you can order Children of the Dead End and the other titles.
For more information on MacGill look at the website of the annual MacGill Summer School in Donegal http://www.patrickmacgill.com/

Exploring New Roads: Essays on Neil Munro

March 27, 2008
This collection of essays on Neil Munro, which I edited together with Ronald Renton, breaks new ground in bringing scholarly attention to the works of a neglected though significant figure on the Scottish literary scene. Munro (1863-1930) was a major historical novelist, a poet, a journalist, short story writer, critic and the author of humorous short fiction such as Para Handy. All these aspects of his work, together with essays on his life, environment and career, are included in this volume.

Click on the image below to get to the amazon.co.uk website where this book can be ordered.

For more information on Neil Munro go to the Neil Munro Society website www.neilmunro.co.uk