Neil Miller Gunn lived from 8 November 1891 to 15 January 1973. He was was a prolific novelist, critic and dramatist who emerged as one of the leading lights of the "Scottish Renaissance" of the 1920s and 1930s. He is rated, alongside Lewis Grassic Gibbon, as one of the two most important Scottish authors in the first half of the 20th Century. The wider picture in Scotland at the time is set out in our Historical Timeline.
Neil Gunn was born in the village of Dunbeath, on the east coast of Caithness. His father was the captain of a herring-boat, and his mother was a domestic servant. Neil was the seventh of their nine children. In 1904 he went to live with his older sister and her husband in St John's Town of Dalry in south-west Scotland, and there he studied for his Civil Service exams, which he passed in 1907. He then moved to London, becoming exposed for the first time to city life and to a much broader range of political and philosophical thinking.
In 1910 Gunn was posted back to northern Scotland as a Customs and Excise Officer, undertaking a variety of roles during the First World War. Soon afterwards he took a post as the permanent excise officer in residence at the Glen Mhor Distillery on the west side of Inverness. In 1921 he married Jessie Dallas Frew (or "Daisy"), the daughter of an Inverness jeweller, and they lived together near the distillery.
During the 1920s, Gunn started to publish short stories, and in 1926 his first novel was published. At around the same time he started to become increasingly involved in politics, developing strong beliefs in both the National Party of Scotland (the forerunner of the Scottish National Party) and in socialism: against the wider political background of the 1930s this was a difficult balance to strike.
Neil Gunn first came to real prominence as a writer following the publication of Highland River in 1937. This allowed him to resign his post with the Customs and Excise and focus wholly on his writing. Neil and Daisy moved to a rented farmhouse near Strathpeffer and he embarked on his most productive phase as an author.
Gunn's involvement in local politics led to his serving as a member of the Committee on Post-War Hospitals in 1941, and the Commission of Inquiry into Crofting Conditions in 1951: but it is for his writing that he is principally remembered. His early novels The Grey Coast (1926) and The Lost Glen (1928) take a pessimistic view of economic problems in the Highlands, but by the time these were followed by Morning Tide (1931) and Highland River (1937) he was taking a more upbeat view, drawing closely on his childhood in Dunbeath.
Neil Gunn also wrote historical novels, setting Sun Circle (1930) in Viking times; Butcher's Broom (1934) during the Highland Clearances; and The Silver Darlings (1941) at the height of the herring boom of the 1800s. Gunn also published the non-fiction book Whisky and Scotland (1935). Later in life he began to take in interest in Zen Buddhism, something he talked about in his autobiographical work The Atom of Delight, published in 1956. As a result he is sometimes referred to as The Highland Zen Master.
In all, Neil Gunn wrote 22 novels and four other books. He died, aged 81, on 15 January 1973. He always regretted never learning Gaelic: but the fact that he wrote in English rather than Gaelic or Scots probably allowed his books to find a much wider audience than might otherwise be the case. His memory is kept alive in Dunbeath through the displays about his relationship with the local landscape in the excellent Dunbeath Heritage Centre; and in the nearby Clan Gunn Heritage Centre & Museum.