‘Neil Gunn Circle: Nation and Nationalism’ edited by Alistair McCleery

Nation and Nationalism is the inaugural issue of the Neil Gunn Circle series by Whittles Publishing, a venture that proposes to introduce Gunn’s life and writings to a new generation of readers, while at the same time providing a bridge between academic criticism and a wider public interest. The choice of ‘Circle’ in the title of the series is not only an appropriate symbol for the coming together of far-flung readers and supporters, but resonates with the themes of wholeness and the cyclical nature of life that recur in Gunn’s thinking and in his fiction. The preoccupation with politics in this first issue is especially relevant to our concerns in Scotland’s Independence Referendum year, concerns shared by Gunn and his colleagues in the interwar Scottish Renaissance movement almost one hundred years ago.

Alistair McCleery provides a splendidly informative introduction to Gunn’s early twentieth-century context, showing not only how Gunn’s own anger and despair at the decline he found as a young Excise Officer in the Highlands led him to explore the condition of his country in fiction and essays, but also how he came together with like-minded colleagues in literature and politics to work for a ‘renaissance’ in Scottish culture and everyday life. McCleery is particularly good at showing how these new ventures and groups of activists collaborated to attempt to effect change in Scotland, while at the same time taking influences from and forging links with the world beyond. Gunn’s first novel, The Grey Coast (1926) was published by Porpoise Press, itself newly established by two university students in 1922, and was described by MacDiarmid as ‘something new, and big, in Scottish literature’.

An important example of international connections was the formation of Scottish PEN in 1927, with MacDiarmid as its first Secretary, followed by the poet and civil servant Helen Cruickshank in 1928. McCleery tells how Cruickshank’s house ‘Dinnieduff’ in the Corstorphine district of Edinburgh became a centre of Scottish Renaissance activities and an overnight base for expatriates such as Edwin and Willa Muir. In 1934 Cruickshank was responsible for the organisation of the Twelfth International Congress of PEN, held in Edinburgh, with delegates coming from ‘every country in Europe, except Russia and Turkey; from the United States, Canada, Latin America, Ireland, South Africa, Australia. New Zealand, and China’. H.G. Wells gave the Presidential opening address, and Edwin Muir, the first English-language translator, with his wife Willa, of the fiction of Franz Kafka, ‘chaired a debate on assistance for exiled German writers, during which Marinetti, the Italian Futurist poet, “explaining the Fascist position”, spoke for forty-five minutes on the necessity of excluding politics from PEN’. Although McCleery does not refer to Gunn in this context (apart from the comment that he presided over a ‘short diversion’ of the Congress to Inverness), it is probable that such a commitment to the belief that politics should be excluded from PEN lay behind Gunn’s much criticised decision to allow his own fiction to be translated into German in the late 1930s. ‘If I honestly feel that there is something of our common humanity in Butcher’s Broom, should I not want Germans and other peoples to read it as well as my own people?’, he wrote to James Barke in 1938.

In complement to McCleery’s contextual discussion of Gunn’s involvement with the wider interwar literary revival, Dairmid Gunn, Neil’s nephew and co-executor of the Gunn Literary Estate, writes of Gunn’s early years in Inverness after his appointment as Excise Officer to the Glen Mhor Distillery in 1921. Just as Helen Cruickshank’s home was later to become a meeting place for writers and PEN members, Gunn’s house ‘Larachan’ became a centre for cultural and political discussion in the north, leading to his involvement with the formation of the National Party of Scotland in 1928 and of the Scottish National Party in 1932. The contribution by the late Neil MaCormick (first published in Chapman magazine in 1991/92) expands on Gunn’s political activities through his own boyhood and student memories: as a nine-year-old sitting ‘half hidden at the edge of the circle’ at a gathering in his parents’ house, listening and watching as the talk went on late into the night, with Gunn ‘quite the most striking person in the room’; and later, in response to some ‘begging’ for the student magazine Ossian, the receipt of a ‘characteristically allusive piece about the reseeding of common grazings in the Outer Hebrides, with an obvious but not overdone symbolism about a still-to-be-hoped-for revitalisation of our rural (and maybe also urban) communities’.

Michael Russell and Ewen Cameron both bring Gunn’s relevance into the present time through their comments on literature, education, and politics. Cameron tells of his schoolboy ignorance of and indifference to Gunn’s The Silver Darlings when the book was introduced by an enterprising teacher in his Inverness school as a Higher English text; and his returning to it for help as an undergraduate student conscious of his ignorance of Scotland’s history. This absence of satisfactory educational coverage of Scotland’s literary and wider cultural history, including political history, is also a principal theme of Michael Russell’s wide-ranging essay which moves from Gunn’s informative friendship with the Irish novelist Maurice Walsh, through the literary and political arguments of the interwar Scottish Renaissance writers, to the present day where a new generation of writers from the later twentieth century onwards have interrogated their history through their literary work. Russell quotes the novelist Robin Jenkins who wrote that ‘a country that does not take itself seriously does not deserve to be taken seriously by any other country’—and that seriousness is particularly applicable to the kind of education system we offer our children.

Nation and Nationalism is a small book with a wide reach. The interest of its several chapters on Gunn and his context are complemented by Christopher Stokoe’s useful bibliography of Gunn’s political writings and by two short essays by Gunn himself: ‘Why are Writers Nationalists?’ of 1940, which stresses the importance of self-determination and awareness of one’s history and traditions (not to be confused with inward-looking nationalistic fervour); and the ironic ‘Salute to a Miracle’ which points allusively to the need for belief in the future through the tale of an old Highlander whose suspicion of the new postwar Hydo-Electric system is confounded by an astonishing increase in the salmon catch. Gunn’s insistence on ‘belief in ourselves’ is still a relevant ambition for Scotland today.

Neil Gunn Circle: Nation and Nationalism edited by Alistair McCleery is published by Whittles Publishing, 2013.

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