Born 1891 Died 1973
Neil Miller Gunn was born on the 8th November 1891 at Dunbeath in Caithness, the seventh of the nine children of James Gunn a local fishing boat skipper, and his second wife, Isabella Miller. Neil was initially educated at the local Dunbeath Primary School and then went to live with his older sister Mary and her husband at St John's Town of Dalry in Kirkcudbrightshire. There he received private tuition in Latin and French and was coached for the Civil Service entrance exam which he sat in Edinburgh during the spring of 1907.
Having passed the entrance exam he joined the Post Office Savings Bank and moved to London where he began work as a clerk at their Shepherd's Bush branch. He remained there until 1909 when he transferred to Edinburgh where and worked for a further two years as a clerk at a tax office. On the 21st December 1911 when he became a Customs and Excise officer based at Inverness, he spent his time travelling throughout the Highlands interviewing pension claimants. During World War I he was relocated to Kinlochleven in Argyll, where he was required to assist the Admiralty in advising local shipping in evade minefields. As a government employee engaged in war work there was no pressure on him to enlist in the services, while his mother was also reluctant for him to go to war (three of his brothers were to die whilst in service during the war) and although he finally enlisted in 1918, this was only a few days before the armistice was signed.
It was after the war by 1920 he had he met Jessie Dallas Frew or Daisy as he called her, who worked at her father's shop in Dingwall. Gunn relocated to Lancashire in 1921 and married Daisy at Wigan register office on the 24th March 1921, but in the following year was posted back to Lybster in Caithness. In 1923 he became the distillery officer at the Glen Mhor distillery inInverness, where he remained for the next fourteen years.
Having begun to to write poetry and short fiction from an early age, Gunn gained his first publication in a London based magazine The Apple-Tree in May 1918. He soon found his work being championed by C. M. Grieve (otherwise known as Hugh MacDiarmid), who saw him as part of the 'Scottish Renaissance' and published Neil's work in the Scottish Nation and Northern Review. It was however the Scots Magazine that became Gunn's most consistent publisher of his early work, taking short stories, one-act plays, and serializing two of his novels.
Gunn's first novel, The Grey Coast, was published by Jonathan Cape in 1926 but failed to impress and they were not interested in publishing any more of his work. He then approached a small Edinburgh based independent publisher called Porpoise Press, which published a collection of short stories Hidden Doors in 1929, followed by his second novel Morning Tide in 1931. By this time the Porpoise Press had allied themselves with Faber and Faber which ensured that his next two novels received wider distribution. But it was the Highland River in 1937, which has been described "as a substantial contribution to later modernism" and won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize which established his reputation. Its success enabled him to resign from the Customs and Excise and buy a boat which he sailed round the Hebrides, providing the material for his next book Off in a Boat which appeared in 1938.
By this time the Porpoise Press had folded, but fortunately for Gunn he was taken on by Faber and Faber, who published both The Silver Darlings (1941) and Young Art and Old Hector (1942), but despite a sometimes positive critical reception, his later work grew more philosophical and allegorical, being received at the time with bemusement by the public. His last book was The Atom of Delight an autobiographical essay which featured a of comparison between the Western and Eastern ideas of self. Published in 1956 no one knew what to make of it at the time and it was widely ignored. It was later rediscovered and republished during the 1980s when it was compared to Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.
During his life Gunn was also politicaly active and joined the National Party of Scotland in 1929, and helped negotiate the merger of the National Party with the more right-wing Scottish Party, forming the Scottish National Party in 1934. He later worked on the Hospital Committee in Scotland, whose 1943 report influenced the formation of the National Health Service, and also on the commission of inquiry into crofting conditions, which led to the establishment of the Crofters' Commission.
Gunn died of cancer on the 15th January 1973 at the Royal Infirmary in Inverness, and was buried at Dingwall cemetery next to his wife Daisy who had died in 1963. He left no children.
Neil M. Gunn 1891-1973
Gunn, Neil Miller 1891-1973 Author
Richard Price, ‘Gunn, Neil Miller (1891–1973)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, Sept 2004; online edn, Oct 2006