Search just our sites by using our customised search engine
Unique Cottages | Electric Scotland's Classified Directory

Click here to get a Printer Friendly PageSmiley

Significant Scots
Munro, Neil

Neil Munro (1863-1930)

Neil Munro was born in the little town of Inveraray near the head of Loch Fyne in Argyll, an area of exceptional beauty which was to influence him all his life. He was born to Ann Munro, a kitchen maid, perhaps at Inveraray Castle, in the building known as Crombie's Land on 3rd June 1863. Soon after, Neil and his mother moved in with his grandmother Anne McArthur Munro who lived in a one-roomed house in McVicar's Land (now known as Arkland II). His grandmother hailed from Bailemeanoch on Loch Aweside and she brought up Neil's mother in Glen Aray in the landward part of Inveraray parish on a farm called Ladyfield. Both were native speakers of Gaelic and it is from them that the young Neil received his knowledge of the old language and culture. Indeed, he spent much of his childhood in Glen Aray and it was to become the setting for many of the tales in his The Lost Pibroch and Other Sheiling Stories. It seems likely also that Neil lived for some of his life in accommodation in Inveraray Jail. His mother appears to have been employed there and in 1875 she married Malcolm Thomson, the governor, after he had retired.

Although he was to go on to be one of the outstanding literary figures of his day, Neil Munro did not attend university. He was educated at the parish school in Inveraray under the tutelage of the scholarly Henry Dunn Smith with some periods spent at the little school in Glen Aray where the teacher John McArthur taught the Bible in Gaelic. When he left school in 1877 he gained appointment as a clerk in the office of William Douglas, a local lawyer who was to become the model for Dan Dyce in the novel The Daft Days (1907). Whilst working there he learned what Latin he knew from Traynor's Maxims and also taught himself shorthand. Even at this stage he seems to have been preparing himself for a career in journalism. As for so many young Gaels in these days, however, good careers were hard to come by in the Highlands and on the 1st June 1881, two days before his eighteenth birthday, he emigrated to Glasgow in search of better prospects but never forgot Inveraray or Argyle - they were to feed his imagination for the rest of his life.

After a brief spell as cashier in a firm of ironmongers he soon moved into journalism to become successively reporter on The Greenock Advertiser, The Glasgow News, the Falkirk Herald, and finally the Glasgow Evening News where he was made chief reporter under editor James Murray Smith at the age of only 23. In the meantime he had married Jessie Adam, the daughter of his landlady in North Woodside Road.

In addition to the journalistic writing he tried his hand at a thriller and also sent humorous sketches to the London paper The Globe, but he was to make his first real mark on the literary scene in 1896 with the publication of his completely innovative collection The Lost Pibroch and Other Sheiling Stories. These were soon followed after a serialisation in Blackwood's Magazine by the publication in book form of his first novel John Splendid (1898) - which could be argued to be the first truly authentic Highland novel. Like most of Munro's novels it is set in a period of major social change. It deals with the sack of Inveraray by Montrose and his subsequent victory at the battle of Inverlochy in 1645. It also explores the Highland character under stress, particularly in the persons of Gillesbeg Gruamach, the Marquis of Argyll, who is anxious to move on from clan warfare to the more peaceful ways of commerce and the rule of law, and his clansman Iain Alainn, John Splendid himself, a swaggering miles gloriosus figure whose loyalty permits him to humour his chief and yield to his whims until, finally convinced of his cowardice, he rebels.

After John Splendid had been accepted for serialisation in 1897, Munro reduced his journalism to the part-time commitment of two weekly columns to the Glasgow Evening News called "The Looker On" and "Views and Reviews". This was to allow him to concentrate on his literary work and in 1899 the novel Gilian the Dreamer was published. Again set in Inveraray at a time of social change - the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars - the story tells of a young boy, Gilian, who has creative gifts which in an earlier Highland society might have been nurtured to enable him to become a bard, but the old Gaelic tradition has been broken and Gilian's gifts merely manifest themselves in excessive sensibility and self-indulgent dreaming which impede his maturity and his ability to act effectively. He had affinities with Tommy Sandys in J. M. Barrie's Sentimental Tommy (1896) and his failure to grow up properly also makes him a kind of Highland Peter Pan.

His next three novels were all to be loosely connected with the aftermath of the Jacobite Rising of 1745. Doom Castle (1901) takes its inspiration from Dundarave Castle on the shores of Loch Fyne. On one level it is a Gothic tale of intrigue and romance, but at a deeper level it shows the hopelessness of the Jacobite cause in the face of the new Hanoverian order - a hopelessness symbolised by the decaying castle of the Baron of Doom compared with the fine Enlightenment castle of the Duke of Argyll in Inveraray. The Shoes of Fortune (1901), unusually for Munro, has its setting in Lowland Scotland and in France. It deals with the death throes of the Jacobite movement as it makes a final bid to join the French in an invasion of Britain. The hero, Paul Greig, having seen the antics of the dissolute and broken Prince Charles Edward, renounces his jacobitism and warns Pitt, thus preventing the invasion. The final novel of this period, Children of Tempest (1903) is only loosely connected with the '45 Rising. It is set on South Uist and deals with the Loch Arkaig treasure, French money which had been intended to support the Rising but had mysteriously been moved to a cave on the island of Mingulay. This becomes an object of greed and leads to the kidnapping of the heroine and the death of the villain and his incubus in a dramatic scene on the cliffs of Mingulay.

At this point in his writing career Neil Munro clearly felt that he had carried the theme of historical romance far enough and the next novels mark a major change of direction. Before we deal with them, however, it should be observed that one character from Children of Tempest obviously provided a special source of enjoyment for him. This was Captain Dan MacNeil, the skipper of the "Happy Return", and he could well be the prototype of that other master mariner who was to make Munro a household name for generations to come - Para Handy. The first of the hilarious Para Handy stories was published in 1905 in the "Looker On" column of the Glasgow Evening News and Munro continued writing these for most of his working life. He published them in three book collections: The Vital Spark (1906), In Highland Harbours (1911), and Hurricane Jack of the Vital Spark (1923). "The Looker On" had earlier also been the original place of publication for the humorous sketches about Erchie MacPherson, the beadle and waiter who had comments on everything from prohibition to The Glasgow girls (artists), and which were published in book form under the title Erchie, My Droll Friend in 1904. This column was also to host the sketches of the big hearted commercial traveller, Jimmy Swan, the first of which appeared in 1911. These were produced in book form in 1917 under the title Jimmy Swan, The Joy Traveller. All of these humorous tales appeared under the name of Hugh Foulis, the author keeping his own name for what he considered to be his more literary creations. He did not, however, use all of these stories for the book editions published in his lifetime and it is only with very recent editions of Para Handy (Birlinn, Edinburgh, 1992) and Erchie & Jimmy Swan (Birlinn, Edinburgh, 1993), excellently researched by Brian Osborne and Ronald Armstrong, that we have come to appreciate fully just how many of these he wrote for "The Looker On" column. This is especially true of the Erchie stories, most of which were not written until after Munro's own 1904 edition.

In 1907 The Clyde, River and Firth, a beautiful travelogue with painted illustrations by Mary Y. and J. Young Hunter, appeared, as did his next novel The Daft Days. As noted above, Munro had decided to move away from historical romance and so this latest novel deals with the contemporary scene. It has all the superficial appearance of a Kailyard novel and yet is a subtle subversion of that genre. It is the story of a little American girl, Bud, who has lost her parents and comes to stay with her relatives in a small Scottish town (clearly based on Inveraray). She progresses, thanks to her enlightened but only semi-liberated Aunt Ailie, to become a Shakespearean actress in London's West End - in spite of the negativity of the Scottish education system and the background of social and religious attitudes which regarded the theatre as unsuitable and rather sinful. It is especially interesting because it confronts the problem of the female creative artist in a society whose mores inhibit the expression of her talent. By now his literary reputation was quite secure and in 1908 he was honoured with an LLD from the University of Glasgow. This was followed the next year with the award of the Freedom of Inveraray.

In 1910 he published Fancy Farm, at once his least successful novel and yet in some ways his most ambitious and one on which he is known to have exercised much time and care. It is very much a novel of ideas and is a satire on the political philosophy of its hero, the Laird of Schawfield, who appears to be at one with nature and attempts to run his estate on egalitarian lines - only to find that a young lady of whom he thinks he is enamoured can run it better. The plot, however, is confusing at times. Much more successful was the short story collection Ayrshire Idylls which appeard in 1912. These sketches were published by A. & C. Black and illustrated with the drawings and watercolour landscape paintings of George Houston. The sketches here show Munro very much at home in a Lowland Ayrshire setting and among other interesting items contain four stories which reconstruct incidents from the life of Burns and two which effectively depict Covenanting tales.

Neil Munro's most accomplished novel, however, and also his last, was The New Road (1914) where, not surprisingly after the disappointment of Fancy Farm, we find him returning to the historical genre. This is the story of the young Aeneas MacMaster's quest for knowledge about the mysterious death of his Jacobite father, Paul. We are kept in suspense until the last page before the mystery is fully unfoldefd and we learn all the treachery and double-dealing of Sandy Duncanson, the factor who had murdered Paul and made himself owner of Aeneas' rightful inheritance. But it is much more than an eighteenth century whodunnit. Like Walter Scott's Waverley this novel deals with the gradual disillusionment of the hero with the romantic glamour of the Highlands. He is made to see through the romantic reputation of Highland chiefs like Barisdale and Lovat and gets to know them for the scoundrels that they are. Like his merchant uncle, he comes to believe that only by trade and commerce will the

Highlands ultimately be civilised and the means of achieving this will be the New Road which Wade is building between Stirling and Inverness. This road becomes a symbol of a more civilised and prosperous way of life for the Highlands, but, at the same time, things will be utterly changed by it and it will mean the loss of the whole ancient Gaelic way of life. This is a powerful novel about the forces which shape the destinies of individuals. It is great historical fiction!

With the outbreak of the First World War, Neil Munro returned to full time journalism. He also visited the Front on four occasions as a war correspondent, but the most traumatic event of the war for him was the loss of his son Hugh at Loos in 1915. The loss coupled with the pressure of work on the paper - he became editor of the Glasgow Evening News in 1918 on the retiral of James Murray Smith - seemed to inhibit any more large scale literary production. He did, however, publish the urbane and witty short story collection Jaunty Jock and Other Stories in 1918, although many of these would have been written before the War. The typescript of the first ten chapters of a novel with the working title The Search also survives. It is a sequel to The New Road and is set just after Culloden. It is a stirring opening and it would be interesting to know why the story was never completed.

Journalist, critic, and novelist, he was also a poet. In 1931, after his death, John Buchan edited a collection of his poetry for Blackwood. These poems had appeared throughout his life in magazines, newspapers, and as parts of his novels. There are some fine pieces among them, especially "The Only Son" which is a thinly disguised lament for his son Hugh. They do not, however, have the quality of his prose. Indeed, Buchan comments: "His prose seems to me more strictly poetic than his verse."

In 1927 Neil Munro's health was failing. He retired from the Glasgow Evening News reluctantly, for he enjoyed his work and the camaraderie of his colleagues. Indeed, he was without doubt the most affable and kindest of men. But even in retirement he continued to work. His last book was a History of the Royal Bank of Scotland (1928) and he continued to write articles, "Random Reminiscences", under the soubriquet Mr Incognito for the Daily Record and Mail. In October 1930, he was honoured with a second LLD, this time by the University of Edinburgh, but sadly at the ceremony he was in obvious ill health. He died a few months later on 22nd December at his home, "Cromalt" in Craigendoran, Helensburgh. He was survived by his wife, Jessie, one son, and four daughters.

In 1935 An Comunn Gaidhealach erected a monument to him at the head of Glen Aray. The decoration at the top of the simple column is in the shape of a Celtic book shrine and on it is the Gaelic inscription "Sar Litreachas" - "Excellent Literature". Among those present at the ceremony were many friends and admirers including Sir Harry Lauder. In his address, the writer R. B. Cunninghame Graham praised Neil Munro as "the apostolic successor of Sir Walter Scott". A fitting tribute!

Biographical Synopsis by Ronnie Renton, 1999.


1896 The Lost Pibroch and Other Sheiling Stories
1898 John Splendid
1899 Gilian the Dreamer
1901 Doom Castle
1901 The Shoes of Fortune
1903 Children of the Tempest
1904 Erchie, My Droll Friend
1906 The Vital Spark
1907 The Daft Days
1907 The Clyde, River and Firth
1910 Fancy Farm
1911 In Highland Harbours
1912 Ayrshire Idylls
1914 The New Road
1917 Jimmy Swan, The Joy Traveller
1918 Jaunty Jock and Other Stories
1923 Hurricane Jack of the Vital Spark
1928 History of the Royal Bank of Scotland
1931 Poems

Neil Munro Society

Return to our Significant Scots page


This comment system requires you to be logged in through either a Disqus account or an account you already have with Google, Twitter, Facebook or Yahoo. In the event you don't have an account with any of these companies then you can create an account with Disqus. All comments are moderated so they won't display until the moderator has approved your comment.

comments powered by Disqus