Whose history, which novel?: Neil M. Gunn and the Gaelic
(originally published in Scottish Literary Journal, 24.2 (1997): pp. 85–102)
I Scott-land and Historical
This is History, and history like life is born in
pain and not in sweet imaginings!
-- Neil Gunn, letter to James
Leslie Mitchell ('Lewis Grassic Gibbon'), 11.11.35.
The reputation of Neil M. Gunn, one
of the major novelists of Scotland's interwar Modern Literary Renaissance,
rests on the exquisite combination of the themes and qualities of his prose.
Broadly, his work has been praised for its affirmation of humankind's mythic
sense of itself at work and at play, for its prose-sensuality, for its uncanny
characteristation of boyhood experience, and for its engagement with
philosophical and spiritual ideas. It is a measure of the richness of Gunn's
novels that these are present together in many of his books, and his history
novels are no exception.
In a sense, it could be said that
Gunn's first novel was a work of 'historical fiction'. The period of The
Grey Coast (1926) is the turn of the century, and it uses the economic
decline on the Scottish north-eastern seaboard as a backdrop for what is
essentially a love story. His next two novels, Morning Tide (1931) and The
Lost Glen (1932) are also set within the severe economic conditions of the recent
past, and on the northern edge of the area known broadly as 'The Highlands'.
None would normally be described as a 'historical novel'. Most definitions of
historical fiction require that the novel recreate events from some time before
the author's date of birth. Yet, in the fascination these early novels display
with a way of life which, so much had it dwindled since Gunn's infancy, might
as well have been a hundred years ago, these books do illustrate historical
fiction's essential interest in the past's otherness. They explore why the
close past seems distant from now, and how it is yet still bound to it.
Gunn's fourth and fifth novels, Sun Circle (1933)
and Butcher's Broom (1934) are more obviously historical fiction. The
first is based in early medieval Scotland, the latter in the first quarter of
the nineteenth century. From these and slightly later work, it is clear that
Gunn had begun to dwell on ideas about history perhaps only implicit in his
first novels. He was, though, by no means the only novelist of the Modern
Literary Renaissance interested in historical fiction. Mitchison's The Corn
King and the Spring Queen (1931) and Mitchell's Spartacus (1933),
for example, all travel beyond Scotland to make their 'histories', while
Linklater's The Men of Ness (1932), Ian Macpherson's Land of our
Fathers (1933), and two historical novels that run up to date, Grassic
Gibbon's Scots Quair trilogy of the mid thirties and Barke's The Land
o' the Leal (1938) show an interest in specifically Scottish history. As
serious historical novels these represent a trend perhaps initiated by Buchan's
novel of the Covenanters, Witch Wood (1927), or, further back, Munro's
post-1715 novel The New Road (1914) and Violet Jacob's undeceived portrait
of the '45, Flemington (1911).
Gunn's history-making can be seen as exemplifying the
general dissatisfaction of his contemporaries with established ideas of
Scottish history in particular, and with established ideas of history in
general. Nascent nationalism and a general scepticism towards the 'grand
narrative' of history represented by the cataclysm of the First World War may
be underlying causes of this interest, but Cairns Craig's suggestion that
Scottish fiction inherited from the Enlightenment a profound and enduring
distrust of history in itself is helpful in locating Gunn within a much
longer 'tradition'.  That tradition asks: Is what we
understand as the 'novel form' itself prejudiced by a particular view of cause
and effect, as historical narrative seems to be? Another Scottish philosophical
school, that of Common Sense, might say, 'Get real! You can't make sense of
anything without making a story about it, without joining the dots.' Ever the
synthesis-maker, however, Gunn was interested not only in how those dots were
connected but what dots were chosen in the first place: how established
expectations of both history and the novel unjustly excluded certain subjects
while favouring others.
To the self-conscious Scottish novelist, there was one
further complication. If the historical novel is an unsatisficatory genre,
Scots have noone but themselves to blame: it is a Scottish invention. Or,
rather, it is a product of the twin crises of England's relationships with
Ireland and Scotland. First of all, Maria Edgeworth's Castle Rackrent,
written in the last decade of the eighteenth century, described the `big house'
rural life of County Longford before the establishment of the Irish Parliament
and then the Union. Then Walter Scott, citing Edgeworth as an inspiration, more
than consolidated her breakthrough, making the Jacobite rebellion of 1745 the
hub of Waverley (1814). Wildly popular in Britain and
abroad, Waverley and Scott's later novels established a way of
fictionalising history that, though mutated in other writers' hands, to a large
extent retained its characteristics for a century or more. This was despite
John Galt's early 'informationist' approach to the genre, Annals of the
Parish (1821), which used the survey-form of Scotland's Statistical
Account to circumvent some of the conventional demands of plot.
Politically speaking, Scott's Scottish historical novels, Waverley and The Heart
of Mid-Lothian especially, did one more thing that no Scottish intellectual
could miss: they attempted to soothe nationalist hurt over the Union while
trumpeting the new united kingdom as a place of peaceful and prosperous
progress. One of the ways this was achieved was in portraying Highlanders as
barbaric, irrational, and, paradoxically, bound by bizarre codes of honour; to
then identify the 'old Scotland' with the Highlanders allowed Scott to consign
both Scotland and the Highlands to the irretrievable past. That he chose
unrepresentative examples of 'Highland life' to do this, filtered at his own
admission through memories of childhood and youth, has had sorry ramifications.
James B. Caird, for example, notes that Scott's settings are mostly on the very
edges of the Highlands, a peripherality that fulfills Scott's pan-Scottish end
of representing diverse Scottish cultures living in contact with each other,
though it pays the price of a superficial portrayal of Highland experience. Caird also describes the 'element
of pasteboard' in most of Scott's major Highland characters. Gunn, too, saw Scott's
legacy as less than helpful: as something with 'a
magniloquence about it all, a lack of reality, of exact description, that
flatters our vague emotions at the expense of our sight and insight.'
For all these reasons, Gunn was on familiar ground when he
began writing historical fiction. He was not only continuing a fictive
tradition originating on the 'Celtic' periphery, he was taking up again the
political raison d'etre of historical fiction: to cope, in imaginative
terms, with 'Celtic' problems. Scott's creative achievement, his huge influence
in Europe, and his willed vision of a benign Union, meant that Gunn had to
recognise Scott's importance at the same time as seeing, as he did see, the
deleterious effect Scott's image-making had had on the 'creation' of the
Highlands as a symbolic landscape. Reviewing Edwin Muir's Scott and Scotland
(1936), Gunn suggested that Scott used Scottish history not to inform the
present but to anaesthetise the past, to select historical fragments that were
used sentimentally as if they were taking account of Scottish
sensitivities towards the Union, while in fact making his narratives have
'interpretive bearing neither upon a present nor a future'. Forty years later, Tom Nairn would
articulate the same analysis:
For Scott, the purpose of his unmatched evocation of
a national past is never to revive it: that is, never to resusciate it as part
of political or social mobilization in the present, by a mythical emphasis upon
continuity between (heroic) past and present. On the contrary: his essential
point is always that the past really is gone, beyond recall.
But Scott's Scotland was not only a land of the past, it
was the land of the inevitable past Scotland had always been
'doomed to failure', and Scots would only prosper under the better leadership
skills of the English. As Murray Pittock argues:
Scott's view of Scotland emphasizes the beneficial
necessity of change. In doing so, it promotes two ideas: the inadequacy of
Scottish patriotism in coping with historical change, and the incompetence of
Scots in ruling themselves (due to their historic divisions).
This is a nuance not noted by Georg Lukacs in his landmark
study The Historical Novel, where he describes Scott's 'most important
theme' as the 'portrayal of the tragic downfall of pre-capitalist societies.' For Gunn, however, the 'tragic
downfall of pre-capitalist societies' was not the price paid for peace and
mercantile advancement, it was an unnecessary sacrifice that resulted in
practical disenfranchisement and wildly uneven development. Gunn's historical
fiction addressed Scottish history by presuming Scotland's independence was
beneficial to Scots, and would be again. This was partisan, but it was no less
partisan than Scott. And of course there was more at stake than 'just' Scotland: Gunn's corrective to Scott's fictional representation of history is not only a
literary counterattack fought on a Scottish battlefield, it is a substantial
critique of the rationalist myth of Progress.
That critique required a different approach, for a start,
to characterisation. Commentators credit Scott with the depiction of strong
characters from all social classes, suggesting that he had an inclusive
worldview, that he saw history as not the work of kings and queens alone but of
people from all walks of life. In Scott, Lukacs writes, '"below" is
seen as the material basis and artistic explanation for what happens
"above"'. Scott achieves this by choosing as
his central characters figures who are to some extent at home in the lower and
higher echelons as well as among the opposing factions of society, the prime
case being Waverley who is respected by servant and aristocrat, and by both
sides of the Jacobite conflict. Gunn, an unaligned socialist, could follow the
model of the median character only so far. He experimented in Sun Circle with
the protagonist Aniel, a student priest in a pagan cult. In holding the office he does Aniel
can remain aloof from all levels of his society while remaining in contact with
them. One of the dissatisfactions of the novel, however, is that that aloofness
seems close to voyeurism and psychological instability; for a radical novel
there is too much fascination, too, with leadership. Gunn would start afresh in
Butcher's Broom, choosing to focus, instead, on a figure anomolously
outside the class structure of urban, classical Marxism: the peasant Elie.
II. The Gaelic Idea and Butcher's
The opening pages of Sun Circle, 'The Outline',
constitute a literal overview of Scotland. The narrator begins with the Orkneys
and moves his godlike eye anti-clockwise to describe the Western Isles, Iona,
and the Lowlands. He moves as far south as Lindisfarne and then gazes along the
east coast, stopping short `before the eye reaches the Orcades once more' and
resting where `a young woman is playing with a child' (SC 10). This
narration has a number of effects. The first is to assert the idea of Scotland as a unity: Lindisfarne, for example, is included as an island on the periphery of, not England, but Scotland - it is `far in the south-east'. No Little Scotlander, however, Gunn
makes sure that `The Outline' also decentralises Scottish history
by asserting a starting point in the far north-east.
In Butcher's Broom the movement of Sun Circle's
initial framing device is reversed. Instead of a high aerial view of Scotland finally brought to focus on two figures, the narrative starts with the solitary
figure of the middle-aged woman Mairi. She is used to introduce various
characteristics of the community settled in the Riasgan valley, the narrator
describing them as Mairi moves across the land. Although these descriptions are
in some ways a stating of Gunn's case for the people of the valley, only
towards the end of the first chapter does the narrator's voice intensify
to the extent that it seems he himself has `taken over' from his narrator: Gunn
bears tidings from the outside world. This `panning out' into a world-wide view
shows the Riasgan as tiny but also shows how connected it is to the world's
affairs. Mairi has experienced that Outside through the emigration and probable
death of her son, but she does not comprehend it as Gunn does. Indeed, the
Riasgan's sense of isolation is emphasised by the need for a narrator to speak
up for it at all, to put it into a broader context:
Here where they made their own clothing, their own
shoes, built their houses, produced their food and drove a few cattle to
market to get coin to pay rent, surely the forces that had so shut them
in could do without them and forget them. It could hardly be within God's irony
that a world which had forgotten their very tongue should be concentrating all
its forces of destruction upon them. What could the pride and power of
emperors have to do with this little pocket of self-sufficing earth lost in the
hills, this retreat, this end of an age, this death of a culture which a
millennium before had been no more offensive to the nations of the West than to
set Christianity and learning among them? When tragedy thus completes itself
has it not earned in a people the dignity of saying `It is finished'? (BB 21)
The rhetorical questions of Gunn's narrator, almost like a
preface, are asking us to read Butcher's Broom in a very particular way.
Stand witness for the Highlands, the narrator seems to ask us, they were a
self-sufficient, self-contained group of communities with values quite at
variance with Europe's. The Continent in its infancy, he 'reminds' us, was
educated and spiritually enlightened by the Highlanders' forbears. The
historical dubiety of this I will return to later, but in the novel's terms
this quietly establishes one of its larger ironies, an irony founded on the
question of who possesses history: `Christianity and learning' will be
identified by the new civilizers - the agents of Progress - with the forces of
Improvement (ie themselves), while the Highlanders will be dismissed as
Apart from education and a sense of the spiritual, there
are other values Gunn wants to exemplify in Highlands life. His contemptuous
reference to 'emperors' hints that one such quality is a profound scepticism
towards leaders. This distrust of a 'top-down' approach to society is helpful
in placing him in the context of other left-wing writers in the Thirties.
Samuel Hynes's The Auden Generation assesses the 1930s as a period where
`the question of leadership was an open one at the time, with the alternatives
to democracy still untested, and only the failure of democratic leadership as
an evident truth,'. But in using this to introduce the
ideas of undemocratic leadership circulating among the Auden set, ie
'top-down' again, Hynes does not consider alternative democratic models where
leadership is unimportant. Such a conception of democracy was too far from the
middle and upper class environments of much of the British left, as it is for
their critical inheritors. Though he seems unknown to the latter, Gunn
represents an important opposing voice within the socialist grouping of the
writers of this time. In Butcher's Broom the Sutherland hamlet of the
Riasgan does not in everyday business have leaders. Rather, it has individuals
who each participate within the understood framework of society and, through
the group dynamic, `select' those who can add intellectually and creatively to
the growth of that culture - hence respected characters such as Angus the
storyteller and inventor, Murdoch the fiddle-player, Seonaid and the waulking
women. This is no idyll, Gunn is particularly fine in fact at portraying its
creative tensions, but when leaders as such get involved - in the clan system
itself, and then as revised under the Chieftain's marriage into the London world of property - the whole community is threatened, and is all but
Gunn's portrayal, indeed construction, of Highland culture
as opposed to 'Western' values can usefully be seen as a popular manifestation
of another debate, too: between the Scottish Common Sense school of
philosophy, where the morally corrupting influence of Progress, it is argued,
must be mitigated by participative democracy, and Anglo-Scottish liberalism,
where Progress is seen as inevitably raising the moral level of the common
people and enfranchising them. George Davie has noted how fundamentally
different these perspectives are, and yet how the winning ideology, liberalism,
has demonised the (as yet) loser. Seen in Butcher's Broom
before, during and after the laissez-faire vortex that produced the Clearances,
the Riasgan is at first materially impoverished, experiences famine from time
to time, but is unselfconsciously a society as much at ease with itself as any
society is likely to be. The Progress offered in the guise of the Clearances by
the Riasgan's new factor Heller (modelled on real-life figure, Patrick Sellar),
may guarantee a fortune for some Lowland Scots but it leads to profound
hardship for many Highlanders. Showing it to be centre-based (in Butcher's
Broom, the fatal decisions are made in the Duke of Sutherland's London house), Progress is more than displayed as a fundamentally peripheralising force:
as readers we are made to painfully experience something of its
I use words like 'vortex' and `force' to emphasise
Highlanders' feeling of powerlessness in the face of something so era-breaking
that it might indeed seem to them divine, especially after half a century of
erosion of self-worth. The post-'45 changes in Highland society leading up to
the Clearances might well engender self-doubts, self-blame, and the feeling
that one is being punished by a detached but ever-watching God: `God breasts
the hill-tops like a giant; but no, immediately the eyes glance at the
hill-top, the giant, God, is withdrawn far into the sky where He sits in a
stiff chair gloomy with thought' (BB 13). When James Leslie
Mitchell noted a classical scale to Butcher's Broom, calling it
'Greek and heroic' it was surely this sense of almost supernatural vengeance to
which he was referring. Probably, too, Mitchell's
sensitivity to nodes of crisis in history, a sensitivity we can see in novels
such as Spartacus and the Scots Quair, led him to make a
connection between the clash of cultures in Gunn's novel and the philosophical
conflicts represented in Greek drama where mercy and bloodhunt interlock.
Of course in other respects,
classical aesthetics are a long way from Butcher's Broom. It is a book
of psychological as well as dramatic intensity, sensual enjoyment of smells and
tastes and noises, of prose lyricism and occasional authorial interventions.
Most importantly, the social level of the main characters is a departure. This
is not a story about the fall of royal houses, nor indeed, thinking again about
Scottish historical fiction's roots, the fortunes of minor aristocracy such as Waverley and Bradwardine; and in terms of contemporary fiction, even clerks, colliery and
factory workers are higher in the social scale than Elie. While the book is
concerned with the whole society constituted by Highland life, its `middlemen',
the tacksmen, and the London Scottish chiefs, it is upon the peasantry and
their values the novel focuses. Perhaps only in Hardy does a similar
preoccupation exist, but there, too, one does not get the sense as one does in Butcher’s
Broom of a whole community being observed at ‘ground
Gunn described his ambitions for the book to his publisher
at Faber, Frank Morley:
This novel deals with nothing less than the tragedy
of a race. In its pages we see how death came to the Highlands of
Scotland and swept the Gaelic civilization to hell; an ancient civilisation
giving light and learning to the world while the Anglo-Saxon was yet a bloody
Here, once again, Gunn rather idealistically reads the
Celts as benign and civilizing, the progenitors of the forgotten spiritual
heritage of the West. In so doing he introduces us, nevertheless, to one of the
large conceptual frameworks within which he was working, one that hinges a
socio-cultural construction of Celtic history on to the political and literary
ideas with which, as a nationalist activist, he was involved: 'The Gaelic
Gunn had read Daniel Corkery's The Hidden Ireland
(1925) in the 1920s, and had used it then to assert the distinctive nature of
Celtic culture as compared to the mechanistic `iron wheel' of the Teutonic (ie
English and European) way of living and thinking.  Ostensibly a `study of Gaelic
Munster in the eighteenth century,' Corkery's book argued that even the most
balanced of historians of Ireland had been unable to recognise the Celtic
heritage living in the remote Irish-speaking areas of the island. Sophisticated
examples of poetry were quoted as evidence of a concealed culture that had
survived, through an oral tradition fostered by `bardic colleges' of educated
poets, up until the eighteenth century.
Given the similarities that might be presumed to
exist between eighteenth century Irish townships and the clachans of the
early nineteenth century Highlands, the subject of Butcher's Broom,
Gunn's resurfacing interest in The Hidden Ireland in the mid-1930s is
not surprising. In Whisky and Scotland (1935) he cites Corkery and
summarises one of Corkery's central ideas: 'these half-clad, bare-foot,
starving peasants inherited a culture from a past so remote that its mythology
was as real to them as was Greek mythology to the Athenians. But they not only
inherited it, they practised it, and that in its highest manifestation - poetry
and music - and found therein their only, their last, solace. Were this not
sufficiently documented, it were incredible.' The comparison with the Greeks is
not accidental. Corkery relates the quality of the culture of ancient Greece to its identity as a nation: 'Greek standards in their own time and place
were standards arrived at by the Greek nation; they were national standards.' (HI
HIHIxiv). Since the decline of
ancient Greece, most of European culture had been unable to escape
neo-classical influence. The distorted result was what Corkery called
`Renaissance standards', standards whose very name seemed to imply
subordination to a previous, higher culture: rehash as much as rebirth.
movement' however, took the principles of classicism without the pedantic
imitation - Shakespeare, Corkery quipped, rather than Corneille - and sought
`to grow out of living feeling, out of here and now, even when it finds its
themes in the past, just as Greek art, which also looked for themes in people's
past, grew up out of the living feeling of its own time and place.' (HI xvi)
Irish culture, in Corkery's terms, is `Greek' in the sense that,
paradoxically, it did not seek to follow the letter of classical models.
Instead it fostered the development of national forms of expression. In the
same way, when Mitchell suggested that Butcher's Broom was `Greek and
heroic' he was actually drawing attention to both its difference from classical
models (since it is obviously very different), and in the culturally
individual nature of that difference, its similarity. Contemporary
nomenclature was none too accurate, of course, and so even the phrase 'Modern
[or Scottish] Literary Renaissance' is confusing: 'Renaissance' is an
intractable word for any new movement, and for that reason is used quite
differently from Corkery's use of it; Corkery's conception of a 'Romantic
movement' is much closer to its use here.
'The Gaelic Idea' was MacDiarmid's phrase. In his 1931
essay 'The Caledonian Antisyzygy and the Gaelic Idea', he had noted 'Corkery's
perception that the national art of Greece had, via the Renaissance, whitened
the cultures of all other European countries and prevented them doing in turn
what Greece did, or, in other words, that we must "get back behind the
Renaissance" and realize that classicism is concerned with Ur-motives and
is precisely the opposite of neo-classical formulations.'  To do that, both Gunn and
MacDiarmid felt they had to publically assume what was in fact questionable:
that Scotland is a fundamentally Celtic country. 'The importance of the fact
that we are a Gaelic people,' MacDiarmid stated, 'that Scottish anti-Irishness
is a profound mistake, that we ought to be anti-English, and that we ought to
play our part in a three-to-one policy of Scotland, Ireland, and Wales against
England [...] are among the important practical considerations which would
follow from the acceptance of Blutsgefuhl in Scotland.' Malcolm Chapman's observation that
'one of the most readily available means of measuring the political distance
between Scotland and England is to draw Scotland away from the Anglo-Saxon, and
expand the Highland Celt to fill the entire Scottish political space,' is
nowhere more apt than when applied to the Gaelic Idea.
Gunn was candid about the illusory nature of Celticism
And here at last also I am prepared to make a
strange admission, namely that I do not much mind whether [the racial
background of Scotland] is called Celtic or not. I am well aware there is no
such thing as racial purity in any nation. [...] But all in all, we can have a
fairly clear picture of the common people of Scotland from early times, their
drink, their habits, their arts, their dreams, their fun, their bestial lapses
and heroic moments. We know of their systems of land tenure and social
organisation - so opposed in basic principle to the feudal system that was
insidiously but inexorably - if never completely successfully - imposed upon
them. For the rest, an attitude of unconcern is conceivable towards any
disillusioned Scot who may desire to take the Anglo-Norman clan chiefs, the
Anglo-Scottish nobility, the Bonnie Prince Charlies, and all of the
`romance' that goes with them, and drop the whole tinsel-glittering or
blood-glittering box of toys in the Thames. [...] With rare exceptions, the
nobles and clan chiefs of Scotland, in the tragic hours of their people's need,
showed themselves the sorriest and most treacherous crew that ever a decent
land was damned by.
Even if it doesn't exist, Gunn argued, 'Celtic' difference
can still be used to mobilise Scots towards, not to put too fine a point on it,
a Scottish republic. MacDiarmid said the same thing: 'It does not matter a rap
whether the whole conception of this Gaelic idea is [...] far-fetched [...] so
long as we [...] rediscover and manifest anew our dynamic spirit as a nation.'
As MacDiarmid's mention of a Scottish 'Blutsgefuhl'
in the same essay indicates, though, this is dangerous stuff. 'Nationalism'
plus 'socialism' equals Nazism all too quickly. MacDiarmid even went as far as
proposing the development of Scottish fascism: 'Hitler's "Nazi's"
wear their socialism with precisely the difference which post-socialist
Scottish nationalists must adopt.'  As Hitler became more menacing,
MacDiarmid dropped the comparison soon enough , but he retained other elements
of the Gaelic Idea, as did Gunn. Dismayed at the way the internationalist left
were twisting reasonable nationalist aspirations within Scotland, and adamant
that small nations should be respected as sovereign without the West's usual
selectivity, Gunn explicitly distanced himself from the Nazis: 'Nationalism
has, of course, its Fascists and other jingoists who debase it from the
spiritual thing it is to a shirt-and-baton parade at the best and, at the
worst, to a bloody lust.' (WS 85-6). Yet Gunn visited Germany, in May
1938 and February 1939, and in doing so seemed to some to sanction Hitler's
government. When war did break out, his journal entry, however, recorded the
distinction he made between Hitler and Germans themselves: 'No special hatred
against the German people. In fact, no hatred at all - whatever the knowledge,
the belief that the Nazi governing body must be destroyed.'
In the Gaelic Idea, Gaelic itself was a relatively
unimportant 'detail' while the Idea was inspiration itself. Like its
association with fascism, that the Gaelic Idea paid lip service to the language
from which it took its name is not a charge to be lightly dismissed, and in
those terms the ghosts of MacDiarmid and Gunn must surely plead guilty.
Christopher Whyte, though identifying neither the pseudo-intellectual concept
by its red-rag name nor MacDiarmid's culpability in its invention, has been a
notable critic of Gunn and his use of the Gaelic Idea. In 'Fishy Masculinities:
Neil Gunn's Silver Darlings', Whyte accuses most of Gunn's critics of
rendering Gunn as 'the novelist of Gaelic Scotland', criticises Gunn himself
for what Whyte regards as his poor English versions of Gaelic phrases in Butcher's
Broom, and implies that Gunn pandered to his readers' ignorance of life in
the Highlands - namely, that he '[f]illed the void labelled "Gaelic"
in the minds of his readers with a construction of his own making, one that had
precise ideological and philosophical implications.'
Whether or not the first two charges are fair is for
another discussion, but it can be noted here that essentially they are
engagements with the ideology of the Gaelic Idea. As such, the Gaelic Idea can
answer these serious allegations on its own, problematic terms. In a
much-needed addition to Gunn's own warning, quoted above, about the idiocies of
theories of racial purity, MacDiarmid anticipates these allegations as he does
Whyte's last, most important point, a reiteration by example of Malcolm
Chapman's general analysis noted earlier, namely that what constitutes the
literary evocation of a 'Gaelic' and/or 'Celtic' worldview in Scotland has
historically been provided by those with superficial (if palpable) contact with
False notions of the probably unknowable concept of
'Celtic' can indeed be easily impressed on a myth-hungry but ignorant audience,
but as far as MacDiarmid's Gaelic Idea was concerned, the renaissance of the
Gaelic language as such was neither here nor there. Though both Gunn and
MacDiarmid would in fact enlist 'authorities' in defence of their views,
contemporary historians, archaeologists and so on, showing that they actually
did worry about telling the truth or being seen to do so; though they would
deploy techniques akin to social history and scientific reporting; though,
granting Gunn’s failure to converse in Gaelic, any biographical approach
to his work can still not gainsay his knowledge of life in the Highlands as a
good deal deeper than ‘superficial’; and though Gunn certainly
incorporated primary research information into his novels, the Gaelic Idea's
small print made sure novelist and poet did not need these defences: they could
have it both ways. 'Authenticity', MacDiarmid's argument went, was as likely to
be a hindrance as a help in the push for a cultural revolution (for
MacDiarmid's praisers, it might even be dismissed as a mere bourgeois
obsession). Indeed, Scottish writers should be encouraged to make things up:
they should appeal, MacDiarmid said, to 'a distinctive and dynamic spirit in
Scotland again and without any cut-and-dried scheme let that spirit find its
own forms no matter how impredictable [sic] and how unrelated to anything
in our past history' . In this way, though Whyte may or
may not be right about Gunn's critics and Gunn himself falsifying Highland
experience and the nature of 'the' Scottish Gaelic language, to someone
involved in forging a nation these were, rightly or wrongly, just antiquarian
quibbles. Gunn and MacDiarmid make no claims to be realists even if they are
interested in 'reality'. Their works can better be classified with more
obviously non-realist texts, such as Alasdair Gray's masterpiece Lanark
(1982), which continue a tradition of poetic forms of narrative going back
certainly as far as Melville. As Corkery admired Greek values but not their
emulation in neo-classical cultures, so Gunn and MacDiarmid, refused to allow
even Scotland's past glories to fence them in - in choice of language or in
terms of form. A model more contemporary than Ancient Greece was useful to them
in this and once again Ireland obliged.
To Gunn, Ireland was not only a country whose distinctly different
Celtic Twilight had moved from literature into the politics of revolution.
Appalled by Padraic Pearse's execution, an admirer of Yeats, Synge and Joyce,
and repeatedly visiting Ireland in the Twenties and Thirties, Gunn looked to it
with others in the Modern Literary Renaissance as a country which shared a
mythology, a set of customs, and perhaps a whole worldview with Scotland as
set against that of England and most of Europe (this is seldom grasped by
those who claim Scotland is quintessentially 'European'). The newly
'independent' Ireland was seen, therefore, as if it were both an artistic and
revolutionary experiment carried through to success. While Gunn would also cite
Yeats, Synge, and O'Casey (and privately perhaps prefer these writers) it was
Joyce, the most obvious literary giant, who was publically at least the `jewel
in the crown' for both MacDiarmid and Gunn. The mere fact of Joyce's exile,
and the mutual antipathy between Joyce and much of the cognisenti in Irish
society, might have warned both Scottish writers that they, too, were destined
to be isolated 'exiles', if within their own country, but Joyce was, for the
kind of Scotland they wanted to build, a propaganda gift for nationalism.
'The Gaelic Idea' needed more than literature,
though: it needed economics. Gunn and MacDiarmid looked with enthusiasm
to the Social Credit theories of C. H. Douglas, whose ideas were also supported
by a number of the other important writers in Britain. Douglas's individualism conceived
within a framework where individuals are yet participants within a national
culture has affinities with Gunn's own political views. Of course Douglas's
Scottish background meant his ideas also patched him into the 'Gaelic Idea'. In
Whisky and Scotland, Douglas's scheme is mentioned explicitly as a
"plan I should like to try before [Communism]", no less, and Butcher's
Broom has several passages that deal with the Highlanders' distance from
ideas of money. (WS 84-5)
The cash that the soldier Colin sends back to his mother,
for instance, is at first treated as if it were miraculous 'Like raining cattle
from heaven!' (BB 217); its importance is to do with its exotic quality
rather than its monetary value. But, because Colin's mother knows it brings up
the question of paternity, and therefore Elie's giving birth to Colin's
bastard, the money also brings 'The outside world [...] sweeping up to the
ramparts of her world.' (BB 228). Elie's 'guilt' is seen as something
brought in from outside the Riasgan, as in effect it was since it was
precipitated by Colin's joining the army and then Elie's going away to have
their child surreptitiously. Though Gunn as author does not go this far, to
Colin's mother dishonour itself seems something outside her experience.
Also outside the grassroots Highland experience Gunn
portrays were what, as we have seen, he called the 'Anglo-Scottish nobility,
the Bonnie Prince Charlies', the literary manifestation of which was Scott's
'"romance"'. It is in this ideological light that we should read, for
example, the descriptive overviews of the Riasgan, its working arrangements and
customs. Gunn does indeed show the 'drink, habits, arts, dreams, fun, bestial
lapses, and heroic moments' of the Scottish community he offers us, not to
mention its 'systems of land tenure and social organisation.' In the Thirties such an approach
to history could not have avoided concepts of Communism and the activities of
the Soviet Union. The final facet of the Gaelic idea as MacDiarmid described it
was the way in which, however, a Celtic worldview could be set against
that of the Soviet Union or, more specifically, the `Russian Idea'. That was
why Gunn was suggesting Social Credit be tried before Communism.
The Russian Idea can be traced to Corkery, too: as Gunn
later looked to Ireland for an example of national consciousness coinciding
with great literature, so Corkery had looked to Russia. Because it had gone its
own way with a minimum of Renaissance influence Russian literature, Corkery
wrote, had become `the most national and the most significant of all modern
literatures.' (HI xviii). MacDiarmid combined this with his own
admiration for Dostoyevsky, eliding nineteenth century Russian national
consciousness with Soviet communism. He argued that, though he deeply admired
both Russian literature and Soviet communism, they should nevertheless be
'counterbalanced' in and by Scotland to meet different circumstances. Indeed, developing this argument
by using the Soviet Union as an example of democratic self-determination (!)
Gunn would chastise left-wing intellectuals. The Left in the countries of
Britain seemed to prefer absorption by a socialist world power above their own
country's sovereignty. In late 1936 Gunn wrote:
[...] what I fail to understand is how Scottish
intellectuals of any persuasion, and particularly the proletarian, are not
prepared to accept this historic past subsumed in this country of their own and
attempt therein to make a concrete contribution to social reconstruction in the
interests of the folk. Their historic background and educational facilities -
if there is anything in the idea of dialectical materialism - equip them for
the task in a way undreamt of by the Russian mass, and should enable them to
short-circuit the more obvious crudities of dictatorship and bloody violence.
Anyway, it is a job of work. But they fly from it and cover their desertion by
calling the Scot who would like to attempt the job a Fascist. Marx knew the
primary value of practice. He also strove to make it clear that in his theories
he envisaged living working men, not economic abstractions.
Scotland as an independent country was far more likely to
effect socialist policies than through a vaguely-defined 'new world
order' of the Left. Little wonder the indeterminate 'general economic change in
society' Muir posited on the last page of Scott and Scotland as
Scotland's only hope for recovery would receive short shrift from Gunn,
otherwise his ally. Any formulation of a 'British'
communism, Gunn argued, was likely to be dominated by English self-interest. In
Off in a Boat (1938) he wrote: 'it looks at last as though the English
have got the Scots where and how they want them, helped nowadays by the
proletarian dream, as personified in the Clydeside communist, which happily
lifts us far above consideration of paltry national issues. We are all
Englishmen now.' This scepticism towards the
gestural politics of much of the British intelligentsia ran deep: there is a
side-swipe at Auden in Wild Geese Overhead (1939), and even as late as The
Atom of Delight (1956), Gunn reminds the Russia-genuflecting Left of the
so-called `littérature engagée, with pilgrimages to
III Russia and
the History Novel
Early in Butcher's Broom, as if to suggest the
'Gaelic counter-idea' to the Russian one, Gunn tells us that the destruction of
the glen villages, unlike the rebuilding of Moscow after the French invasion,
did not lead to any kind of recovery. 'Yet Moscow rose from its ashes, the battlefields
of Europe were tilled, and even liberty, equality and fraternity continued to
linger as the waking memory of a Utopian dream. Only this glen here, that was
itself and the other glens, suffering fire as did the Kremlin, and destruction
as did the battlefield, has remained into time dark and desolate and dead.' (BB
22) This not only places the Riasgan's fall firmly alongside Moscow's as a
contemporary historical phenomenon, it alludes to the historical
novelist of the Napoleonic wars - Tolstoy. Gunn is nothing if not ambitious:
he is introducing Butcher's Broom as successor to War and Peace.
Tolstoy and Gunn have a good deal in common, not least
their refocusing of history away from ideas of leadership, a theme discussed
above. Nicola Chiaromonte argues that in his most famous novel Tolstoy is going
even further than this: he is suggesting a new way of looking at history. The new perspective is a
synthesis of two extreme views of what history should be. The first is a
'hyper-reality': the disclosure of all information for the given period
quite without regard for class division or, though Chiaromonte does not
consider this, without regard for the division between humanity and Nature
(Chiaromonte notes a parallel in Proust whose work, huge though it is, still
acknowledges the impossibility of recording hyper-reality because it remains,
obviously, selective). The second extreme of history is a transcendent or High
History (my term) which is 'a truth and wisdom superior to any factual truth
and to the world of historical action': it is a broad but true explanation of
the pattern of events which surface from hyper-reality as significant
indicators of cultural change.
Tolstoy connects these by suggesting that 'power' - the
effect we have on each other - is common to both. The incalculable complexity
of the hyper-reality all individuals partake in as a function of their
interdependence - their power relations - eventually 'adds up' to High History.
The seeming randomness of individual power relations means that Tolstoy's
understanding of what history is is mystical in the sense (I would add) that a
mathematician's version of the universe may be mystical: it suggests a
retrospective outline of the whole without knowing the constituent
parts. History is unknowable in its totality, though we do know (or believe)
that the forceful interrelationship of objects through time is of what it
consists. One of the implications of Tolstoy's relating of history is that
leaders, though they may think they lead, are in fact submerged in the sea of
hyper-reality's 'random' effects - hence the debunking of Napoleon's leadership
in War and Peace. Indeed, Napoleon's successes constitute the primary
example of a phenomenon widely but wrongly seen as an individual's triumph of
force of will: 'History in person.'
Tolstoy rejects all this. As far as truth is
concerned, history appears to him to be impervious to any truth at all, since
it only reveals facts in succession, and the fact that facts are brought forth
by force. As for its concrete development, history seems to escape entirely
from the control of those who are supposed to be its makers.
The only problem with this from a Highland point of view is
that history didn't 'escape entirely from the control of those who were
supposed to be its makers'. The Clearances happened: at the will of those who
wanted them to happen. Napoleon may be but a large blip in the history of
Russia, and Tolstoy is certainly right to condemn hero-worship as confusing the
ability to act violently with an ethical right to do so, yet some figures in
history are culpable for the events they helped to bring about. It is Tolstoy's
privileged position that allows him to think otherwise: the pre-Clearances
Highlands cannot be so easily recovered in the sweep of High History when the
received High History is Western or even Russian.
Gunn's answer to this is to see the history with which he
is concerned as a clash of cultures. While paying some attention to
hyper-reality in offering albeit overviews of Riasgan life and, perhpas more
importantly, by celebrating sensual moments of ordinariness, Gunn also sketches
an alternative High History where the ideology of Progress attempts to consume
the vibrant conservatism of Highland culture. Because of this Butcher's
Broom is significantly different from Tolstoy's work: once again, it
differs in the social level of characters, in locale, and in the type of action
depicted. The novel does not follow the fate of aristocratically and
financially-favoured families (Tolstoy pauses only briefly, in Pierre's
affectionate meeting with the peasant soldier Platon Karataev, to pay some
tribute to the Russian peasantry). Gunn's narrative is, as it were, from the
inside; it is history almost wholly from peasants' viewpoints, filtered
through Gunn's occasionally explicitly polemical narrator, and, moreover, it is
largely concerned with female experience.
While the narrative of War and Peace stretches
across Russia and Europe, Gunn's is peculiarly static. His Highlanders derive
their self-regard, their identity, from rootedness, from the continuity of
customs stretching over hundreds of years in the same place. The glen itself
seems sealed from outside affairs: 'What reason then is there for a man to wander
into strange places where he has no business?' (BB 13) Following this
principle, Gunn's main characters are made to travel hundreds of miles - Colin
and his friends fight in Dublin, New Orleans, and South Africa (BB 124)
-without ever having their experiences directly narrated. Colin's ordeals are
recounted, briefly, in a rhetorical 'second sight': as the young soldiers leave
the Riasgan, Gunn brings Chapter Five to a close by minimally describing some
of their deaths a few years later. (BB 125) For the same hermetic reason
Gunn describes Elie's journeys in the south only through what she recounts:
detailed direct narrative will not follow her more than a few miles outside the
limits of the Riasgan. Conversely, the character who whose powerseeking nature demands
mobility, the Lowland factor Heller, is given the benefit of a narrative that
goes with him on his visit to the Duke of Sutherland's house in London (BB 248-266);
he is the only character in the book to be given a 'real-time' voice outside
the Highlands. Clearly, Gunn doesn't merely assert a different view of history,
his technique enacts it.
Another radical re-focusing that takes place in Butcher's
Broom is that of the avoidance of depictions of battle - normally essential
to a history novel. If Hynes is right when he argues that Britain in the
Thirties was a society increasingly aware that it was not merely a post-war but
an inter-war society, this is another reason for regarding the exclusion of war
scenes within Gunn's novel as unusual. Certainly, while having to engage
with the issues of war, Butcher's Broom shies from the military
descriptions entailed in it. If its lack of journeys makes it no Waverley,
its lack of battles makes it no War and Peace either. Yet the broad
context - the war of empire - is similar. It is simply that Butcher's Broom peripheralises
the actual fighting of war and the men who take part in it, and emphasises
instead the sense of trauma for those who remain at home. In this way the
return of Elie's lover Colin in the final pages is devastating: the reader has
witnessed the domestic cataclysm Colin has in one sense been privileged to
miss. The bitterness of the closing reunion is finally, therefore, a
concentration of and challenge to the ancient form that is behind even Scott:
M. Gunn, Selected Letters, ed. J. B. Pick (Edinburgh, 1987), p.45.
Craig, 'Out of History', in Etudes Ecossaises, 1 (1992), pp.209-228. Cf.
also Craig's 'The Body in the Kit-Bag: History and the Scottish Novel', in Cencrastus
1: 1 (1979), pp.18-22.
George Watson, The Story of the Novel (London, 1979), p.100.
B. Caird, 'Neil Gunn and Scottish Fiction,' in Neil M. Gunn: the Man and the
Writer, eds. Alexander Scott and Douglas Gifford (Edinburgh, 1973),
B. Caird, op. cit., p.375.
M. Gunn, 'Caithness and Sutherland', in Scottish Country, ed. George
Scott Moncrieff (London, 1935), p.59-76
M. Gunn, 'Review of Scott and Scotland by Edwin Muir', in Scots
Magazine, 26:1 (1936), pp.72-8.
Nairn, The Break-up of Britain (London, 1977), p.115.
G. H. Pittock, The Invention of Scotland: The Stuart Myth and the Scottish
Identity, 1638 to the Present, London, 1991, p.85.
Lukacs, The Historical Novel (originally published in Russian in 1937;
trans. Hannah and Stanley Mitchell, London, 1962), p.74.
Lukacs, op. cit., p.49.
M. Gunn, Sun Circle (Edinburgh, 1933). Later page references appear in
the text after the abbreviation SC.
M. Gunn, Butcher's Broom (Edinburgh, 1934). Later page references
appear in the text after the abbreviation BB.
Hynes, The Auden Generation (London, 1976), p.104.
E. Davie, The Social Significance of The Scottish Philosophy of Common Sense
(Dundee, 1972), p.22.
Leslie Mitchell, Letter to Gunn, 30.10.34, National Library of Scotland,
Deposit No. 209.
M. Gunn, Letter to Frank Morley, 6.10?.34, National Library of Scotland Deposit
Corkery, The Hidden Ireland (Dublin, 1925). Later page references appear
in the text after the abbreviation HI.
Neil M. Gunn as 'Dane M'Neil', 'The Hidden Heart', in Scots Magazine 9:5
(Aug 1928), pp.331-5.
M. Gunn, Whisky and Scotland (London, 1935), p.65-6. Later page
references appear in the text after the abbreviation WS.
MacDiarmid, 'The Caledonian Antisyzygy and the Gaelic Idea,' quoted in Selected
Essays of Hugh MacDiarmid, ed. Duncan Glen (London, 1969), pp.56-74.
Originally published in The Modern Scot, Winter 1931 and Spring 1932.
MacDiarmid, op. cit., p.71.
Chapman, The Gaelic Vision in Scottish Culture (London, 1978), p.148.
M. Gunn, op.cit., pp.105-6.
MacDiarmid, op. cit., p.67.
MacDiarmid, op. cit., p.70.
M. Gunn, Entry for 3rd September 1939, Notebook, National Library of
Scotland Deposit 209, Box 1, Folder 2. For a discussion of Gunn's response to
the Second World War see also Richard Price, The Fabulous Matter of Fact:
The Poetics of Neil M. Gunn (Edinburgh, 1991), pp.103-110.
Whyte, 'Fishy Masculinities: Neil Gunn's Silver Darlings', in Gendering
the Nation: Studies in Modern Scottish Literature, ed. Whyte, pp.49-68. Cf.
MacDiarmid, op. cit., p.73.
uses Joyce in Whisky and Scotland as a 'figure of [...] world
importance', op. cit., p.69., adding, a page later, that 'This excursion into
Ireland illumines by reflection the Gaelic spirit in Scotland.' p.70.
Valentine Cunningham, British Writers of the Thirties (Oxford, 1988),
J. Watson in 'Celticism and the Anulment of History,' Irish Studies Review no.
9 (Winter 1994/5) p.4, reads Gunn as 'folklorising the gap between the Celt and
history'. This is true to the extent that it recognises Gunn's fascination with
storytelling itself, but most of Gunn's novels assert the role of social and
other kinds of historical method in delineating, alongside folklore, shared
'culture'. This is aside from the moot question of whether the 'social history'
that is a fabric of Gunn's historical novels is properly representative of
various kinds of 'Highland experience' . Nor would I agree with Watson's view
that Gunn's novels involve a 'celebration of the historyless community': for
Gunn, the point is 'Whose history?', not whether or not to deny
history's existence. Whether or not Gunn answers that question correctly, or
partly, or sees his role as only to ask it, is for another debate.
Whyte suggests that the present author in the book-length study quoted above,
by calling this kind of information 'anthropological' ignores its ideological
content, especially its gendering of work activities, and that I give it
'almost scientific validity'. I wish to quote the whole sentence Mr Whyte
quotes only partially. I have italicised the omission: 'That Butcher's
Broom is both a historical and polemical project is evidenced by Gunn's
authorial voice being occasionally foregrounded to supply anthropological
detail which could not be shown incidentally. This occurs, for example, when
the author explains the strict work and activities differences between men and
women.' Cf. Whyte, op. cit, p.56-7; Richard Price, op. cit., also p.56. It is
common knowledge that Gunn was a polemicist and a fabulist: it is at the
intersection between 'reality' and Gunn's presented imagination where much of
his interest lies. In place of a more detailed defence, inappropriate here, I
draw the reader's attention to the ambiguity of the title of the chapter Whyte
attacks, 'Making history', and to that of my study's overall title: The
Fabulous Matter of Fact.
MacDiarmid, op. cit., p.67.
M. Gunn, 'Scotland: A Nation', in Left Review, 2:14 (Nov 1936),
M. Gunn, 'Review of Scott and Scotland', op. cit.
M. Gunn, Off in a Boat (London, 1938), p.346.
Neil M. Gunn, Wild Geese Overhead (London, 1939; Chambers repr., 1993),
p.123; The Atom of Delight (London, 1956), p.225.
had certainly been on Gunn's mind. On the same page he describes Napoleon as
being 'omniscient' but for `that oft-muttered "England and her
gold"'. This phrase, he records in Whisky and Scotland, is indeed
remembered from Tolstoy: `I have a memory of Tolstoi's saying somewhere that
Napoleon went muttering uneasily of "England and her gold" as
if he were being pursued by a ghost.' (WS 103-4).
Nicola Chiaromonte, The Paradox of History
Chiaromonte, op. cit., p.33.
Chiaromonte, op. cit., p.46.
Hynes, op. cit., p.42.
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