hydrohotel.net - a Richard Price webspace

Whose history, which novel?: Neil M. Gunn and the Gaelic Idea

(originally published in Scottish Literary Journal, 24.2 (1997): pp. 85102)

I  Scott-land and Historical Fiction

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'. [2] 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).[3] 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.[4] Caird also describes the 'element of pasteboard' in most of Scott's major Highland characters.[5]  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.'[6]

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'.[7] 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.[8]

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).[9]

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.'[10] 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"'.[11] 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.[12] 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 Broom

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.[13] 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 uneducated heathens.

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,'.[14] 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 destroyed.

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.[15] 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 realities.

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.[16] 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 level’.

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 barbarian. [17]

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 Idea'.

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.[18] [19] 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.'[20] 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.

A `Romantic 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.' [21] 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.'[22] 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.[23] 

Gunn was candid about the illusory nature of Celticism however:

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.[24]

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.'[25]

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.' [26] 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.'[27]

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.'[28]

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 the Highlands.

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' .[29] 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.[30] 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.[31] 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.'[32][33] 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.[34] 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.[35]

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.[36] 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.'[37] 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 Moscow'.[38]

        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.[39] 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.[40] 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.[41]

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.[42]

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.[43] 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: epic itself.

Richard Price

[1]Neil M. Gunn, Selected Letters, ed. J. B. Pick (Edinburgh, 1987), p.45.


[2]Cairns 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.


[3]Cf. George Watson, The Story of the Novel (London, 1979), p.100.


[4]James B. Caird, 'Neil Gunn and Scottish Fiction,' in Neil M. Gunn: the Man and the Writer, eds. Alexander Scott and Douglas Gifford (Edinburgh, 1973), pp.370-386.


[5]James B. Caird, op. cit., p.375.


[6]Neil M. Gunn, 'Caithness and Sutherland', in Scottish Country, ed. George Scott Moncrieff (London, 1935), p.59-76


[7]Neil M. Gunn, 'Review of Scott and Scotland by Edwin Muir', in Scots Magazine, 26:1 (1936), pp.72-8.


[8]Tom Nairn, The Break-up of Britain (London, 1977), p.115.


[9]Murray G. H. Pittock, The Invention of Scotland: The Stuart Myth and the Scottish Identity, 1638 to the Present, London, 1991, p.85.


[10]Georg Lukacs, The Historical Novel (originally published in Russian in 1937; trans. Hannah and Stanley Mitchell, London, 1962), p.74.


[11]Georg Lukacs, op. cit., p.49.


[12]Neil M. Gunn, Sun Circle (Edinburgh, 1933). Later page references appear in the text after the abbreviation SC.


[13]Neil M. Gunn, Butcher's Broom (Edinburgh, 1934).  Later page references appear in the text after the abbreviation BB.


[14]Samuel Hynes, The Auden Generation (London, 1976), p.104.


[15]George E. Davie, The Social Significance of The Scottish Philosophy of Common Sense (Dundee, 1972), p.22.


[16]James Leslie Mitchell, Letter to Gunn, 30.10.34, National Library of Scotland, Deposit No. 209.


[17]Neil M. Gunn, Letter to Frank Morley, 6.10?.34, National Library of Scotland Deposit 209.


[18]Daniel Corkery, The Hidden Ireland (Dublin, 1925). Later page references appear in the text after the abbreviation HI. 


[19] Neil M. Gunn as 'Dane M'Neil', 'The Hidden Heart', in Scots Magazine 9:5 (Aug 1928), pp.331-5.


[20]Neil M. Gunn, Whisky and Scotland (London, 1935), p.65-6. Later page references appear in the text after the abbreviation WS.


[21]Hugh 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.


[22]Hugh MacDiarmid, op. cit., p.71.


[23]Malcolm Chapman, The Gaelic Vision in Scottish Culture (London, 1978), p.148.


[24]Neil M. Gunn, op.cit., pp.105-6.


[25]Hugh MacDiarmid, op. cit., p.67.


[26]Hugh MacDiarmid, op. cit., p.70.


[27]Neil 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.


[28]Christopher Whyte, 'Fishy Masculinities: Neil Gunn's Silver Darlings', in Gendering the Nation: Studies in Modern Scottish Literature, ed. Whyte, pp.49-68. Cf. p.52.


[29]Hugh MacDiarmid, op. cit., p.73.


[30]Gunn 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.


[31]Cf. Valentine Cunningham, British Writers of the Thirties (Oxford, 1988), p.32.


[32]G. 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.


[33]Christopher 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.


[34]Hugh MacDiarmid, op. cit., p.67.


[35]Neil M. Gunn, 'Scotland: A Nation', in Left Review, 2:14 (Nov 1936), pp.735-8.


[36]Neil M. Gunn, 'Review of Scott and Scotland', op. cit.


[37]Neil M. Gunn, Off in a Boat (London, 1938), p.346.


[38]Cf. Neil M. Gunn, Wild Geese Overhead (London, 1939; Chambers repr., 1993), p.123; The Atom of Delight (London, 1956), p.225.


[39]Tolstoy 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).


[40]Nicola Chiaromonte, The Paradox of History (London, 1970).


[41]Nicola Chiaromonte, op. cit., p.33.


[42]Nicola Chiaromonte, op. cit., p.46.


[43]Samuel Hynes, op. cit., p.42.

news & events
vennel press


News & Events | Poetry | Fiction
Recordings | Literary Criticism| Art Projects | Translations
Magazines | Vennel Press
Chronology | Born Digital | Links