Exploring New Roads: Essays on Neil Munro
Edited by Ronald Renton and Brian Osborne
House of Lochar, 16.99
This is a valuable book and a timely one. It lives up to the high standards it has set itself, from its handsome physical appearance with an elegant dust wrapper showing that most rhythmic of burgh towns, Munro’s native Inveraray, to the sophistication, richness and variety of the essays collated within.
The tone is set by the very first essay’s opening words, quoted by the essay’s author and Munro’s granddaughter, Lesley Lendrum: "Neil Munro - the very name o’ him is grand to hear. A grand name, wi’ something baith brave and hamely in it. A name wi’ a sniff o’ the peat reek, the bloom o’ the heather, a skirl o’ the pipes, an a glint o’ the claymore. A tartaned name that stirs Scottish blood." The reader’s heart - and mind - duly sink. But Lendrum continues: "Munro himself would have laughed at the apocryphal rigmarole, yet ruefully, for such sentiments reflect a certain contemporary attitude towards himself and his work."
Economically and with wit, the main misapprehension about Munro - and not a few other Scottish artists - is, as it were, scotched and the book is free to discuss the very much more complicated questions of Scottish identity.
Again and again these essays display a psychological acuity about both character and situation under whose attention a serious writer of fiction would feel himself blessed. It is very good to see Munro taken this seriously, Beth Dickson’s keen observation that he observes but rarely expatiates clearly intending praise not blame. Such literary sophistication is by no means always to be found in productions of the great university presses.
We are given a nice, plainly told biography of Munro whose facts are in themselves highly psychologically suggestive - his illegitimacy, his uncertain (conceivably noble) paternity, his having been brought up, after his mother married the governor of Inveraray jail, in a prison - "My earliest impressions of a prison were got, innocently enough, from the inside." The glow of consciously simple living made his childhood, in retrospect, replete: "Those lovely unperplexed and simple days when I deliberately refused to learn anything and yet in some mysterious way was learning all that was to be of use to me in later life."
Munro had a grip upon that hardest of concepts for the man of letters - the demerits of books. This is of particular relevance to any consideration of Gaelic culture in Scotland and of explicit concern in Munro’s John Splendid, in which Gilleasbuig Gruamach, MacCailein Mr, Marquis of Argyll, has a spirit "smoored among books. Paper and ink will be the Gael’s undoing." In a scholarly article on John Splendid and Scottish History, Edward Cowan lauds the psychological astuteness of Munro in this matter, adding fascinating further material from Argyll’s own Instructions to a Son, written while awaiting his trial and execution in Edinburgh Castle in 1661, and contrasting the Marquis’s equivocating, balancing learned intelligence with the glamorous uncompromise of Montrose.
The title of this collection alludes to Munro’s last completed novel, The New Road, its subject the great road up through the Highlands built by General Wade, that effected the destruction the Romans and the English could not. It is a perfectly apt title for this enlightening series of enquiries into the works of Munro, though the reader must not infer any sense of invasion or destruction.
On the contrary, the new critical roads in these essays are refreshing and shed continual new light, including upon contemporary Scottish novelists, and fulfil what must be a prime task for such a book, sending one back full of anticipation to the work. As one would expect from so considered and rounded a publication, there are real surprises to be found here - I picked up an Alan Warner-like frisson in John Splendid only to have it corroborated by Douglas Gifford, who has clearly been a force behind the collection; and there is some marvellously embarrassing unearthing of old reviews by reviewers - can this be possible? - not always entirely in good faith, nor well-intentioned.
One of the hardest areas for the critic of fiction and therefore for the critic of criticism of fiction, is the unsaid. When it comes to the Highlands of Scotland, how crucial this is. As Dickson writes, when considering Gilian the Dreamer, there is "the Highland characteristic of not discussing those things about which one feels most deeply. This is usually a virtue but it can be a terrible vice. It cannot operate unless the person who is spoken to shares the same outlook on life as the speaker and can interpret the silences or the allusions correctly. However, if that unity of vision is not shared the communication breaks down and silence and allusion can be interpreted as lack of interest or deliberate mystification."
Munro, with his language and his never less than pointful use of sky, water, air and light, goes far to interpreting for us, here, now, that speaking silence with which we are fortunate enough to co-reside, and some of us, to inherit.