Neil Munro's Inveraray
Neil Munro was born at Inveraray on 3 June 1863 and the little Argyllshire town on the shores of Loch Fyne would be central to his life and his literary work until his death in December 1930. As he said himself: "he could never keep Inveraray and the romantic district of Argyll out of any story of his, and possibly he never would."
Although Munro left Inveraray at the age of eighteen and went to Glasgow with the aim of making a career in journalism, his family connections with the area remained strong, and he was steeped in the traditions and tales of Argyll. His mother's family were Gaelic-speakers and Munro was himself bi-lingual.
Early poetry, and of course a great deal of, now largely untraceable, journalism on Greenock, Falkirk and Glasgow papers aside, Munro's first literary success was with a series of short stories which appeared in Blackwood's Magazine from 1893 onwards and as a collection published by Blackwood in 1896. The Lost Pibroch and other Sheiling Stories was a remarkable development. Perhaps for the first time Gaelic culture was adequately represented in prose fiction - not an art form with any great Gaelic history before the 20th century. The stories are all set around Inveraray and are remarkable for their evocation of Gaelic speech patterns and language in English and for their strong sense of place.
Munro's first novel John Splendid again dealt with Inveraray - it focuses on the destruction of the town by the forces of Montrose and examines the character of the Gillesbeg Gruamach, the Marquis of Argyll. The hero, young Colin of Elrigmore, freshly back in Inveraray from the European wars, reflects:
Whatever they may say of me or mine, they can never deny but I had the right fond heart for my own countryside...
Munro, too, had that "right fond heart" and celebrated his native countryside in a series of locally based historical novels culminating in his masterpiece The New Road but never more memorably than in these lines from John Splendid:
I know corries in Argile that whisper silken to the wind with juicy grasses, corries where the deer love to prance deep in the cool dew, and the beasts of far-off woods come in bands at their seasons and together rejoice. I have seen the hunter in them and the shepherd too, coarse men in life and occupation, come sudden among the blowing rush and whispering reed, among the bog-flower and the cannoch, unheeding the moor-hen and the cailzie-cock rising, or the stag of ten at pause, while they stood, passionate adventurers in a rapture of the mind, held as it were by the spirit of such places as they lay in a sloeberry bloom of haze, the spirit of old good songs, the baffling surmise of the piper and the bard. To those corries of my native place will be coming in the yellow moon of brock and foumart - the beasts that dote on the autumn eves - the People of Quietness; have I not seen their lanthorns and heard their laughter in the night? - so that they must be blessed corries, so endowed since the days when the gods dwelt in them without tartan and spear in the years of the peace that had no beginning.
Even in a rare venture into the contemporary scene in The Daft Days (1907) Munro chose Inveraray for his setting for the tale of the impact of Bud, a young American girl, on a douce Scottish community.
In a lighter vein, Munro's immortal comic character, Para Handy, also celebrated Loch Fyne and its most famous industry, the herring fishery:
The herrin' wass that thick in Loch Fyne in them days," recalled the Captain, "that you sometimes couldna get your anchor to the ground, and the quality wass chust sublime...Loch Fyne wass the place for Life in them days - high jeenks and big hauls; you werena very smert if ye werena into both o' them
In 1909 Munro was given the Freedom of Inveraray and no recognition could have been more welcome. His friend the novelist George Blake, wrote that Munro:
...loved to escape from the city... into a region where he was one of the people and free to gossip in the Gaelic with fisherman, poacher or washerwife.
In his poem, Nettles, Munro reflected on the change in his boyhood home. The Aora of the poem is usually rendered in English as Aray, as in Glen Aray or Inveraray.
O sad for me Glen Aora,
Where I have friends no more,
For lowly lie the rafters,
And the lintels of the door.
The friends are all departed,
The hearth stone's black and cold,
And sturdy grows the nettle
On the place beloved of old.
Brian D Osborne
Books featured in this article
- Add to BasketJohn Splendid: The Tale Of A Poor Gentleman, And The Little Wars Of Lorn -
In the autumn of 1644 Colin, heir to the Laird of Elrigmore, returns to Argyll after seven years as a soldier of fortune to find a land torn apart by civil war - with the complex rivalries of feuding clans and Catholic versus Covenanter.
- Add to BasketPara Handy: The Collected Stories From 'The Vital Spark', 'In Highland Harbours With Para Handy' And 'Hurricane Jack Of The Vital Spark' - - Paperback
This is a collection of stories about Para Handy, who originally appeared in the Glasgow Evening News nearly a hundred years ago. The mariner and his crew recall the age of puffers sailing between West Highland ports and Glasgow.