Neil Gunn, a voice for Scotland
The writer Neil Gunn had a passion for ‘true’ Scotch whisky which was largely unmatched by the ever-eroding industry which encapsuled his writing career. Regardless Gunn, who had a deep-rooted connection to the Highlands and was arguably ahead of his time in terms of his vision towards the golden spirit, was drawn back to its place within Scotland time and time again, as Gavin D Smith writes
Neil Miller Gunn was one of Scotland’s finest 20th century novelists and a leading light in the so-called Scottish renaissance, along with figures such as Christopher Murray Grieve – better known as Hugh McDiarmid and James Leslie Mitchell, writing under the name of Lewis Grassic Gibbon. An early and active member of the National Party of Scotland (later the Scottish National Party), Gunn was passionate about the fortunes of the people who worked the land and sea in the north of Scotland, passionate about their heritage and culture and its gradual erosion.
He was also passionate about ‘true’ Scotch whisky, which was most definitely the product of individual pot stills. The mystique of whisky-making and its role in Scottish history, legend and everyday life was what made it a worthy subject for his pen.
Gunn was himself a product of the Highlands, being born in the Caithness coastal village of Dunbeath, where his father was a fishing boat skipper. A bright student, Gunn entered the Civil Service in 1911, subsequently joining the Customs & Excise service. Based in the Highland capital of Inverness, he served as an ‘unattached officer’ throughout the Highlands and Islands. During this time, he gained a sound practical knowledge of the business of whisky-making.
ABOVE: Neil Gunn, courtesy of The Neil Gunn Trust
In 1921 he received his first ‘fixed’ assignment, far from the Highlands, in the Lancashire town of Wigan. That same year, he had met the woman who was to be the love of his life, Jessie Frew, known as Daisy, and the pair soon married. They moved back to Scotland in 1923, initially to Lybster in Caithness, and then to Inverness.
There Gunn became excise officer at Glen Mhor Distillery, where he remained for the next 16 years. In 1934, he was invited to contribute a volume about whisky for the Voices of Scotland series, edited by his friend and fellow novelist Lewis Grassic Gibbon – of A Scots Quair fame – shortly before Gibbon’s untimely death at the age of 33.
The book was duly published the following year, titled <Whisky and Scotland: a practical and spiritual survey>. The subtitle is significant, as whisky only receives dedicated coverage from page 125 onwards, out a total of 198. The rest of the volume is largely devoted to an occasionally mystical exploration of Scottish heritage and nationhood.
Whisky and Scotland soon came to be considered a classic of its kind, and it is a whisky book written by a writer, rather than a book written by a whisky writer. Consider the lines: “To listen to the silence of 5000 casks of whisky in the twilight of a warehouse while the barley seed is being scattered on surrounding fields, might make even a Poet Laureate dumb.”
Making his position on the subject very clear, Gunn declares that: “A fine pot-still whisky is as noble a product of Scotland as any burgundy or champagne is of France. Patent-still spirit is no more a true whisky than, at the opposite extreme, is any of those cheap juices of the grape heavily fortified by raw spirit which we import from the ends of the earth a true wine.
“…the blender has become the dictator of the pot still, whose product he uses. To survive, the pot still must sell as cheaply to him as possible and must therefore contrive to get the maximum amount of spirit out of the minimum amount of barley.”
Gunn’s pessimism about Scotch whisky seemed well founded, considering that “In 1921 there were 134 distilleries at work in Scotland. In 1933 there were 15 (including six patent stills). Last year the number of pot stills at work had increased again. But the future of Highland malt whisky, other than as a flavouring ingredient of patent spirit, is very obscure.”
There was, however, much cause for optimism in terms of his writing career, which went from strength to strength. The publication of The Grey Coast in 1926 had given Gunn the funds to build a house in Inverness, and subsequent novels cemented his reputation as one of the brightest and most original voices in Scottish fiction. Highland River was launched in 1937, winning the prestigious James Tait Black Memorial Prize, and Gunn took the plunge and resigned from the excise service to devote himself to full-time writing.
1941 saw the appearance of The Silver Darlings, Gunn’s epic novel about the fishing boom of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. It remains the best-known and most widely read of all his 27 published books.
Later, Gunn played a little-known part in the creation of Tormore distillery on Speyside, working with Lord Bendan Bracken – the ‘fixer’ for US-based Schenley Industries in the UK.
Writing in New Saltire number six in December 1962 – An Affair of Whisky – Gunn explained that: “Some five years ago I received a letter from the late Lord Bracken (whom I had then not met) saying some friends of his were planning to build a new distillery in the Highlands and hoping that I might be available for consultation as he was anxious to get them ‘the best advice’.
ABOVE: Tormore distillery
“Such politeness would have been disarming even if I had not been concerned most of my life for the welfare of the Highlands, and, in this particular matter of malt whisky, had begun to wonder as no new pot still had been built in the Highlands this century, if the existing plant could go on producing indefinitely and in sufficient quantity and quality the traditional Scotch to meet an ever rising demand; so I was pleased to assure Lord Bracken that I should be glad to advise in any way I could.”
Gunn goes on to describe the search for a distillery site, concluding that: “We found at last a burn, which ran from the Cromdale Hills into the Spey, in quantity enough and in taste admirable. It had its source in a small loch whose Gaelic name meant the loch of gold, and as an extra wonder, it had no distillery on its banks. Its name was Tormore, in the county of Moray.”
Sadly, Gunn’s soulmate Daisy died a few months after this essay was penned, and her devastated husband retired from writing as a result. He lived for another decade, and was buried, aged 81, beside his wife in Dingwall cemetery.
The world of Scotch whisky has always been cyclical in its fortunes, and were Neil Gunn alive today he would surely be delighted by the number of distilleries now proudly making single malt Scotch whisky, creating employment for local people in often remote areas, and producing spirit with real passion.