The Ell-Wand and the Sword
the historical fiction of Neil Munro
At the dedication of the monument to Neil Munro (1863–1930) in Glen Aray, Argyll, R.B Cunninghame Graham described the writer as the "apostolic successor of Sir Walter Scott". Whatever the truth of this statement – and to me there seems to be a great deal – Neil Munro has written a number of historical novels two of which, John Splendid and The New Road, are particularly fine and deserve much more attention than they currently receive.
Neil Munro was born in Inveraray, Argyll in 1863, son of a kitchen maid. His father is rumoured to have been of the House of Argyll. He was brought up in the Gaelic-speaking household of his maternal grandmother. In 1881 he left for Glasgow where he soon carved out a career for himself as one of Scotlandís best known journalists, spending almost all of his working life with the Glasgow Evening News.
He made his first significant mark on the Scottish literary landscape with his short story collection the Lost Pibroch and other Sheiling Stories in 1896 – an innovative collection which sought to counteract the sentimentality of "Celtic Twilight" writing which was becoming fashionable. In 1897 he reduced his journalistic commitment to two columns per week in order to concentrate on his literary work and went on to produce eight novels (four of them historical), three short story collections and five collections of humorous sketches which had been published previously in his columns in the News. These latter, of course, included the famous tales of Para Handy, the intrepid captain of The Vital Spark, and his crew.
With the outbreak of the First World War Munro returned to full time journalism and soon after became editor of his paper. He died in Helensburgh in 1930. Although extremely popular in his own day his literary reputation diminished during the second half of the twentieth century. It is now, thankfully, being gradually rebuilt.
Of his four historical novels John Splendid (1898), The Shoes of Fortune (1901), Doom Castle (1901) and The New Road (1914) the first and last of these are very accomplished. John Splendid is a well-judged historical novel of the 17th century Highlands. It contains an excellent analysis of the character of the chief of Clan Campbell, Gillesbeg Gruamach, the Eighth Earl of Argyll. Most of us are aware of the Massacre of Glencoe in 1692 when the Campbells slaughtered the MacDonalds. What we are not so aware of is that in 1644 the Marquis of Montrose supported by the MacDonalds committed a much worse slaughter on the Campbells when he absolutely sacked Inveraray and its environs. During this invasion Gillesbeg Gruamach deserts his people and goes off to Edinburgh – supposedly to organise reinforcements.
Later in the novel full battle is joined between the Campbells and Montrose's supporters at the Battle of Inverlochy, near Fort William. In the run up to this Munro describes brilliantly Montrose's march from Corrieyarrick, through Glen Roy and Glen Nevis amid bitter ice and snow. In the combat which follows again Montrose wins – and again Gillesbeg deserts. And yet coward though he may have been on these occasions, all his life he was trying, as he saw it, to civilise the Highlands. He was trying "to teach his clan the arts of peace and merchandise" and the rule of law rather than the sword.
And this us where the character John Splendid himself comes into the picture. He is a marvellously depicted swaggering soldier, deriving from the character of Dugald Dalgetty in Scott's novel A Legend of Montrose. He is boastful and sure of himself. But he is also a true Highlander, totally committed to the old clan system and completely devoted to his chief Gillesbeg Gruamach. And herein lies his weakness: although he completely disapproves of his chief's modernising ways, he is so loyal to him and so determined not to offend him that he collaborates in specious excuses for Gillesbeg's desertions instead of telling him roundly where his duty lies. Indeed, in the end, Gillesbeg blames him for not being honest with him when he says:
In short, if John Splendid and others like him had been true advisers, disaster could have been avoided for the Campbells. When he does finally speak his true mind at the end of the story it is too late.
These two vacillating characters, Argyll and John Splendid, are contrasted in the novel with two real men of action, significantly both Lowlanders. They are Montrose himself and the Protestant minister Gordon, Gillesbeg's chaplain, who spells out John Splendid's duty to him in no uncertain terms. The counterpointing of these two sets of characters emphasises a weakness in the Highland society of the day.
John Splendid is an excellent historical novel. It can claim to be the first "authentic" Highland novel; that is to say, the first novel written about the Highlands from the inside by a writer who really knew the language and culture of his people. It is action-packed and exciting. At the same time it examines the need for change and the conflict between the old and the new in the Highlands, themes which will be taken up again in The New Road and will finally be played out a century later at the Battle of Culloden. [...]
1 Munro, Neil, John Splendid (with introduction by B.D.Osborne), Edinburgh: B&W Publishing, 1994; p142.