Neil Gunn (1891-1973), one of Scotland's most prolific and distinguished novelists, wrote over a period that spanned the Recession, the political crises of the 1920's and 1930's, and the Second World War and its aftermath. Although nearly all his 20 novels are set in the Highlands of Scotland, he is not a regional author in the narrow sense of that description; his novels reflect a search for meaning in troubled times, both past and present, a search that leads him into the realms of philosophy, archaeology, folk tradition and metaphysical speculation.
Born in the coastal village of Dunbeath, Caithness, the son of a successful fishing boat skipper, Gunn was educated at the local village primary school and privately in Galloway. In 1911 he entered the Civil Service and spent some time in both London and Edinburgh before returning to the North as a customs and excise officer based (after a short spell in Caithness) in Inverness. Before voluntary retirement from Government service in 1937 to become a full-time writer, he had embarked on a literary career with considerable success.
His first novel, The Grey Coast (1926), a novel in the realist tradition and set in Caithness in the 1920's, occupied an important position in the literary movement known as the Scottish Renaissance. His second novel, Morning Tide (1931), an idyll of a Highland childhood, won a Book Society award and the praise of the well known literary and public figure, John Buchan. The turning point in Gunn's career, however, came in 1937, when he won the prestigious James Tait Black Memorial prize for his deeply thought-provoking Highland River, a quasi autobiographical novel written in the third person, in which the main protagonist's life is made analogous to a Highland river and the search for its source.
In 1941 Gunn's epic novel about the fishing boom of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, The Silver Darlings, was widely acclaimed as a modern classic and considered the finest balance between concrete action and metaphysical speculation achieved by any British writer in the 20th century. It was also the final novel of a trilogy of the history of the Northlands, the other novels being Sun Circle (1933) on the Viking invasions of the 9th century and Butcher's Broom (1934) on the Clearances. In 1944 Gunn wrote his anti-Utopian novel, The Green Isle of the Great Deep ,a book that preceded George Orwell's novel on the same theme, Nineteen Eighty-Four, by five years. The novel, using an old man and a young boy from a rural background as characters in a struggle against the pressures of totalitarian state, evoked an enthusiastic response from the famous Swiss psychiatrist Carl Gustav Jung.
Some of Gunn's later books, whilst not ignoring the uglier aspects of the modern world, touch more on metaphysical speculation in a vein that is not without humour. The World at the Worlds End (1951), in particular, lays emphasis on the more positive aspects of living and the value of that approach in finding meaning and purpose in life. Gunn's spiritual autobiography, The Atom of Delight (1956), which, although similar in many ways to Highland River, incorporates a vein of thought derived from Gunn's interest in Zen Buddhism. The autobiography was Gunn's last major work.
In 1948 Gunn's contribution to literature was recognised by Edinburgh University with an honorary doctorate to the author; in 1972 the Scottish Arts Council created the Neil Gunn Fellowship in his honour, a fellowship that was to include such famous writers as Henrich Boll, Saul Bellow, Ruth Prawar Jhabvala, Nadine Gordimer and Mario Vargas Llosa.