The writing career of Neil M Gunn, one of Scotland's greatest 20th century novelists, spanned thirty years, ending in 1956 with his spiritual autobiography, The Atom of Delight. The early years of his writing saw his close involvement in a Scottish movement in literature in the 1920's and 1930's that came to be known as the Scottish Literary Renaissance. One of the essential beliefs of this movement was that art could not be divorced from the nation's social, economic, and political life and that cultural regeneration had to be at one with the regeneration of the country as a whole. Scotland had to be described as it truly was and not in a way to satisfy the fanciful notions of a certain readership who, with regard to the Highlands, wished to read about a land of mountain, mist and loch and inhabitants clad in tartan; its culture had to be in the mainstream of European culture and not be a mere appendage to the great culture of it southern neighbour. Gunn was a Highlander and lived and wrote in the northern part of Scotland where there was a strong sense of tradition, a tradition that created a meaningful relationship between past and present. The present was the subject with which Gunn was most concerned, and he felt that it could be nourished and revitalised by cultural traditions and social patterns developed over long periods of time. In all his work there is the feeling of the existence of two worlds, the world of here and now and the other world of 'then' and 'beyond', a world of depth and meaning that informs and permeates the present. It was no accident that he chose as the title for his last book written in 1954 the evocative three words - 'The Other Landscape.'
Gunn's first book, The Grey Coast, published in 1926 was very much in keeping with the spirit of the Renaissance movement, depicting the harshness of life in a poor northern rural community. It was powerfully written, and with compassion, and met with qualified success and some encouragement. The Lost Glen, written shortly afterwards, was rejected by a number of publishers not because it was simply being much more of the same, but rather as a result of the critical stance it adopted with regard to Highland life and a most unsympathetic portrayal of one of the main protagonists, a retired English colonel. In short, the publishers thought it would be unattractive for the general reader in England. It was only due to the success of Gunn's second book, Morning Tide, an idyll of a Highland childhood, and to his determination and persuasiveness that The Lost Glen found a publisher and made its appearance in 1932. It had seen the light of day earlier in serial form in the Scots Magazine of 1928.
The Lost Glen itself is obviously of historical interest in that it describes Gunns Highlands in the difficult years between the two world wars when the effects of the Recession were reflected in the decline of rural communities. But the main thrust of the novel is not there. When Gunn writes, 'The land was too old. scarred and silent. It was settling down into decay. The burden of its story had been too great to carry .', it is clear that he had more in his mind than describing a declining community at a particular moment in time. His deep concern and feeling of bitterness were for what had been lost and for the passing of a way of life that enshrined so many laudable and irreplaceable values and beliefs; his pessimism is countered only by a few moments of vision in both tangible and intangible form.
One of the contributing factors to the general malaise in the community described, is the clash between two cultures, the Celtic and the Anglo-Saxon, with the former being the inheritance of the indigenous people and the latter the preserve of the more dominant group of landowners and wealthy visitors seeking pleasure in fishing the local lochs. To illustrate the cultural collision, Gunn uses two characters, a local man, Ewan MacLeod, and a retired English colonel, Colonel Hicks, who lives comfortably on his pension at the village hotel. Both men are failures, each in his own way and estimation. Both have a natural antipathy for one another, and represent different attitudes, sense of values, and way of life. Of the two, the Colonel is easier to understand. He has left the diplomatic and military milieu, in which he had been unremarkable, to seek a self imposed exile in a community that he felt he could dominate and in which he could even be regarded as a figure of some importance. Had it not been for his bullying and total disdain for the local culture, he could have been regarded with a certain amount of sympathy. As it was, he was a poor representative of a culture that could have co-existed with the host culture in a complementary and beneficent way.
Ewan MacLeod's failure was of a completely different nature and existed on several levels. His return from university, where he had been reading divinity, had been due essentially to the meanness and lack of empathy on the part of a maternal uncle who had been supporting him financially The sudden and unexpected termination of his studies had deeply saddened his mother, who had wanted him 'to get on' in the world; it had also alienated him in varying degrees from most members of the community, who regarded him as a man of potential and learning who had not seen through what he had undertaken to do. Although his father, a fisherman, and Colin McKinnon, a local crofter, had offered their friendship, he was bent on emigrating, making his escape from the land and community he loved to start again. His father's death by drowning, for which he could be held indirectly responsible, forced him to be reconciled to looking after his mother and sisters by fishing and working as a gillie for wealthy visitors.
In the years that follow his ignominious return, Ewan MacLeod moved among those in the community like a village Hamlet; his melancholy and brooding vividly reflected not only his own personal sense of failure but also a sense of betrayal that permeated his landscape and people, a reminder of the Clearances, and afterwards. The vision of what had been haunted him; unlike Lord Jim, the eponymous hero of one of Joseph Conrad's great novels, he had come to realise that he could not escape or evade the vision by simply going away. The menial role played by many in the community apropos of the dominant position of the wealthy incomers hurt his Highland pride and caused him spiritual anguish. In a world where money was the supreme power, the old spirit of the community was being squeezed to death; the old land existed for hotels and shooting lodges. Yet, in spite of this pessimistic vision of Highland life, there were moments when the old spirit seemed to return. A Gaelic song sung by Colin McKinnon's beautiful daughter brought to him 'the ghosts of past lives in past generations; of men and women of his blood; of old unnameable desires, great ways of joy and sorrow, the deep sad ways of death, to echo-ings of ancient heroism and tingling in the heart's blood'. Her father had done even more; he created from a powerful and enchanting revelation experienced in what he called a lost glen a hauntingly beautiful pibroch of that name, music that showed that there was still creativity left in the old spirit that could flood the present landscape and rejuvenate its people.
A village concert for the gentry (brilliantly satirised by Gunn) fanned Ewans's feeling of shame for his community. An illegal sit-in by crofters on land given over to sheep farming brought him the chance to act on their behalf, but he confined his feelings of anger to berating most eloquently, and with satire and irony, the agent of the local member of Parliament, who had been advocating a surrender on the part of the crofters. He did not act; his ideas remained ideas; too much thought and too much brooding had make him a figure of indecision and inaction. His tendency for backward-looking, his fierce Highland pride, and an intimation of suicide through the medium of second sight could only lead to a tragic end. The inevitable physical clash with Colonel Hicks had to come and bring the story to a violent and sad close.
The story would be unsatisfying and unduly melancholy if it only concentrated on the antagonism that existed between the two men and all that they represented. The gloom is lightened by the thoughts and activities of Clare Marlowe, the Colonel's attractive and sensitive niece, who could not have been more different from her uncle. Her natural politeness, her enquiring mind and her desire to learn more about the community in which she had found herself made her an agreeable ambassador for all that was fine and ennobling in her own culture. The subtle verbal exchanges, and the silences, between her and her gillie, no other than Ewan MacLeod, and the obvious attraction he had for her had the beginnings of an overture for a love affair. Here there was the juxtaposition of two cultures, fundamentally complex in themselves with their own divisions and internal tensions, reminiscent of a similar contiguity in E M Forsters Passage to India. In a strange way, Clare's provenance, assured and gracious manner, and her thoughtfulness were more difficult for Ewan MacLeod to accommodate than the enmity for her uncle. Had not fate intervened, it would have been she who would have made the first move to develop a meaningful friendship.
The Lost Glen is a novel of satire, irony and anguish. The author invites his readers to focus on the Highlands as they were when he wrote the book. Yet, it is a novel of the mind of a thoughtful and sensitive man who is faced with an intractable sense of failure regarding himself and his community. The book presents itself more as a symbolic drama than a novel of realism; it leaves the reader strangely moved.