- Nation and Nationalism Edited by Alistair McCleery
This volume is the inaugural edition of the ‘occasional series’ from the Neil Gunn Circle. It offers an appraisal of Neil M. Gunn’s influence and relevance as perceived through his writings and involvement with Scottish nationalist politics. Its arrival is timely for those looking to the literary and cultural seeds of a more contemporary debate and it certainly allows Gunn readers to make more solid the links between his insights and contemporary notions of nationhood. This collection serves many: it will please the established Gunn-reading audience, yet will serve better to inform those interested in the roots of Scottish nationalism and its literary origins. Most of Gunn’s novels are still in print, and this edition is an ideal companion for those reading Gunn with a political eye.
Alistair McCleery’s introduction sets out the historical context of Gunn’s essay writing and politics from 1930. From Gunn’s account in his diary McCleery draws comparison between the situation in 1931 and the present day to emphasise Gunn’s ‘crucial role in the creation of a single Nationalist political grouping’. He discusses what Gunn thought the consequences of self-government would be, including the arrest and reversal of social and economic decline and the ‘liberation of Scottish individuality’. Placing this in the context of other political models McCleery sees that Gunn’s nationalism ‘was a more humane, humanitarian and liberal philosophy than the contemporary alternatives of communism and fascism’.
Gunn is famous for reinscribing Highland spiritual values, which are evident in his most gripping novels. This facet of Gunn’s writing is a strong theme running through the edition. It is the notion that native writers’ imaginations can deteriorate when writing on other matters, though thrive when using Scotland’s landscape as an arbiter of Scottishness. Gunn’s own reproduced essay, ‘Why are Writers Nationalists?’, delves briefly but typically into the psychology of writing, the ‘vital experience’ required, and the need to release through literary expression a cultural identity suppressed and destructive to the body. Gunn likens Scotland to a ‘crashed airman suffering from shock’ which needs to be brought back to cultural and psychological health after the trauma of attempts to graft incompatible cultures together. [End Page 163]
McCleery also contributes a reappraisal of the events of 1931 and Gunn’s role in the Inverness-shire campaign. He situates Gunn at the centre of political and cultural aspects of the nationalist movement and its rise in popularity. Specifically he sees Gunn as crystallising and reconciling the ideas of disparate groups and bringing them together in favour of a coherent movement for independence.
Michael Russell considers Gunn’s debt to Ireland. He is keen to acknowledge that writers are not politicians though privileges the role of the literary in unpicking political scenarios and exploring putative solutions. Russell sees the nationalist dimension to Gunn’s writing as influenced by the Irish writer Maurice Walsh and states that, though there were similarities between the two, Ireland’s context was distinct from the quiet cultural revolution Gunn envisioned. Gunn’s vision is one where identity grows from a constantly regenerating cultural tradition, ‘healthy, creative and continuing’ to produce a ‘distinctive Scottish political identity’. Gunn’s perennial theme is that a shift away from a mechanised modernity to an organic culture will deliver self-belief. Russell suggests that this position would require a revaluation of the Scottish literary past. He adds his voice to those advocates of a Scot-centric curriculum.
Ewan Cameron’s essay discusses the development of his own academic career. This narrative is the most useful in terms of understanding Gunn’s importance to education. Cameron marks the marginalisation and ‘inferiorism’ of Scottish writers and Scottish History from the curriculum in the Scottish high school. Cameron too highlights the educational value of Scottish literature and history to the Scottish people if they are to have the best appreciation of modern Scottish affairs. Similarly he asserts that Gunn’s literary representations of Highland life are an important way of accessing historical realities...