Maurice Walsh and Neil Gunn – two celebrated authors slowly being rediscovered. Gavin Smith explains the appeal of these quintessential whisky writers.
In those halcyon days of the late 1970s before ‘whisky writers’ had been invented and Scottish bookshops were forced to order new shelving units each spring and autumn to accommodate the glut of fresh whisky titles pouring forth from printers’ warehouses, one whisky book stood out from all the others.It certainly didn’t stand out in terms of cover design, but in every other respect it was the Scotch whisky book. And despite everything that has gone since it remains, for this writer at least, the whisky book. It is called Whisky and Scotland, and was written by a certain Neil M. Gunn. Whisky and Scotland was far from new in the 1970s, as Neil Gunn wrote what his publishers described as “this witty, indignant little book” during the mid-1930s, at a time when the Scotch whisky industry was in the economic doldrums, and single, or ‘self’ whiskies as they were often known, were virtually unobtainable for the average drinker. As a writer about whisky, Gunn is the antithesis of the Victorian ‘distillery-bagger’ Alfred Barnard. Whereas Barnard took a slightly unsettling delight in chronicling the dimensions of everything he saw in each distillery he visited, Gunn was much more of a broad-brush man. For him the mystique of whisky-making and its role in Scottish history, legend and everyday life was what made it worth writing about. Faced with a washback, Barnard would have asked its capacity. Gunn wrote: “I have heard one of those backs rock and roar in a perfect reproduction of a really dirty night at sea”.Scotland’s greatest 20th century novelist, responsible for classic fiction such as The Silver Darlings, was the son of a crofter-fisherman, born in the east Caithness fishing village of Dunbeath, between Clynelish and Pulteney distilleries, in 1891. In 1907 he entered the civil service, joining the excise branch four years later, going on to spend a decade as an ‘unattached officer’, travelling widely in the Highlands and islands.In 1921 Gunn married Daisy Frew, and two years later the couple were living in Inverness, where Gunn had been appointed excise officer at the now-demolished Glen Mhor distillery, situated beside the Caledonian Canal.By the time he decided to leave the security of the excise service and write professionally in 1937, Gunn had three published novels to his credit, and a fourth – Highland River – finished and ready for publication. His involvement with Scottish nationalist politics was also taking up much of his time. Something had to give, and it was Glen Mhor. From that date until not long before his death in 1973, Gunn was a full-time writer.While serving in HM Customs & Excise Service, shortly before the outbreak of the First World War, Neil Gunn met and became friends with a fellow exciseman and scribbler, one Maurice Walsh, a farmer’s son from County Kerry in south-west Ireland.Walsh was resident officer at Dallas Dhu – where a plaque now commemorates his association with the distillery – and Gunn was sent to cover his annual leave. In a conversation with his co-biographer Francis Hart, Gunn noted: “I’d write ahead and say, ‘Look here! I’m coming to replace you. Kindly see that the books are all in perfect order so that there is absolutely no work to be done’”.Once in situ, Gunn would spend much of his time fishing and shooting with Walsh, a situation that finds a fictional parallel in Walsh’s best-selling 1926 novel The Key Above The Door, in which the narrator Tom King spends time on Skye, where his Irish friend Neil Quinn is an excise officer, sent to the island to cover the resident officer’s summer holiday.Attempting to persuade King to join him on Skye, Quinn writes “… above all there is the whisky – Uiskavagh whisky, the finest whisky in the world when drunk in Skye; old as a grown man, mild as your goat’s milk, soothing as a woman’s hand in your hair, inspiring as a tune – a very great whisky.”Part of The Key Above the Door has a Speyside setting, as have several of Walsh’s other novels. Most notable is The Hill is Mine, in which Stephen Wayne from Montana inherits a Banffshire croft and falls in love with the country, not to mention the obligatory spirited and beautiful young woman. Walsh’s own wife, Caroline Begg, was a Dufftown girl, and served as the red-haired model for many of his fabulous, feisty fictional heroines.Apart from The Key Above The Door, which appeared in the same year as Neil Gunn’s first novel The Grey Coast, Walsh is probably best known for his short story The Quiet Man, part of his 1935 collection Green Rushes, which in 1952 was made into one of Ireland’s most famous films, starring John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara.Walsh did not write much about whisky in non-fiction terms, though he contributed a rather splendid foreword to J Marshall Robb’s 1950 volume Scotch Whisky, which serves as quite a useful ‘whisky autobiography’. He vividly recalls first entering the excise service back in 1901. “I mind well that a week before Xmas I was away down in Valentia Island at the American side of the Kerry Mountains, and looking forward to a pleasant Festival in Tralee, where, at the time, I was coortin’ a nice girl – even if she was a Presbyterian. But I spent that snowy Xmas under Ben Nevis, five hundred miles away. That was where they made and matured the famous Long John … After that, for my sins, I was sent down among the raw grain distilleries about Alloa. Carsebridge, Glenochil, Cambus.” A spell in the breweries of Burton-upon-Trent was followed by a move to Speyside, where Walsh fell in love with “that soberly-rolling and chimney-stalked territory … Three dozen of us young fellows used gather for the distilling season from October to May: lads from all Scotland, England, Wales and Ireland, the four most quarrelsome nations in the world – but it was not blood that flowed”.The delightfully eloquent and lucid Walsh concludes in characteristically lyrical style “… when I do get the first whiff of, say, Standfast, I see a vision. I see the long-winding valley with the chimney stalks and kiln-pagodas above the trees; I see the Fiddich and the Dullan running fast and clear over bright gravel, the bald Convals fringed with a hair of pines, big Ben Rinnes with cap atilt over the glen; I smell again the peat, the wash, and the feints, and feel the tightness of carbon-dioxide in my throat; and I see myself getting out of a warm bed in the dark of a Januar’ morning. And I see a girl with red hair.”In 1922 Walsh returned to Ireland, where he joined the newly-formed Irish Free State Service, helping to establish its own excise division. He lived for much of the rest of his life near Dublin, and he and Gunn kept in regular contact until the Kerryman’s death in 1964. Happily, most of Neil Gunn’s novels are now in print again after several decades of neglect, and Walsh, too, is slowly being rediscovered. His style may occasionally seem dated, but he is a consummate storyteller, whose books are full of outdoor adventures set against dramatic and beautiful scenic backdrops. His fiction is quite unlike that of Gunn, whose novels of Highland life are much more mystical, spiritual and cerebral. What the two writers share is a love of landscape, of cherished places.A Maurice Walsh bust was unveiled in 1995 at Lisselton, near Listowel, in County Kerry, while Neil Gunn is commemorated in a memorial viewpoint at Heights of Brae, near Dingwall, and at Dunbeath harbour, where a sculpture of a boy with a salmon depicts an episode from the novel Highland River. No doubt the two old excisemen would have chuckled together over a dram of something decent at the thought of having become so celebrated.
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