At the Ecumenical Service which concluded the Munro Weekend.at
Inveraray in May 1996 the Address was delivered by The Very Rev. Allan Maclean,
St John's Cathedral, Oban. Mr. Maclean has very kindly agreed to the Society's
request to make the text of his address available to members.
We are here to celebrate and give thanks for the life of Neil Munro, and thus
we think of the talent he had for depicting character, and depicting scene,
and of making comment on life, through prose and poetry and novel.
But gathered as we are in the context of religious worship, we inevitably must
think a little bit about Neil Munro's own religious sense, his comment on religious
and ecclesiastical life, and his ability to encourage us, his readers, to make
moral and religious judgements in our own lives.
I hope that to talk of these three areas does not make you think that this
is a repeat Neil Munro Lecture; and I bear in mind what Bud Dyce said in The
Daft Days about her Scottish upbringing, albeit far away in America:
We went to church till we had pins and needles. We had the Reverend Ebenezer
Paul Frazer M.A., Presbyterian Church on the Front. He just preached and
preached, till we had pins and needles all over.
Neil Munro wrote no book of theology, or, so far as I know, specifically of
his own religious beliefs; but it is clear from virtually all his writing that
he had a firm sense of morality, and also of Providence. At the start of his
Tale of the Boon Companion, he says:
Every man his boon companion, every man his maid," they say in Argyll. Somewhere
in the wide world are both the man and the maid, but not always do they come
to your door. You may pass the maid at the market, never thinking she was meant
to mother your bairns ... the boon companion may wander by the changehouse where
you are drinking late - drinking late and waiting to learn the very songs he
knows, and he may never come that road again; but whether that is good for you
or ill is the most cunning of God's secrets.
And concern over fate and providence is a very modern area of theology. I recently
bought a book called The God of Chance, a study in the area of coincidences,
and Neil Munro's historical novels, and some of his poetry turns on this theme,
while friendship and companionship is the foil over and over again from Elrigmore
and John Splendid, to Ninlan and Aeneas. The quotation finishes:
I could tell nine hundred tales and nine of boon companions who met the
friend they were meant for, but I have still to learn the art of seeing the
end from the beginning of any comradeship.
The unravelling of a story is an art not given to all, but it is the religious
faculty that allows us to view the pattern, and see God's hand in the sweep
of history, as well as the story of each individual.
This leads us into the sense of the moral, and of justice; and this too is
an underlying theme of much of Neil Munro's work. Most of the people he depicts
are God-fearing people, like Auntie Bell: 'She's so Scotch, she's apt to think
of God as a countryman of her own': while for those who are not particularly
good, he draws attention to their failings. Do you remember in The Daft Days,
he also wrote:
It was five years now since Cohn Cleland retired among his toddy rummers,
and if this were a fancy story I would be telling you how he fell, and fell,
and fell; but the truth - it's almost lamentable - is that the old rogue throve
on leisure and ambrosial nights with men who were now quite ready to give the
firm of Daniel Dyce their business seeing they had Cohn Cleland all to themselves
and under observation.
The foil was that Daniel Dyce grew rich.
"Don't Dan, don't," she [his sister Bel] cried "don't brag of the world's dross;
it's not like you. 'He that hasteth to be rich, shall not be innocent1' says the
Proverbs. You must be needing medicine. We should have humble hearts. How many
that were high have had a fall!"
"Are you frlghtened God will hear me and rue his bounty?" said the brother in
a whisper. "I'm not bragging; I'm just telling you."
"I hope you are not hoarding it," proceeded Miss Bell. "It's not wise-like-"
"Nor Dyce-like either," said Miss Ailie.
"There's many a poor body in the town this winter that's needful."
"I dare say," said Daniel Dyce coldly. "The poor we have always with us. The thing,
they tell me is decreed by Providence."
So to the ecclesiastical scene, and it is remarkable, I think, that while Munro
introduces so many different full-blown characters in his writings, he only
occasionally introduces a Man of the Cloth, and then only fleetingly, apart
from Richard Cameron, the Covenanter, and perhaps for Mr Alexander Gordon, MA,
Minister of Inveraray and Argyll's Chaplain in John Splendid, 'the man
who wedded me and gave my children Christian baptism, and brought solace in
the train of those little ones lost for a space to me among the grasses and
flowers of Kilmalieu.' Others are like the kindly 'of the blood true born' later
Minister of Inveraray, who comes into the story of that Highland ghost, who
wisely had never ventured to use the West Highland Railway, since, as Munro
said, God had given him legs to use. His worst criticism was reserved for Cosmo
Gordon Lang, the Archbishop of Canterbury, who no doubt he considered a renegade
for having converted from the Church of Scotland to the Anglican Church, and
certainly considered a renegade for his views on the Scottish character; while
his highest praise goes to Father Allan Macdonald in Eriskay, of whom he says:
To a calculating and worldly mind he might seem a man 'lost', as the saying
goes, in that remote and narrow corner of the Roman Catholic world, but gentleness
and devotion and self-effacement are never thrown away, and serve God's purposes
But the ecclesiastical world is well represented in one character more than
any other, Erchie MacPherson, my droll friend, 'On Sunday he is the beadle of
our church; at other times he Waits.' 'I suppose Mr Macpherson has been snibbing-in
preachers in St. Kentigern's Kirk pulpit and then going for twenty minutes'
sleep in the vestry since the Disruption.'
But Munro's greatest strictures against the established church, for Munro's
world is a Presbyterian world, apart from his one reference to Barra, and within
the Presbyterian Church he makes virtually no reference to the rival Free Churches
of those days, except in a disparaging way as when Jimmy Swan says: 'I never
could tell the difference of one Free Kirk from another, and I've studied the
thing minutely, even to the way they cut their hair'; his greatest strictures
are about the keeping of the Sabbath. It is clearly something from which he
suffered in his childhood, when after Sunday School they dared not whistle;
and is brought in early on in John Splendid, where he says:
The session was bitterly keen on Sabbath-breakers, and to start on a Saturday
night a kiln-drying of oats that would claim a peat or two on Sabbath, was accounted
immorality of the most gross kind.
Munro puts it down to an importation by Lowland burghers, and there is a certain
glee with which he tells of the first Sunday train through the tunnel mouth
at Fort Matilda at Gourock. This is why I chose the Gospel reading [Luke 14:1-11]
for this service, about what it is lawful to do on the Sabbath; but typically,
Munro balances his joy of the Sunday train, by writing about the good of the
'Sabbath calm'. 'No other word can so well convey the hushed and tranquil nature
of the scene' he says; and he reckons that even the galleys of the Romans stealing
round the promontories must have surely felt its influence, and more softly
dipped their oars.
And this takes us to the final point, which is Neil Munro's inner turmoil between
on the one hand the need for change, which in his journalistic writings he shows
that he sees all around him, in politics, church, and society; and on the other
hand his romantic memory of, and even longing for, the things of the past that
have disappeared with the change. To write of history is bound to be to write
of change and how people cope with it; and Munro does this deftly from the humour
of the importation of bubblyjocks and cards at Christmas in Glasgow, and Mr
Boyd, the Draper's fulmination against Mr Cameron his minister who has introduced
an organ and a lectern into the Church, [so he goes all the way to Glasgow to
go to Church and finds that Mr Cameron is the Visiting Preacher]; to the recognition
in The New Road that, hated as they were, the construction of the new
roads is only a passing symbol of the march of history; the new road will eventually
become the old road.
Of all his religious ideas, this is the deepest and the one which many of us
face all the time; particularly in a time of particular change such as we are
in the midst of at present. Is it Providence or Fate? Should we resist the change
or encourage it for the good it does? 'Will it be long' said they, the true
Gaels, ever anxious to know the lease of pleasure and of grief, at the end of
John Splendid. 'Long or short' says he 'will lie with Fate and she my
lads is a dour jade with a secret.'
Over the door of Doom Castle, Munro tells us are the words: 'Doom; Man behauld
the end of all: Be nocht wiser than the Hiest; Hope in God', and Olivia wonders
whether she could bear to change and move to France, and says:
We live not in glens, in this house, nor in that, but in hearts that love
us; and where my father is and friends are to be made, I think I can be happy
and so back to the Boon Companion, where Munro says: 'I have still to
learn the art of seeing the end from the beginning.' Olivia had that vision
and Munro shows it in the unfurling of Fate and Providence; a guiding hand that
undergirds all that happens.
Though as Jim Molyneux said to Bud: 'Trust in Providence, and if it's very
stormy, trust in Providence and the Scotch captain.'
© 2002 Allan Maclean