ParaGraphs 1

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 anywhere.

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 yet.

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