How a small boy from Inveraray grew up to become the creator of the unforgettable Para Handy
It is over 130 years ago since a little boy sat swinging his legs over the harbour wall, grey socks wrinkled on his ankles, school satchel slung across his back, watching the black smudge of smoke on the horizon as a puffer came up Loch Fyne. The puffers, little steamers, were the lifeline to the West Highlands and the Isles. Once the cargo was unloaded the crew would come ashore. Most had friends or relations in Inveraray and often they found a few sweeties in their pockets for the children as they headed for a fireside in the town.
The boy, called Neil Munro, to whom they were heroes one and all, had been born in the whitewashed house in Crombies Land in 1863. Illegitimate, he had taken his mother’s name, although his father was rumoured to be connected to the ducal house of Argyll. Neil’s first language was Gaelic, a tongue in which he thought as he wrote in English in his later years. As a child he spent much time with his grandmother in the farm of Ladyfield in Glenaray, where, by the fire of burning peats, she told him the old legends of Argyll. To a boy of Neil’s imagination the events of his childhood always lingered in his mind. He went first to the now ruined school in Glenaray, and then to the parish school in the Church Square of Inveraray. In 1875, when he was eleven, his mother married Malcolm Thomson, Governor of Inveraray Jail, and they went to live in his flat in the Courthouse, which, since its restoration, has become such a popular attraction. A passionate reader, Neil longed for an academic career but, forced to earn his living, he left school at 13, to begin work as a junior clerk in the office of the Sheriff-Clerk in the main street of Inveraray.
Five years later, when still only 18, he took the great step into the outer world. Leaving Inveraray, aboard the Lord of the Isles, on the sea route to Glasgow, he looked back over the steamer’s wake and saw ‘all that was precious to me at the moment falling rapidly astern.’ Reaching the city, homesick and miserable in a totally alien environment, he found a job as a clerk in an ironmongers. However, somehow, he then managed to become a reporter on the Greenock Advertiser for a wage of twenty-five shillings a week. From there he moved to other papers, until, in 1888, he became chief reporter of the Glasgow Evening News at the then princely salary of £100 a year. Rising to become editor of this paper, he was soon regarded as one of the most successful and respected journalists of his day. Yet his heart was ever in Argyll. In 1896 he wrote The Lost Pibroch, a collection of short stories which many believe to be his best work. Most are based on the stories told to him by his grandmother.
Then came the novels – two of the most exciting, John Splendid and Doom Castle, being based on Inveraray and Dunderave Castle on Loch Fyne. In the The New Road, based on the building of the military roads by General Wade, Neil was a master of description: ‘He ventured out to look what hour the stars proclaimed. The Sealgair Mor – Orion, was just tipping Cowal, and the lesser of his dogs on leash behind him.’ How vividly he encapsulates the magic and the mystery of a Highland night. The talent of the boy forced to leave school at 13 was recognized in 1908 when he was given the degree of LLD., first by Glasgow and then by Edinburgh University.
But it was when he was made a Burgess Freeman of Inveraray that Neil openly confessed to the inspiration for his work. ‘The things we love intently are the things worth writing about. I never could keep Inveraray out of any story of mine, and never will…This parish, though you may not think it, is a miniature of the world.’ With the little town on Loch Fyne ever in the eye of his mind, Neil introduced the hilarious episodes of the puffer called The Vital Spark. Aiming to cheer up the citizens of Glasgow on Monday mornings, but uncertain of its success, he wrote under the pseudonym of Hugh Fowlis, seat of the Munros. He need not have worried!
Soon it was so popular that people rushed to the newsstands to grab a copy of the Evening News before they all sold out. Since then the two adaptations of the stories, made for BBC 1, have endeared the unforgettable characters he created, Para Handy, Dan MacPhail, and Sunny Jim amongst them, to people of the present day. Neil married Jessie Adams, daughter of his landlady in Glasgow. Of their family of two sons and four daughters the eldest son, tragically, was killed in the First World War. In 1927 Neil retired to live in Helensburgh in the house which he called ‘Cromalt’ after the burn in Inveraray. He died in 1930, to be buried in the old churchyard of Kilmalieu by Loch Fyne. In 1986 a plaque, placed by the Inveraray Historical Society on the house in Crombies Land where he was born, was unveiled by his granddaughter and biographer, Mrs Leslie Bratten.
Ten years later the Neil Munro Society was founded by enthusiasts determined to perpetuate interest in the works of one of the greatest Scottish authors of his time. Most visual of all his memorials is the cairn on the summit of Creag Dhu in Glenaray which looks down upon Ladyfield, the farm where the little boy first heard the tales of his grandmother which inspired his great love of Argyll.
FIELD FACTS To join the Neil Munro Society contact Dorothy Paterson (Treasurer) at Sgiba, 20 Relief Land, Inveraray PA32 8SO www.neilmunro.co.uk