Neil Munro - The New Road (1914)
100 Best Scottish Books of all Time
The image of writers struggling unrecognised in their own lifetime only to be canonised long after their remains have been consigned to paupers' graves is a familiar one. Perhaps we should pity poor Neil Munro (born 1863) whose literary career took the opposite trajectory. Fêted while he lived for his satirical portrayals of Highland life, and serious responses to tumultuous historical events, Munro might justifiably spin in his comfy crypt if he knew the light-hearted Para Handy Stories - depicting the adventures of the Vital Spark coaster's idle crew - were his popular legacy.
In fact, Munro's final novel The New Road provides the most powerful illustration of the moral complexity and darkness at the heart of the Argyll-born author's best fiction. On one level, the novel is a suspense thriller, being the tale of Aeneus McMaster's attempt to discover the truth about the mysterious death of his Jacobite father Paul. By the end of his journey, our young protagonist has grappled with scheming villain Sandy Duncanson, the steward who has murdered his father and contrived to swindle Aeneus out of his rightful inheritance.
The young man's abrupt passage from innocence to experience is compared to the fate of the Highlands and their folk, currently being dragged kicking and screaming into the 18th century, courtesy of General Wade's 'new road' snaking between Stirling and Inverness. Aeneus, through unhappy experience, has lost patience with the romantic notion of 'noble' Highland chiefs and welcomes progress, while recognising that such civilising measures will sadly hammer the nails in the coffin of the ancient Gaelic way of life. Re-reading The New Road, it seems deeply unfair that Munro is often lumped in with the couthiest of romantic Scottish novelists, when much of his work represents historical fiction at its richest.
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