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Some Comments On And Concerning John McNeillie’s Work

‘The Poacher’s Handbook is a classic essay in one of the major sub-genres in English Literature, the naturalist’s diary or handbook. Since Walton’s The Compleat Angler, it has been a form that breaks down solemn distinctions between serious and entertaining writing… As for writerly skills they are present in every paragraph: the line of every sentence is let out to the right length and tension. These are the skills, maybe, more associated with the good poet than the prose narrator…

No writing, whatever its subject and however unportentous its air, can be excellent without an ethical sense. Here this is lightly carried but Ian Niall is a writer you trust from the first. This is part of the reason why you don’t remain satisfied with half a dozen readings of this Poacher’s Handbook but will want to move on to his other books: to the marvellous memoir, A Galloway Childhood, the confessions of an addicted fly-fisherman, Trout from the Hills, or the philosopher ornithologist in Feathered Friends.

We cannot say where critical posterity will place these finely tuned books. It may be that it will find more humanity and truth in them than in the currently most celebrated fiction. What we can say is that The Poacher’s Handbook is a classic contribution to a tradition of secure masterpieces in the history of English, and that there are not many contemporary works that we can place with such confidence.’

from the introduction to The Poacher’s Handbook (1950; White Lion Books, 1992) by Bernard O’Donoghue, Fellow of Wadham College, Oxford

‘..if you start this book expecting to find a kind of ruthless Papageno you will be disappointed; the birdcatcher’s methods, indeed, are said to be “much more brutal than the blunderbuss”. What you get is something more like the elegiac Yeats of “The Wild Swans at Coole”. Niall ponders the crowding seashore wigeon: “Where were they before they began to gather in the estuary in October? Where did they nest and how did they come? Where will they go when they take their leave in late February or March?” Where indeed! Yeats’s famous ubi sunt inevitably comes to mind….What his [Niall’s] elegy is largely about is the passing of the world in which [the fowler’s] skills could be effectively plied. “Nowhere in Britain remains remote,” he laments; the essential solitude of the fowler has gone. And, if for much of the time the geese themselves are the heroes of this book (their passing overhead is celebrated again and again, at one point causing old men to “look up as though assured of eternal life”), they have to divide the writer’s admiration with the dedicated, friendless one-armed fowler of the last chapter…’

from the introduction to A Fowler’s World (1968; White Lion Books, 1994) by Bernard O’Donoghue

‘…Mr McNeillie knows the peasants of Wigtownshire at first hand, writes without sentiment, and follows no literary fashion. His writing is plain and good.’

Frank Swinnerton, Observer, 19 March 1939

‘Exaggeration? I hardly think so. It is just that Mr McNeillie is not afraid of the truth, however unpalatable it may be. These primitive folk live in a world of their own, and here you see it faithfully mirrored. It is a first novel of no little power and distinction.’

Ralph Straus, Sunday Times, 16 April 1939

‘Or take a first novel like “Wigtown Ploughman”, by John McNeillie. Here is a difficult book. It is coarse and violent and crude. There are more flights in it than I can count, and the young author, in a kind of glorious boastfulness revels in the details of drunkenness and lechery. And yet it is as authentic, honest a kind of thing as I have met for a long day and it is shot through with beauty. I myself would give a very great deal to have that same authenticity.

But it is a thing that no writer can obtain by prayer, and that no writers bred up in towns, as I was, can ever acquire. The book reminds me in many ways of D. H. Lawrence’s first novel “The White Peacock”, although Mr McNeillie is Mr McNeillie. I doubt if this will ever be a “sixpenny”. How then are we going to keep it alive?’

Hugh Walpole, Daily Sketch, 22 April 1939


‘A controversy which swept the South of Scotland a few years ago has been given fresh impetus by the publication of a sensational exposure of the life of agricultural workers in Wigtownshire.

Following recent strictures by the Rev. A. J. R. Shearer…[etc etc]’

from the Glasgow Sunday Mail, 16 April 1939

‘Does the book “Wigtown Ploughman” exaggerate the conditions in Wigtownshire? Is immorality in the County confined to one parish? These are the questions that are causing a sharp division of opinion in Galloway. The controversy is most fierce in the Portpatrick district, but immorality is not confined to Portpatrick parish, as official figures unfortunately show…. “Wigtown Ploughman” will cause a furore among the farming communities. Already farmers are taking sides in the controversy. The local papers have become the centres for letters; others have taken up the cudgels in the “Sunday Mail”…..

from the Glasgow Sunday Mail, 23 April 1939

‘“Wigtown Ploughman”, the first instalment of which appeared in last week’s “Sunday Mail”, has added fuel to the fiery controversy that is sweeping Galloway on the question of immorality. But moves are already afoot to remove some of the conditions that are being criticised.
Bad housing has been blamed as the root cause of immorality in Wigtownshire. Rev. A. J. R. Shearer says the conditions are such as to make morality, if not impossible, at least very difficult.

Now an early meeting of the County Commitee will be held to investigate the whole position of housing. The question of housing figures largely in “Wigtown Ploughman”, and it is significant that, while many public men have stated that the conditions in the book are over-drawn, rapid moves are being made to overhaul the conditions which have been described as being worse than any city slums.

Mr Wm Paterson, convener of the Public Health Committee, has said he hoped it would be noted by the general public that the Council were not losing sight of the problem of housing conditions.

This move by the County Council follows the investigation that is at present being made by members of the Stranraer Presbytery, a special committee of which has been, during the past few weeks, carrying out a tour of inspection of rural housing conditions.

Some people have declared that the publicity being given to the story of country life in the South of Scotland is causing harm to Wigtownshire, but if the recent moves for an attack on the housing conditions are the result of the publication of the book in serial form then a great deal of good is being done.

Last weekend “Wigtown Ploughman” formed the topic of most of the conversations in the district.’

from the Glasgow Sunday Mail, 7 May 1939

‘Comparison will be drawn between this book [Wigtown Ploughman] and No Mean City [by Daniel MacDougal], since it seems to do for the Scottish peasantry what the latter book did for the Scots worker. To some extent the comparison will be justified. In both the action comprises little more than fighting, drinking, and wife-beating; the characters tend to be garish, engines of destruction and victims of determinism, rather than human beings. … Nevertheless Wigtown Ploughman is a better piece of literature than No Mean City…. Mr McNeillie can write well, and together with Daniel MacDougal, he should be a valuable addition to that Scottish literature which lost so much by the death of Lewis Grassic Gibbon; he is equally authentic.’

from Life and Letters Today, May 1939

‘Less sensitively treated, the theme [of Wigtown Ploughman] might have been too ugly in its realism, but the author is an artist, and his evocation of the pastoral setting and his sympathetic understanding of the folk about whom he writes are so touched with a sense of beauty that he has produced what is undoubtedly a memorable piece of work.’

from Daily Record and Mail, 17 April 1939