Neil Munro was born in Inverary in 1863, but left before his 18th birthday to seek work in Glasgow. He pursued a career in journalism, eventually becoming editor of the Glasgow Evening News. He was a popular novelist, short story writer and poet; his successful historical novels relate to the Highlands. Love of his birthplace and the Gaelic language spoken by his mother and grandmother never left him.
By the turn of the century Munro had reduced his hours as a journalist in order to concentrate on his fiction writing – most of his successful novels appeared during this period – but during the First World War he returned to the Evening News, undertaking acting editorship. He also visited the front line several times in the capacity of war correspondent, in 1914 and 1917, and the war touched him personally when his son Hugh was killed on active service in September 1915. In February 1917 Munro was sent to Albert in France, where it is probable he visited Hugh’s grave at Millencourt. Later in March he submitted to Blackwood’s Magazine the idea for a series of poems reflecting pipe music themes. The series of sixteen subsequently appeared as ‘Bagpipe Ballads’ in the magazine from April to August, and display a remarkable concentration of Munro’s poetic creativity; though few are specific to the First World War, the realities of battle, humour and energy, anger and grieving all get an airing in poems built upon the sort of pipe tunes played in the Scots regiments. Some are jaunty, allowing Munro to write with gusto: in ‘Hey, Jock, are ye glad ye ‘listed?’ despite the driving rhythm throughout which seems to be urging lads to the front, he drily warns: ‘It’s no’ for dancin’ at a bridal / Willie Lawrie’s bagpipes squeal.’ In ‘Bannocks o’ Barley’, he praises the hardy Scots soldiers who can get by on short rations (in contrast, he says, to the Englishmen). In ‘Wild Rover Lads’ he tells of the reprobate young who hauled themselves out of ungodly lives to join up:
We had nae heed for the parish bell,
But still — when the bugle cried,
We went for you to Neuve Chapelle,
We went for you to the yetts o’ Hell,
And there for you we died!
But several of the ballads reflect the sobbing wail of the lament, imbued with sorrow and mourning, and these must surely have been written out of Munro’s own grief:
Because they were so brave and young
Who now are sleeping,
His old heart wrung, his harp unstrung,
Though he had told George Blackwood that he could continue the ballads, Munro wrote no more in that series after the summer of 1917. The tragedy of the loss of the Iolaire inspired a poem in 1919, but thereafter his output dwindled. Munro’s poetry was not collected until after his death, when John Buchan edited The Poetry of Neil Munro (William Blackwood, 1931), but that collection is not complete. It was not until 2010, with the appearance of Bagpipe Ballads and Other Poems (Kennedy & Boyd), edited, introduced and annotated by Bob Preston, that Munro’s poems were at last published together, and the Bagpipe Ballads made available in their entirety.