Gibbon, Lewis Grassic: Sunset Song

The proposer provided a detailed background to the author’s life, his relationships with his family and with the countryside in which he grew up. Born James Leslie Mitchell on 13th February 1901. He was raised in farming communities in the Howe of Mearns. The family scraped a living from the land with great difficulty and as a child he was expected to help with the endless chores. His father was strict and life was harsh. Mitchell was intelligent and thoughtful forming his own views of life, challenging traditional values and this set him apart from his family and the community of the Mearns.

He gained a place at Stonehaven’s Mackie Academy but at the age of 16 walked out following an argument with a teacher. He worked as a trainee journalist in Aberdeen between 1917-1919 and joined the ‘Scottish Farmer” in Glasgow. There followed a troubled period in his life. He was dismissed over expenses irregularities and attempted to take his own life. His family took him back in the hope that he would settle to the farming life but he could not and in order to escape the Mearns he joined the army. Although he hated life in the army, it did allow him to travel. In particular to the Middle East and Egypt, which inspired his first short stories and much of his fiction and non-fiction.

Mitchell returned to the Mearns in 1925 to marry a local girl whom he had kept in touch with throughout his years of travel. They moved to London where life was initially difficult, however, he eventually established himself as a talented writer.  From 1930 to 1934, eleven novels, two books of short stories, three anthropological books and an “ intelligent Man’s Guide to Albyn” with Hugh MacDiarmid entitled “Scottish Scene” were published under the names Mitchell and Gibbon. He died prematurely in 1935 of peritonitis brought on by a perforated ulcer.

The most important of his output is the trilogy of novels, “A Scots Quair“ published under the name Lewis Grassic Gibbon (taken from his mother’s maiden name). The “Quair” (meaning book) is a trilogy, which was published over three years as “Sunset Song” (1932), “Cloud Howe” (1933), and “Grey Granite” (1934). Sunset Song is considered to be Gibbon’s most loved work and, out of the three “Quair” novels, the most easily read as a single book.

Most members of the book group first encountered Sunset Song as a “must” read on the Scottish Higher English Syllabus. Many had moved on from the “forced reading” and revisited the novel to enjoy and more fully appreciate the qualities that have made it one of the most important Scottish novels of the twentieth century. In addition to reading the book many had seen the BBC’s 1971 serialization and some had seen Terence Davies’s film released in 2015.

The story, woven round the character of Chris Guthrie, draws on Gibbons own experiences of living and working in the Mearns. It was suggested that it is this that provides the fascinating and sometimes intimate insight into a way of life that was changing rapidly through the impact of mechanization on farming communities and the devastating effect of the war. The book ends with the end of the First World War and this heralds the end of the crofting way of life. Chris is intelligent, capable and spirited but also conflicted by what she describes as her Scottish self and her English self. Her love of the land and the rural way of life and her need to satisfy her interest in literature and more scholarly pursuits.

The novel details the challenges she faces through girlhood to being a young widow with a child. Her life is harsh and at times brutal living in a dysfunctional family, observing its disintegration and coping with the associated tragedy and loss. While Chris is the central character some of the charm of the book comes from the vivid depiction of other characters, their behavior, moods and physical attributes. It was pointed out that Kinraddie itself is a collection of farms- Blawearie, Peesie’s Knapp, Cuddiestoun, Netherhill, The Mains, Bridge End etc populated by characters that anyone from those parts can recognize. Long Rob of the Mill. Pooty the shoemaker, Chae Strachan, Mr Gibbon, Mistress Munro. The language, wit, and humour of these characterizations add hugely to the depiction of community life.

The accuracy of these descriptions and the frankness of their portrayal proved to be controversial and provoked his mother to comment that he had made the family “the speak of the Mearns”. The way that Gibbons used the custom of gossiping to depict life in Kinraddie provided both insight and amusement in equal measure and was greatly appreciated by all.

“ Aye, if it is wan’t in a rage it was fair in a stir of a scandal by postman time”

It was mentioned that at some point there is a telling passage about gossip replacing meaningful activity and it was suggested that gossip, not necessarily deliberately malicious, more a kind of recreational activity is a continual theme ripe with scandal and innuendo but funny too.

“Alec would say Damn it, you’ve hardly to look at a woman these days but she’s in the family way”

The deft admixture of gossip, spite, cruelty and blinkered prejudice that inhabited Kinraddie provided a rich source of material. The language is unique to Gibbons and initially presented a challenge to some of our group, however, all agreed that they quickly got hold of it and then began to appreciate the importance of rhythms designed to capture the local pattern of speech and the lyrical descriptive capacity which brought the landscape to life.

“ This is one of the best books I have read, describing the land, the moors, hills and stones and the essence of cultivation of the land.”

“ The vocabulary was a delight, full of colourful imagery and dialect that conjured up the world of the Mearns folk.”

All agreed with the views of one commentator that “The book’s personality is shaped by that language.” Lyrical passages are precise, evocative but also linked to the harsh reality of farm work.

“There were larks coming over that morning, Chris minded, whistling and trilling dark and unseen against the blazing of the sun, now one lark now another, till the sweetness of the trilling dizzied you and you stumbled with the heavy pails of corn-laden” the sentence ends, “and father swore at you over the red beard of him Damn’t to hell, are you fair a fool, you quean?”

Descriptive passages display a deep and sensitive appreciation of the landscape and the workings of the elements on it.

“the June moors whispered and rustled and shook their cloaks, yellow with broom and powdered faintly with purple- that was the heather but not the full passion of its colour yet…and maybe the wind would veer there in an hour or so and you’d feel the change in the life and strum of the thing, bringing a streaming coolness out of the sea”

There followed a discussion about the possibility that those book club members who were familiar with the landscape and were acquainted with aspects of the language would be more able to appreciate the quality of Gibbon’s writing. It was concluded that, while it might be easier for some to understand the nostalgic theme comprehension did not require knowledge of the precise meanings of the language used.

The simple structure of the novel was considered by the group and the majority thought that it assisted the reader and added an emphasis to Chris’s love /hate relationship with Kinraddie. The novel has a prelude “The Unfurrowed Field” which outlines the history of and introduces the characters inhabiting the Kinraddie estate, followed by four main sections, titled respectively Ploughing, Drilling, Seed-Time and Harvest. Each section begins with Chris at an important time in her life, seated at the standing stones reflecting on what has happened in the past, returning to the present time at the end of the section. There were some who felt that this approach resulted in slowing the tempo and detracted from their enjoyment of the novel.

It was concluded that this novel fully deserved to have been voted Scotland’s best novel in 2005. It was described as a work of substance, with Gibbons displaying considerable courage by controversially addressing taboo subjects in a very direct way.

All of those who had yet to read “Cloud Howe” and/or “Grey Granite” committed to doing so in order to more fully appreciate the scope of Gibbons ambition in writing “A Scots Quair.”

 

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