Ian Campbell's Review of Sunset Song
Lewis Grassic Gibbon
The ghost of James Leslie Mitchell would permit itself a wry smile, no doubt, at the news that Sunset Song had been voted Scotland's favourite book. As "Lewis Grassic Gibbon" he had achieved in a brief lifetime (1901-35) an astonishing publication list, but his undoubted masterpiece had been Sunset Song (1932) which drew heavily (as did his nom-de-plume, a play on his mother's maiden name) on his childhood experiences in Arbuthnott in the Mearns. It was the same mother who, scandalised, echoed much of the Mearns' disapproval of his too-frank picture of country life, and her verdict that he had made the family "the speak of the Mearns" was one which hurt him deeply. Posterity has not agreed, and the book is now recognised in its own countryside, and the reason for the Grassic Gibbon Centre in Arbuthnott, within sight of Gibbon's school, within sight and sound of much of the real-life origins of Sunset Song's plot and characters.
The book's success has been undoubtedly partly driven by its intense readability, which has made it very widely taught in school and in University, in summer school and in Scottish literature courses here and overseas. It's readable for its style, an easy-seeming (but in fact deft and innovative) blend of English and Scots which avoids disturbing the reader with many of the more difficult Scots words simply by printing an English equivalent ("coarse" for "coorse") or by explaining the meaning in the context. The action is seen partly from the outside, partly from the assembled characters of Kinraddie, partly from the perspective of Chris the main character whose girlhood, growing-up, marrying and achieving motherhood just as her husband leaves for the War and death in France is the core of the plot. Sunset Song is Chris's story, the characters and incidents often clearly drawn from life and moving forward through her mind, through her friends', through the gossip and sometimes downright spite which makes Kinraddie a believable version of small-farm Scotland early in the twentieth century. Gibbon had grown up on a croft, and he had no illusions about life on the land, which he compared in his essays to slavery and dullness. Chris realises her inevitable fate is to stay as Kinraddie is torn apart by the forces of war in Europe, its best men killed, its forests (vital to shield the crops from the East wind) stripped for the war effort, and the life of horse and man replaced by machines and mechanised farming.
Small wonder the book is Sunset Song, its elegiac note never stronger than in the final magnificent pages when the minister unveils the war memorial to "the last of the peasants, the last of the Old Scots Folk". And this underlines the book's courage and its author's. He could easily have written on in this vein, and with a young family and a career to build it would have been a temptation. But he had an agenda, and with Cloud Howe and Grey Granite (1933-4) he went on to complete the story of Chris as she moves from country to small town to city, as Scotland stumbles through the 1920s into the Depression and its horrors. The first part of the trilogy is the popular one for being attractive, elegiac, in a word beautiful: the trilogy as a whole is a much meatier achievement, the picture of a society slowly running down, selfishness and hunger replacing the rich life of the country. A committed Marxist, Gibbon foresaw (as many did) a new and juster society, though he did not live to see the eruption of Fascism which was to dictate its progress. His sudden death in the Spring of 1935 robbed Scotland of one of its brightest talents: it has taken half a century for the book to achieve publication and republication, radio and TV adaptation, staging, translation – and now the status of a national favourite. Too late for James Leslie Mitchell, but the ghost may allow itself a smile.
Ian Campbell is Professor of Scottish and Victorian Literature at the University of Edinburgh.
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Divided between her love of the land and the harshness of farming life, Chris Guthrie finally chooses to stay in the rural community of her childhood. But the First World War and the subsequent economic changes have a deep impact on her life. 'Sunset Song' was voted the Best Scottish Book of All Time.