Unlike Fionn MacColla, Lewis Grassic Gibbon (real name James Leslie Mitchell) was prolific – so much so that it might be said to have been to his detriment – but he too can be said to have been lost to Scotland by his early death at the age of thirty-four. By that time he had produced ten novels, as well as a number of other books. His range was astonishing – from the historical novel Spartacus to the science fiction of Gay Hunter and Three Go Back. His continued fame, however, rests on the trilogy A Scots Quair, which he began with Sunset Song in 1932. The novel has since been adapted for stage and screen and embedded itself in the Scottish curriculum.
Sunset Song is also set at a time of change for Scotland, that of the First World War. As the title, and the recurring song in the novel (almost a theme tune), the elegiac ‘Flowers of the Forest’, suggest, this is a time, like that of the Highland Clearances, when an old way of life will disappear. That way of life is intrinsically connected to the land: Gibbon divides his novel into sections moving from ‘The Unfurrowed Field’ to ‘Harvest’. These section represents not only the rhythms of the land (though the novel is set over a number of years) but the maturing of its central character, Chris Guthrie, who begins the novel as a young girl, but ends it as a widowed mother. (It will not surprise you to learn that she has a child in ‘Harvest’, but this is also the section that deals with the war, presenting harvest as an entirely different kind of metaphor).
Chris Guthrie is one of the most important (and loved) characters in Scottish literature. So realistic was Gibbon’s portrayal of a female character that some (apparently) though the pseudonym disguised a female writer. It seems likely that Gibbon chose a female protagonist to create some distance in a novel that was clearly very personal for him (he had previously written under his own name, and had written an earlier semi-autobiographical novel in The Thirteenth Disciple covering much of the same time period). But Chris also represents Scotland itself, and allows Gibbon to show us not the First Word War, for example, but its effect on Scotland both on an individual and national level. When her husband, Ewan, appears on leave prior to being sent to the Front, she finds him a changed man:
“But it wasn’t Ewan, her Ewan, someone coarse and strange and strong had come back in his body to torment her.”
Other characters we have come to know over the course of the novel like Chae Strachan are also victims of the war, as is the land itself: the woods are cut down for a quick profit ruining the land for farming.
From the beginning Chris also demonstrates that recurrent theme of the tension between education and family, something that has haunted Scottish literature throughout the twentieth century linked as it is to language:
“So that was Chris and her reading and schooling, two Chrisses there were that fought for her heart and tormented her. You hated the land and the coarse speak of the folk and learning was brave and fine one day; and the next you’d waken with the peewits crying across the hills, deep and deep, crying in the heart of you and the smell of the earth in your face, almost you’d cry for that, the beauty of it and the sweetness of the Scottish land and skies.”
Like many of those characters who find themselves in this position, Chris also suffers from a tyrannical father who puts his lust before his wife’s life and drives his son to emigrate. But Chris is a character who makes choices, choosing to marry and stay on the land after her father’s death when she does not need to.
What makes this novel revolutionary, however, is the way it is written. Gibbon not only adopts a register that allows him to integrate a number of Scots words into the language, but a point of view that permits him to roam from a communal voice (which is frequently gossipy and cynical) indirectly into the consciousness of Chris. The communal voice adds a strain of humour to the novel and allows Gibbon to demonstrate both the camaraderie and small-mindedness of the place, which becomes a character in itself.
The novel ends with the unveiling of the Kinraddie war memorial by Chris’ new husband, Robert Colquohoun, a minister – well, there had to be one – allowing Gibbon to take his trilogy forward into its second part, Cloud Howe.