Cloud Howe

cloud howe

In Cloud Howe (the second book in Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s A Scots Quair trilogy) Chris leaves the farm for the manse. Though Sunset Song was not without a minister or two, Cloud Howe opens with Chris married to the Reverend Robert Colquhoun, who conducts the memorial service for those that died in the First World War at the end of the first book. Robert is an unusual minister however, and not just because he marries someone who doesn’t share his faith; he is a radical who supports the General Strike, the historical event that forms the centre of this novel in the way that the Great War did with Sunset Song.

Together they move from the country to the small town of Segget, a town divided between its older inhabitants and those that have come to work in the jute mills:

“The spinners’ coming brought trade to the toun, but the rest of Segget still tried to make out that the spinners were only there by their leave, the ill-spoken tinks.”

The war still hangs over the novel; Robert served at the Front and was gassed. Now he seems torn between a bitter despair and the hope that he can help change the world for the better:

“…out of his mood and happy again, you knew that he knew he followed a dream, with the black mood REAL, and his hopes but mists.”

It is these ‘mists’ which give the novel its title, an echo of Exodus 3:21, “And the Lord went before them by day in a pillar of cloud, to lead them the way.” Cloud comes to represent the dreams that men follow, elusive and insubstantial. It is the workers’ leader, Jock Cronin, who articulates Robert’s disappointment:

“WE went to the War, we knew what it was, we went to dirt and lice and damnation: and what have we got at the end of it all? Starvation wages, no homes for heroes, the capitalists fast on our necks as before.”

Robert works with Cronin during the Strike, but it is quickly broken by the government, Ramsay MacDonald being the first of a number of turncoats, including Cronin himself later. Robert had thought it would be “the beginning of the era of Man made free at last”, his hope echoed in Chris’ pregnancy, a pregnancy she had avoided for almost ten years as a result of the War. As the Strike fails, so her child is stillborn.

The symbolism may seem laboured but that does not take account of the way the novel is written. Once again it is a mixture of communal narrative, full of gossip and back-biting, and Chris’ own third person viewpoint. The novel tells many other stories, reflecting the rich and poor of the town. We also see Chris’ son, Ewan, grow into a man, Gibbon’s interest in history (the Standing Stones of Sunset Song) seen in Ewan’s collection of arrow heads and other fragments of the past. The novel’s serious themes are coated in much humour and satire; the Strike itself takes up only a few pages towards the end. That the dream is over is shown in the novel’s final lines:

“…she went slow down the brae, only once looked back at the frown of the hills…seeing them bare of their clouds for once, the pillars of mist that aye crowned their heights, all but a faint wisp vanishing south, and the bare, still rocks upturned to the sky.”

Robert is dead, a victim of his gassed lungs, but Chris, Chris Caledonia as he once called her, endures.

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