Grey Granite, the final book in Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s A Scots Quair trilogy, takes us even further from the rural setting of Sunset Song to the industrial city of Duncairn (largely based on Aberdeen). After the death of her second husband, Chris has moved once again having bought into a boarding house in the city. This immediately allows Gibbon the mix of characters that he was previously able to achieve through smaller communities. It is noticeable that the communal voice of the other books is largely absent, replaced by a greater variety of individual voices, as community breaks down in the face of urbanisation.
Robert Colquohoun’s socialism having been seen to be a ‘pillar of cloud’ in Cloud Howe, Grey Granite explores communism as a possible future for Scotland through Chris’ son, Ewan. Ewan doesn’t begin the novel as a communist; an apprentice at Gowans and Gloag, he shows little interest in politics until the arrival of an English teacher, Ellen, at the guest house. Ellen interprets Ewan’s belief (similar to Gibbon’s) in a golden age before history (“a time without gods and classes”) as socialism, but even then his initial reaction is hostile:
“I don’t much care. It won’t come in our time. I’ve my own life to lead.”
As is so often the case, however, state oppression drives him towards radicalism. A bystander to a march of the unemployed being charged by police, he instinctively directs them to a brewery lorry full of empty bottles which they can use as missiles. Soon he is organising a strike at Gowans in protest at their involvement in making armaments, but it is the police once more who convince him that communism is the answer.
He is arrested after another worker plants evidence on him under the misapprehension that he has left his sister pregnant. The police beat him savagely:
“…not Ewan Tavendale at all anymore but lost and be-bloodied in a hundred broken and tortured bodies all over the world, in Scotland, in England, in the torture dens of the Nazis in Germany, in the torment pits of the Polish Ukraine, a livid, twisted thing in the prisons where they tortured the Nanking Communists…”
This is the moment of conversion – from then on he is a communist – “a hell of a thing to be History, Ewan!” Jim Trease, the local communist leader, is explicit – it is not the workers in the factories who are the working class but people like him and Ewan.
While Gibbon’s sympathies clearly lie with Ewan, he sees his weakness: his coldness, his “grey granite glance.” As Ellen says to him, “…your heart’s not in it at all. Only your head and imagination.” This is most vividly displayed in his treatment of her, discarding her without a thought when he discovers she has signed a document promising not to be an activist any longer in order to keep her job:
“Go to them then in your comfortable car – your Labour party and your comfortable flat. But what are you doing out here with me? I can get a prostitute anywhere.”
With each novel in the trilogy, Gibbon’s vision gets a little darker as he looks for answers and finds none that satisfy. But those that stop with Sunset Song are missing out on a picture of Scotland in the first third of the twentieth century that is unsurpassed. We can only wonder what Gibbon would have gone on to write if not for his early death at thirty four.