At the beginning of the twentieth century, the cities of Scotland, particularly Glasgow, were home to the most extreme poverty in all of Europe. Beyond the urban squalor, however, rural Scotland was suffering as well; the effects of modernization, industrialization, and, eventually, the human and environmental cost of war were destroying the traditional way of life. Lewis Grassic Gibbon attempted to capture this in his trilogy A Scots Quair. Sunset Song, the first novel in the series, is a depiction of the slow decline of the Scottish agricultural communities, with the small town of Kinraddie serving as a symbol of the greater transition felt throughout the country. The later novels, Cloud Howe and Grey Granite, tackle the issues of the decline of faith in the church and the effects of the Great Depression in Scotland, respectively.
Despite the ideological intentions of the novel, Sunset Song doesn’t read as a political tract. By narrowing the focus from the situation of the country to the experience of one young woman, Gibbon provides a private perspective on a rapidly disappearing way of life. Chris Guthrie, the heroine of the novel, is a spirited, bright young woman trying to reconcile the two halves of her self. She loves both the intense, physical connection to the land that her rural life brings and the world of literature, scholarly ambition, and genteel lifestyle that higher education provides; she names these contrasting aspects her Scottish self and her English self. However, while she’s deeply conflicted about her opposing selves, one eventually trumps the other. Her fractured identity not only mirrors the war for cultural control of Scotland, it also mirrors the divide in Gibbon’s professional life. Throughout his career, Gibbon alternated between his pen name and his given name, James Leslie Mitchell, using the name Gibbon to give voice to the concerns of Scotland. This dedication to the Scottish people is what has made the Gibbon-authored work a fixture in the national canon.
In Gibbon’s attempt to defend Scotland in the face of the encroaching British influence, many critics see his use of the Scots language as his primary weapon. However, Gibbon’s understanding and portrayal of the shift from traditional Scots to Standard English is nuanced and sensitive. While Gibbon’s friend the poet Hugh MacDiarmid wrote in Scots as an affirmation of the power of the language, Gibbon recognized that writing an entire novel in Scots would severely limit its readership. In order to satisfy his cultural motives and make his novels more accessible (and therefore disseminate his message to a broader audience), Gibbon wrote the entirety of A Scots Quair in an Anglicized version of Scots, using the Scots vocabulary and rhythm of speech but using Standard English spelling. As A Scots Quair progresses, the language is more and more influenced by English; as the first novel in the trilogy, Sunset Song contains the greatest use of the Scots vernacular. Because of this, readers of Sunset Song can initially find the blend of Scots and English intimidating, yet within the first few pages develop an ease with and appreciation of Gibbon’s language. A conversation between Long Rob and Gordon, two villagers at Chris’s wedding, illustrates the delicate balance of the linguistic argument that the novel contains. Rob begins the exchange by arguing for the specificity and beauty of the rapidly disappearing Scots:
And Rob said You can tell me, man, what’s the English for sotter, or greip, or smore, or pleiter, gloaming or glunching or well-kenspeckled? And if you said gloaming was sunset you’d fair be a liar; and you’re hardly that, Mr. Gordon.
But Gordon was decent and reasonable, You can’t help it, Rob. If folk are to get on in the world nowadays, away from the ploughshafts and out of the pleiter, they must use the English, orra though it might be.
Rob’s insistence on the difference between “gloaming” and “sunset” demonstrates that the battle between Scots and English is now won. Gloaming is absorbed into English as an approximation of sunset in the same way that Scottish culture is eventually absorbed into English; Gibbon’s decision to use the English “sunset” to title the novel illustrates this. As Gordon contends, in order to move beyond the difficult and dying village life, it’s necessary to use English; one can either participate in progress or be run over by it.
As a representation of the benefits and drawbacks of political transition, Chris Guthrie’s own progress is mapped by her developing sense of herself as a woman—the blossoming independence, the physical changes, and the stirrings of desires that she can’t put into words; her development parallels that of the country itself. Gibbon’s sensitivity to and strength in describing the female perspective are unmatched in the literature of his time. He gives Chris concerns, battles, and disappointments unique to her gender while in the same gesture rejects stereotypes. So distinctive and affecting were his depictions of pregnancy and childbirth in particular that many female readers questioned whether Gibbon was, in fact, the pen name of a female writer. In a sense, Chris’s physical experiences as a woman are what provide her visceral connection to the earth; she feels a kinship to the land that is seeded and harvested, the land that continually provides for others while taking little for itself. Despite Gibbon’s personal rejection of agricultural life, he suggests that Chris’s rural existence is at the heart of Scottish identity. Accordingly, Gibbon organizes Sunset Song as an agricultural cycle with each section representative of a stage in Chris’s life. This structure creates a rhythmic pace for the plot which echoes the natural progression of history. As Chris notes, time moves forward, slowly but determinedly, forgetting the people and their petty concerns, and leaving only the land behind.
In its reflection on the twilight of a communal lifestyle, Sunset Song is large in scope but intimate in focus. While the novel is an opening to the ambitious A Scot’s Quair, it can easily be enjoyed as a work of great merit on its own. That it has been embraced by the populace as well as academics, and has consistently been voted one of the best Scottish novels of all time, speaks to Gibbon’s enduring achievement.
Gibbon believed that it was an artist’s moral obligation to represent human suffering with honesty and empathy. For human suffering, he needed to look no further than his native Scotland, which suffered from extreme unemployment and social ruin, its landscape and people destroyed by World War I and the Great Depression. Bearing witness to the decay of the country he loved, Gibbon became involved in socialism, and A Scots Quair demonstrates his sympathies with this movement through its focus on the struggles of an ordinary woman against the inequalities of power as dictated out by gender, religion, and government. However disheartening the political truth might be, Gibbon was determined that Scotland should not be sanitized in art or literature but rather embraced, despite the pain, for its unique culture and language. In this way, his focus on realism stood in direct opposition to the prevailing literary representation of his country known as the Kailyard School. Kailyard (“cabbage patch”) novels provided a sentimental, folksy image of Scotland, one based on nostalgia rather than reality. Participating in the emerging literary movement called the Scottish Renaissance, Gibbon and writers such as Hugh MacDiarmid and Edwin Muir attempted to reclaim the country’s identity from the idealized representations provided by J. M. Barrie and other Kailyard writers.
The truth of Gibbon’s depiction of Scottish life garnered him much critical praise but elicited a less enthusiastic response in his childhood village. Gibbon used many of the local characters and scandals as the basis for his novels, and the fictionalized versions were too easily identified for comfort—he had made himself, and thus his family, “the talk of the Mearn,” as his mother chided him. Beyond the personal resentment, Gibbon’s political inclination and artistic freedom offended those in his hometown; the honesty with which Gibbon examined his country was, for some, too honest. His determination to depict the brutalities of life for the disappearing agricultural class, as well as the frank sexuality and religious conflicts felt by his characters, marked his novels as sensational, dangerous work. However, Gibbon remained true to his ideals, and by focusing on the reality of living in Scotland at the beginning of the twentieth century, he not only challenged convention but destroyed it; by concentrating on the life of the common man, he raised the ordinary to the level of extraordinary.
Unfortunately, while at the peak of his literary powers, Gibbon became gravely ill with a perforated ulcer. He subsequently died of peritonitis, ending his prolific career shortly before his thirty-fourth birthday, in 1935. In all, he had written for only seven years and yet accomplished more than some writers do in a lifetime. He was survived by his wife and children, and buried in the churchyard of his childhood village. There, in Arbuthnott, the Lewis Grassic Gibbon Centre now stands in testament to the appreciation and dedication Gibbon showed for the Scottish people, and the appreciation and dedication they continue to show for him.