In “A Scots Quair” Hutchinson, 1966, 156 p. First published 1932. The cover shown is of a Canongate edition.
Cloud Howe takes up the story of Chris Guthrie from Sunset Song at the point where her new husband, Minister Robert Colquohoun (strange spelling that, Colquhoun is more usual,) is about to try for the vacant post in the parish of Segget, still in the Mearns and not far away from the Kinraddie of the earlier book. Segget is a divided community, not to mention class ridden and status conscious, with the folks in the old part of town despising the spinners who work in the jute mills. Robert’s self-imposed mission there is to improve Segget. On their first walk in Segget Robert, gassed in the Great War, is horrified by Segget’s War Memorial, an angel set on a block of stone, “like a constipated calf.”
The story unfolds over the 1920s, covering almost incidentally the growth of socialism – and its first betrayal – the (lack of) industrial relations, the grinding poverty, the insensitivity of the rich. The narrative voice is not straightforward, shifting, but not obtrusively, back and forth from a tight focus on Chris – or on occasion someone else – to an unnamed kirkgoer of a conservative bent (small and large C.) Gibbon captures the smugness of that holier than thou voice perfectly, “The English aye needed the Scots at their head, right holy and smart at the same time,” is one of the milder observations. Also well captured is its hypocrisy, “You’d seen it all in the People’s Journal, what the coarse tinks did in Russia with women – man they fair had a time with the women, would you say ‘twould be easy to get a job there?”
Segget is replete with characters and nicknames. Ag Moultrie, prone to outbursts of weeping is known as the Roarer and Greeter, the mayor’s resemblance to a monkey has him dubbed Hairy Hogg. Old Leslie at the Smiddy is prone to reminisce, “I mind when I was a loon in Garvock.”
If Kinraddie thrived on gossip then Segget gloats in it. The morning after the Segget Show a farmer and his wife are delighted to come upon two couples “in such a like way” in their barn. “They’d be able to tell the story about them all the years they lived on Earth; and make it a titbit in Hell forbye.” It doesn’t take long after the Colquohouns arrival for tales detrimental to Chris to start to circulate – even before Robert attempts to change Segget for the better. Chris is damned either way. If she speaks in Scots she is common, if in English she is putting on airs.
Cloud Howe also begins to focus on Chris’s son Ewan, who is four times referred to in the text as grey granite. Ewan sees nothing wrong with either nakedness or sex and doesn’t take nonsense from anyone. When confronted by Ag Moultrie with a piece of gossip about himself he replies, “I’m sorry I don’t know what you’ve heard, Miss Moultrie, but no doubt Segget soon will. Good Morning.”
It struck me that when a farmer’s wife says she’s heard of Chris from her son, “he lived in London and wrote horrible books,” might be Gibbon referring to himself. I remember reading somewhere that Chris is intended as a metaphor for Scotland. Gibbon foregrounds this twice; once when the local toff Mowatt, meets Chris and, “was to say later he felt he was stared at by Scotland herself,” and secondly when Robert refers to her as Chris Caledonia. I’m not quite sure whether the narrative is enough to sustain the metaphor.
As in Sunset Song Gibbon once again asserts that the Scots have never really BELIEVED in God. All that is real is the land. “Only the sky and the seasons endured, slow in their change.” The author’s eye and ear for rural and village life is acute. I have no doubt that this is how it was in the Mearns a hundred years ago.
One curio. The phrase, “leave me to twitter,” reads a little differently nowadays from the way Gibbon intended.