In “A Scots Quair,” Hutchinson, 1966, p. First published 1932. The cover shown is of a Canongate edition.
The Scots Quair trilogy is widely seen as Gibbon’s major work, Sunset Song as one of the most important Scottish novels of the twentieth century. Set in the estate of Kinraddie, in the Mearns area, between Laurencekirk and Stonehaven, where Gibbon lived, the lyrical descriptions of the Mearns countryside speak of a deep attachment to the land.
Sunset Song in the main tells the story of Chris Guthrie, daughter of an overbearing father, John, and a mother, Jean, who is so ground down by childbirth that she kills herself and her young twins when she finds herself pregnant for the sixth time. Kinraddie is said by a new minister of the local kirk, a man called Gibbon, to be “fathered between a kailyard and a bonny brier bush in the lee of a house with green shutters,” despite their being no house with green shutters in the whole of Kinraddie. This of course is the author placing his novel firmly within the ongoing sweep of Scottish literature.
I have read nearly all of Gibbon’s novels – whether originally published pseudonymously as by “Gibbon,” or under his real name of J Leslie Mitchell. Sunset Song and The Speak of the Mearns are the most rooted in his home area, hence liberally sprinkled with Scots words. A prefatory note begs the indulgence of English readers in this regard. (I confess I have only a limited background in Scots – especially of words to do with agriculture – but found a lack of knowledge of precise meanings was not a barrier to comprehension. English or USian readers may beg to differ. However, I understand more modern editions contain a glossary.)
The novel is carefully structured to reflect the phases of Chris’s young life. It has a prelude, “The Unfurrowed Field,” which unfolds the history of and introduces the characters inhabiting the Kinraddie estate, followed by four sections, titled respectively Ploughing, Drilling, Seed-Time and Harvest, then an epilude – a word seemingly coined by Gibbon – also titled “The Unfurrowed Field.”
Kinraddie is depicted as a community that thrives on gossip. That would, in the old Scots phrase, be “minding everybody’s business” (which is in my experience immediately followed by the words “but their own.”) It also thrives on argument. At one point Chris tells her brother, “I don’t believe they were ever religious, the Scots folk. They’ve never really BELIEVED.” The kirk had just been a place to collect and argue, and criticise God.
In Kinraddie people are quick to think the worst of others – and never expect the same will apply to them – but still gather round to help in an emergency. Set in that pre-Great War era when mechanical devices were on the way but a rarity on most farms – though the small size of the holdings in Kinraddie make them more like crofts – life is hard and opportunities for harmless pleasure few, and savoured. The number of pages given over to Chris’s wedding (where everyone musical, and some who are not, give their party pieces or provide accompaniment to the dancing and Chris herself sings that great Scottish lament The Flowers of the Forest) – even though it did coincide with the arrival of a New Year – serves to highlight this. On music Chris reflects, “how strange was the sadness of Scotland’s singing, made for the sadness of the land and sky in dark autumn evenings, the crying of men and women of the land who had seen their lives and loves sink away in the years.”
In Harvest, all is ripped apart by the impact of the Great War. Not only are relationships within the community slowly eroded, the woods which protect the land are cut down to make aeroplanes and the like, and several young men do not come back from France. As its title implies the novel is a eulogy for the lost way of life. In the epilude, at the dedication of the War Memorial, a piper plays the tune of The Flowers of the Forest, the music of which is rendered in the text, a threnody to that now dead past. But the key sentence of the book is perhaps, “Scotland lived, she could never die, the land would outlast them all.” It has, it does, it will.
A couple of phrases appear which are unlikely to feature in a modern novel. After firing the whin bushes Chris’s brother Will is said to be “black as a nigger” and “fit to freeze the chilblains on a brass monkey” is nowadays usually expressed more scatologically. Yes, Sunset Song is a novel of its time – but it is also not of it. The Scotland that Sunset Song depicts may be no more, the people it describes are not.