The most noticeable feature of Sunset Song (1932), by Lewis Grassic Gibbon, is that it is not written in traditional English. The syntax is unfamiliar, and strange words pop up throughout the text: meikle, quean, kye, unco. These words come from the Scots dialect, and their inclusion—indeed the whole narrative language that Gibbon cobbled together from English and Scots—is an attempt to demonstrate to English-speaking people how the farmers of Scotland spoke in the early twentieth century. This does not mean that the narrative is inflected with an accent: “To seek effect by a spray of apostrophes,” Gibbon wrote in a brief introduction, “would be both impertinence and mis-translation.” He sought to convey the Scottish voice not by mimicking a sound but by recreating the language itself through words and rhythms. The result has been lauded ever since as one of the best Scottish books of all time.
Lewis Grassic Gibbon is the pseudonym of James Leslie Mitchell, born in 1901 to Scottish farmers near Aberdeen. His parents hailed from traditional peasant families, and it was expected that Mitchell and his siblings would similarly devote their lives to the backbreaking work of subsistence farming. But Mitchell hated farming. He took to roaming the countryside rather than working in the fields, and he escaped further through books, devouring not only H. G. Wells and Arthur Conan Doyle but Darwin, Huxley, Haeckel. Soon, in addition to enraging his father by avoiding farmwork, he began to raise village eyebrows by questioning religious and social customs. Fortunately his primary-school teacher recognized these eccentricities as signs of intellectual talent. But when Mitchell went on to Mackie Academy, a preparatory school, he found no kindred spirits at all. He left the Academy at sixteen, downcast and bereft of an academic future.
His parents assumed that their son would now begin his life as a field laborer, but Mitchell instead miraculously landed a job in Aberdeen as a newspaper reporter. His two years in the city dazzled him, opening his eyes to socialism and the hardships of urban life. In 1919 he moved to Glasgow for a better position on the Scottish Farmer, but by then his socialist convictions had led him to communism, and soon after his move he was fired for using the newspaper’s funds to support political protests. The dismissal sent Mitchell into despair: his horror of a blank future as a farmer was so great that he attempted suicide rather than return to his parents. When that failed, he took the only other option that seemed open to him: he joined the army, and for the next ten years nursed a loathing of the military discipline that ruled his life.
The one benefit of the army was that it allowed him to travel: for the first time Mitchell saw far-flung lands—Palestine, Persia, Egypt. His interest in prehistory, first sparked by Scotland’s standing stones, grew stronger as he explored the Middle East’s innumerable archaeological sites. But camel-riding and desert ruins couldn’t sustain him forever: in 1923 Mitchell left the army. He starved for six months in London, and then desperation forced him back, this time to the Air Force, which hired him as a clerk. The new post was less onerous than being a soldier; it kept him in the south of England but gave him time to pursue his own writing. It also enabled him to pursue a girl he had first met in his hometown: Rebecca Middleton, called Ray, who had lived near his parents’ farm. She was now working in London as a civil servant, and in 1925 they got married.
After the marriage Ray could no longer work in the civil service, so the couple eked out a living on Mitchell’s RAF pay. Then, in 1929, Mitchell quit, bringing their income down to zero. He was determined to find success as a writer, despite the fact that thus far he had published only one small book on Hanno the Navigator. The stakes grew ever higher: Ray gave birth to a daughter, Rhea, and then to a son, Darryl. But Mitchell refused to admit defeat; through sheer force of will he began to receive some notice for his writing. He published several stories that drew on his exotic travels, and his first novel, Stained Radiance, was released in 1930. A second followed in 1931, and after that, for three straight years, Mitchell wrote at a furious rate: in 1932 he published three novels and a collection of stories; in 1933 three novels; in 1934 two novels, one essay collection, and three books on exploration and archaeology. It was an impressive pace, but it ended up taking his life: in February of 1935, Mitchell went to the hospital for a perforated ulcer and died days later of peritonitis. He was only thirty-four years old.
Most agree that of the books he wrote under his own name, Mitchell’s best is Spartacus (1933), a novel about the Roman slave revolt that ponders the harsh demands of revolution. But the three novels that Mitchell wrote about Scotland, which together are called A Scots Quair and which he separated from his other fiction by using the Gibbon pseudonym, reach so far above the rest of his work that his Mitchell novels have now been all but forgotten. Sunset Song is the first and most moving of the trilogy. Eschewing the romanticized splendor of his Middle Eastern experiences and abandoning too his strident politics, Mitchell allowed himself in this book—almost for the first time in his life—to look back on his place of birth and acknowledge the deep love he felt for Scotland.
When the novel opens, Chris Guthrie, the protagonist, is in her early teens, the daughter of an irascible, hardworking father and a mother worn down by pregnancies. Chris and her brother Will form an alliance against their father’s violent outbursts and suffer together the grueling life of Blawearie, their upland farm. But while Will despises farming, Chris feels torn between “Scottish Chris,” who revels in her ties to the land, and “English Chris,” who excels in school and wants nothing more than to leave the rough farmers of Kinraddie far behind. Mitchell thus sets up a dichotomy, not only within Chris but within the book as a whole: between Scotland and England, farming and scholarship, slavery and independence. The divisions would seem simplistic were it not that Mitchell complicates every relationship in the book, allowing no statement to go unqualified. As importantly, Chris Guthrie, holding all these contradictions within herself, acts as a unifying anchor: she is a passionate, consistent, believable character, and for all her changes of mind—the love and hatred she feels for her father, the loyalty and frustration Will inspires in her—the core of her personality remains the same. To create this convincing core while at the same time acknowledging the countless contradictions that make up a person’s character over time is one of the most difficult feats of a novelist; Mitchell carried it off in a seemingly effortless trance of invention.
Meticulous though he was in portraying Chris’s personality, Mitchell was equally interested in a way of life that, by the 1930s, had already disappeared. Sunset Song takes place in the years before and during World War I. The subsistence farmers of that time were the last of an old and dying breed, and Mitchell’s grand scheme, which he continued in the remaining two books of the trilogy, Cloud Howe (1933) and Grey Granite (1934), was to trace the decline of this land-based lifestyle and the rise in its place of mechanized civilization, with all its urban woes. Fortunately, the inhabitants of Kinraddie within Sunset Song are untainted by these nostalgic aims. Mitchell paints them frankly in their unlovely habits: gossiping, lying, scrounging. As with Chris’s family, he freely doles out identifying characteristics: Long Rob of the Mill is a skeptic who loves horses; Mistress Munro is skinny as a futret (weasel) and pokes her nose into everyone’s business. But Mitchell does not leave these signifiers alone; throughout the book he adds and adds to every character. Mistress Munro may be nosy and mean, but she is also a skilled midwife and takes care of two halfwits; Long Rob of the Mill, one of the novel’s most likable characters, turns from comic relief into tragic hero when, during the War, he is jailed as a Conscientious Objector. Every character in the novel is thus subject to change, and their jumble of traits and actions yields an ensemble of surprisingly realistic characters.
Mitchell is unsparing in his discussions of sex and violence. Chris’s early passions are related with such vivid urgency that several female readers assumed the writer must be a woman. With equal candor, Mitchell relates the dark side of sexual passion: the suicidal despair of Chris’s mother when she learns she is pregnant yet again; the terrifying lust of Chris’s father as he lies dying, demanding that Chris share his bed; the dismay and disillusion that Chris feels when her own gentle lover changes after joining the army into a callous brute. These episodes stand out with nightmarish clarity against the more banal incidents of farming life. They color the novel as they color Chris’s life, but they do not weigh it down altogether, for the simple reason that Chris herself, through her own balanced outlook, rises above them. Her early exposure to the long perspective of literature and the deep bond she feels with the landscape help her to realize that everything she experiences is temporary—good or bad, frightening or joyful. One of Mitchell’s primary accomplishments in Sunset Song is to breathe new meaning into the old saw that only the land endures. For Chris, that truth holds both fear and comfort, for she identifies herself as a creature of the Scottish farmlands, whether she likes it or not.
The novel begins, after a long introductory section describing the region’s history and inhabitants (Mitchell’s only structural misstep), with this description of Chris Guthrie visiting the standing stones near Blawearie:
Below and around where Chris Guthrie lay the June moors whispered and rustled and shook their cloaks, yellow with broom and powdered faintly with purple, that was the heather but not the full passion of its colour yet. And in the east against the cobalt blue of the sky lay the shimmer of the North Sea, that was by Bervie, and maybe the wind would veer there in an hour or so and you’d feel the change in the life and strum of the thing, bringing a streaming coolness out of the sea. But for days now the wind had been in the south, it shook and played in the moors and went dandering up the sleeping Grampians, the rushes pecked and quivered about the loch when its hand was upon them, but it brought more heat than cold, and all the parks were fair parched, sucked dry, the red clay soil of Blawearie gaping open for the rain that seemed never-coming. Up here the hills were brave with the beauty and the heat of it, but the hayfield was all a crackling dryness and in the potato park beyond the biggings the shaws drooped red and rusty already. Folk said there hadn’t been such a drought since eighty-three and Long Rob of the Mill said you couldn’t blame this one on Gladstone, anyway, and everybody laughed except father, God knows why.Some said the North, up Aberdeen way, had had rain enough, with Dee in spate and bairns hooking stranded salmon down in the shallows, and that must be fine enough, but not a flick of the greeve weather had come over the hills, the roads you walked down to Kinraddie smithy or up to the Denburn were fair blistering in the heat, thick with dust so that the motor-cars went shooming through them like kettles under steam. And serve them right, they’d little care for anybody, the dirt that rode in motors, folk said; and one of them had nearly run over wee Wat Strachan a fortnight before and had skirled to a stop right bang in front of Peesie’s Knapp, Wat had yowled like a cat with a jobe under its tail and Chae had gone striding out and taken the motorist man by the shoulder. And What the hell do you think you’re up to? Chae had asked. And the motorist, he was a fair toff with leggings and a hat cocked over his eyes, he’d said Keep your damn children off the road in future. And Chae had said Keep a civil tongue in your head and had clouted the motorist man one in the ear and down he had flumped in the stour and Mistress Strachan, her that was old Netherhill’s daughter, she’d gone tearing out skirling Mighty, you brute, you’ve killed the man! and Chae had just laughed and said Damn the fears! and off he’d gone. But Mistress Strachan had helped the toff up to his feet and shook him and brushed him and apologised for Chae, real civil-like. And all the thanks she got was that Chae was summonsed for assault at Stonehaven and fined a pound, and came out of the courthouse saying there was no justice under capitalism, a revolution would soon sweep away its corrupted lackeys. And maybe it would, but faith! there was as little sign of a revolution, said Long Rob of the Mill, as there was of rain.Maybe that was the reason for half the short tempers over the Howe. You could go never a road but farmer billies were leaning over the gates, glowering at the weather, and road-menders, poor stocks, chapping away at their hillocks with the sweat fair dripping off them, and the only folk that seemed to have a fine time were the shepherds up in the hills. But they swore themselves dry when folk cried that to them, the hill springs about a shepherd’s herd would dry up or seep away all in an hour and the sheep go straying and baying and driving the man fair senseless till he’d led them weary miles to the nearest burn. So everybody was fair snappy, staring up at the sky, and the ministers all over the Howe were offering up prayers for rain in between the bit about the Army and the Prince of Wales’ rheumatics. But feint the good it did for rain; and Long Rob of the Mill said he’d heard both Army and rheumatics were much the same as before.
Each of the book’s four main sections, “Ploughing,” “Drilling,” “Seed-time,” and “Harvest,” begins with Chris at the standing stones, taking stock of her life. The events of her story are thus bound up not only in the regular rhythms of farming life but in the structure of the novel itself, which ties Chris on every level—literal, figurative, familial, cultural—to the land. In doing so, against all odds, Mitchell created a heroine who stands free, an individual unfettered by symbolism or tradition.