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What Sunset Song taught me about myself and my country

Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s classic novel of love, war and rural life laid out the tensions between the old and the new Scotland.

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Sunset Song tells a beautiful, though often heartbreaking, story. Set in the north-east of Scotland around the outbreak of the First World War, Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s novel is unsparing in its harsh realism. Crushing poverty, the toil of earning a living from the land, the sternness of religion and the oppressive reality of life for women in particular – these themes provide the context for the lives whose stories unfold in the book.

The novel’s bold protagonist, Chris Guthrie, comes from a dysfunctional farming family. After her troubled mother and abusive father die and her brother emigrates, Chris considers leaving the farm to work as a teacher but finds herself tethered to the land. She marries a young farmer, Ewan Tavendale, who signs up to join the army when war breaks out.

Kinraddie, the book’s fictional setting, represents a world in transition. The rural way of life that the story’s characters have always known is increasingly challenged by advancing technology and the impact of war. A central theme of the book is the passing of the “old Scotland”, a theme powerfully articulated towards the end as the minister unveils a memorial to the parish’s war dead: “It was the old Scotland that perished then, and we may believe that never again will the old speech and the old songs, the old curses and the old benedictions, rise but with alien effort to our lips.”

But the novel is also, and without a hint of sentimentality or “kailyardism”, a story of human resilience and spirit. The characters draw strength and perspective from the land, even as it takes its a toll on them. The ancient standing stones, at which Chris seeks refuge at times of grief or personal turmoil, help to place the story and its setting in a historical context. And they remind us that the joys and heartbreaks of our own lives are but the blink of an eye in the grand sweep of history. It is a story of both transience and continuity.

Sunset Song is all of this, and much more. It is also, without a shadow of doubt, my favourite book of all time. That I would have said as much without hesitation when I read it for the first time in my teenage years is not surprising. But that I say it still, more than 30 years and hundreds of great books later, demands greater examination. The love I feel for Sunset Song is not just an appreciation of its considerable literary quality; it is as much, maybe more so, a reflection of the profound impact it had on me at a formative time of my life. In no small way, I owe my love of literature to this novel.

I have been an avid reader of fiction for as long as I can remember, probably longer. My childhood memories are full of the stories of Beatrix Potter, Enid Blyton, Roald Dahl, CS Lewis, Lewis Carroll, Laura Ingalls Wilder and many others. For me, nothing – not TV or playing games with friends – could beat the joy and exhilaration of being transported by a story to a place of the imagination. I still love and marvel at the power of story to lift us from our own reality.

But it was Sunset Song that awakened something deeper in me. It stirred an appreciation of more than just story, powerful though the one told by Grassic Gibbon undoubtedly is. Sunset Song is one of the first books that had me utterly captivated by the lyricism of language and the power of place. I discovered the novel’s ability to educate as well as entertain. I experienced the reflective and healing resonance of character – the ability of a made-up person on a page to help us better understand our own lives; to make us feel less alone. While I could fantasise about being George from the Famous Five in a life wildly different to my own, Chris Guthrie spoke to, and helped me make sense of, the girl I was.

Of course, in so many ways, the lives and experiences of the book’s characters are worlds away from my own. The harshness of rural life in the years leading up to and through the First World War was beyond my direct ken. That, though, is part of the appeal. The book quite literally introduced me to a part of my own country – Aberdeenshire – that until then had been as alien to me as a foreign land. It opened my ears to a language – an echo of the speak of the Mearns – that was of my country, but not really mine. It seeded in me a fascination and deep affection for the names, places and people of the north-east of Scotland. To this day, a journey to Aberdeen past the road signs for the towns and villages of the Mearns always makes me think of Sunset Song – of Kinraddie, Blawearie, Peesie’s Knapp.

Lewis Grassic Gibbon, whose real name was James Leslie Mitchell, was born in Aberdeenshire in 1901. After working as a journalist on the Scottish Farmer and becoming involved in left-wing politics, he joined the army in 1919, and served in the Royal Army Service Corps and RAF before settling down in Hertfordshire and beginning his writing career. Grassic Gibbon’s experience in the military informed his fiction, and, although he did not fight in the First World War, Sunset Song taught me more about that conflict – its human impact and consequences – than I would have learned in a dozen textbooks. At some passages, I cried, moved more deeply by a book than I had ever been before.

Over the past few years, my duties as First Minister have taken me to First World War centenary commemorations in Arras, Amiens and the Somme. I have heard and been humbled by the real-life stories of those who fought, died and survived. And yet so often I’ve found myself thinking about the fictional Ewan Tavendale; about how the war brutalised him, turning his happy marriage to Chris into a nightmare of abuse and contempt. And about how, far away in a field in France, he had suddenly come to his senses, overcome by the futility of it all:

In a flash it had come on him, he had wakened up, he was daft and a fool to be there; and, like somebody minding things done in a coarse wild dream there had flashed on him memory of Chris at Blawearie and his last days there, mad and mad he had been…

I defy anyone to read these passages without shedding tears.

But, for all that, it was Chris Guthrie that gave the novel the place in my heart that it still occupies today. I am genuinely not sure if it is true or a stretch to say, as many do, that the Chris of Sunset Song – and the two subsequent novels that make up the Scots Quair trilogy – personifies Scotland.

But I do know that I, and I suspect many Scots, found in her something of myself and what it meant to be Scottish; and that she helped me make sense of the conflicts and choices my teenage self was grappling with. I understood through her the love/hate (but ultimately love) relationship with the land that many of us feel. Through Chris, I could give expression to the feelings that stirred in me as I looked across the field and out to the sea from my grand-parents’ croft on the west coast of Scotland – dreaming of going to university in the “big city”, but knowing that part of my soul would always belong there. Chris also helped me understand the inferiority complex that working-class Scots can sometimes feel, worried that our way of speaking isn’t “proper English”, but also knowing that it is the best and purest way of expressing who we are.

You saw their faces in firelight, father’s and mother’s… you wanted the words they’d known and used, forgotten in the far-off youngness of their lives, Scots words to tell to your heart how they wrung it and held it, the toil of their days and unendingly their fight. And the next minute that passed from you, you were English, back to the English words so sharp and clean and true – for a while, for a while, till they slid so smooth from your throat you knew they could never say anything that was worth the saying at all.

Above all, it was the conflict that brews in Chris, between tradition and modernity, learning and the land, moving away or staying put, that resonated with me.

When I first read Sunset Song I was contemplating a future at Glasgow University, the first in my family to go on to higher education. I was excited by it, but also more than a little intimidated, wondering if I’d be able to cope away from my family, my community, my roots. In the book, Chris – a victim of circumstances beyond her control – is forced to turn her back on college and learning, and instead stay on the farm at Blawearie. I went in the opposite direction, embracing university life with enthusiasm, but I took considerable inspiration from Chris along the way.

Throughout Sunset Song, there is repeated reference to “two Chrisses” as a way of describing the conflict that she carries within her. It is best articulated in this beautiful passage which I still think of regularly:

… two Chrisses there were that fought for her heart and tormented her. You hated the land and the coarse speak of the folk and learning was brave and fine one day; and the next you’d waken with the peewits crying across the hills, deep and deep, crying in the heart of you and the smell of the earth in your face, almost you’d cry for that, the beauty of it and the sweetness of the Scottish land and skies.

Sunset Song is profound. It is heartbreaking but ultimately uplifting and life affirming. It tells a story of a Scotland that, in some senses, is no more, yet, in others, still lives in the hearts of each and every one of us.

It is said that Grassic Gibbon (just 33 years of age when he died, even younger than that other Scottish genius Robert Burns at the time of his death) wrote this masterpiece in six weeks. In doing so, he gifted us one of the finest literary accomplishments Scotland has ever known. 

A new edition of “Sunset Song”, with an introduction by Nicola Sturgeon, is published by Canongate

This article appears in the 29 January 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Over and out