A personal rake through my favourite books for Book Week Scotland
“So that was Chris and her reading and schooling, 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.”
Voted ‘Best Scottish Book of all time’ by public vote in 2005 – this is one of my all time favourite books. James Leslie Mitchell – or Lewis Grassic Gibbon – published Sunset Song in 1932 to global acclaim but parochial narrow-sightedness, which is ironic, as this is a major theme of the book. Writing in 1939 after Mitchell’s untimely and unexpected death (33, in 1935), Helen Cruickshank wrote about its local reception
In 1935 Aberdeen Public Library ‘withdrew “Sunset Song” from the lending department as “unsuitable for general circulation” … “Sunset Song” had not been banned, as one copy was available to anyone in the reference department. In all quarters of Scotland eager moralists seized their pens to tell the world through the local press how filthy and untrue to life Gibbon was.’
The book’s fate since then – on the school curriculum since the 1960s and voted ‘Best Scottish Book of all Time’ – is a testament to Mitchell’s skilful storytelling – the book coheres – language, characterisation, and setting combine to create a vivid picture of early 20th century Scottish farming life in the north-east. That he did so through a female protagonist is outstanding; Chris Guthrie is fiction’s best male-created female heroine [in my opinion]. That he did so by using Scots words and dialect is remarkable. Mitchell was writing during a renaissance in Scottish literature, a deliberate movement away from what went before, from recent couthie ‘kailyard literature’. Neil Gunn speaks for Mitchell; writing in 1927, ” the Renascent [sic] Scot is – must be – intolerant of the Kailyarder, that is, of the parochial, sentimental, local-associative way of treating Scotland and the Scots.’ Sunset Song is steeped in kailyard tropes but navigates a way out of it to expose its shortcomings, to create a new way of thinking and seeing Scots and showing the possibilities of Scottish literature.
So that was Kinraddie that bleak winter of nineteen eleven and the new minister, him they chose early next year, he was to say it was the Scots countryside itself, fathered between a kailyard and a bonny brier bush in the lee of a house with green shutters.And what he meant by that you could guess at yourself if you’d a mind for puzzles and dirt, there wasn’t a house with green shutters in the whole of Kinraddie.’
Sunset Song is the first in the trilogy collectively known as A Scots Quair [Cloud Howe (1933) and Grey Granite (1934) followed] featuring Chris Guthrie. Thomas Crawford’s introduction to Sunset Song (reprinted in the Canongate edition) is still the best – read it in full on the GoogleBooks edition, where you can see the original map of the fictional Kinraddie from the first edition, showing Long Rob o’ the Mill’s Mill and Chae Strachan’s farm, Peesie’s Knapp.