By Phil Turner
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Classic read: A Scots Quair

This article is over 8 years, 9 months old
Lewis Grassic Gibbon, First published 1932
Issue 385

In a small village near Stonehaven in north east Scotland is a museum dedicated to the writer Lewis Grassic Gibbon.

The centre, near the farm in Arbuthnott where he grew up, is surrounded by the Mearns, the area Grassic Gibbon immortalised through his portrayal of its distinctive speech and culture.

Lewis Grassic Gibbon was the pen name used by James Leslie Mitchell, a revolutionary Marxist until his death.

The trilogy A Scots Quair, written between 1932 and 1934 and made up of Sunset Song, Cloud Howe and Grey Granite, is his best known work – and greatest achievement.

Following the life of its heroine Chris Guthrie, the three novels take the reader through changing times with the rise of the working class from the Great War to the growing influence of communism in the 1920s. The novels are also highly innovative in style, language and thought.

Mitchell, born in 1901 in Aberdeenshire, the son of an impoverished crofter, became a prolific writer, publishing 17 books in seven years.

His family moved to the Mearns in much the same way as Chris Guthrie’s did in Sunset Song. After only one year of secondary schooling, he moved to Aberdeen to become a cub reporter on the Aberdeen Press and Journal.

Aged 16 he became a committed revolutionary in 1917 after the Bolshevik revolution in Russia and he and a junior reporter from another paper were elected to the Aberdeen “soviet council.”

Moving to Glasgow in 1919 he worked as a journalist before being sacked for his Marxist views. Forced through poverty to enlist in the armed forces, he left to write full time, though was financially unsuccessful.

His groundbreaking style, particularly in the Prelude of Sunset Song, is difficult at first, with familiar rules of grammar and syntax cast aside. But after a while you begin to hear the voice of the storyteller and the language becomes mesmerising.

Its combination of realist narrative and lyrical use of dialect is considered to be among the defining works of 20th century Scottish literature.

The trilogy is written in the vernacular, showing Grassic Gibbon’s extraordinary ability to reflect the language of ordinary Scottish people.

As Paul Foot wrote, “He captures the music and the irony of the language, conveying his political message not by dreary (or even subtle) propaganda, but chiefly by means of a gentle, searing mockery.

“He manages without humiliating his characters to detect and untie the knots in their thinking. His characters are so subtly blended and balanced, their thoughts and expressions so riddled with dialectic and larded with humour that the reader cannot help being absorbed in them.”

The period in which Grassic Gibbon wrote the trilogy was the aftermath of the betrayal by Ramsay MacDonald’s Labour government. He also raised questions about the early CP in his search for a way forward.

Tragically, Gibbon worked himself into ill health. Shortly after Grey Granite was published he died of a perforated ulcer just before his 34th birthday in 1935.

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