Sunset Song

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Sunset Song By Lewis Grassic GibbonSunset Song is one of the great works of Scottish literature, and of British literature as well in my opinion. It was first published in 1932, written by the Scottish author Lewis Grassic Gibbon – real name James Leslie Mitchell. Gibbon was born on an Aberdeenshire croft in 1901, and grew up in Kincardineshire, where Sunset Song is set. He travelled overseas with the Army, and died in 1935 in Welwyn Garden City.

Sunset Song is the first part of A Scots Quair, a trilogy of novels paying tribute to Grassic Gibbon’s homeland. It follows the story of Chris Guthrie, a young woman from a farming family, and takes us through the tragedy and joy of her life before and during the First World War. Her family move from Echt, west of Aberdeen, to Kinraddie, a fictional hamlet in the Mearns south of Stonehaven, to a croft named Blawearie. Chris is studious, and although she loves the land she dreams of escaping. We follow her story through family tragedy, personal joy and then grief.

There is one word which always springs immediately to mind when I think of Sunset Song – lyrical. It is a lyrical tribute to a beautiful area which Grassic Gibbon loved dearly, the Mearns. This is where I also grew up, and his descriptions are perfect – the rolling land, the fields, the small villages dotted about the countryside. It is frequently described as a hymn to the soil, and for me this is the perfect accolade for it. Sunset Song celebrates the Old Scotland, the way of living that died in the early half of the twentieth century.

Chris’s story represents that of a generation. Her parents had farmed the land, as did their parents before them, and so on back in time. But Chris has had the benefit of education, she is clever and could have a future away from the land – so does she turn her back on her history, on the way of life that her ancestors cultivated? Or does she accept a less stimulating, less intellectual life in order to continue with tradition? She is caught between the past and the future of the Mearns.

Grassic Gibbon writes in the language of the area at the turn of the twentieth century. The dialect of Aberdeenshire is Doric, but the Mearns has its own strain of Doric, which is a type of Scots. The best description I can think of to fit this dialect and way of speaking was used by my Glaswegian uncle to describe my accent – “a Mearns lilt”. There are many words in the book which will be unfamiliar to non-Scots, and even southern Scots will struggle to understand some of the book. When I first read Sunset Song, my dad told me to get a Scots dictionary as I would struggle with the language. He read it when he was younger, and he grew up in Glasgow – he struggled with much of it and used the glossary provided in his edition. He assumed I would have the same problem, but as I had grown up in the Mearns I found it very easy. Although Chris’s way of life has died out, the language remains, particularly among the older generation and the farming families.

It is not only the use of local words which marks Sunset Song as a book of the Mearns, but the style of Grassic Gibbon’s writing. It is unique, and flows very naturally. It is written in third person, but his writing flows as if it were someone’s thoughts. Dialogue is not set out separately as with most novels, but is included on the main body of the text. I think it is this style which contributes greatly to the novel being “lyrical”. It reminds me so much of how people speak back home, hurried and saying lots, but always thoughtful.

Even the title of the novel is beautiful – Sunset Song. Two beautiful words together, which I always think draw me towards reading the novel. The novel deals with the “sunset” of the old way of life, and the “song” relates to the celebration of this beautiful area, its people and its way of life.

Sunset Song has for many years been a set text in the Higher English exams. Personally, I think this is a shame because for a lot of young people, reading the novel becomes a chore, when it should be a pleasure. I didn’t actually study it for my Higher, I was set other novels, and I am glad about this. Whether it would have ruined my enjoyment of the novel or given me greater understanding of it, I am unsure.

“If you have little or no knowledge of Scots, I would suggest purchasing an edition with a glossary included.”

I have lost count of the number of times I have read Sunset Song. My copy is an all-in-one of A Scots Quair, and the Sunset Song section in particular is getting to be rather battered. When I read it, I find myself upset and happy about Chris’s story, even though I know the story so well I could recap every event for you here. What I notice about it most now, living in London, is that it makes me horribly homesick. Not for Aberdeen, where I studied and lived for several years after I left home, but for the small village I grew up in, which is situated in the heart of the Howe O’ The Mearns. In fact, our claim to fame is a mention in Sunset Song – not a very flattering one, but a mention nonetheless! If you read the novel, see if you can spot it. Grassic Gibbon’s writing is so perfectly evocative that it takes me right back to the rolling fields of the Mearns, and makes me plan my next trip home. I hear the words “Sunset Song” and I think “home”.

A small bit of information about the remainder of A Scots Quair, as I am unlikely to review the other two novels separately. Cloud Howe and Grey Granite continue Chris’s story as she moves first to a larger village/town in the Mearns, Segget (also fictional but locals can spot elements of several villages in it), and then on to the city of Duncairn. This city is obviously based on Aberdeen – the title of the novel, Grey Granite, is basically a description of the Granite City of Aberdeen. Grassic Gibbon does however state in his “cautionary note” at the beginning of the novel that Duncairn is “the city which the inhabitants of the Mearns…have hitherto failed to build”. Cloud Howe is good, but does not match the brilliance of Sunset Song, perhaps due to the shift from the rural farming community. Similarly, Grey Granite is the weakest of A Scots Quair, again perhaps due to the shift to the city. Sunset Song can be read as a standalone novel, and often is, but I like to read all three occasionally in order to finish Chris’s story.

I am sure you can guess what my conclusion will be – I cannot recommend Sunset Song highly enough! It is a beautiful novel, and well worth reading. If you have little or no knowledge of Scots, I would suggest purchasing an edition with a glossary included. If you are Scottish and have not already read this, shame on you. If you are from the Mearns and Aberdeenshire and have not read this…well, I think you should be banished until you do!

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Sunset Song
by Lewis Grassic Gibbon

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Written by eilidhcatriona
eilidhcatriona

A Scottish lass in her late twenties living in London. A prolific reader always interested in something new.

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