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Lewis Grassic Gibbon: The Scots Quair

This trilogy was voted the best Scottish book of all time and it would be difficult to argue with that point of view. Quair means a book that can be written on a quire of paper, though I suspect that Gibbon used more than a quire of paper for this trilogy. Most of his work was written as an English gentleman, under his really name of J Leslie Mitchell but this trilogy used Scots and was written under the name by which we know him best, Lewis Grassic Gibbon. The books were published in three consecutive years. He died the year after the last one was published.

The trilogy follows the story of Chris Guthrie. She is the daughter of a farmer from the Mearns. The action takes place between 1911 and 1934 and sees Chris grow from girl to middle-aged woman and struggle with the difficult economic conditions in her home area. The first book, often regarded as the best, is Sunset Song. Chris is an intelligent girl and wants to be educated. Her father is a tough Calvinist, often shouting and losing his temper. Her mother suffers, particularly with all the children she bears. At the beginning she has just given birth to twins and had a hard time. Chris wants to get away and sees her brothers doing so, but finds it hard to detach herself from the land, however harsh it is, that she loves, and from some of the people. Her mother finally kills herself and the twins, while her father has a stroke. He tries to force himself on Chris but is too weak to do so and eventually he, too, dies. Chris is tempted to leave but marries Ewan. However, he goes to serve in World War I and is killed. Chris later learns that he was shot for desertion. The novel ends with the minister as a possible suitor.

The other two novels, while fine novels, do not seem to have the same stature as the first. In Cloud Howe, Chris, as we had expected, marries the minister, Robert Colquhoun. Colquhoun is an idealistic socialist but this is the period of the rise of communism in the cities and the conflict between farm worker and city worker. The 1926 General Strike and the still-born birth of their son help drive him to an early grave. Grey Granite sees Chris move to the fictional town of Dundon but it is her son from her first marriage, Ewan, who is more the hero of this book, which is set during the Depression. The scene is riots, strikes, unemployment, bread lines and marches, rather than the farming community we have seen in the earlier novels.

The key to the trilogy and the reason why the first novel is so often hailed as the Great Scottish Novel is Chris’ link to the land. This is a theme we have seen so often in the novel and not just, of course, in the twentieth century novel. An obvious comparison, for example, as regards that theme, would be Henry Williamson‘s Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight. Like other literary figures of her kind, Chris knows that she loves the land and has an almost mystical attachment to it, though she cannot really explain it. Indeed, she is eager to move away, to make use of her education. Alternatives are given – her second husband’s mystical Christianity and her son’s political activism, for example – but we and Chris are left with the strong sense of the importance of the land to its people.

Publishing history

Sunset Song
First published 1932 by Jarrolds
Cloud Howe
First published 1933 by Jarrolds
Grey Granite
First published 1934 by Jarrolds