As Scotland’s favorite novel reaches its 90th birthday, Dan Mackay looks back on two of the North’s greatest writers

Kenn and the Salmon at Dunbeath Harbour, from the novel Highland River.

This year marks the 90th anniversary of the publication of Sunset Song. Voted Scotland’s favorite novel, Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s timeless classic tells the story of heroine Chris Guthrie, who faces hardship, sacrifice and tragedy among the brave farmers of fictional Kinraddie, Aberdeenshire rural.

Against the backdrop of the Great War, he describes a time of upheaval as ancient Scotland and the old ways of making a living from the land “with bare hands” came to an end.

This novel, part of Gibbon’s Scots Quair trilogy, is his masterpiece in a literary tour de force that to this day remains unmatched.

Born James Leslie Mitchell, but later writing under his pseudonym, Gibbon was a complicated individual who harbored a “very bitter hatred” of the Mearns and, above all, the “bad language of the people” he grew up with. He hated their gray servitude to farming, though he would later draw distinctions between farming and his love of the land itself.

His schoolmaster at Arbuthnott was quick to recognize an emerging talent in the bookish boy who read avidly, had developed a fascination with archeology and struggled to speak “proper” English. Gibbon’s mother would later claim that he wrote “awful books” that often seemed to expose the talkative narrow-mindedness of the tight-knit community he had come to reject – but later celebrate.

During a short but surprisingly prolific literary career, Gibbon published 17 books and wrote 11 novels in just four years. Other book projects were in the works – a writing pace that would have left most authors breathless! Sadly, his ultimate potential was never realized as he died tragically young in 1935. He was only 33 years old.

Grave of Lewis Grassic Gibbon, Arbuthnott Cemetery.
Grave of Lewis Grassic Gibbon, Arbuthnott Cemetery.

Born in November 1890, ten years before Gibbon was born, our other eminent Scottish man of letters, Neil Miller Gunn, was also born into a nation in the throes of economic, industrial and cultural change.

Both men had grown up in large families. Herding Gibbon while Gunn grew up, at least initially, in a fishing community in Dunbeath. The two developed their academic interests and shared many things in common. In particular a fascination for our prehistory and, later, their distinct political passions.

Gunn’s home in Inverness would be described as the “spiritual home” of the emerging Scottish National Movement (later the SNP) in the years before World War II. Gibbon, “the good Soviet”, embraced Communism.

Corresponding as Leslie Mitchell, he wrote to Gunn in 1934 proclaiming, “I’m not really anti-nationalist. But I hate fascism, and all the dirty things that go by that name. I doubt you can ever have nationalism without communism. It’s unclear how and if Gunn responded.

There is much to compare and contrast between the two novelists.

The untimely death of Gibbon, whose shining star had come to kindle “a fire in the Mearns, clearing the dismal ground for a richer yield” was seen as “an incalculable loss to Scottish literature”.

Gunn, on the other hand, had a much longer literary career, writing his final novel The Other Landscape in 1954 and his unconventional autobiography, The Atom of Delight, in 1956. Still, he had to endure a slow decline in popularity. his novels. , especially his later works considered too complex and difficult to understand.

The Lewis Grassic Gibbon Center, Arbuthnott.
The Lewis Grassic Gibbon Center, Arbuthnott.

With their contrasting life experiences and differing outlooks, Gunn would often, for example, return to the pleasant community of his childhood and rejoice in celebrating its rich cultural heritage. His earlier works, including Morning Tide, Highland River and The Silver Darlings, exuded a freshness and vitality and earned him a deserved reputation as a profound and distinguished writer.

Gibbon, on the other hand, longed for a bygone golden age, as he saw it, where people lived “free, happy and unscathed”. Perhaps his travels during military service through Palestine, Egypt and Persia (as it was then) fueled outrages that manifested in belief in a diffusionist philosophy then in vogue of a world gone wrong, oppressed and corrupted by organization, hierarchy and power that had spread. , like a cancer, although all facets of humanity.

It was this troubling degeneration that fueled Gibbon’s resentment toward his farming neighbors because he believed in an alternative, freer life for them, away from “bestial” yoke and plow.

His final opus, at Scots Quair, continues the story of Chris Guthrie. It traces the end of an era and “the advent of new oppressions”. It has been variously described as a requiem to that old society that lived off the land.

And while Sunset Song and Scot’s Quair remain staples of the secondary school curriculum, it seems Gunn’s work has gone out of style.

Yet the work of the two men, despite both being part of a Scottish renaissance, is frankly night and day. With Gibbon sometimes gloomy and desperate – perhaps a reflection on some of his own mental health issues.

Standing stones of Achavanich - the two writers shared a fascination with our prehistory.
Standing stones of Achavanich – the two writers shared a fascination with our prehistory.

Gunn, underappreciated, had for much of his life incorporated a vision of Zen Buddhism. We see it best when Kenn successfully catches and lands the salmon at Highland River – a time when “nothing ever had the splendor and glory of that struggle near the Well Pool”.

It was these “atoms of delight” that provided Gunn and his readers with illuminating insights. Indeed, the “other landscape” he was referring to was not another place but rather another way of looking at life itself.

It has been said that if all of Gunn’s literary canon were to be published under one heading, it might aptly be titled: A Scottish Mystic’s Search for the Conditions of Human Fulfillment.

Critics, surveying the Scottish literary scene, have argued that the quality of these two writers has never been topped.

But it’s Sunset Song’s final lament, as they come together to honor those who fell in a Great War, which will last forever. They were gone, banished in death. And we alone must ask ourselves what we inherit from those who are beyond sunset…

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