Sunset Song by Lewis Grassic Gibbon

sunset song 2A Scottish lament…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

This first volume of Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s trilogy, A Scots Quair, focuses on the life of Chris Guthrie, daughter of a tenant farmer in the fictional estate of Kinraddie in the north-east of Scotland, before and during the First World War. Sunset Song, written in 1932, is generally considered the strongest book in the trilogy and one of the greatest Scottish novels of the twentieth century. Although it’s written in a form of the dialect of the area, it’s been pretty heavily anglicised so that it keeps the rhythms without being too hard for non-Scots (or modern Scots) to understand. There’s a heavy sprinkling of old Scots words, but also a glossary of them should the meaning not be obvious from the context.

Chris is born the daughter of John Guthrie of Blawearie, a farmer hardened by the lifelong struggle to wrest a living from the land, and Jean, a woman worn down by years of pregnancies and childbirth. John is a harsh father to his sons, demanding hard labour and unquestioning obedience, and exacting cruel physical punishment when angered, while Jean can do nothing but watch passively. But Chris shows signs of academic intelligence, and it is John’s wish, and her own, that she be educated and get away from the land to become a teacher. All this changes when first Jean and then John die, leaving the family broken up and Chris as the inheritor of the farm. Now with the money to leave and make a new life for herself, Chris realises the land is in her blood – she wonders how she could ever have thought to leave it and to take up a career that would deny her the joys of marriage and children.

Agyness Deyn as Chris in the new movie adaptation due out later this year
Agyness Deyn as Chris in the new movie adaptation due out later this year

And so she marries young Ewan Tavendale and together they are content to farm their land, Chris’ happiness enhanced when she bears her first son. But the world is changing and over in Europe war clouds are gathering. And during the four years of fighting, life for Chris and for this entire community will be changed forever.

Chae jumped up when she finished, he said Damn’t, folk, we’ll all have the whimsies if we listen to any more woesome songs! Have none of you a cheerful one? And the folk in the barn laughed at him and shook their heads, it came on Chris how strange was the sadness of Scotland’s singing, made for the sadness of the land and sky in dark autumn evenings, the crying of men and women of the land who had seen their lives and loves sink away in the years, things wept for beside the sheep-ouchts, remembered at night and in twilight. The gladness and kindness had passed, lived and forgotten, it was Scotland of the mist and rain and the crying sea that made the songs.

The book is essentially a lament for the passing of a way of life. Gibbon shows how the war hurried the process along, but he also indicates how change was happening anyway, with increasing mechanisation of farms, the landowners gradually driving the tenant farmers off as they found more profitable uses for the land, the English-ing of education leading to the loss of the old language and with it, old traditions. Although the cruelties and hardships of the old ways are shown to the full, he also portrays the sense of community, of neighbour supporting neighbour when the need arises. And he gives a great feeling of the relative isolation of these communities, far distant from the seat of power and with little interest in anything beyond their own lives. But here too he suggests things are changing, with some of the characters flirting with the new socialist politics of the fledgling Labour Party.

It took me a good third of the book to really find myself involved in the story. It begins with a long introduction to all the characters and a potted history of the area. While there’s some great writing and quite a lot of humour in this section, I found it was trying to cover too much and I didn’t really get a feel for most of the characters – which was a problem that remained throughout the book in fact. The main characters become very well realised, but all the others flit in and out and I never felt fully on top of who they were or how they related to each other. As Chris grows from childhood into young womanhood, there is a major emphasis on her awakening sexuality, with some writing which I feel must have been considered pretty shocking in its time, including allusions to rape and incest.

But suddenly, at the point where Chris finds herself alone and independent, the book turns into something quite wonderful. The story of Chris and Ewan falling in love and marrying is full of emotional truth. This isn’t a great romance – this is two young people setting out to make a life for themselves and their inevitable children, farming the land in continuity with the generations before them and assuming they will hand it on in turn to the next, and making the adjustments that any couple must when the realities of living with another person don’t quite match up to the dream.

Peter Mullan as, I assume, John Guthrie, also from the forthcoming movie
Peter Mullan as, I assume, John Guthrie, also from the forthcoming movie

It lingered at the back of her mind, dark, like a black cat creeping at the back of a hedge, she saw the fluff of its fur or the peek of its eyes, a wild and sinister thing in the sunlight; but you would not look often or see those eyes, how they glared at you. He was going out there, where the sky was a troubled nightmare and the earth shook night and day, into the lands of the coarse French folk, her Ewan, her lad with his dark, dear face and that quick, blithe blush. And suddenly she was filled with a weeping pity in her heart for him, a pity that brought no tears to her eyes, he must never see her shed tears all the time he was with her, he’d go out to the dark, far land with memories of her and Blawearie that were shining and brave and kind.

Lewis Grassic Gibbon
Lewis Grassic Gibbon

And when war begins, Gibbon handles beautifully the gradual change within the community, from feeling completely detached and uninvolved to slowly finding their lives affected in every way. As the men begin to either volunteer or, later, be conscripted into the Army, each character reacts differently but truly to the personality Gibbon has so carefully created for them. Some of the writing is heart-breaking in its emotional intensity but never overloaded with mawkishness or sentimentality. Gibbon touches on questions that must still have been hugely sensitive so soon after one war and with another already looming – conscientious objection and desertion – and asks not for forgiveness for his characters but for understanding and empathy. The ending echoes the beginning, as Gibbon again takes us round the community showing the irrevocable changes wrought by war and modernisation on each family – some winners, some losers, but none unaltered. And as he brings his characters together one last time, we see them begin to gather the strength to face their uncertain future in a world that will never be the same again.

A brilliant book that fully deserves its reputation. Highly recommended, though I should warn you I sobbed solidly through most of the second half…

Book 9
Book 9

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

56 thoughts on “Sunset Song by Lewis Grassic Gibbon

  1. Although definitely not to my personal taste, this sounds like a most extraordinary book. I love the idea of having a glossary for the old Scots words – I bet there are some interesting ones! Beautiful review, FF.

  2. This does sound like a beautiful elegy to a way of life and kind of culture, FictionFan. Even if the beginning doesn’t move along as the rest of the story does, it sounds as though one could get really caught up in this novel. I’m glad you ended up enjoying this as much as you did.

    • It is – beautifully done without overly sentimentalising what is lost. I reckon it’s one that really needs to be read twice (if one had time!) since I think the beginning would be more interesting once you knew what was going to happen to the characters. A great read though!

  3. Would it be dreadfully strange if I said I find it very intriguing? And something that I might read? Oh dear. The things you do to me!

    I don’t know why, but I’m curious how they get on with life and what happens. Reminds me almost of a Gone With The Wind like story or something.

    That chap is definitely Rachmaninoff!!!

    • *laughs* I’m sorry! I don’t know whether you’d enjoy the beginning – might be too much romance (though it’s very unromantic romance). But when it gets to the wartime, I think you might – and I think you might enjoy the language…

      Now, see, sometimes you’re so perceptive! Or maybe psychic! I so nearly made the comparison to Gone with the Wind in my review, but decided not to since I’ve only seen the film – not read the book. But yes, I think there’s lots of similarities – especially Chris’ and Scarlett’s love for the land, and the changes that war causes even to those who stay at home.

      Ooh, yes! That’s almost spooky!

      • Well, what do you mean by unromantic romance? That might be bearable, see. Ooo, I bet I would enjoy the language. Does anyone die in the war?

        Aha! Both, actually. What a wonder. That is very cool. Even sounds like The Good Earth just a bit. Did you like the film?

        It is! I wonder if his hands are huge.

        • Well, no dancing and eye-gazing and lovey-dovey talk and stuff. Just a quick falling-in-love followed by marriage and kids. Yes, they do… *sobs again* But the book doesn’t go to the war – it stays with the people at home.

          Haven’t read The Good Earth, so I don’t know. No, it’s not out yet – sometime in autumn I think. I’d like to see it though.

          Why? Are Rach’s?

          • Well, that’s good news. Sounds rather horrid for the couple, though… That’s neatio. I almost prefer it stays at the home. Sometimes that’s where the war is most interesting.

            Yeah, it sounds very tempting.

            Yes! It’s said he could reach outstanding stuff on those keys. I believe his second piano concerto has lots of stretches and things. Now me not being a pianist, I’m not sure.

            • See, you are a big soft romantic whatever you say!! They do dance at their wedding! Yes, I agree – I’m a bit fed up of reading about the warfare bit of the war. This was more interesting for sure.

              But… that’s like cheating! They should have made him play on a giant-sized piano…

            • *shakes head* Nope! Only romantics! Hip-hop apparently – she had to get her wedding dress specially designed…

              *laughs* They should have made him cut up lots of melons…

            • *nods* Paul McCartney! *gags just a little*

              An extremely vicious honeydew! I should have gone for a canteloupe – they’re easier to intimidate.

  4. What a sincere and thoughtful review. This is something that I will read at some point. A while ago, I bought the entire three-volume Stalker Trilogy on tape (Stalker is the family name, not a description of the characters!) by Jessica Stirling, which is set in the late 19th century, and about the lives of people in a mining town in Scotland. I like the setting, and the cadence of the language. So I am sure that I will like the style and language here, as evinced in the passage you quoted. It does seem to be a wrenching story, though. I hope there are some happy parts near the end. Maybe I can find it on tape. It is nice to listen to the Scottish language, even in more modern form,, being read. I wonder if Vivien Heilbron (just about my favorite reading voice) also reads this one; she has read many of the novels by Scottish authors.

    • Thank you, William! It’s always fun to review a book I either love or hate – it’s the ones in the middle that are tedious! I haven’t come across the Stalker trilogy – I shall check them out. Coincidentally, Vivien Heilbron played Chris in a TV adaptation of this from the 1970s. I had a look yesterday to see if it’s available on DVD or VHS but sadly not, as far as I can see. And Audible don’t seem to have a reading for it either, just a dramatisation. In terms of happy parts – hmm, not many really, unless you count the fact that they showed they had the strength not to be beaten by circumstances…

    • Thanks, Dagny! I hope you enjoy them! I did read the whole trilogy many years ago, but only have a vague impression that the other two books, though good, didn’t have quite the same power of this one. I’ll need to try to re-read them sometime…

  5. Is this the second or the third installment of the trilogy? If the second, I’m wondering where the author is going with the final book; if the third, I’m wondering what took place in the second. (Sorry, it’s just my Virgo mind trying to put order into everything!)

    Anyway, this is well written, FF. I love how thorough you are in telling us just enough — but not too much. It must have been a powerful second half (or you’re an old softie, heehee!)

    • This is the first one. I have read the other two but so long ago I don’t remember hardly anything of them. I think they follow Chris’ life after the war, and possibly become a bit more political than this one. I shall have to re-read them sometime…

      Thank you! 🙂 Haha! Both! Very powerful – and I sob at the drop of a hat! Mind you, I’m worse with TV and films than books usually…

  6. Excellent review! This sounds right up my alley. I just finished Cold Comfort Farm (Stella Gibbons), which was written in 1932 I believe. Though the tone is very different, it also is about making a living off the land.

    • Thanks, L. Marie! 🙂 I added Cold Comfort Farm to the TBR when you mentioned it ealier, but no idea when I’ll get a chance to read it! But from what little I know of it – yes, I think if you liked it you’ll probably like this. Different tone, but similar era and subject matter. In fact, they might make for an interesting comparison…

    • Oh. now I’m disappointed! I was really hoping you’d be rushing off to download this one – it has Fancifull written all over it. Not literally, since that would make it tricky to read obviously…

      Indeed, no! I find the weep-proof stuff comes off when you weep but not when you cleanse, oddly, leaving those panda eyes and unattractive streaks indelibly painted on the otherwise peachy, glowing skin…

      • Thing is, I have a feeling I did read it some years ago, but it’s not on my shelves. Maybe it’s just the powerful evocation of the FF review and quotes which give me the illusion of prior acquaintance!

        • I thought it might be one you’d read – but still worth a re-read! It’s always useful to learn a few old Scots words for farming implements, don’t you think?

  7. Ochone, ochone, ochone …… this is why I find it so hard to read new books, since the old ones are so wonderful. A great review of one of my all-time favourite books. I love the whole trilogy, as indeed I do every word Gibbon wrote. I always read the trilogy as though it were one book which, nowadays, when everything has to be a doorstep, it probably would be. I do envy your commentators having the chance to read this for the first time.

    • Phew! I’m glad I didn’t rip it then! I did read the trilogy many, many moons ago but didn’t really remember much about it, except that I felt this one was the best. However my tastes have undoubtedly changed over the years, so sometime I’ll re-read the others and see if I’ve ‘grown into’ them. The good thing about having such a lousy memory is that this really felt as if I was reading it for the first time – hence the dramatic sobbing…

  8. I can relate with the passing of eras and new ones coming. There have been so many efforts in electric, transportation, safety…sometimes I want to go back. Back in the post war years when everyone could expect home to be a safe place – or safer than it is now. I’ve probably said to many people that this is not the country in which I was born.

    • It’s odd – in general I agree with you, but here in Glasgow the trend has really been reversed. It was a much more dangerous place when I was a kid than it is now. At least so we believed, but I think it’s true. The city was full of gangs and sectarian Protestant/Catholic violence was commonplace. It’s by no means perfect now, but I don’t feel the same air of menace in the city streets at night any more…

        • And do you feel it less safe to do so now? I also felt we were much more independent younger too – I guess over here at least it was because not everybody had cars to run their kids around in.

          • I do where I live (feel less safe). We live in a neighborhood where I know there are at least three meth labs that are used regularly. I walked out the front door this afternoon and the smoke, two doors down from where the lab was cooking. The only supervision was the occasional were the mothers in the homes glancing out of the windows. Road rage is rampant. Yes, I would say I don’t feel as safe as I did back when.

            • Oh, that does sound pretty bad! I guess I’m very lucky in my boring little town where nothing ever happens. But there are places just a few miles away where I wouldn’t like to live either. Drugs is the big difference – I know they were around when we were young but not the way they are now. Or at least if they were, we weren’t so aware of it.

            • Eventually we will (hopefully) be in a more place where it is somewhat safer…if there are any. For now I play dumb and turn my face the other direction. You see, the sheriffs (some of them) get paid to keep a blind eye. I do walk most mornings before it is broiling hot, but with bears and outlaws I stay in at night.

    • Thnaks, honya! 🙂 If you ever do try it, I hope you enjoy it – the language takes a bit of time to get used to but once you get tuned into it, it becomes reasonably easy…

  9. Oh, wow – this sounds amazing! I have read a few Scottish books (James Kelman and Anne Donovan) so should cope with the dialect. Is it unremittingly grim or just emotional? And what years do the two sequels cover / are you going to read those, too?

    • More emotional than grim, I’d say, though it has its moments! But I didn’t come out of it feeling the kind of hopelessness that Grapes of Wrath left me with, for instance. I can’t remember much about the sequels so I’m not sure how far into the future they go – I’m going to try to re-read them when I get a chance but it won’t be for some time, I think.

      Yes, I don’t think the dialect in this one is too difficult once you get tuned into it – if you get a chnace to read it, I hope you enjoy!

  10. What interests me most about this book is the language. This type of story is not my usual cuppa, however. The dialect does sound fascinating though. Most of all, great review.

    • I love a bit of dialect so long as it’s not too hard to understand. But it was a pretty full-on read if it’s not the kind of thing you’re interested in. Thank you! 😀

Please leave a comment - I'd love to know who's visiting and what you think...of the post, of the book, of the blog, of life, of chocolate...

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.