2007 - 2022

Understanding the Scotland of Sunset Song

In 2016 the BBC conducted a public vote to find ‘Scotland’s favourite Scottish book’. Top of the list was Sunset Song by Lewis Grassic Gibbon [Iain Banks’s black comedy The Wasp Factory came second, followed by Alasdair Gray’s Lanark – Ed]. It is the first part of Gibbon’s trilogy A Scots Quair first published in 1932; set in the Mearns on the eve of the First World War yet clearly it has a profound influence ninety years on.

This is the book I would have voted for as I had fallen in love with it at university when studying it as a set text. The book’s language is mesmerising. Indeed ‘the speak’ of Kinraddie is unforgettable not just because it’s a novel literary device but because it echoes Scottish speech. Gibbon’s description of ‘the land’ is also memorable as is his portrayal of the devastating effects of war and mechanisation on a Scottish agricultural community. 

However, a dark shadow was cast on my feelings about the novel in 2015 when I watched Terence Davies’s film version. I was so shocked at its inherent brutality that I still felt shaken days later. More importantly the film version did not correspond with my memories of the novel.

After a few weeks I reread it. I was stunned. Sunset Song is much more like Davies’s version than the romantic one I held in my head or advanced by admiring readers like First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, who championed the novel in that BBC poll. 

Behind the warm glow

The dramatic tension in the first part of the story comes from the authoritarian character of Chris Guthrie’s father. Such figures abound in Scottish literature (The House with the Green Shutters, The Weir of Hermiston, Gillespie) but John Guthrie is a particularly brutal specimen. For example, when Chris’s mother is screaming in labour, the two younger boys start crying.  Chris tells us: ‘father went up and skelped them right sore, they’d something to cry for then but they didn’t dare.’ Her father also strikes her older brother Will harshly on the face for using the word ‘Jehovah’. And in one of the most grueling scenes in the book her father’s displeasure with Will leads him to order his son out to the barn. Chris says ‘Father, you can’t.’ He replies: 

Be quiet, quean, else I’ll take you as well. And up to the barn he went with Will and took down his breeks, nearly seventeen though he was, and leathered him till the weals stood blue across his haunches; and that night Will could hardly sleep for the pain of it, sobbing into his pillow …

John Guthrie didn’t just hit his children; he also struck men ‘in cold anger, in cold blood’. He was particularly cruel to his wife. A major conflict between husband and wife concerns sex and offspring. He wants intercourse but when his wife tells him that four of a family is ‘fine … he thundered at her, that way he had Fine? We’ll have what God in his mercy may send to us, woman. See you to that.’ Shortly thereafter, following another terrible labour, she gives birth to twins. When she discovers that she is pregnant again she kills herself and her two babies. 

Chris subsequently marries Ewan, a local crofting lad. Gibbon’s description of their wedding is lyrical as is his account of the first few years of their marriage. Indeed, his portrayal of the young couple, deeply in love, working the land and raising their young son together is one of the most romantic evocations I’ve ever read. 

But Ewan is an angry young man with a quick temper and even before enlisting to fight he hits Chris. But it’s the army that brutalises him. Before leaving for the front he returns to the farm and his behaviour is cruel. Not only is he drunk but he verbally, sexually and physically abuses Chris. He is later shot for desertion and never returns. Chris learns that he regretted what he had done on leave and she forgives him just as she had forgiven her father. 

It is not just cruelty at home that Chris has to contend with – physical and mental cruelty are rife within the community. Indeed, Gibbon writes playfully about Kinraddie being ‘in the lee of a house with green shutters’. We know from ‘the speak’ of Kinraddie that folk are continually gossipy and nasty. And they’re always belting one another or giving their offspring ‘a bit skelp’. Even one of the positive characters, Chae, would ‘leather the horses till folk spoke of sending for the Cruelty’. Nonetheless Gibbon avoids the bleak community caricature reflected in The House with the Green Shutters as there are some benign characters. What’s more, Gibbon’s writing, particularly on the landscape and the changing of the seasons, is not just tender but sublime. 

Backstory

The cruel aspects of Gibbon’s story flow in part from his diffusionist philosophy which blames agriculture for society’s woes. He also detested religion and thought Calvinism responsible for the Scots’ unnatural attitude towards sexuality and the human body. But Leslie Mitchell, Gibbon’s real name, had his own personal reasons to feel alienated from his family and culture and to consider it brutal.  

Leslie grew up in rural Aberdeenshire and was a profoundly unhappy child. He begins a semi-autobiographical novel, The 13th Discipline, with the story of how, as a five-year-old child, a boy sets off from home with the express desire ‘to commit suicide’. 

Thirteen years later, aged eighteen, Mitchell did attempt suicide. This time because he was disgraced at work and sacked. He suffered from a nervous breakdown and returned home. His parents were angry and unsympathetic but there was nothing new in this – it was the story of his childhood. 

Mitchell’s father was rough with his son and routinely put him down. According to Mitchell’s biographer, Ian Munro, his mother was also a problem for him: ‘Always quick to say what was in her mind, she had a tongue that could be wicked, cutting, and even venomous, and when angry had little control over it.’ 

His mother’s alacrity in expressing her thoughts, no matter how negative, was evident when Leslie Mitchell returned home from England after the publication of Sunset Song. It was receiving glowing reviews not just in the UK but internationally. Nonetheless his mother asked him ‘what did you want to write that muck for?’ and then went on to say, ‘I’m ashamed of you’ and to tell him that his father was ‘fair affronted’. The emotional distance between Mitchell and his parents was part of the reason he chose to live in the South of England. Ironically, he wrote Sunset Song in Welwyn Garden City, a London suburb. 

Like many children who grow up emotionally neglected Leslie Mitchell became addicted – not to alcohol but to work. His output – 17 full length books in six years –illustrates he was indeed a driven man. He developed gastritis and ordered to rest, adhered to a strict diet and stop smoking heavily. But he was quickly back at work and stressed by his workload. He died several weeks later of peritonitis, a week before his 34th birthday – a tragedy not just for his family but for Scotland. 

Mitchell, like his protagonist Chris, was a complex character. His beautiful essay ‘The Land’ shows how he simultaneously loved and hated his peasant background. He wrote that once he ‘had a very bitter detestation for all this life of the land and the folk upon it’ but as an émigré he was now filled with longing and nostalgia. This ambivalence lets us read different things into Sunset Song

A telling blind spot

From discussions with numerous people about the novel I know I was not alone in ignoring, or forgetting, the cruelty inherent in Chris’s domestic life or the abuse commonplace in the wider community. Is this because it’s so familiar to us personally that it’s unremarkable? Is it because we are so used to reading Scottish stories where the protagonist has to thole an authoritarian father or deal with brutality, family dysfunction and emotional neglect that we hardly notice it? Both are true for me and for many other Scots. 

What I find striking is that even when critics acknowledge that Scottish writers excel in producing novels with dysfunctional, often brutal relationships, their dominant explanation is political: Scots are split between being Scottish and British so they have damaged identities and problems with ‘voice’; they live in the shadow of a more powerful neighbour so often feel inferior, alienated or powerless.

Of course, there is some truth in this perspective but it systematically ignores what’s happening at the individual and family level. This exclusively political analysis obliterates any understanding of hugely important personal areas of life, including our experiences as children. 

Outsiders’ perceptions can help jolt us out of cultural blindness. In 1989 the German academic Peter Zenzinger published an essay on contemporary Scottish fiction which is telling. He notes that disenchantment with life is commonplace in the literature of all industrialised countries but that ‘the extreme bitterness with which it is uttered in Scottish writing is remarkable.’ 

Zenzinger thinks this has to do with a host of factors but he singles out our ‘Calvinist heritage’ with its ‘negative attitude towards sexuality’ claiming it ‘has crippled the Scots emotionally’ and goes on to state: ‘The inability to love is … the primary curse of Scottish life.’

Leslie Mitchell recognised this fact about his native country in the early 1930s. Ninety years on so many Scots still find it difficult to face up to these insights in our favourite novel, Sunset Song.

Comments (55)

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  1. David Millar says:

    “Zenzinger thinks this has to do with a host of factors but he singles out our ‘Calvinist heritage’ with its ‘negative attitude towards sexuality’”

    You can say that again!

  2. Doghouse Reilly says:

    Welwyn Garden City is not a suburb of London.

    1. Donald McGregor says:

      I think you have to admit that WGC is ‘effectively’ a suburb of London now, although back in the day it was more remote.

      1. Doghouse Reilly says:

        It’s outside the M25! but it is true that a town that was planned and built to provide work for its residents, and did so up until the 1970s at least, is pretty much a dormitory for London these days.

      2. Eeeeen says:

        You have to admit no such thing. Welwyn Garden City is not a suburb of London; a commuter town it may be, but not a suburb.

        1. Doghouse Reilly says:

          Fine words in defence of the Garden City, not just a town but an ideal, a movement even, with a better life for all as it’s goal.

          I suspect there are good reasons why The Scots Quair was written there.

  3. Jim says:

    When I lived in Greater London I passed the cut off for Welwyn Garden City more than once, not knowing that Lewis Grassic had lived and wrote there. Amazing, I wish I had turned off to explore.
    As for the cruelty I always took it that the hard life on the land had bred a cruel, unforgiving streak in some of the inhabitants.

    1. Doghouse Reilly says:

      I think there is even a blue plaque on the house he lived in on Handside Lane though I alway thought it was round the corner on Attimore Road.

      1. Alister Martin says:

        I’m LGG’s grandson sitting in my house in Attimore Road just up the road from my grandparents’ house and round the corner from Handside Lane where the blue plaque is and I can tell you I’m not in London. Like the writer of this piece, the film made me look again at the book, which is what Terence Davies said he wanted people to do

        1. Doghouse Reilly says:

          Give my regards to the Sun in Lemsford if your feet take you that way. I confess I regret the building of the golf course on the Brocket estate, I confess it was on occasion, my delight on a moon lit night in the season of the year.

        2. Alec Lomax says:

          Thank you for pointing out where the blue plaque is – I hadn’t been able to find it on Google Earth ! I’ve never been to Welwyn Garden City. I’ll maybe go sometime!
          I spent a few days in Montrose in September and visited your grandfather’s grave at St Ternan’s kirkyard and also the museum dedicated to him in Arbuthnot. One particular treasure I have on my bookshelves is Scottish Scene which LGG co-wrote with MacDiarmid. Every Scottish library, school and home should have a copy !

  4. Ottomanboi says:

    To understand the Scots psyche it might be helpful to begin with this.
    «The Reformation was a turning point in Scottish history. At the religious level it signified the end of five hundred years*of dominance by the Roman Church, leaving in its place a unique brand of radical Presbyterian Protestantism. At the political level it broke centuries of close cultural and military links with France and replaced them with even closer, though often very uncomfortable, links with England: links that would lead inexorably to the unification of the crowns of England and Scotland 43 years later, and the Act of Union between England and Scotland 104 years after that. And at the cultural level the Reformation swept away much of the previous five hundred years of human endeavour as radical Protestant iconoclasm turned into an effort to destroy every piece of art, sculpture or architecture in any way associated with the hated “Popery” »
    (From Undiscovered Scotland website.)
    The last sentence with its references to cultural fear and (self) loathing may explain that persistent Scots psychological cringe.
    Islamic state and Taliban were not the first to realise that profound change comes only by killing the roots, the image, the word, the idea of the fully creative human. The results are well recorded.
    *Strictly speaking a thousand years.

    1. Alec Lomax says:

      The chapter in Old Mortality (Scott’s finest novel, Imho) describing the Covenanters on the eve of the battle of Bothwell Brig, they, albeit a different religion, bear a remarkable similarity to the Taliban.

      1. 220210 says:

        Indeed, zealotry is hardly peculiar to the Scottish psyche.

      2. 220210 says:

        Such is the nature of zealotry everywhere.

  5. Donald McGregor says:

    I’ve not read this book. And now I think I am feared to do so! Nicely written piece though. Religion, eh? It’s like having Philip Larkins mum and dad writ large in your life.

  6. Alasdair Macdonald. says:

    Anent ‘Sunset Song’ (and ‘A Scots Quair’): it has been my wife’s favourite novel and group of novels since she read them first in the 1960s. She was always aware of the violence and brutality which featured in the trilogy. However, this increased her appreciation of the fullness and multi-facetedness of the characterisation. Nor did it make her feel a member of a psychologically damaged nation. On her recommendation, I read it myself during the 1970s and I was aware of the brutality but also about the strength of human spirit as exemplified by Chris Guthrie and others. My late mother who was a contemporary of Mitchell, and herself the victim of a brutal childhood, also read the book after watching the original BBC Scotland series with Vivienne Heilbronn. For her the brutality was very true and matched her experience at the hands of her mother. However, she, too, saw the uplifting passages in the trilogy.

    Both Ms Craig and Ottomanboi in his (?) comment refer to the Scottish ‘psyche’ as if over five million people share a common mindset. This is stereotyping of the worst kind and reads exactly like the contributions to Project Fear she made in 2014. One wonders what comprises this confidence she claims to be championing.

  7. John Page says:

    Just what is the point of this? From someone who argued that we couldn’t make it as an independent nation? Oh let’s us just wallow in the bad side of our uniquely inadequate heritage and remain comfortable under the guidance of fucking Boris Johnson.

  8. 220208 says:

    The very idea of a ‘Scots psyche’ is a bit of a non-starter nowadays.

    It presumes that particular nations have distinctive psychological make-ups which are culturally reinforced by a common language and/or heritage, which of course they don’t. Nowadays, we’re more accustomed to thinking of nations as ever-changing pluralities of language and/or historical communities.

    It’s also now a politically dangerous concept. Part of the danger is that we interpret ‘other’ cultures from the point of view of the culture we regard as ‘normal’. Thus, we identify Gaelic or English as the common languages that reinforce ‘the Scots psyche’, even though many Scots nowadays have neither Gaelic nor English as their first language. Likewise, we identify the historical heritage that reinforces ‘the Scots psyche’ with that of Wallace, Knox, and Burns, even though many Scots nowadays don’t have any of that as their cultural inheritance. The danger is that Scots who don’t conform to the ‘normal’ psychological profile or archetype are excluded as ‘Scots’.

    Large-scale migration to Scotland has merged or mixed our languages and heritages to the extent that no ‘national psyche’ (if there ever was such a thing) is any longer discernible. As this continues and increases, there will soon be no ‘normal’ culture to reinforce a distinctive ‘Scots psyche’.

    Another part of the danger lies in our reluctance to ‘give up’ our normal. Then we get into fights about ‘our’ national identity and its perceived dilution by ‘foreign incomers’, and ‘national movements’ of people sharing ‘national’ beliefs and aspirations.

    Because of the difficulty and danger in defining a ‘Scots psyche’ – the ‘typical’ emotional and intellectual world of a ‘normal’ Scot – it might be better to ditch the concept altogether. In any case, it could be argued that in the era of globalisation, national identity is becoming less and less useful in explaining why people behave as they do. Perhaps, we should no longer identify with being part of a nation and recognise ourselves instead as undifferentiated human beings with equal human rights. We might each continue to cherish the language and culture that reinforces our own communal identity within the nation without valorising that identity exclusively as ‘the Scottish psyche’.

    1. Taylor says:

      Much of what you say is true in that many migrants and residents in Scotland have neither English nor Gaelic as their first language, and the alternatives need to be welcomed and adapted into a Scottish cultural fabric. At the same time, it is important to remember that you are writing your argument out in English. Assuming any Scot wanted to affirm or deny your argument requires literacy in English. How should Scotland distinguish itself, for example, from England, New Zealand, or even more challenging, from Ireland, if not by its uniqueness or ‘psyche’? Scotland can and should be distinguished from other nations which use English by way of its historical and contemporary makeup in tandem. Gaelic, Scots, French, Norse, and yes, English, have all lead over time to the idea of Scotland. Only three of those survive in Scotland to this day, but ‘Scottishness’ continues to evolve with other cultures added to the picture. This doesn’t mean that Scotland should not attempt to distinguish itself, as national psyche can and always has been complex. Complexity doesn’t moot or necessitate jettisoning the fact that Scotland is unique. Indeed, it is the reason many migrants prefer living in Scotland to other places. They themselves have singled out Scotland as being unique.

      1. 220209 says:

        ‘Much of what you say is true in that many migrants and residents in Scotland have neither English nor Gaelic as their first language, and the alternatives need to be welcomed and adapted into a Scottish cultural fabric.’

        This is the view that migrants should assimilate to the dominant culture they find in the place where they settle rather than integrate their own culture into a new and evolving multicultural soup. A growing number of people in Scotland would disagree with that view. Why should they have to give up parts of their cultural inheritance in order to become ‘more Scottish’ and be more readily accepted as ‘Scottish’? Surely it’s enough that someone lives and works here, votes and pays their taxes, irrespective of what language and/or heritage they own, to qualify as ‘Scottish’ in today’s day and age.

        ‘At the same time, it is important to remember that you are writing your argument out in English. Assuming any Scot wanted to affirm or deny your argument requires literacy in English.’

        That’s a terribly anglocentric thing to say. By virtue of the same argument, anyone who wanted to affirm or deny something written by a Scot who doesn’t write in English, but who writes in Gaelic or Urdu (say), would require literacy in Gaelic or Urdu. Why should English be privileged over any of contemporary Scotland’s other languages?

        ‘How should Scotland distinguish itself, for example, from England, New Zealand, or even more challenging, from Ireland, if not by its uniqueness or ‘psyche’?’

        Why on earth do we want to distinguish ourselves in kind from the people who live in England, New Zealand, or Ireland? What purpose does such estrangement serve? Only nefarious purposes I wat.

        ‘Complexity doesn’t moot or necessitate jettisoning the fact that Scotland is unique.’

        Again, what purpose does such ‘Scottish exceptionalism’ serve? Perhaps this kind of ‘Wha’s like us…’ nonsense is precisely what needs to be jettisoned in and by our new Scotland.

        1. John McIntosh says:

          220209, I agree with some of what you say, but I think, in your determination to warn of the dangers of nationalism, you throw the baby out with the bathwater. Your assertion that there will soon be no ‘normal’ culture to which we can refer is dubious – the only question is, what will that culture be like. Why can’t the new ‘normal’ culture be characterised by its diversity? And do we really need to be so terrified of talking about Scots from the past who have made a contribution, in case this makes someone feel ‘excluded’. If I move to Germany, I don’t expect them not to mention Beethoven or Goethe because I might feel excluded. I want to learn about figures from the past who have shaped Germany, and contributed to the nebulous concept that is ‘Germanness’ (or ”’Swedishness’ or whateverness). Scottishness is, of course, continually evolving and developing, but that does not mean it does not exist. Can it not just grow broader? And anyway, why not deliberately cultivate a sense of ourselves as a country that embraces openness, diversity and welcome? Are these not laudable ambitions? Is it necessary to abandon this and instead accept that all people everywhere are identical? Let’s encourage a discussion of what Scottishness might mean rather than immediately stamping out any such discussion in case it excludes someone. Actually, the reality is that many of the most ardent admirers of ‘Scottishness’ are folk who have arrived here only recently. They appear quite capable of celebrating it while also maintaining and celebrating the culture of the societies and cultures they have left. Perhaps people are not quite the helpless victims you assume they are?
          I assume you would be equally dismissive of any attempt to discuss ‘Frenchness’ or ‘Italianness or ‘Russianness’ on the basis that any such discussion must inevitably lead to ‘exclusion’. I can’t help thinking that this is more of the stuff we heard in 2014 – only ‘Scottishness’ is uniquely dangerous and toxic, and any attempt to even use the term must be immediately shut up with pious lectures about the dangers of nationalism. Also, in your response to Taylor, you make several unwarranted assumptions about what he is saying and immediately label his ideas as ‘Scottish exceptionalism’. When he says that Scotland is ‘unique’ you misread that as ‘better’. Scotland is unique. As are. for example, Belgium, Nigeria and Paraguay. Thank God for that, and vive la difference.

          1. @ 220209 says:

            ‘220209, I agree with some of what you say, but I think, in your determination to warn of the dangers of nationalism, you throw the baby out with the bathwater. Your assertion that there will soon be no ‘normal’ culture to which we can refer is dubious – the only question is, what will that culture be like. Why can’t the new ‘normal’ culture be characterised by its diversity?’

            The assertion was that ‘there will soon be no ‘normal’ culture to reinforce a distinctive ‘Scots psyche’ [over and against ‘other’ cultures in our society that could be (and are) deemed ‘non-Scottish’ in relation to that norm]. It would indeed be wonderful if plurality rather than identity became the new cultural norm.

            And do we really need to be so terrified of talking about Scots from the past who have made a contribution, in case this makes someone feel ‘excluded’.

            No, we don’t really need to do this. But we do need to recognise that those Scots form no part of the heritage of thousands of contemporary so-called ‘new Scots’ and acknowledge that the various heritages of those ‘new Scots’ now also inform what it means to be ‘Scottish’.

            ‘I assume you would be equally dismissive of any attempt to discuss “Frenchness” or “Italianness” or “Russianness” on the basis that any such discussion must inevitably lead to “exclusion”.’

            The same can be said about ‘Frenchness’ or ‘Italianness or ‘Russianness’ as has been said about ‘Scottishness’. The point is not to be dismissive of any discussion of nationality and what it means to be ‘Scottish’ or ‘French’ or Italian’ or Russian’ or whatever; the point is that any contemporary discussion of nationality needs to question how useful the concept of a ‘national psyche’ is in the contemporary world.

            Finally, Scottish exceptionalism isn’t the claim that Scotland and the Scots are ‘better’ than other nations. Rather, it’s the claim that Scotland and the Scots are different from other nations in every respect; that is, that they’re ‘unique’. Scotland and the Scots are not exceptional or unique in that the concept of a ‘national psyche’, which is culturally reinforced by a common language and/or heritage, is nowadays as inapplicable to them as it is to any other nation.

    2. Ottomanboi says:

      That reads to me like supine capitulation to globalism and the faux internationalism of Netflix, Amazon, Facebook, Twitter and Google etc all of which assertively, aggressively express the «psyche» of America and English language hegemony.
      Being born in a country, Iraq, where that psyche let (destructively) rip, I am disinclined to yield to its ingratiating influence. Writing as a late teen, multilingual cosmopolitan, I would advise Scots to do likewise.

      1. @ 220209 says:

        Does it really?

  9. Dougie Harrison says:

    Ach, Carol, how I wish so many contributors to Bella were more appreciative of your perceptive analysis, and less driven to pick on tiny nuances – like the precise status of Welwyn Garden City!

    Thank you for your care. You have drawn for my attention many things I hadnie even considered when I first read – and was transported by – ‘Sunset Song’ – in the early 1960s. And thus enriched my appreciation of the contorted heritage we Scots have.

    Thank you.

    1. Doghouse Reilly says:

      To be fair, in the world of town planning and urban design Welwyn Garden City is an important land mark. One that has much to say in many debates today.

      As I have already observed, I doubt if it a coincidence that Leslie Mitchel settled there.

      1. Dougie Harrison says:

        I understand Welwyn’s pioneering role in the history of town and country planning internationally. I fail to see what relevance that has to Sunset Song.

        1. Doghouse Reilly says:

          Mitchel was a socialist, a communist even. The garden city movement has complex origins but a good part of them are in the idealism of the cooperative and Arts and Crafts movements and the developing traditions of the trade Union movement. Welwyn Garden City had an active communist party branch and a relatively skilled and well organised work force drawn from working class communities right across the UK as well as strong non conformist and artistic communities.

          It was also a very attractive place to live (if a little dry).the homes on Handside Lane and Attimore road are some of the first built, very nice. I lived there myself for a time.

          The town, an experiment if making a better world for the working class would be attractive not to mention a contrast to the world he wrote about in Sunset Song.

          It’s certainly seems possible that it wasn’t a random choice. But I speculate it’s true, perhaps out of a fondness and respect for both. Others on this thread will know better.

  10. Dougie Harrison says:

    Ach Carol, whit a shame so many Bella voices get swept up in nonsense – like the precise status of Welwyn Garden City – rather than your perceptive words. Words which have helped me better understand Sunset Song. It has certainly been my favourite Scots novel since I first read it many decades ago – when I was a teenager.

    Thank you.

    1. Dougie Harrison says:

      For some reason Bella, which initially told me it wouldn’t print my first contribution, has now published both. Ach weel!

      They both say much the same thing.

  11. MBC says:

    It’s very much an east coast and NE thing though, that harshness and stoicism. Someone once commented to me that the real cultural fault lines in Britain are not so much between north and south, but between east and west, and there’s a lot of truth in that. Geordies and Yorkshire folk are much the same as Dundonians, Fifers and NE folk in being down to earth, plain speaking to the point of bluntness, grasping, hard and stoical.

  12. David B says:

    The first time I read A Sunset Song, I put it down for about a year as I couldn’t stand John Guthrie. If people forget the brutality of the book I think it’s because of its transcendent beauty which is the abiding memory.

    Cloud Howe is possibly even darker, though counter-balanced by a searing anger at the social injustice it documents. One of the great socialist novelists.

    As for the ‘Scottishness’ of A Sunset Song, I later read Haldor Laxness’ Independent People and there are some striking similarities – suggesting commonality with other crofting communities in the North Atlantic. As with all great novels, Gibbon/ Mitchell found the universal in the particular.

  13. Hugh McShane says:

    No longer identifying as being part of a nation would be catnip for those happy with the U.K. status quo. The uncomfortable truth about the long-drawn out Empire/Commonwealth recessional, is that being British in others countries is a minority interest-the Celtic fringe,Gib., Falklands etc- a geo-political change, comparable to the religious doubt expressed a century ago in On Dover Beach- Separation from direct Westminster control remains essential, and attempts by Ms Craig(jeez-I even bought her book before she had her own confidence crisis!) or the prolix,bland generalities from the numbers person, to make us less unthinkingly tribal, seems doomed. We’re living in Trumpian times, +wishing it were not so, is touching, but naive.

    1. Doghouse Reilly says:

      I think separation from the control of oligarchs, the super rich and their conies in politics and industry is more important. I have an idea the Mr. Mitchel would think the same.

    2. 220209 says:

      How would being less unthinkingly tribal serve the UK status quo, which is unthinkingly tribal?

      The Union is reinforced by the intertribal rivalries of the ‘Four Nations’ in, for example, the fields of sport and culture. In that respect, the UK is a bit like the subdivision of a school into ‘houses’, with each house having its own tribal identity as expressed in its totems and traditions and patriotism.

      Abolishing the UK means abolishing the Scottishness that’s parasitical upon it. Independence isn’t just about leaving the UK and having our own wee parliament; it’s about remaking Scotland, its totems and traditions, as something other than a ‘Four Nations’ tribe.

  14. Andrew stoddart says:

    How could anyone read sunset song and talk about the brutality of john guthrie, a tenant farmer without mentioning the brutality of the tenure he existed under?
    He was evicted from his farm for daring to speak back to the lairds wife after his cart met her car on the road.
    He lived with no rights whatsoever, as all tenant farmers did, and woe betide the man who failed to doff his cap. This has had a massive negative effect not only on farmers but also their workers who depended on them.
    John Guthrie was evicted from a relatively good farm and had to move to a much poorer farm at the very time his families needs were increasing sharply. His mental health and of his wife would have taken a big knock.
    Being evicted from your home is probably the most brutalising experience you can experience short of actual violence, and a very costly experience too.
    Scottish farmers are still subject to this barbaric behaviour in 2022, as shown on front page of the scottish farmer last week

    1. 220209 says:

      Good point! It’s important to recognise that John Guthrie was ‘brutal’ not because such brutality is somehow inherent to the ‘Scots psyche’, but because he had been brutalised by the material conditions of his existence. This understanding of the character would be more consistent with Mitchell’s Marxism.

      Guthrie also functions, along with the land, as a cypher for the material conditions that shape Chris, who serves herself as a cypher for the new ‘Scotland’ that’s emerging from the old. Guthrie is a man who is conflicted between tradition and modernity, which conflict was a central concern of the Scottish Renaissance of which Mitchell was a leading light, and it’s out of this conflict that Chris is formed.

      Guthrie is also a complex man. Yes, he’s brutal, misogynistic, violent and aggressive, abusive, intolerant and guilt-ridden, but he’s also heroic, loyal and neighbourly, courageous, and ambitious for Chris. It’s the conflicts – the duelling polarities or antisyzygy – that are immanent in this complexity that leave him bitter and stubborn. It’s this antisyzygy that lies at the heart of his tragic nature and, more largely, of what Mitchell and the other modernists of the Scottish Renaissance saw as the tragic nature of early 20th-century Scotland.

  15. Alastair McIntosh says:

    Carol’s work on trauma and violence is important, though as at least one other commentator has said here, it could be taken deeper if set more in Scotland’s history of land colonisation and feudalism, as well as the wider contexts of Empire and wars and what such violence does to those who come back. And obviouisly, that touches on Unionism and the forces going back to early modernity that pressed it into force.

    One of the comments above suggests the important point that what Gibbon was seeing is an east of Scotland more than a west of Scotland feature. While that would be hard to establish objectively, I think the east-west divide has roots deep in the nature of the land. The fact that the east is mostly fertile agricultural soil long made it a magnet for consolidated feudal power, based on coercion and the normalisaiton of violence. That’s not to say that there wasn’t also violence on the west coast. There was plenty, and brutally so like the Eigg massacre. But this was more within an indigenous framework where matters were easier to process locally through time – a case more of lateral violence (equitably, from the side) than vertical violence (from top down, and hard to engage with, thereby the pressure spilling out laterally). In the west, indigenous communities could be more themselves for longer because, until the Cheviot came in and the clearances began, the land was not worth grabbing and settling in for anything much other than subsistence. I suspect that in the west with Iona etc., Christian influence was also stronger, and the bardic tradition that it built on carried a kind of immunity in conflict that gave the culuture richer roots through which reconciliations might be effected.

    When Carol wrote her important book on adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) I tweeted this: https://bit.ly/3rxPRyx . Notice in the 3 images there (if interested) the article I’ve included by Ronald Black from the West Highland Free Press. It suggests that corporal punishment was not traditionally a big thing in the Gaelic west, but rather, was “a new fad” that had been introduced. To me, and having observed (and experienced as a child) the much remarked upon uses of corporal punishment in Anglicised Scottish education, that potentially sheds a lot of light, albeit as an issue around which much more work would need to be done to move beyond speculation from an anecdotal evidence base.

    What I most take from Carol’s article here, is that the domestic violence in Sunset is another example of “hiding in plain sight”. She thereby implicitly presses the question as to what created and sustained such a culture where it could so hide in plain sight, and do we still carry remnants of that culture in us that might benefit from personal and collective processing, part of a deepening understanding of ourselves that might be thought of as a sort of cultural psychotherapy?

    1. MBC says:

      I think there is a lot in that Alastair.

      In the west of Scotland, especially the Highlands, the agricultural economy was pastoral rather than arable. Pastoral societies are often overlooked in terms of their economic success, but the Highlands once sustained 1/3 of the population of Scotland. Living on a diet more of meat and milk, Highlanders were taller and stronger than Lowlanders. I discovered this from studying adverts for runaway soldiers in the Caledonian Mercury in the 18th century. A surprising number of Highland runaways were 5’ 10” – Lowlanders were a good few inches shorter. Maybe this is the basis of the myth of the Highland soldier as being ‘none bolder’ and a martial race? Pastoralism is less labour intensive, people have more time for leisure, for poetry, story telling, music. Or playing with children? Lowlanders viewed them as ‘lazy’ as they worked less. But the fact was rather that Lowlanders worked more. Arable agriculture, under conditions of feudalism, and especially after the Agricultural Revolution and change to commercial agriculture, demanded far more in terms of disciplined working. And since peasants on the bottom rung got diddly squat out of the profits and had less security, it’s bound to have created a sullen resentfulness and harsh grasping outlook on life.

      That said, prior to the agricultural revolution in the latter half of the eighteenth century, Lowland agriculture was more communal and occupation more stable. Farms were held in multiple tenure in fermtouns. Several tenants held the tacks together, as a joint tenancy. These were for long leases and generally always renewed. There was a notion of ‘kindly tenants’, i.e., tenants who had some distant kin relationship with the landowners going back many generations – centuries – and who were always favoured in gaining the leases. But the agricultural revolution put paid to kindly tenants and to the communal shared run rig system. Leases were offered to the highest bidder and in order to pay the rent, the successful tenant had to carry out improvements to make the land more productive (using his own money). This meant a more moneyed class of single tenant farmers and getting rid of cottars, a class of landless peasant below the tenants who assisted the tenants at times of the year when extra labour was needed, but who eked out a living the rest of the year from the product of their kailyard and animals kept on communal grazings. There was a Lowland Clearances as well. The remaining slimmed down agricultural labour supply were hired annually at the famous feeing markets. It meant shifting from farm to farm every year or two, which disrupted social relationships.

      What surprised me though was how dogged the remaining agricultural labourers were and the efforts they made to keep up social networks. This spoke to me of deeply felt relationships with neighbours, kinfolk and the land. They loved the land. They had great pride in their work. They were determined to stay and stake out their claim even though they had no hope at all of ever owning a square inch of it.

      The new system was very hard on women and children. Women’s social support networks were constantly disrupted by the annual flit, and children’s schooling. In the end it was the women who led the exodus from the countryside, especially after the Education Act of 1872, to get jobs in service in the towns. These indoor jobs in nice warm houses were much preferred to the insecurity and lack of opportunity in the countryside.

      1. Andrew stoddart says:

        The highlanders would have had a far better diet than lowlanders.
        East coast farmhands after the clearances of cottars etc would not have been able to keep a cow to provide milk for the children, hence their lack of stature

        1. Alastair McIntosh says:

          That is a fascinating interpretation, MBC. Especially the empirical basis of your observation: “Living on a diet more of meat and milk, Highlanders were taller and stronger than Lowlanders. I discovered this from studying adverts for runaway soldiers in the Caledonian Mercury in the 18th century. A surprising number of Highland runaways were 5’ 10” – Lowlanders were a good few inches shorter.”

          Have you published on that (if revealing so would not be a problem for your chosen anon pen name)?

      2. 220210 says:

        My mother’s people were itinerant (‘migrant’) agricultural servants. My great-grandmother on my grandmother’s side and my grandfather both reminisced about the quarterly hiring fairs, where they would seek a seasonal position in return for a fee in lieu of bed and board or (when they had no dependents) for bed and board itself as part of the farmer’s household. In his last ‘place’, in the early 1960s, when he was in his 70s, my grandfather and grandmother were, in return for service, provided with a single room in a two-roomed cottage, the other room of which served as a tractor shed. In her later years, when she retired from itinerant fieldwork as an outdoor servant and ‘settled down’, my great-grandmother found a more-or-less permanent place as a cheesemaker in a farm dairy, which provided her with a living until she could no longer work, whereupon she became dependent on my grandmother.

        The thing to understand is that It was less wage slavery than a way of life. Despite the itinerant nature of this way of life, social relationships were maintained through the farm households and bothies, the weekly markets, and the quarterly fairs. Countries were much smaller: for example, I once worked out that my grandmother had lived her entire life within a sixteen-mile radius of where she was born. My grandfather was only ever displaced from his native country in Stirlingshire by the First World War and its aftermath, which disrupted rural populations in Scotland in ways that Robert Colquhoun eulogises in Sunset Song. Strong and abiding relationships were maintained in the smaller worlds of the farming communities of the time, as evidenced by Robert McLellan’s Linmill Stories.

        My mother’s people never exhibited any great pastoral sentiments – a love of the land – or any great pride in their work, the drudgery of which they bore as a necessary evil, a curse that God had called down on them as a result of Adam’s original sin. What they did speak of and exhibit was the dignity that their independence gave them. If they didn’t like their current place, they could always upsticks at the end of the quarter term and seek another at the hiring fair. They weren’t indebted and, therefore, beholden to others for their living; being forced through destitution into wage-slavery or other forms of dependency was a fate to be avoided.

        That said, they were looked down upon by the aristocracy of labour – the proletariat, the wage-slaves – as one step up from ‘tinkers’. My mother often reminisces about the brouhaha her marrying my railwayman father caused owre the heid o her not being ‘good enough’ for him. It was also a life of unremitting hardship and poverty, haunted by the ever-present spectre of want and disease and the threat of destitution. Wage-slavery provided a kind of security that lured many off the land and into more ‘respectable’ lifestyles.

        It’s hard not to sentimentalise this past way of life in a Burnsian ‘a man’s a man for a’ that’ sort of way. But we should also avoid victimising the people who lived it; they would not have welcomed that characterisation or taken kindly to it. They were heroic; they met the adversities of life with courage, fortitude, and great resourcefulness, and with as much of the dignity of independence as they could garner. They were nobody’s ‘victims’.

        1. Alastair McIntosh says:

          What a wonderfully rich reflection, 220210. It was different in the crofting commuities, but your family story sheds much light on the life of agricultual workers and therefore, probably, of much of the east coast and central belt with the arable land. You mention the Burnsian, and I often wonder what moved the bard to write “My Heart’s in the Highlands”. There’s a reflection on the BBC website suggesting that it was Burns’ empathy with the victims of the Highland Clearances: https://www.bbc.co.uk/arts/robertburns/works/my_hearts_in_the_highlands/ But given what’s now known about the Lowland Clearances also, and I’d imagine, the East Coast Clearances as feudalism swept in, I wonder if there’s not more to Burns? I note that so many of Scotland’s symbols – pipes, haggis, tartan, dances, even shorbread (made by pastoral folk with butter to spare) – are Highland, and I wonder if there’s a sense in Burns of lament for what had been stripped away elsewhere by the very harshness of itinerant farm life such as you describe, the lack of rootedness in one’s own patriomony in the land, and so the lateral violence spilling out arguably to a greater degree in such contexts, such as Carol describes?

          1. 220211 says:

            Burns wrote ‘My Heart is in the Highlands’ for James Johnson’s Scots Musical Museum, to which he was a contributing editor. According to Burns’ notes that accompanied its publication, his song is a remix of ‘a string of shreds and patches from various sources’, including ‘The Boys of Kilkenny’ and ‘The Strong Walls of Derry’, a couple of Irish anti-Jacobite songs.

        2. Alasdair Macdonald says:

          My late father-in-law was born in the same village as Lewis Grassic Gibbon, though several years later. (They were each baptised by the same minister). He was fee’d several times and, your account of people rarely moving far from one area in their entire life, reminds me of a story he told of an elderly fee’d worker who lived on one of the farms and had worked on that farm almost all his life. He had never been futher than another village about 3 miles away. My father and others siggested that he visit Aberdeen on his day off, because the railway line ran at the bottom of the farm. He duly went and, on his return they questioned him. He said, “Min it’s a grand place thon Aiberdeen. It’s a’ under the ane roof”. He had not left the railway station – it had a cafe, a bar, shops, seats, toilets. What more did he need?

          1. 220214 says:

            The same tale was told down our way, only the station was Glasgow Central and the protagonist was an orra man with learning difficulties called ‘Mad Mung’.

  16. John Page says:

    I have had further time to reflect after my angry comment above. I am no longer angry but feel that this article is an embarrassment.
    Just why now?
    There does not seem to have been any previous contributions to Bella from this author. Just a plug for two books.
    Why now are we getting an article that reflects badly on Scotland’s now distant past? Can we look forward to further pieces highlighting the treatment of witches, sectarianism or whatever shameful demonstration of the failures of the current people of Scotland.
    Just why now?
    Is it to further the author’s narrative that we are so lacking in capacity as a nation (aye, all of us not just those tainted by historical the misogyny that never featured in any other nation ever) that we should remain in a precious union with England?
    Just why now?
    Is it meant to make us less unenthusiastic about the promise of being ruled by Boris Johnson and King Charles? Because, you know, Scotland is just rubbish, you only have to focus on the negative aspects of one of its favourite books written only 100 years ago.
    John Page

    1. Hey John – why now? Why not?

      Looking critically at aspects of your past is a good thing to do.

      It makes you stronger not weaker, and no we didn’t publish this to make you ‘less unenthusiastic about being ruled by Boris Johnson’.

      1. John Page says:

        It’s not your intentions I am questioning, Mike. I am fairly comfortable that you are not longing for Boris to survive to be joint king with Charles.
        But I am sure I am not the only person who was absolutely aghast at the appalling contribution of this author in 2014.
        Why raise this old stuff now when we face a climate catastrophe and rule by the worst Tory government in my lifetime? Conceivably it might makes us reflect but I think we have plenty to get on with. I just feel this is a rehash of old material along the lines of Scots are too wee, too poor, too stupid and too psychologically deficient to survive outside the Union.

        1. MBC says:

          An element of that. But also she’s wondering why she didn’t notice the violence as a young woman but notices it now. I think you get more thoughtful as you get older. When I was a kid watching American cowboy movies on TV I did vaguely think, Wow! They kill each other so easily! But it was fiction, I knew it was just fiction, I just blanked out the casual gun violence. Now I look at America and see these movies as much more sick and sinister.

  17. MBC says:

    I think one has also got to be careful about attributing this harshness to Scotland rather than to Victorian and Edwardian generations. My father was not British and although he wrote tenderly of his father after his father’s death in his diary as kind, dedicated and faithful (that’s my memory of my grandfather too) he commented to me once that in the generations before his father (i.e. my father’s grandfather, Stefan, born around 1860) that people of that time seemed to be hard and judgemental. But that ‘nowadays’ (1980s) people were kinder and more inclined to want to assist those who had fallen on hard times rather than judge them as weak, profligate, or failures.

    It just was common that fathers were feared rather than loved. Fathers were not expected to play a role in child care. But they were also generally respected. Respect was the basis of filial regard rather than love. A good father was one you could look up to and respect. Love did not come into it. It was rare to find examples of loving fathers who actually played with their children and were fun to be around and openly affectionate. It was mostly found amongst fathers who were comfortably off, and had leisure, like Charles Darwin who was broken hearted at the death of his young daughter, or E. C. Milne’s father who had the time to write Winnie the Pooh books to entertain his young son. But even then, Christopher Robin still remembered his father as emotionally remote.

    As for Lesley Mitchell, the people he wrote about did not recognise themselves in his descriptions of them. They were generally ‘affronted’ and not just his father. Is that denialism? Or did Mitchell consciously exaggerate the harshness for dramatic effect? Or was it not also partly the effect of his own nervous disposition? He went through several breakdowns and people who are mentally unwell have distorted views of reality. It may be real to them – we have to respect and empathise with their subjective feelings as have an internal validity – but others may see the same events and characters differently. People are complex. I remember my grandfather as sad, because I have a vivid sense of his carrying around a great deal of unspoken pain the last time I saw him. I did not know it then (I was ten years old) but he was dying of stomach cancer. My sense of his silent suffering was not my invention, but it had different causes than mental pain, which I did not understand because that knowledge was not told to me. My sister though remembered a different man, in happier times, when he would dandle us on his knee and sing us songs to amuse us. Memory can be very subjective. There are many layers to memory just as there are many layers to character. People are psychologically complex, and a person who is mentally ill sees certain layers and not others.

    Then again, we have to ask why Mitchell suffered breakdowns. But part of that must be a consideration of whether he was of an inherently nervous and unstable disposition as well as whatever external stimuli he might have been subjected to. His writing does suggest a person of attenuated sensitivity.

    1. David B says:

      I assume JLM’s father meant ‘affronted’ in the Doric sense of ashamed rather than the common English sense of offended

      1. David B says:

        Sorry – that was a rather brief and technical response to a very personal and perceptive post. Thank you for sharing

  18. Ak Wilson says:

    The TV version from, I think, the 70s was a gutsier and more earthy depiction. Better than the movie.

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