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Sunset Song: Background

The author

Headshot photo of Lewis Grassic Gibbon

Image courtesy of Lewis Grassic Gibbon Centre

Lewis Grassic Gibbon is the pen name of James Leslie Mitchell. He was born in 1901 and died in 1935.

The names 'Grassic' and 'Gibbon' were taken from his mother's side of the family.

On both sides, Mitchell came from several generations of Aberdeenshire farming people, and he was proud to claim he came from 'peasant stock'.

The experiences of his childhood and youth are reflected in those of his character Chris in the novel.

His early life was spent near the village of Auchterless, and then his family moved to a farm near Arbuthnott, in the area called 'The Mearns' or 'Howe of the Mearns', which lies west of Stonehaven in Aberdeenshire.

In Sunset Song, the fictional village of Kinraddie is based on Arbuthnott, where Mitchell attended primary school. He later attended secondary school in Stonehaven. He is buried in the churchyard at Arbuthnott. While living at Arbuthnott, he met and fell in love with Rebecca (known as Ray) Middleton, who lived on a neighbouring farm, and whose father is considered to be the model for the character of Long Rob in the novel.

Aspects of Mitchell's life can be seen in the characters of the novel, particularly Chris. Like her, Mitchell was academically gifted and loved reading, attributes he gives to the 'English Chris'. He was particularly interest in history, archaeology and anthropology. While he appreciated the spiritually uplifting effect of being close to nature, which he ascribes to the 'Scottish Chris', he apparently strongly disliked the drudgery of life on the farm and resented being called away from his studies to help with the work.

In the novel, on the other hand, although Chris refers to the 'weary pleiter' of the land, he presents her as a willing and capable worker.

After leaving school at 16, Mitchell became a journalist in various cities, including Glasgow, but as he was thought to be overly biased politically he eventually lost his job.

Although he had been too young to participate in the war, he enlisted in the army in 1919. Although he survived there for four years, until his discharge in 1923, it is known that he loathed his time in the army. He found the experience degrading and inhumane, and a version of this is given to the character of Ewan who is dramatically brutalised by his exposure to the system. After leaving the army, he then joined the Royal Air Force as a clerk, and remained there until 1929.

He resigned from the RAF to become a full-time writer, and he was able to make a good living from his work. He produced many novels and short stories, with Sunset Song being published in 1932. He lived in London, and married his former sweetheart, Ray Middleton. They had a son and a daughter. Mitchell died at the relatively young age of 34 from a ruptured stomach ulcer, possibly brought on by the stress of his army experiences or by overwork.

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