Bitesize has changed! We're updating subjects as fast as we can. Visit our new site to find Bitesize guides and clips - and tell us what you think!

Home > English > Sunset Song > Background




Literary Influences

Two main strands are important to Sunset Song, the novels of the so-called 'Kailyard [kailyard: Piece of land where cabbage is grown School' , and another single novel, The House with the Green Shutters, by George Douglas Brown.

Mitchell acknowledges this twice in the novel. At the end of the Prelude, which places Kinraddie in its historical and social perspective, he sums up by saying:

So that was Kinraddie that bleak winter of nineteen eleven and the new minister, him they chose early next year, he was to say it was the Scots countryside itself, fathered between a kailyard and a bonny brier bush in the lee of a house with green shutters.'

page 24

This is echoed in the account of the minister making a drunken exhibition of himself after celebrating the birth of his daughter.

After falling down the steps of the railway bridge, 'the Reverend Gibbon broke down and sobbed on the porter's shoulder what a bloody place was Kinraddie! And how'd the porter like to live 'tween a brier bush and a rotten kailyard in the lee of a house with green shutters?'

page 84

The Kailyard School

Novelists of the 'Kailyard School' of writers, produced stories which sentimentalised Scotland, showing life through rose-tinted spectacles as cosy, innocent and safe, populated by quaint, child-like characters, and the endings were always happy. They are full of humour and nostalgia.

An idyllic looking countryside village.

The musical (and film) Brigadoon shows a similarly old-fashioned, unrealistic, sanitised Scotland set in a mythical highland village. Mitchell's references are to one example of the genre, Beside the Bonnie Brier Bush by Ian McLaren.

Visual artists of the time also liked to paint country scenes, often with gardens of cabbages, which were very popular with the new urban Scots who saw them as a portrayal and reminder of their roots in the country.

The House with the Green Shutters

This novel was written by George Douglas Brown in 1901. It was written as a reaction to the false jollity pictured in the 'kailyard' novels. It in an intensely gloomy novel, populated by unlikeable characters who are motivated by malice and greed. The main characters all die.

The principal of these is John Gourlay, a petty tyrant who is the most powerful man in a small town, the owner of a carrier's business. He marries a rich woman for her money, and then proceeds to humiliate and abuse her. He has high ambitions for his son, and sends him to university. However young Gourlay has no academic ability and takes to drink. He gets expelled for bad behaviour. He rebels against his father's bullying and eventually murders him by beating him with a poker. His mother is dying of an abscess following a blow from her husband, and his sister is also dying, of tuberculosis. All three end their lives by taking poison.

Sunset Song reflects some aspects of this book: John Guthrie is given a name very similar to the anti-hero John Gourlay and some aspects of his personality. The disintegrating relationship between father and son is not dissimilar, although much toned down in the later novel. In each book, a wife takes poison because the husband's treatment of her has ruined her health.

In The House with the Green Shutters, an important element is the 'Bodies', a group of malicious gossips whose chief occupation is discussing their neighbours' affairs, and gloating when these go wrong. Gossips in the community are also shown as causing harm to the inhabitants of Kinraddie.

In Sunset Song, Mitchell includes light-hearted episodes which have something of the tone of the kailyard novels, but he maintains realism by not shying away from the more unpleasant aspects of life, thus achieving the balance which has made Sunset Song such an enduring success.



circle containing tick and circle containing the word

Hazard Perception

Metaphors, similes, personification... test yourself on these and many more English terms with this hazardous game!

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.