Lewis Grassic Gibbon
1901 - 1935
Lewis Grassic Gibbon was born James Leslie Mitchell at the dawn of the twentieth century in 1901 in Aberdeenshire. Spending most of his childhood in Arbuthnott, a farming community in the Mearns, his family and community's tie to the land was to create a love-hate relationship between this area and the writer which lasted until his early death in 1935.
Mitchell left school early after arguments with the school authorities in Mackie Academy, Stonehaven. As a journalist in Aberdeen and briefly in Glasgow, he became increasingly involved in left-wing politics and helped to form the Aberdeen Soviet. His short experience of Glasgow, its slums, and its Red Clydeside movement led him to later criticise the Scottish Renaissance movement for not dealing with urban issues and the horrific slums of Glasgow.
Having been sacked from the 'Scottish Farmer' paper for fraudulent expense claims, Mitchell later joined the army more for the food and shelter it offered than for any patriotic reason. Although Mitchell hated life in the army, it did allow him to travel, in particular to the Middle East and Egypt, which fuelled his interest in ancient civilisations and the theory of diffusionism. His military experiences in the Middle East inspired his first short stories and much of his fiction and non-fiction.
From 1930 to 1934, eleven novels, two books of short stories, three anthropological books and an 'Intelligent Man's Guide to Albyn' with Hugh MacDiarmid entitled Scottish Scene, were published under the names Mitchell and Gibbon. On his death in 1935, outlines of many other books, from novels to an autobiography were left.
The most important of this author’s vast output in such a small amount of time is the trilogy of novels, A Scots Quair published under the name Lewis Grassic Gibbon (taken from the author's mother's maiden name). The Quair, and in particular Sunset Song, has outlived much of his other work to become a Scottish classic.
Lewis Grassic Gibbon is the more distinctly Scottish alter-ego of James Leslie Mitchell, and although there are many interesting books written under the Mitchell name, the writer’s best and most enduring works were published under the name Gibbon. Mitchell’s Stained Radiance and The Thirteenth Disciple help to give us a glimpse of the life of the writer and Spartacus is an inspiring novel which gives insight into Mitchell’s political and religious thoughts, yet the Scottish books show more clearly his talents as a writer and thinker.
Lewis Grassic Gibbon's most famous work and indeed his greatest achievement is A Scots Quair. The Quair (meaning book), is a trilogy which was published over three years as Sunset Song (1932), Cloud Howe (1933), and Grey Granite (1934). Following the life of its heroine Chris Guthrie, the three novels take the reader from the Great War to the growing communism of the 1920s and are innovative in their style, language and thought.
Sunset Song is Gibbon's most loved work and, out of the three Quair novels, the most satisfying to read as a single book. The Prelude to the novel can be off-putting to the reader at first because of its rollercoaster ride through the history of the village of Kinraddie in a language which takes a while to get used to. The language and style of the novel are groundbreaking in that they create a version of Scots which is universal in its nature and which draws the reader in by using an inclusive 'you' voice which unites the heroine's voice with the 'speak of the Mearns' and indeed the voice of the reader. At first however, the Prelude can appear difficult and this is why Gibbon himself suggested that the reader could skip it at first and return to it later. The title of the Prelude, 'The Unfurrowed Field', and its introduction to all the villagers of Kinraddie, helps to emphasise the cyclical nature of the novel which follows the stages of Chris Guthrie's life through comparisons with the stages of the farming year.
The young Chris must choose between life on the land, her Scottish identity, and the English part of her which draws her away from home towards books and education. Yet even once she has made her decision, the way of life of her community is altered forever by the Great War. Every aspect of Chris and Kinraddie's life is affected, from the destruction of the land by the cutting down of trees, to the destruction of her home life in the change which war brings to her husband, to the loss of the old songs of the place which are replaced by the blues from America. However, it is important that while Sunset Song mourns the loss of a past age, it is not hopeless. The images of light and the morning star in the closing pages of the novel anticipate the rest of the trilogy, emphasizing Gibbon's desire to construct a future rather than simply mourn the loss of a Golden Age. Rev Robert Colquohoun's speech at the end of Sunset Song, importantly situated at the standing stones which are Chris's connection to the past throughout the novel, gives the events of the novel a place in a line of history which looks back as well as looking forward.
Sunset Song is a rounded novel in itself, featuring festive and comic episodes within a grand tragic trajectory, but when seen as part of the Quair as a whole, it sets a problem which the other two books attempt to answer. Often seen as Sunset Song's poorer companions, Cloud Howe and Grey Granite evaluate Robert Colquohoun's (Chris's second husband) and Ewan's (Chris's son) solutions for the future of Scotland. Robert's Christian socialism and Ewan's communism both seek to raise Scotland from the ashes of war but are seen by Chris to be 'pillars of cloud', followed by men who seek solutions which cannot endure. Running through the Quair is the concept that only the ever-changing land can endure, and only Chris, who is simultaneously connected to the land and distanced from it, can fully realise this.
Moving from village, to town, to city A Scots Quair is packed with lively and comical characters and situations which make it an entertaining read. However it is also an exploration of the mythical and symbolic (particularly in the idea of Chris as a symbol of Scotland) as well as an exploration of religious and political movements. It is perhaps best captured by Kurt Wittig when he describes the three levels on which the Quair works: 'the personal, the social, and the mythical'.
Gibbon's other most enjoyable work is probably his short story 'Smeddum' which describes the life of the lively Meg and the conflict with her children, and his essay on 'The Land' which helps to describe his love-hate relationship with the land. This essay gives a helpful background to Sunset Song and illustrates Gibbon's frustration at the necessary connection between the land and those who work on it. The darker aspects of this connection are again explored in his short stories 'Greenden' and 'Clay', the latter story again raising a dilemma between the land and university while emphasising the importance of women's experience in the early twentieth century.
Works published under the name of James Leslie Mitchell
Hanno, or The Future of Exploration (1928)
Stained Radiance: A Fictionist's Prelude (1930)
The Thirteenth Disciple (1931)
The Calends of Cairo (1931)
Three Go Back (1932)
Persian Dawns, Egyptian Nights (1932)
The Lost Trumpet (1932)
Image and Superscription (1933)
Gay Hunter (1934)
The Conquest of the Maya (1934)
Under the name of Lewis Grassic Gibbon
Sunset Song (1932)
Cloud Howe (1933)
Grey Granite (1934)
A Scots Quair (1946)
Scottish Scene: or, The Intelligent Man's Guide to Albyn (1934)
Niger: The Life of Mungo Park (1934)
A Scots Hairst: Essays and Short Stories ed. by Ian S Munro (1967)
Smeddum: Short Stories and Essays ed. by D M Budge (1980)
The Speak of the Mearns ed. by Ian Campbell (1982)
Under the name of JLM and LGG combined
Nine Against The Unknown: A Record of Geographical Exploration (1934)
Campbell, Ian, Lewis Grassic Gibbon (1985)
Ehland, Christoph, Picaresque Perspectives - Exiled Identities: A Structural and Methodological Analysis of the Picaresque as a Literary Archetype in the Works of James Leslie Mitchell (2003)
Geddes, Clarke, Nemesis in the Mearns (1996) (fictionalisation)
Gifford, Douglas, Neil M Gunn and Lewis Grassic Gibbon (1983)
McCulloch, Margery Palmer, and Dunnigan, Sarah M, editors, A Flame in the Mearns Lewis Grassic Gibbon: A Centenary Celebration, Association for Scottish Literary Studies Occasional Papers: Number 13 (2003)
Munro, Ian S, Leslie Mitchell: Lewis Grassic Gibbon (1966)
Whitfield, Peter, Grassic Gibbon and his World (1994)
Young, Douglas F, Beyond the Sunset: A Study of James Leslie Mitchell (Lewis Grassic Gibbon) (1973)