Tuesday, 6 May 2014

A Scots Quair

A Scots Quair - Lewis Grassic Gibbon
(Sunset Song; Cloud Howe; Grey Granite)

This trilogy reminded me strongly of Thomas Hardy with it's powerful sense of the lives of the rural poor and the vagaries of fate. The books were written in the early 1930's in a poetic Scottish dialect and the action covers the years before, during and after the First World War. I became aware of them through the 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die list. Although popular in Scotland they had not previously attracted my attention. I'm glad they did. Indeed they are likely to meet with a surge in popularity as the great Terence Davies has just begun filming Sunset Song. The mix of tenderness and brutality he brought to the screen in Distant Voices, Still Lives would appear to be on the cards for a reprise.
The first book in the trilogy is generally accepted as the best and I wouldn't argue with that although I did read all three as one book. It created a vivid picture of early twentieth century rural life which strongly reminded me of how that life continued right into the seventies in the rural Ireland of my childhood. I found myself thinking of the time I spent in East Galway with my grandparents, whose link to the world of this novel was immediate (My grandfather was born two years before Grassic Gibbon) and still feels palpable to the child inside me.

It was a world where storytelling and gossip were one and the same, where every person had tales attached to them, if not from their own lives, from their forebears, or indeed, from the unfettered imagination of their neighbours. It seems that many of the characters were closely based on the characters from the authors locality. Now, we probably use celebrities and the characters from soap operas to fill this need for a weave of shared stories to surround us and enhance our sense of belonging.

But the world being described in A Scots Quair is crumbling as we read. Social change is taking wing, the First World War flares up and, towards the end we can feel the rumbling of the Second World War. It is becoming harder and harder for small crofters to make a living from the land and there is a drift towards the towns and cities. The second book, Cloud Howe, sees the action move into a small town and in Grey Granite the setting is largely urban, as the name suggests.

The books manage to express a love for this disappearing world without in any way ignoring the harsh, bleak lives that it contained. Death, bigotry, rape, grinding poverty are to be found here, but they are counterbalanced by some wonderful, admirable characters and a neat line in humour, particularly in Cloud Howe. But it the language that most beguiles, as Gibbon brings the local dialect to the page in such a way that it sings. In fact, I thought that Quair was a dialect form of choir but it does, in fact, mean book.

Religion plays a big part in the books and is a key element in the first two books. Early on in Sunset Song, while he describes the Kirk, we get an idea of the religion of the community: "But the windows of the main hall, though they were coloured, they had never a picture in them and there were no pictures in there at all, who wanted them? Only coarse creatures like Catholics wanted a kirk to look like a grocer's calendar." Others, like Long Rob of the Mill, want an even plainer place, without God or  parsons. He reads books by Robert Ingersoll, the Richard Dawkins of his day, and seems to revel in his local infamy, never missing a chance to say his piece, straightforwards or sideways: "some said there was no bottom to it, the loch, and Long Rob of the Mill said that made it like the depths of a parson 's depravity."

The main character in A Scot's Quair is Chris Guthrie, who is fifteen when her family moves to a new smallholding in the area of Kinraddie. They have had to move because her father spoke 'out of turn' to his 'betters' and he was blacklisted from the locality that they had farmed in. Peasants were supposed to know their place.

Before we get to the actual story in the first chapter Gibbon does a crane shot through the history of 'Kinraddie' which establishes a link between the land and the history that has passed over it. In a way that reminded me somewhat of John Cowper Powys, Grassic suggests a certain power of the past is invested in places, and ancient monuments play a big part in Chris' interior life. The hill overlooking the home they move into has a stone circle on it, which Chris sees as a remnant of a golden age but which unsettles many of the locals. In Cloud Howe, Chris' son will collect flints and other fragments from the ancient sites in the hills near that home. Kings, Queens, pretenders to the throne and William Wallace also play a part in the opening diorama. But however fast and wide ranging these scenes are, they hardly match the speed which change was accelerating to in the early twentieth century, especially for the peasants, who were breaking the bonds of millennia as they moved from the land. Descriptive passages also show how the past remains tied to the land and it's stories: "Through the rank schlorich of moor that lay between the place and Peesie's Knapp were the tracks of an old-time road, some said it was old as Calgacus, him that chased the Romans all to hell at the battle of Mons Graupius, others said it was a Druid work, laid by them that set the stones above Blawearie loch."

Drawing on his own youth (his father didn't believe in any education that would distract from the work on the land) Gibbon dramatises the choice that Chris must make between education and marriage into her own class and a life which would be largely a reiteration of that of her parents. Early on she is identified as the most able student in the school and she is looked on to continue her education and become a teacher. This is very like the story of my own mother, who was sent on a scholarship to a boarding school which prepared its students to be teachers. Even to buy uniforms and shoes was a big investment but it was one many made in the hope that their children would have a better future. "For she'd met with books, she went into them to a magic land far from Echt, out and away and south. And at school they wrote she was the clever one and John Guthrie said she might have the education she needed if she stuck to her lessons. In time she might come out as a teacher then, and do him credit.."

But an sense of immanent tragedy hangs over the book and Chris will have to face down an artillery barrage of troubles during each stage of her life. She will weary of trying to find a partner in life as each relationship grows sour or breaks in different ways. She will be widowed twice and lose a child and see the war take the best and bring out the worst in her community. Gibbon represents the changes wrought by life on Chris by having a first Chris, a second Chris and so on, or an English Chris. Sometimes an earlier incarnation will flare again briefly. He uses England to represent dreams and education and escape from the land, but also as a repudiation of her people and tongue. It is a dialectic all too familiar to colonised countries, and indeed to anyone who wished to leave a rural outpost for the city. Here Chris is helping in the kitchen at a local threshing: "folk came drifting in two-three at a time, Chris over busy to notice their faces, but some watched her and gave a bit smile and Cuddiestoun cried to father, Losh, man, she's fair an expert getting, the daughter. The kitchen's more her style than the College.
Some folk at the tables laughed out at that, the ill-nature grinned from the faces of them, and suddenly Chris hated the lot, the English Chris came back in her skin a minute, she saw them the yokels and clowns everlasting, dull-brained and crude. Alec Mutch took up the card from Cuddiestoun then and began on education and the speak ran round the tables. Most said it was a coarse thing, learning, just teaching your children a lot of damned nonsense that put them above themselves, they'd turn round and give you their lip as soon as look at you."

But side by side with this "English" Chris is a deeply "Scottish" Chris who feels a deep and passionate connection to the land, even though she knows how it can coarsen and brutalise people, something she sees close up in the behaviour of her father towards her, at times. This love leads her to try and make a life on the land after her father dies, an into an early marriage to Ewan Tavendale so that they can take on the workings of the farm.

In Cloud Howe the focus is on religion, as her second husband, the minister Robert Colquohoun wrestles with his faith and the aftermath of his experience in WW1, where he breathed in gas and after which he suffered physical and psychological difficulties. He initially mixes his religious beliefs with hopes of social change, and progress. Although Chris knows that there will be change she does not believe that it will necessarily be progress. She is not naturally a believer in anything but change: "And she thought then, looking on the shadowed Howe with its stratus mists and its pillars of spume, driving west by the Leachie bents, that men had followed these pillars of cloud like lost men lost in the high, dreich hills, they followed and fought and toiled in the wake of each whirling pillar that rose from the heights, clouds by day to darken men's minds--loyalty and fealty, patriotism, love, the mumbling chants of the dead old gods that once were worshipped in the circles of stones, Christianity, socialism, nationalism--all--Clouds that swept through the Howe of the world, with men that took them for gods: just clouds, they passed and finished, dissolved and were done, nothing endured but the Seeker himself, him and the everlasting Hills."

Another thing that plays a  huge part in Cloud Howe is scandalmongering, something that Gibbon relates with relish and humour. There are quite a few people who will not let the truth get in the way of a good story.  "Most of the gossip Chris heard of or knew, and cared little or nothing, folk were like that, she thought if you'd neither books nor God nor music nor love nor hate as stand-bys, no pillar of cloud to lead your feet, you turned as the folk of farm and toun--to telling scandal of your nearest neighbours, making of them devils and heroes and saints, to brighten your days and give you a thrill. And God knew they were welcome to get one from her, she found herself liking them as never before, kindled to new interest in every known face, seized again and again in the Segget wynds--looking at the rat-like little Peter Peat, at MacDougall's bald head, at the lizard-like Mowat--with the startling thought, He was once a bairn! It nearly put you off having one sometimes; and then again you'd be filled with such a queer pity, as you passed, that Hairy Hogg would go in and say to his wife--That Mrs. Colquohoun she goes by me and SNICKERS! and his wife would say Well damn't, do you want her to go by you and greet*?" (*'greet' means cry)

Cloud Howe also features social commentary as we are shown how the lowly paid spinners are treated both by the mill owners and by many of the other residents of the town.  "Chris leaned from the window and looked to the west. And what's that to the left, that hiddle of houses?--Where the spinners bide, he told her, she stared, she had thought them abandoned byres or pig-sties. But Muir just gleyed and said they were fine--good enough for the dirt that's in them. If you gave good houses to rubbish like them, they'd have them pig-rees in a damn short while. They're not Segget folk, the spinners, at all." Gibbon's heroes are the ones to stand up to collective bigotry and prejudice. This seems particularly prescient given what fascism would bring to the world in the following decade.

Grey Granite brings Chris and son Ewan to the fictional city of Duncairn where she buys a share in a boarding house. Ewan falls, gradually, for a young teacher and her socialism and comes to believe himself an agent of inevitable progress towards a socialist state. He becomes an activist and sacrifices his potential career at the altar of his faith. And although it is clear that Gibbon empathised with the downtrodden he does not strike one as any more of a 'believer' than Chris: "And that was the best deliverance of all, as she saw it now, sitting here quiet--that that Change who ruled the earth and the sky and the waters underneath the earth, Change whose face she'd once feared to see, whose right hand was Death and whose left hand Life, might be stayed by none of the dreams of men, love, hate, compassion, anger or pity, gods or devils or wild crying to the sky. He passed and repassed in the ways of the wind, Deliverer, Destroyer and Friend in one."

Afterthoughts and asides
This book  reminded me of Kevin Barry's City of Bohane - some of the descriptions of the town of Duncairn seemed familiar - a long series of steps, the use of 'wynds' for streets... The vibrant vernacular of the whole trilogy could have been one of the inspirations for the language in City of Bohane. Mr Barry?

Sometimes, the use of colours and images to unite parts of the book - clouds, granite etc can be a little schematic but it also reminded me of Joyce and brought a focussed, cumulative power to some passages.

I must reread Jude the Obscure soon. This has reminded me how much I  love Hardy.

Although the language includes a lot of words that will not be familiar to many readers when starting the book, they will find most easy to interpret in context and will feel a great temptation to use some of the phrases in their conversation by the time they get to the end. 

I have used a shade of grey to highlight the quotes rather than italics, which I normally use. This is because Gibbon uses italics to indicate speech, but doesn't use quotation marks or indentations and I didn't want to interfere with that.

Lewis Grassic Gibbon is a pen name of James Leslie Mitchell, who died at the tragically young age of 34.


  1. Davies will probably make the whole trilogy, do you think?

    I've been aware of these books so thanks fro bringing them back to my attention. I love Hardy so these have great appeal too. Thanks..

    1. Well, Davies has a good track record with trilogies. I can actually see the appeal of the final book for him. He seems more drawn to urban stories. I'd guess a lot depends on the success or otherwise of the first film.