A gritty, quirky tale of lust and tragedy, Sunset Song is the first instalment of Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s Scots Quair trilogy; Cloud Howe and Grey Granite are the other two novels. Set between 1910 and the end of World War 1, the harsh Kincardineshire land provides the backdrop, pulse and foundation for the book, which tells the story of a tenant farming family in an era when agricultural mechanisation on large farms is set to cause unemployment and emigration, just before the war tore a large slice from a generation of Scotland’s young men. For every lifelong fan thankful to their teachers for introducing and explaining this required text, there is another student who says that Grassic Gibbon made their English (sic) lessons unbearable. For every reader who hears the sounds of the Mearns and sees the rolling hills throughout his rhythmic prose, there is another who says that it’s turgid and depressing. The stylistic device of italicising speech within hyphens and paragraphs, combined with the odd mix of North-East Scots and familiar English in the language, can be impenetrable obstacles when reading the novel.
I’ll fly my flag above the supporter’s camp – I love the pace of Grassic Gibbon’s work, the style, devices and the way he richly evokes the hard red soil of the Mearns, just as well as John Buchan dealt with land in the Highlands in John Macnab (1925). Sunset Song is a defining novel of twentieth century Scotland. A powerful successor to George Mackay Brown’s ‘House with the Green Shutters’ (1901), Sunset Song is my favourite novel ever. I find that the ‘stream of consciousness’ prose makes for easy reading once I get in tune. Comparisons can be drawn with Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’ and Faulkner’s ‘The Sound and the Fury’.
In Chris Guthrie, Grassic Gibbon introduces a strong lead female character; he employs metaphor and allegory better than Thomas Hardy in ’Tess of the d’Urbervilles’. He also avoids romanticising Chris Guthrie (and her hard tragic life), like Hardy did with Bathsheba Everdene in ‘Far from the Madding Crowd’. The writing and subject matter in ‘Sunset Song’ are the antithesis of the Kailyard anaesthetic dross written for well-off guffies and prevalent in nineteenth century literary and publishing circles. There are faults with the novel – it was written too quickly for a start. In defence of the author, revision would have made it contrived and numbed the rhythm. Besides, he was in a hurry. He died just three years after the book’s publication, tragically young at age thirty five. His ashes are buried in Arbuthnott village graveyard.
When ‘Sunset Song’ was published, Grassic Gibbon’s radical masterpiece provoked strong reactions, similar to those meted out to Lorna Moon. Her home town, Strichen in Aberdeenshire, did not recognise her work because of its salacious content and her unconventional lifestyle. Grassic Gibbon also upset the locals, especially the worthies. He scarcely disguised towns and characters based on folk still living when the book was published. In fact Kincardineshire folk have really long memories – twenty-five years ago I was down in Arbuthnott getting some work from the excellent Grassic Gibbon Visitor Centre. When I was viewing Bloomfield, the farmhouse where Grassic Gibbon lived for nine years, I was told by the Laird of Arbuthnott that I must respect local sensitivities if I got to showcase the author’s work.
Head-on, their local hero’s best work had tackled sensitive subjects like childbirth, sex, executions, the brutalisation of military service during wartime, suicide, filicide and rape.
Grassic Gibbon’s first job was as a reporter with the forerunner to Aberdeen Journals. Sent to cover the inaugural meeting of the city Bolsheviks, he ended the evening in style by joining the Aberdeen Soviet. Modern day Press and Journal reporters are content to sook up to Donald Trump. Grassic Gibbon was sacked for fiddling his expenses, a crime and punishment that makes one wonder what would have happened in today’s red top phone-hacking, post-Leveson climate.
If there’s less in this review about the film than the novel, it’s because the book’s far better, despite director Terence Davies’ earthy long-cherished project following and capturing the plot and essence of the novel in many respects.
The film was funded in part by BBC and National Lottery money. Davies scripted it, in addition to his directing duties. Bearing his trademark ‘lush and painterly’ approach, the movie is underpinned by his ostracism. I can’t help but speculate about what kind of adaptation Ken Loach would have produced.
Signalling her breakthrough as an actress, Agyness Deyn puts in a stellar performance as Chris Guthrie. Peter Mullan excels as her brutal father, and Jack Greenlees is more plausible as Will, her brother, than Kevin Guthrie is at playing Ewan Tavendale. Ewan marries Chris Guthrie: he is traumatised by his war experiences and executed for cowardice. Special mention must be made of the costume and setting design. The cinematography by Director of Photography Michael McDonough is simply stunning.
But all the ravishing buries any nuances: style fills the two hours at the expense of substance and Davies loses Grassic Gibbon’s dialectic, wit and painstaking characterisation in the process. Socialist Chae Strachan, free-thinking Long Rob of the Mill and all the females except Chris are cast in subservient roles. Political references and the dynamic between farm-workers and gentry are not developed. In search of the beautiful shot, the director loses track of plot. There’s a scene showing villagers walking to church across a muddy barley field, wearing their Sunday best. Fettercairn is shown complete with sheep; Inverbervie and Drumlithie are mentioned, but where was the latter’s famous church without a steeple? Ewan and Chris visiting Dunnottar Castle was omitted. If you want to view new movie footage of Dunnottar, go and see Victor Frankenstein, but be warned – it’s a really bad film.
‘Sunset Song’ isn’t a bad film; it’s just humourless and bleak, verging on relentless. It’s a shame folk won’t rush to (re-)read the book after seeing it.
For further viewing, reading and info:-