‘Sunset song’ is a hauntingly beautiful tale. I came to it whilst living in North-east Scotland. Sunset song, and the companion novels making up ‘A Scots Quair’, are written in a blend of English and Scots words that only at first seem strange or daunting, you soon find that Grassic Gibbon evokes a lost age in a unique and very effective manner, using very little dialogue (in italics), but talking to the reader all the while..
The novel, like much of his writing, is concerned with our lot as man `a mist appearing for a while, then disappearing’ (James 4:14), inequality, and the lost `Golden Age’ of the Greeks and Hebrews.
Faced with a choice between her harsh farming life and the world of books and learning, Chris Guthrie eventually decides to remain in her rural community, bound by her love of the land, and the croft set in its ‘parks’ on the Howe. The story returns, again and again, to the early inhabitants who left the standing stones. Grassic Gibbon paints these people, not as warring savages, but as peaceful adventurers. The First World War with its futile brutality is the real de-humaniser.
Chris is now a widowed single mother: her farm, and the surrounding land, is altered beyond recognition – trees torn down, and people displaced. But the novel describes a way of life which is in decline, as John Guthrie said, ‘We’ll be the last of those who wring a living from the land with our bare hands‘.
Chris adapts to her new world, displaying an intuitive strength which, like the land she loves, endures despite everything. ‘Sunset Song’ is a testament to Scotland’s rural past, to the world of crofters and tradition which was destroyed in the First World War, and hence the title of the novel.
It is a powerful description of life in the first decades of the century, and the challenges faced by Chris in the different chapters of her life. Although the story is not just about Chris, as the central character, all else seems to revolve around her. It is not lost on even a casual reader that Lewis Grassic Gibbon has created in the woman Chris a totally convincing character.
It is a story of its own place and time, but reminds us.. ‘sea and sky and the folk who wrote and fought and were learned, teaching and saying and praying, they lasted but as a breath, a mist of fog in the hills, but the land was forever, you were close to it and it to you, not at a bleak remove it held you and hurted you’.
I agree in a sense, to look at cycles is a way of understanding what the author is telling us about life, for example, at the end (in Grey Granite), when Chris returns to the croft in Barmekin where she was born, and where she will die.
If it helps, this quote from ‘Prejudices’ by HL Mencken, sums up the spirit of the post-war period, and ‘Sunset Song’, ‘..the world as it stands is anything but perfect, that injustice exists, and turmoil and tragedy, and bitter suffering of ten thousand kinds, that human life at its best is anything but a grand, sweet song. But instead of ranting absurdly against the fact..or trying to remedy it with inadequate means..we seek contentment by pursuing the delights that are so strangely mixed with horrors..such is the intelligent habit of practical and sinful men’.