In 2005 there was a poll in Scotland, asking the Scots to vote for their favourite book. I’d have expected Stevenson’s superb Kidnapped to win, but the winner was Sunset Song by Lewis Grassic Gibbon (whose real name was James Leslie Mitchell), a novel published in 1932.
This is the story of Chris Guthrie, a young woman growing up in an area called The Mearns in north-east Scotland. It is the first novel in a trilogy known as A Scot’s Quair (the other two books are Cloud Howe and Grey Granite). I first read Sunset Song about ten years ago and was blown away by it. It felt like reading a poem – the language was so beautiful. Chris, who wants to learn and read, is a fabulous heroine, but her story is a tragic one as she is tied to the land, an abusive father and rural poverty. I did not love the sequels, but Sunset Song is a moving, stunning book. However, it is written in Scot’s dialect, which probably explains why it is not very well known outside of Scotland. I have taken tour groups to the Lewis Grassic Gibbon Centre in Arbuthnott, and visited his grave in the tiny church there (he has an open book as part of the headstone, which is a nice touch). The story of Sunset Song opens just before World War I and shows the changes brought by war and mechanisation to a countryside which has remained essentially unchanged for centuries. When the novel was published it was considered very shocking because of its frankness concerning sex, childbirth, and the sexual attraction between Chris and Ewan Tavendale.
There have been several film and TV adaptations, but the latest one, which I saw this month, was directed by Terence Davies (who did The House of Mirth). A recent review of the movie in the Sydney Morning Herald described the novel as a “Presbyterian Gone with the Wind“. I was initially doubtful about that description, but the film did have the sort of epic quality, the suffering and the attachment to the land one finds in Margaret Mitchell’s classic. I absolutely loved the film and came out in tears. The Scottish scenery was utterly beautiful (Scotland is one of my favourite countries in the world and I could look at Scottish scenery for ever!) and the quotes directly from the novel, read so beautifully, were extremely moving. It is a sad film, but a fabulous one. Give yourselves a treat and go and see it soon.
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