Overview of the novel

'Sunset song' is a 1932 novel by Lewis Grassic Gibbon set in the rural north east of Scotland, specifically Kinraddie a fictionalised version of the Mearns in Kincardineshire where the author grew up. The novel tells the story of a young woman Chris Guthrie who is 15 at the start of 'Sunset Song' and 24 at the end. We follow Chris through late adolescence, love, marriage, childbirth and widowhood over the course of the novel. It is set in the early 20th century when the outside world in the shape of the First World War and technological change is beginning to impact on the hitherto isolated world of Kinraddie.

Watercolour illustration of Chris Guthrie in field
' ... the harvest drew on, she went out to the park to help with it, lush and heavy enough it had sprung and yellowed with the suns and rains of the last two months.'

In the novel Gibbon uses the rhythms and cadences of Doric, the north east Scots language to capture the land and people of Kincardineshire and in doing so helped create a new tradition of Scottish writing quite distinct from the English novel.

It begins with a lengthy prelude 'The unforrowed field' which tells the history of Kinraddie from ancient times ‘when gryphons and such-like beasts still roamed the Scots countryside’ to 1911 when the events covered in the novel begin. Densely written, the prelude is a pastiche of a now dated style of history writing that would have been more familiar to readers in 1932 than a modern audience. Although written with wit and technical skill most readers will breathe a sigh of relief when just over 20 pages into the novel they reach its second part which is called ‘The song’ where we meet Chris Guthrie. First time readers might want to at least initially skip the prelude.

'Below and around where Chris Guthrie lay the June moors whispered and shook their cloaks, yellow with broom and powdered faintly with purple, that was the heather but not the full passion of its colour yet'. This sentence introduces us to Chris Guthrie a young woman marvelling at and at one with the natural world around her. Through Chris we learn about the people and land of the Mearns but also discover Chris herself as we see her change and develop over the course of the novel.

The young Chris is torn between two sides of her personality

One side is the intellectual Chris that excels at school, is a voracious reader and wants to be a teacher, the other Chris is her more spiritual, emotional side that is at one with the land and the people of the Mearns

This dilemma between heart and head as well as home and the wider world is a fictionalised version of struggles that lay at the centre of Lewis Grassic Gibbon's life and that inspired much of his writing including 'Sunset Song'. Gibbon left the Mearns at the age of 16 to become a journalist in Aberdeen (a choice that would not been so easy for a girl to make at the time) and would visit but never live in the Mearns again. His childhood home though had a strong and increasing hold on his imagination and through the character of Chris he explores the world and life he left behind. The novel is also a tribute to the women of the rural north east. Gibbon was born James Leslie Mitchell but he chose to publish 'Sunset Song' under the pen name Lewis Grassic Gibbon which is a variant of the name of his maternal grandmother Lilias Grassick Gibbon.

North East Scotland in the early 20th century

Old Angus and Mearns map
Photograph of a woman on a farm
Photograph of a village scene

The book is many things, a powerful fictional response to the First World War and its impact on a small rural community, a hymn to the natural beauties of the north east and its language and people as well as a lament for a way of life that is coming to an end. It is also a realistic account of rural life in Scotland with its privations and occasional brutalities. It is above all else though a book about Chris Guthrie and her path through life from a wide-eyed adolescent to a worldly-wise woman of 24. Along the way she suffers terribly, knows the pain of loss and the fulfilment of love but never loses sight of the beauty and power of the land around her. When it was published in 1932 it was an immediate commercial and critical success and it has never been out of print. It is now regarded as a classic and in 2016 was voted Scotland’s favourite novel in a BBC poll. The novel endures just as Chris Guthrie endures.

It was followed by two sequels 'Cloud Howe' (1933) and 'Grey granite' (1934) which continue the story of Chris Guthrie and her family. The three novels are collectively known as 'A Scots quair', quair is a Scots word for book. In 1966 poet Hugh MacDiarmid wrote in an introduction to a biography of Gibbon: 'Fiction is now the place that poetry is most likely to be found – and it is certainly to be found in greater measure in "A Scots quair" than in the whole corpus of Scots poetry since the 15th and 16th century makars with the exception of the best in Ferguson and Burns.'

Watercolour illustration of a hill and woodland