|Author||Lewis Grassic Gibbon|
|Series||A Scots Quair trilogy|
|Media type||Print (Hardback & Paperback)|
|Followed by||Cloud Howe|
Sunset Song is a 1932 novel by the Scottish writer Lewis Grassic Gibbon. It is widely regarded as one of the most important Scottish novels of the 20th century. It is the first part of a trilogy A Scots Quair, and was made into a television series in 1971 by BBC Scotland.
The central character is a young woman, Chris Guthrie, growing up in a farming family in the fictional Estate of Kinraddie in The Mearns in the north east of Scotland at the start of the 20th century. Life is hard, and her family is dysfunctional.
Chris Guthrie's mother, broken by repeated childbirths, commits suicide and poisons her baby twins. Two younger children go to live with their aunt and uncle in Aberdeen, leaving Chris, her older brother Will and her father to run the farm on their own. Will and his father have a stormy relationship and Will emigrates to Argentina with his young bride, Mollie Douglas. Chris is left to do all the work around the house. Soon after this, her father suffers a stroke, leaving him bedridden. For a time he tries to persuade her to commit incest with him, but as he is badly hurt he is not able to force her. He dies shortly afterwards. At his funeral, Chris realises what happened to her father and breaks down in tears as she never knew the hardship he has endured for them.
Chris, who has had some education, considers leaving for a job as a teacher in the towns, but realises she loves the land and cannot leave it. Instead, she marries a young farmer called Ewan Tavendale and carries on farming. For a time they are happily married, and they have a son, who they also call Ewan. However when the First World War breaks out Ewan senior and many other young men join up. When he comes home on leave he treats Chris badly, evidently brutalised by his experiences in the army. Ewan is killed in the war and Chris subsequently hears from Chae Strachan. who is home on leave, that Ewan was shot as a deserter, but he died thinking of her. She begins a relationship with the new minister and she watches as he dedicates the War Memorial at the Standing Stones above her home. The Sun sets to the Flowers of the Forest, bringing an end to their way of life, forever.
Map of Kinraddie with the main characters
The novel touches on several issues, including the nature of Scottish national identity, the role of women, and the "peasant crisis" i.e. the coming of modernisation to traditional farming communities. The theme of the onset of modernisation and the end of old ways is explored using many symbols, for example, violent deaths of horses (supposed to represent old, traditional farming methods) and the appearance of motorised cars representing new technologies which brush the people of the land from the road. The author also has some political opinions reflected in the characters of Chae Strachan, the Socialist, and Long Rob, the pacifist, and he shows how they react to the coming of the war. The dilemma Chris faces over whether to continue her education or commit to a life in the land is also featured. The title of the novel is a direct reference to the theme of the sunset of the old ways and traditions. By some readings Chris is "Chris Caledonia", an allegorical figure for Scotland itself.
Literary significance and criticism
When it was first published, some readers were shocked by its realistic treatment of sex and childbirth, and its sometimes negative portrayals of family life. Some wondered if it had been written by a woman using a male pseudonym.
The novel is written in an essentially artificial form of Scots intended to capture the colloquial speech of the Mearns peasants without being inaccessible to English speakers.
Film, TV and theatrical adaptations
In 1971 BBC Scotland made an adaptation of the book for television. The series was the first colour drama made by BBC Scotland and also contained the first nude scene. The series made the important change from the book of turning Chris into the narrator; Chris was played by Vivien Heilbron. It was shown in the US on Masterpiece Theatre in 1975-76. The composer Thomas Wilson was commissioned to write the theme music, which the BBC retained for the remaining two parts of the trilogy, commissioning Wilson again to compose the incidental music for the remaining productions of Cloud Howe and Grey Granite.
There are also a number of adaptations for the stage, of which the best known is by Alastair Cording.
Jack Webster, the Scottish writer and journalist, wrote a play based on the novel and Lewis Grassic Gibbon's life which toured Scotland in 2008. The novel was also the inspiration for the Richard Thompson song "Poor Ditching Boy" on his 1972 album Henry the Human Fly.
Soon after directing The House of Mirth in 2000, English filmmaker Terence Davies and producer Bob Last planned their own adaptation of the book but had difficulty securing financing. Production finally began in 2014. Fortissimo Films acquired the international rights for the film, and they are expected to distribute it in 2015. The film stars Agyness Deyn and Peter Mullan.
- Thompson, Richard & Linda (1972). Live at Kew Bridge Folk Club (Album). England: Bootleg.
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