There was no post last week because I was up in the wilds of Ardnamurchan, staying somewhere so beautiful and remote that there was no electricity, let alone an internet connection.
I have often mentioned my predilection for reading books that match the setting. This wee trip to Scotland was a welcome opportunity to revisit the pile of Scottish books I bought when we went to Harris last year, and I got too caught up with Gavin Maxwell’s wonderful Ring of Bright Water to read any of the rest of them.This time, I picked Sunset Song by Lewis Grassic Gibbon. And so I embarked upon one of the most enjoyable reading experiences of my life.
Every day, in the late morning – once we’d blearily risen and tidied the mess from the previous night’s drunken antics, which in a caravan swiftly becomes mountainous – I poured a mug of coffee and climbed up on to the rocks where I sat and read, the breeze snatching my hair, alone apart from the occasional gull and eagle. Every very few pages I looked up and saw Arnamurchan lighthouse, marking the most Westerly point on the British mainland, poised over a sandy white beach, on which the boys were usually playing Frisbee or beach golf.
In the other direction, loomed the Lord-of-the-Rings-like islands Eigg, Muck and Rhum, and – if it was really clear – there was a glimpse of the Outer Hebrides too. What a view! (The artfully placed book marks the very spot where I sat.)
Admittedly, Sunset Song is set in a different bit of Scotland – in the fictional Kinraddie, just inland from Aberdeen. And when Gibbon writes so lovingly of the land there, he is writing about the hills, not the sea. But still, I felt I was breathing the same fresh Scottish air, experiencing the same feel of the landscape – far more dramatic than anything England’s got to offer.
Sunset Song is about Kinraddie and its community. It was written in the 1930s and – aside from a whistle-stop, bonkers, Danny Boyleish historical tour in the Prelude – set in the few years preceding the First World War. These years, although harsh and tough, are portrayed as something of a golden age before war comes and wreaks destruction on the community. The story centres on Chris Guthrie, who we meet when she’s just sixteen, torn between pursuing an intellectual life of studying English books or a more visceral appreciation of the Scottish land:
Oh, Chris, my lass, there are better things than your books or studies or loving or bedding, there’s the countryside your own, you its, in the days when you’re neither bairn nor woman.
That tight inversion ‘your own, you its’ reveals just how close Chris’s connection is with the land, as indeed is everyone’s who works their croft in this community. It reminds me of John Donne’s line in ‘The Good Morrow’, ‘my face in thine eye, thine in mine appears’ and perhaps this mingling of people and land is not unlike that of lovers, without wanting to get too D.H. Lawrence about it.
This division between books and the land is echoed in other divisions portrayed in the book – brain and body, town and country, but most fundamentally, English and Scottish. And this is felt most keenly in the language:
Every damned little narrow-dowped rat that you met put on the English if he thought he’d impress you – as though Scotch wasn’t good enough now, it had words in it that the thin bit scraichs of the English could never come at. And Rob said You can tell me, man, what’s the English for sotter, or greip, or smore, or pleiter, gloaming or glunching or well-kenspeckled? And if you said gloaming was sunset you’d fair be a liar…
I think my favourite of these words has got to be ‘glunching’, which Gibbon thoughtfully translates in the much-needed glossary at the back of the book to mean ‘to mutter half-threateningly, half-fearfully’. I now fully intend to glunch at people.
Perhaps a nation’s roots are felt most keenly through its language. This would explain why we spend so much time tirelessly chatting with Americans to point out the differences between ‘lift’ and ‘elevator’, ‘pavement’ and ‘sidewalk’, ‘petrol’ and ‘gas’. Difference is more identifying than sameness and it is usually with a feeling of pride that people cling to these points of variation, especially if they are the underdog, the smaller, less powerful party. Small wonder then that the Scottish crofters in the book feel so protective over their language. Keep on glunching at those posh English chaps who rule over you and are going to make you fight to your deaths in Belgium, say I! English is seen as a snobby thing, as a way of raising yourself up above the commoners, and, moreover, it is seen as false. For as Chris comes to realise:
The English words so sharp and clean and true – for a while, for a while, till they slid so smooth from your throat you knew they could never say anything that was worth the saying at all.
Of course I disagree. But I expect that if I lived in this marvellous rugged countryside, with a language born to express it, I’d also feel that English words never said much that was worth saying.
Gibbon himself evidently felt this tug in opposing directions, one Scottish, one English. In her introduction, Ali Smith tells how he was born in the Scottish parish of Arbuthnott – on which Kinraddie was based – but then moved in later life to English suburban Welwyn Garden City. For the more Scottish of his books he used the pen name ‘Lewis Grassic Gibbon’, adapted from his maternal grandmother’s name, but his English books were written with his English name James Leslie Mitchell.
As you might have gathered from the various quotations, while Sunset Song is written in English, it is an English fused, idiosyncratically, with bits of Scots. Words like ‘meikle’, ‘bit’ and ‘quean’ (to mean respectively ‘great’, ‘something vaguely derogatory’ and ‘girl’) are used so often that they are part of the rhythm of the language, punctuating it so frequently that you take on the inflections in your head. Thankfully, I refrained from talking like this to my friends, but it was certainly an easy lilt to pick up and one that resounded in my head while I sat there on the rocks looking out at the islands.
Sunset Song revels in this unique synthesis of language. It is English enough for an Englishwoman, like me, to read, yet it is undeniably Scottish. You need the glossary, but you don’t resent looking the words up, and before long you can feel the sense of the words without having to check them every few minutes. The result is a prose that really sings and dances off the page, not unlike the Ceilidh that takes place during one of the happiest moments of the book.
It is a marvellous book – but it is for sure a book, and Gibbon takes care in Sunset Song to associate books with Englishness, as opposed to Scottishness. Is Sunset Song then a claiming of literature for Scottishness, an appropriating of this English medium into something Scottish? It has been heralded as ‘the first really Scottish novel’ and the language certainly makes an English reader think in Scots – albeit a doctored version of it. Or is it a conquering of Scottishness by English, an act of colonisation, of capturing the Scottish land within a book? It is words that describe the landscape and many of them are English ones. Most importantly it is called ‘Sunset Song’, not, as Rob would have it in the quotation above, ‘Gloaming Song’. It is a troubling paradox indeed.
As well as reading, we did a little walking up in Ardnamurchan. We climbed to the top of a nearby mountain, sat there and watched two eagles soar through the valley, while someone in the distance struck up a tune on the bagpipes. It was too perfect for words. Then we clambered down, scrabbling through the gorse and the heather. I am particularly bad at those kind of scrambles and feared that the Scottish land might take revenge on my clumsy English feet (clad in rather smart new walking boots), but somehow I got to the bottom unscathed. Not so our Spanish friend who fell off the side of the rockface and tumbled half-way to the bottom of the mountain, the offending loose piece of rock bouncing alarming after him. By a miracle he survived, but perhaps the Scottish land was indeed protesting. Fine, it said, you English scum can trample the heather, but a Spaniard too? Not likely. If nothing else, it certainly made our Spanish friend start glunching.