Among the Picts

John Sutherland

  • Stained Radiance: A Fictionist’s Prelude by J. Leslie Mitchell
    Polygon, 219 pp, £7.95, July 1993, ISBN 0 7486 6141 7
  • The Speak of the Mearns by Lewis Grassic Gibbon
    Polygon, 268 pp, £8.95, June 1994, ISBN 0 7486 6167 0

Lewis Grassic Gibbon (the pen-name of James Leslie Mitchell) is put forward as his country’s great 20th-century novelist: the Scottish D.H. Lawrence. Gibbon’s reputation substantially rests on A Scots Quair (‘quire’ – or ‘gathering of sheets’), also called ‘The Mearns Trilogy’, Mearns being an ancient name for Kincardineshire, now itself an ancient name after the county reorganisation of 1975. This cycle of novels follows the career of a Scotswoman, Chris Guthrie, from childhood on a croft in the North-Eastern coastlands, through the disruption of the First World War and two marriages, to middle age in a soulless city, ‘Dundon’, which combines repugnant features of Aberdeen and Dundee. The first segment, Sunset Song, is regarded in Scotland as a national classic and is studied in schools and universities. Gibbon remains a blind spot for most English readers. Shamefully, he has no entry in the DNB, a distinction he yields to such maestri as Edgar Wallace and Elinor Glyn.

As a one-man great tradition, Gibbon labours under disabilities, of which being Scottish in an English-dominated culture is the heaviest. ‘Of peasant rearing and peasant stock’, he was brought up on a farm near Stonehaven. Gibbon left school at 16 and made a false start as a journalist. It ended with disgrace and attempted suicide when he was discovered fiddling his expense accounts. He then embarked on a ten-year stint in the Armed Forces, which was largely unprofitable but which took him to the Middle East, an experience that profoundly affected the development of his idiosyncratic view of world history. As an RAF clerk Corporal Mitchell learned methodical writing habits that stood him in good stead when, on discharge in 1929, he became an author. He died of a perforated gastric ulcer in 1935 at the age of 34, in the middle of a creative burst that had produced 16 books (12 of them novels) in seven years. Success eluded him during his lifetime, although some prescient fellow writers, notably Hugh MacDiarmid and H.G. Wells, had marked him as a major talent.

Say ‘Scotland’ and few people (and no travel agents) will think of the bleak, windswept, comparatively featureless North-Eastern coastal region that separates St Andrews from Aberdeen. The Mearns is not a beauty spot and has no glamorous associations. But for Gibbon it is elemental Scotland. Dunnottar Castle is a landmark that recurs in the novels and Gibbon often recalls Old Mortality, the crazed Cameronian in Scott’s novel who haunted the area’s churchyards, devoting his life to the sisyphean task of keeping legible the mossed-over memorials to the Covenanter martyrs of 1685. Gibbon, in one of his many parts an expert archaeologist, has a similar devotion to old stones. Typically, his narratives open with mistily prehistoric preludes, and his heroes and heroines have mystical attachments to the distinctive red clay and rock of the region, to Stone Age monuments and palaeolithic flints. Gibbon’s extended descriptions of these features of the Mearns landscape constitute his most powerful writing.

At the time of his death, Gibbon had not clearly worked out his relationship to Scotland, more particularly to the Scottish tongue. Like MacDiarmid, he experimented with braid Scots, a literary idiom which – while acknowledging a shared base of Anglo-Saxon – asserts its separateness from English, a dialect which, as the journalist J.L. Mitchell, Gibbon used with the scholarship boy’s swanky virtuosity. For the English reader, A Scots Quair often requires access to Jamieson’s Dictionary of the Scottish Language. Sometimes one suspects that Gibbon is himself using the volume for some patriotic gilding.

As a novelist Gibbon was lumbered with heavy ideological baggage in the form of Diffusionism and Clydeside socialism. Diffusionism (a now unfashionable school of anthropology associated with G. Elliott Smith) proposed that civilisation originated in upper Egypt, around three millennia BC. From this Kulturkreis the skills of civilised society were diffused by ‘ancient mariners’ (one of Smith’s crazier propositions was that the aborigines learned their mummification skills from Egyptian merchants). The crofting practices of North-East Scotland represented an umbilical link with the fertile mud of ancient Egypt. It was here that the traders first touched, with their precious cargo. For Gibbon the ‘independent tenant retainer’, or tenant farmer, of the Mearns is the ‘essential Scot’. In this he differs from Scott and Buchan, who took the essential Scot to be the Border reiver. Similarly, Gibbon’s paganism distinguishes him from Barrie’s cosily Presbyterian Thrums, a town based on the neighbouring Kirriemuir.

The Diffusionist thesis held that modern civilisation represents a falling away from an original Edenic state. As it diffuses, culture weakens like ripples in a pool. It is also corroded by urbanisation and disrupted by war. Progress, in the optimistic 19th-century sense, is an illusion or, as Gibbon put it in a polemical essay, ‘barbarism is no half-way house of a progressive people towards full and complete civilisation: on the contrary, it marks a degeneration from an older civilisation.’ In Gibbon’s Diffusionist reading of Scottish prehistory, the agrarian Picts (Gibbon’s ain folk) were infinitely superior to the ‘stupid’ warmongering Celts, possessors of a ‘degenerate, bastardised, culture’ who swept in from the West and North to harass them. For Gibbon the Celts are ‘one of the greatest curses of the Scottish scene, quick, avaricious, unintelligent, quarrelsome, cultureless and uncivilisable’. Superficially this looks suspiciously like ineradicable lowland prejudice against North-Western neighbours – bandits and caterans all. ‘Tink’ (‘Highland bastard’) is the ubiquitous racial slur in the mouths of Gibbon’s rural characters. One looks in vain in his fiction for the romanticised image of the ancient Gael invented by Scott and popularised by Hollywood. Gibbon has an associated distaste for the nostalgic kailyard sentimentality associated with Ian Maclaren, Barrie and S.R. Crockett. Gibbon’s Scottishness is sharp-edged, unapologetically bigoted and hard to come to terms with. It is typical that he reserves the highest flights of his lyricism for the smell (‘guff’, ‘feuch’, ‘whiff’) of shit – the aromatic midden, fragrant farmyard dung and the rich bouquet of freshly manured fields.

The inherent pessimism of Diffusionism – its core vision of a fine old civilisation violated by invading tribes of cultureless savages – made sense of the First World War. It also supplied the ideological framework for the trilogy’s progress from croft, through small town, to large industrial city – each step another fall towards darkness. The only remedy held out in the final section, Grey Granite, is an angry Anglophobic socialism. Gibbon’s work holds up least well where it comes closest to MacDiarmid’s Hymns to Lenin. Here, for instance, is Ewan Tavendale, beaten up in his cell by the Duncairn bobbies for leading a strikers’ demonstration:

he lay with a strange mist boiling, blinding his eyes, not Ewan Tavendale at all any more but lost and be-bloodied in a hundred broken and tortured bodies all over the world, in Scotland, in England, in the torture-dens of the Nazis in Germany, in the torment-pits of the Polish Ukraine, a livid twisted thing in the prisons where they tortured the Nanking Communists, a Negro boy in an Alabama cell while they thrust the razors into his flesh, castrating with a lingering cruelty and care.

Polygon is supporting Gibbon’s claim to canonical status by publishing his first and last novels – works which, like the bulk of Gibbon’s writing, have hitherto been hard to come by.[*] Usefully learned introductions and bibliographies are supplied. Stained Radiance suffered the ritual round of rejection by twenty publishers before being accepted in 1930. It made no great hit nor, to be honest, should it have done. An acidic narrative suffused with the bleak mood of the immediate post-war years, Stained Radiance declares itself an ‘ironical portrait of contemporary life’. The action is set in London, the alien city to which many Scots were driven by joblessness in the Twenties. The self-consciously brittle tone recalls Lewis’s Apes of God, early Huxley, and Eliot’s young man carbuncular. There are daring-for-the-time references to casual sexual intercourse, Stopesian contraceptive devices, cheap silken undergarments, pick-ups in Lyons Corner Houses. There is much worldly wisdom along the lines of: ‘All attractive girls should be seduced and married. They trouble a man less and listen to his conversation.’

Stained Radiance features three flatmate heroines and four heroes all linked by loose connection to the Anarchocommunist Party – Gibbon despised fashionable socialism, whether of the dilettante or the Judas Ramsay MacDonald variety. He had already developed his characteristic decentred narrative, with its choric interludes playing over an array of representative lives. He also incorporates a self-portrait in the form of John Garland, a clerk in the RAF struggling to write his first hyper-ironical novel. Garland, we’re told, ‘hated the Air Force. Like 90 per cent of those in the ranks, he had enlisted under the compulsion of hunger and unemployment. He had never forgiven the Service the fact of its feeding him.’ The woman Garland loves, Thea Mayven, comes from the Mearns and could plausibly be taken to be a precursor of Chris Guthrie. Like Gibbon, she has mixed feelings about her origins: ‘In Scotland, in the little farm where she had been born, she had hated the peasant life. In London she remembered it with gladness and with tears, a thing of sunrises and rains and evening scents and the lowing of lone herds across the wine-red moors.’ Nonetheless, Thea will not return, even when starving to death in the London streets. One recalls that when writing Sunset Song Gibbon was resident in Welwyn Garden City: like Robert Louis Stevenson, he loved his country but had no intention of living or dying there.

Twenties London is not Gibbon territory. Nor is irony his natural tone. His best work, hitherto represented by Sunset Song, was concerned with his native region in the period before the First World War and with characters who belong to a still earlier generation. Much of the power of Sunset Song resides in John Guthrie, the heroine’s appalling father. Guthrie batters his son (forcing him eventually to flee to the other side of the world) and rapes his wife, who finally kills herself and her youngest children rather than face the nightly ordeal of the marital bed. The clever daughter Chris, a scholarship girl, is forced to give up education to skivvy for the widowed Guthrie and to labour in his fields. Gibbon wrote nothing more affecting than the description of Guthrie, mortally wounded by falling against a stone, thrashing in his own farmyard, cursing and calling his daughter ‘a white-faced bitch’. Yet, at his funeral, Chris grieves, reverencing ‘the fight unwearying he’d fought with the land and its masters’.

The Speak of the Mearns, Gibbon’s incomplete last work, returns to this crofting world. The narrative that survives describes a farmer, John Stratoun, who has come back to his ancestral land after a long time away. Events are seen mainly through the emerging consciousness of Stratoun’s youngest child, Keith. The setting is again Kincardineshire at the turn of the century and Gibbon once again uses a blend of Anglo-Saxon and braid Scots dialects. ‘The Speak of the Mearns’ translates as something like ‘the talk of the town’ and, from fragmentary notes, it seems that Gibbon intended to go on to deal with various scandals and passionate crimes. Like Paul Morel, Keith is physically frail and would evidently have been spared the drudging destiny of his fathers. The narrative finishes abruptly and tantalisingly at the end of Keith’s early childhood. The gap left by the bulk of what would certainly have been Gibbon’s mid-career masterpiece is poignantly filled up with scrapings of his journalism and a handful of early stories.

What, then, are Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s claims to be considered anything other than a talented provincial – the kind of writer D.H. Lawrence might have been had he devoted his lifelong creative energies to promoting the interests of rural Nottinghamshire? In many ways it is easier to make the case against over-valuing Gibbon. A Modernist by period, he attempts no major technical novelty (beyond his decentred narrative and a disinclination to use inverted commas which infuriated some of his stuffier compatriots). He himself declared in 1930 that Scottish literature would have to wait fifty years before it could produce a Virginia Woolf or a James Joyce. When he made the prophecy, he might reasonably have expected to be around to see MacWoolf and MacJoyce. As it is, a huge ‘what if’ hangs over his prematurely ended career. He never had a chance to show how good he really was and whether he had another Sunset Song in him. Gibbon’s fiction rests on two ideological systems which have proved to be singularly rickety. Sixty years after Gibbon’s death the Scottish socialist revolution is as elusive as Scottish literary Modernism. Diffusionism survives only in the wilder areas of Afrocentric studies.

Nonetheless, of all the protagonists of the Scottish Literary Renaissance, Gibbon’s work stands up best – at least for the non-aligned British reader. His experiments with braid Scots are more accessible than MacDiarmid’s Lallans, and less pugnaciously separatist in effect. If The Speak of the Mearns really is indicative of the latest stage of Gibbon’s evolution it would seem that he was turning away from the doctrinaire politics of Grey Granite. The softer tones and pastoral textures of the incomplete work suggest that he had even made his peace with the detested kailyarders. With the current resurgence in Scottish nationalism, and the growing popularity of Scottish studies, it is likely that more of Gibbon’s books will be restored to print and doubtless his Scottishness will be possessively argued over. But it is unlikely that Sunset Song will be displaced as the work on which his reputation depends. And when the current nationalist tide recedes, Gibbon should emerge as what he surely is, the greatest British regional novelist in the 20th century.

[*] A Scots Quair: Sunset Song, Cloud Howe, Grey Granite is available in an omnibus edition from Penguin (£6.99, 0 14 018091 5).