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.

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