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Sunset Song

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Be quiet, quean, else I’ll take you as well. And up to the barn he went with Will and took down his breeks, nearly seventeen though he was, and leathered him till the weals stood blue across his haunches; and that night Will could hardly sleep for the pain of it, sobbing into his pillow … Guthrie also functions, along with the land, as a cypher for the material conditions that shape Chris, who serves herself as a cypher for the new ‘Scotland’ that’s emerging from the old. Guthrie is a man who is conflicted between tradition and modernity, which conflict was a central concern of the Scottish Renaissance of which Mitchell was a leading light, and it’s out of this conflict that Chris is formed. But I do know that I, and I suspect many Scots, found in her something of myself and what it meant to be Scottish; and that she helped me make sense of the conflicts and choices my teenage self was grappling with. I understood through her the love/hate (but ultimately love) relationship with the land that many of us feel. Through Chris, I could give expression to the feelings that stirred in me as I looked across the field and out to the sea from my grand-parents’ croft on the west coast of Scotland – dreaming of going to university in the “big city”, but knowing that part of my soul would always belong there. Chris also helped me understand the inferiority complex that working-class Scots can sometimes feel, worried that our way of speaking isn’t “proper English”, but also knowing that it is the best and purest way of expressing who we are. In the second chapter, the twins are still babies. Learning she is pregnant again, Jean falls into despair. Unable to get help from her society, she goes insane, killing the twins and then herself. After the tragedy, Guthrie drops out of school, going to work on her family’s homestead. Her eldest brother, Will, absconds with a girl from Kinraddie, marries her, and moves permanently to Argentina. John is enraged by what he perceives as his son’s betrayal of their family, which causes him to suffer a stroke. For the rest of his life, he is paralyzed. While bedridden, he makes sexual advances to Guthrie, who refuses. As she said: “There is a universality about Sunset Song which strikes a chord in so many different places.

Sunset Song is profound. It is heartbreaking but ultimately uplifting and life affirming. It tells a story of a Scotland that, in some senses, is no more, yet, in others, still lives in the hearts of each and every one of us. Years later Mitchell dedicated his exhaustive analysis of the history of the Mayan civilisation to his headmaster, Mr Alexander Gray of Echt.Thank you for your care. You have drawn for my attention many things I hadnie even considered when I first read – and was transported by –‘Sunset Song’– in the early 1960s. And thus enriched my appreciation of the contorted heritage we Scots have. Anent ‘Sunset Song’ (and ‘A Scots Quair’): it has been my wife’s favourite novel and group of novels since she read them first in the 1960s. She was always aware of the violence and brutality which featured in the trilogy. However, this increased her appreciation of the fullness and multi-facetedness of the characterisation. Nor did it make her feel a member of a psychologically damaged nation. On her recommendation, I read it myself during the 1970s and I was aware of the brutality but also about the strength of human spirit as exemplified by Chris Guthrie and others. My late mother who was a contemporary of Mitchell, and herself the victim of a brutal childhood, also read the book after watching the original BBC Scotland series with Vivienne Heilbronn. For her the brutality was very true and matched her experience at the hands of her mother. However, she, too, saw the uplifting passages in the trilogy. From discussions with numerous people about the novel I know I was not alone in ignoring, or forgetting, the cruelty inherent in Chris’s domestic life or the abuse commonplace in the wider community. Is this because it’s so familiar to us personally that it’s unremarkable? Is it because we are so used to reading Scottish stories where the protagonist has to thole an authoritarian father or deal with brutality, family dysfunction and emotional neglect that we hardly notice it? Both are true for me and for many other Scots. I assume you would be equally dismissive of any attempt to discuss “Frenchness” or “Italianness” or “Russianness” on the basis that any such discussion must inevitably lead to “exclusion”.’ How should Scotland distinguish itself, for example, from England, New Zealand, or even more challenging, from Ireland, if not by its uniqueness or ‘psyche’?’

The cruel aspects of Gibbon’s story flow in part from his diffusionist philosophy which blames agriculture for society’s woes. He also detested religion and thought Calvinism responsible for the Scots’ unnatural attitude towards sexuality and the human body. But Leslie Mitchell, Gibbon’s real name, had his own personal reasons to feel alienated from his family and culture and to consider it brutal. If this new edition is prompting you to re-read Sunset Song after many years, as I have just done, you will find it has lost none of its appeal and emotion. And if you are about to read this remarkable novel for the first time, you are embarking on a profound journey” Zenzinger thinks this has to do with a host of factors but he singles out our ‘Calvinist heritage’ with its ‘negative attitude towards sexuality’” But I am sure I am not the only person who was absolutely aghast at the appalling contribution of this author in 2014. Faced with a choice between a harsh farming life and the world of books and learning, Chris Guthrie chooses to remain in her rural community, bound by her intense love of the land. But everything changes with the arrival of the First World War and Chris finds her land altered beyond recognition.Over the past few years, my duties as First Minister have taken me to First World War centenary commemorations in Arras, Amiens and the Somme. I have heard and been humbled by the real-life stories of those who fought, died and survived. And yet so often I’ve found myself thinking about the fictional Ewan Tavendale; about how the war brutalised him, turning his happy marriage to Chris into a nightmare of abuse and contempt. And about how, far away in a field in France, he had suddenly come to his senses, overcome by the futility of it all: The same tale was told down our way, only the station was Glasgow Central and the protagonist was an orra man with learning difficulties called ‘Mad Mung’. The Epilude describes the aftermath of World War I and how it affected Kinraddie. The church’s new minister announces that the estate will erect a statue in honor of its people who died in combat. Guthrie recovers from her deep depression over Ewan’s death, renewing her will to press on and create a better life for her and young Ewan. She falls in love with the reverend. At the end of the novel, she goes to the Standing Stones near her home for the erection ceremony of the War Memorial, and as the sun sets, remarks that her life has forever changed. There have been several adaptations, including a 1971 television series by BBC Scotland, a 2015 film version, and some stage versions. It’s not your intentions I am questioning, Mike. I am fairly comfortable that you are not longing for Boris to survive to be joint king with Charles.

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