I grew up in the North-Western wing of the Scottish Borders. I’m a homing pigeon: I love the Pentland Hills – ‘The Hills of Home’, as Robert Louis Stevenson called them – and have returned to live among them.
I became aware of literature at an early age, partly because my father, the composer/pianist Ronald Stevenson, has always worked closely with words, setting many poetic texts to music, including those by Hugh MacDiarmid, William Soutar and Sorley MacLean.
In the seventies, when I was growing up, pupils at state high schools in Scotland were not limited by being issued with set texts to study for their English literature Higher paper – you could choose any novel, play or poem, whatever took your fancy. I’d been reading my way through D.H. Lawrence, Gerald Durrell, and Emile Zola. Germinal was the novel I selected (in translation, obviously) for Higher English, and the teaching staff at Peebles High School didn’t bat an eye- lid. Joni Mitchell’s song ‘The Last Time I Saw Richard’ was the poem of my choice, and Macbeth the play.
I was passionate about each of these, and therefore didn’t need to be persuaded to apply my nose to the grindstone of study.
Then I read Sunset Song, lifted from my parents’ book shelves
Once I’d stumbled through the first problematic chapter, The Unfurrowed Field (which I’m sure is an obstacle to many readers), I devoured it, the closest any literature had come to my experience of growing up in rural Scotland.
Chris Guthrie’s relationship with the landscape, and her love of literature chimed with mine. (Not that long ago, like Chris, I’d been reading What Katy Did.) Here was a young woman, like myself, on the brink of understanding her place in the world, discovering her body and its urges, exploring her own naked image in the mirror, as I did. And written with such astounding insight by a man!
These characters he’d created, people from the Mearns, their earthy wit, were familiar to me — I’d grown up with people like this in the village of West Linton, gone to school with them, I knew the feeling of Scots rhythms sliding from the tongue. I felt that the folk of Kinraddie belonged to me.
And, of course, I fell in love with Ewan Tavendale, the most romantic, tragic,
darkly brooding hero any teenage girl could ask for.
Here was a Scottish epic, as big in its scope as Zola’s Germinal, as fierce in its championing of the common folk, as articulate in its condemnation of political and religious corruption.
My relationship with Lewis Grassic Gibbon continued into my professional life: one of my earliest acting roles was Rachel Galt, in a television dramatisation of LGG’s short story ‘Clay’, and then I also played the part of Ellen Johns in the TV serialisation of Grey Granite.
So, by my early twenties, I was very familiar with A Scots Quair and A Scots Hairst.
Some three decades on, and I am now working as an actor/writer/director. Sunset Song is the fifth novel I have dramatised for BBC Radio 4.
The first thing I do, when dramatising a novel, is to sit down and read it twice, straight through. Then I read it again, slowly, making notes on every page, underlining certain paragraphs.
I also write a brief potted version of the action on the last page of each chapter. Often, at this stage, I’ll notate the book with cross-referencing page numbers, knowing that I can conflate certain scenes. In a novel, the author may often write recurring situations, with slight variations each time, creating a sense of accumulative action; in drama, the action has to be tighter, and there isn’t so much room for repetition (unless the structure is deliberately based on such a notion, as in, for example, Vaclav Havel’s brilliant absurdist play The Memorandum, the structural premise of which is repetition).
For instance, in my two-hour dramatisation of Sunset Song, I created one scene from two scenes between John Guthrie and Will – the first when Guthrie hears Will calling the horse Jehovah, and the other in which he beats Will for using his gun.
Before I write a word, I ask myself the question: ‘from whose perspective is this story being told?’ Sunset Song has a unique narrative voice, a communal voice of the people.
I found it fascinating, when re-reading the novel, to note how relatively little actual Scots language Grassic Gibbon uses, as compared, for example, with Sir Walter Scott (whose epic novel The Heart of Midlothian I have also dramatised for radio). Grassic Gibbon, like the Irish playwright Synge, creates an illusion of Scots language through use of syntax and rhythm rather than vocabulary.
Of course LGG does use Scots words, but by no means a densely rich use of Scots vocabulary. And yet I’d remembered it somehow, as a Scots language novel.
But how to create a communal voice? I felt the dramatisation should have a narrator, as the narrative voice of Sunset Song is probably its most uniquely distinguishing feature. This voice frequently uses the term ‘you’ – e.g. ‘...and God! He’d tell you stories about horses till you’d fair be grey in the head…,’ and ‘...you can do without the day if you’ve a lamp quiet lighted and kind in your heart.’
I decided to tell the story from Chris’s point of view, making her the narrator, but gave her a quality of the novel’s voice by using the ‘you’ device as much as possible within her narration.
The next question – where to start? Always a tricky one! What bowled me over about Sunset Song, revisiting it after three decades, was how modern it is in its sensibilities. Grassic Gibbon’s depiction of male domination (particularly sexual domination, and male violence towards women) is acutely observed – astonishingly so, when one considers that he was writing in the 1930s. I was intrigued to note that I had not picked up on this aspect of the novel when I read it as a teenage girl.
I hadn’t remembered the terrifying transformation in Ewan when he returns drunk from army training in Lanark. I had only absorbed the romantic elements of Chris and Ewan’s relationship – presumably because, as a young, inexperienced girl, romance was a priority for me, and sex education wasn’t on the agenda at school; and I wasn’t yet aware enough of the world to relate to the complexities of sexual relationships.
It seemed to me on re-reading the novel, now, in adulthood, that this was one of its major themes.
Since John Guthrie’s anguishing, abusive relationship with his wife Jean shapes so much of Chris’s and Will’s experience, I decided to begin with Chris remembering her mother. My own paternal grandmother grew up in rural Lancashire. I recall her telling me she didn’t have shoes until, at the age of 12, she went to work in the cotton mills, wearing clogs. This memory resonated when I read that Chris’s mother hadn’t worn shoes till she was 12, and it seemed a good starting point, the simple reference to the shoes placing us immediately in a particular time, a particular class. Also, it meant the audience could meet the main protagonists immediately, which doesn’t happen in the novel.
The first chapter of Sunset Song is off-putting: Grassic Gibbon starts by taking a wide, general sweep at Scottish history, approaching the landscape and its people almost as if he were an anthropologist/historian. The first four pages are consequently rather dry. It’s also not easy to absorb such a panoramic introduction to the personalities of Kinraddie in this first chapter – after all, in life, we rarely get to know people through description; it’s only through their interaction that they become meaningful.
I always advise people to skip the first chapter, and go back to it later on, once the Guthrie family is established in Kinraddie, and the story has been launched. The first chapter was nevertheless crucial to me as a series of reference points for the community of richly drawn individuals, and I kept returning to it during the process of dramatising the novel.
I entirely disagree with Ian S. Munro who states, when writing about Sunset Song in his book Leslie Mitchell:Lewis Grassic Gibbon:
‘Ewan Tavendale is a difficult character to assess. His portrayal is not wholly believable... Indeed the one serious flaw in the author’s talent is in development of character. An obvious example is found in the change wrought by the War on Ewan, as shown in his behaviour to Chris when on leave. It is not the mere fact of change – better men than Ewan have been completely disintegrated and corrupted hideously by wars; but there is an artistic weakness in confronting the reader with such a totally different person without adequate explanation.’
In support of his view, Munro quotes Helen B. Cruikshank :
‘Certain episodes such as Ewan’s sadistic behavior to Chris are bad art partly because they are too cruel to the reader.’
I think these are dated reactions to an uncomfortable truth about male behaviour, which Grassic Gibbon confronts head on in a way that is truly radical for his time. Indeed the author subtly prepares us for Ewan’s drunken, loutish behavior in several scenes early on in the novel: Chris refers to him as having the beast-like qualities of her father, and there’s the Sarah Sinclair episode, as well as Ewan’s roughness, ambushing Chris on the road at night to kiss her, not to mention several other hints at a dark, passionate, impulsive volatility within an otherwise caring, hard-working young man. (It’s interesting to note also that Ewan is a Highlander, an outsider to the Kinraddie community, one who never refers to his own relatives – he’s clearly a loner.)
Each of the characters is drawn with many fascinating contradictions, including the wise fool Tony the Daftie (‘Ah, Chae, so the mills of God still grind?’), who, sadly, along with so many others, such as the kindly Mistress Melon, I couldn’t include because of the time constraint and casting restrictions.
Contrary to Ian Munro’s view, I find the character development skillfully wrought by Grassic Gibbon, which is why, as a reader, one can return to Sunset Song again and again, finding more and more layers, and be utterly drawn into its world every time. I never fail to read this novel without grieving for the loss of its people, and their way of life.
I’d remembered Long Rob of the Mill vividly, perhaps because my own father had been a conscientious objector. Rob is one of the foundation stones of Sunset Song, the man with whom Chris clearly has most in common, as Rob himself knows and jocularly reveals in his hilariously outrageous speech at Chris’s wedding. I felt it was important, dramatically, to create their first meeting, and chose to place the scene up at the Standing Stones.
Sunset Song contains all of life in its themes: the land, sex, war, love, redemption, community, religion, class, hypocrisy, education and politics. A hard task to cram such huge themes into a two-hour dramatisation, with a cast limited to ten. These themes are all carried through the major characters: Chris, Will, Jean, and John Guthrie, Chae Strachan, Ewan Tavendale and Long Rob, and also through the rich array of subsidiary characters.
I created dialogue by selecting sections of narration, transforming them into speech, sharing them out between various characters, as, for example, in the scene when the men come in to Peesie’s Knapp kitchen from the threshing. Here I created a communal telling of the story of Reverend Gibbon and the chamber pot escapade. I had a lot of fun rediscovering Grassic Gibbon’s great humour – there are many very funny passages in the novel. His satirical wit is both deliciously comedic and lethal.
Many important scenes simply didn’t make it through the distillation from prose to drama – and there were further cuts in the editing room, but I tried to be true to Grassic Gibbon, to retain all that was crucial in terms of telling the story and engaging the audience.
As a writer of drama, you have to be prepared to let go. The director will make decisions, some which you hadn’t envisaged. Drama is a collaborative process.
The song ‘The Flowers of the Forest’ is a symbolic thread throughout the novel. I wove it into my dramatisation, but partly because of time constraints, and partly, perhaps, due to the director’s taste, this element didn’t survive into ‘the final cut.’ The song tells of the bloodshed and slaughter at the Battle of Flodden, a devastating defeat in Scottish history. Chris writes an essay about this song at school, which is a premonition of the First World War’s great slaughter occurring later on in the book.
It’s the song Chris sings at her wedding (so typical of us Scots to celebrate by singing a beautiful dirge!), and it’s also the song which, symbolically, neither Ewan nor Chae can remember on Ewan’s last night, before he is shot for desertion. Colquhoun, in his final, passionate sermon by the Standing Stones, refers to the ‘old Scotland, the old speech and the old songs that may never again rise but with alien effort to our lips’. The piper, the Highlander McIvor, plays ‘The Flowers of the Forest’ in this last scene.
It was a privilege to be given the opportunity of renewing my relationship with this great novel. I truly hope my dramatisation will lead its listeners to discover or revisit the work of Lewis Grassic Gibbon.