The land is the central element in 'Sunset Song', seemingly timeless and arguably more significant than any of the human characters who struggle to engage with it. Right from the 12th century when some Norman childe made his mark on Kinraddie through to the travails of the Guthrie family just before the first world war, the land was a force that had to be reckoned with. It shaped individuals and the way that they formed relationships. Anyone making a film of Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s novel has to be able to portray the land as well as the human beings who depend on it. Terence Davies has a reputation for bringing a loving painterly eye to his films and we expect to see that quality in his depiction of this story set in the Mearns.
'Sunset Song' was first published in 1932 and is structured around the four farming seasons – ploughing, drilling, seed time and harvest. The main character is Chris Guthrie, the strong-minded daughter of a family of tenant farmers, and we follow her relationships with her family, her school, her neighbours and her lovers in Kinraddie until such time as the community is transformed by the tragedy of the first world war. While the village comes together in times of crisis, its everyday patterns of living are marked by class barriers, ideological disagreements and personal suspicions; the process of war generated upheaval and uncertainty but there was no clean sheet after 1918. The sunset of the title was not so much the end of an era as the prelude to another unpredictable day in the same setting.
The fact that Grassic Gibbon wrote about sexual desire and sexual experience from a woman’s point of view was unprecedented; there was some speculation that he might be a woman. Many women had lost their male partners in the first world war and it was exceptional to portray these women as more than just widows; their sexuality was deemed to have died with the men on the Front. His portrayal of sexual violence within relationships was harrowing, as well as credible, and that was possibly why the book was banned by Aberdeen public library.
Grassic Gibbon wanted 'Sunset Song' to be comprehensible to both Scottish and non-Scottish readers and its language is a combination of Scottish words, English words and Scots words cloaked in an English spelling. His aim was, he said, 'to mould the English language into the rhythms and cadences of Scots spoken speech'. The syntax of his long sentences emerges, unmistakably, from the language of that part of north-east Scotland. 'But then the upward road would swerve, right or left, into this steep ledge or that, and the wind would be at them again and they'd gasp, climbing back to the shelvins, Will with freezing feet and hands and the batter of the sleet like needles in his face, Chris in worse case, colder and colder at every turn, her body numb and unhappy, knees and thighs and stomach and breast, her breasts ached and ached so that nearly she wept.’
Nowadays, it seems to be compulsory for every Scottish secondary school student to read 'Sunset Song' but it wasn’t always thus. I grew up in the 50s, the son of tenant farmers just down the road from the Mearns, but I never heard of it until I left home. The BBC TV production in the early 70s brought it out of obscurity into the centre of popular Scottish culture. (I watched one episode with my parents, both of whom were born before the first world war, and while they enjoyed it, they thought the sets were 'too clean’.) In 2005, it was voted the best Scottish novel of all time.
Lewis Grassic Gibbon was a pseudonym used by James Leslie Mitchell who was born in Echt in 1901 and grew up near Arbuthnott. After a brief foray with the Aberdeen Soviet and an unhappy time with the Scottish Farmer, he joined the Royal Air Force and travelled widely outwith Scotland. He became a prolific writer and though he died at the age of only 33, he had written 17 full-length books. His politics were of the Left but, while he was part of the Scots Renaissance of the time, he did not identify as a nationalist in the way that his friend and close collaborator, Hugh MacDiarmid, did. He wrote in 1932: 'For the cleansing of that horror [of the Glasgow slums], if cleanse it they could, I would welcome the English in suzerainty over Scotland till the end of time'. Such sentiments are of his time but they help explain why Grassic Gibbon was notably absent from any of the cultural propaganda before the 2014 referendum.
Terence Davies first encountered 'Sunset Song' through the serialisation on BBC TV. His struggle to get funding has taken 18 years and seems to have been arduous and draining. The production company is Hurricane Films but the major part of the funding has come from Luxembourg; the recent contributions from Creative Scotland and BBC Scotland are to be welcomed. The bulk of the filming took place in Luxembourg and New Zealand, which must have been good news for film technicians in these small countries. Two weeks of filming were done in Aberdeenshire. While Davies claims not to be part of the mainstream, he is a distinguished film-maker with an international reputation; it is hard to imagine how any less well-known film maker would have acquired funding in today’s circumstances.
The film has been shot in 65mm and that gives greater depth and clarity to the landscape; the film-makers wanted the landscape to feature as a character in its own right. The opening shot is of a wheatfield and the camera lingers over it before we see any human character; we are then drawn into a landscape that is sometimes beautiful, sometimes terrifying, sometimes bleak but never comforting. The camera cherishes the woods, the mountains, the blossom, the clouds and leaves us overawed by their grandeur. Working that land, however, was hard, relentless and dependent on the vagaries of the weather and while there was occasional relief in the companionship of others it could be no more than temporary. The film portrays a land that could never be conquered and might well enslave and destroy the people who worked on it.
The interior scenes are, on the other hand, inescapably claustrophobic and reflect the domestic reality of the time. Before the arrival of electricity, most houses were cold, dark and lit with oil lamps. Love was expressed as possession in this context; the tension of living with people whom you might love but from whom the only escape was through death or emigration is convincingly portrayed here.
Davis’s films, such as 'Distant Voices, Still Lives', are often more memorable for the scenes which represent a collective community consciousness rather than for the individual characters. That said, there are strong performances in this film from Agyness Deyn (Chris Guthrie) and Kevin Guthrie (Ewan Tavendale) as young people becoming adults with too many responsibilities too quickly. But the communal scenes, such as the church service or the threshing dinner, where the camera pans slowly and deliberately across the well-worn faces of the participants, are powerfully evocative. The most striking such scene is the wedding of Chris and Ewan; the stiff collars of the women guests bring a Rembrandt portrait to mind. Davis often draws on popular music and this scene ends with Chris singing 'The Flowers of the Forest'; the lament for the dead of Flodden is prescient of the war which was to engulf Kinraddie, and every other community in Europe, just a few months later.
At the end of the Scots Quair trilogy, Chris returns as a tenant farmer to Echt, where she had been born. There she would daydream about her childhood and the family members who had, by then, all gone. 'She’d open her eyes and see only the land, enduring, encompassing, the summer hills gurling in the summer heat, unceasing the wail of the peesies far off.’ There are, sadly, no peesies in the film, but there is a powerful sense of the land that has shaped so much of Chris’s story. However challenging and significant human struggles may be, they are, in contrast with the sheer presence of the land, fleeting and temporal. The world that Davis shows us is one where the land is indeed enduring and encompassing.