Aidan Smith: Sunset Song reawakens memories of Mearns

Agyness Deyn as Chris Guthrie in a scene from Terence Davies' film Sunset Song which hits the cinema screens on Friday. Picture: Contributed
Agyness Deyn as Chris Guthrie in a scene from Terence Davies' film Sunset Song which hits the cinema screens on Friday. Picture: Contributed
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THE ARRIVAL in cinemas of the film version of Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s classic Scots novel is thrilling Aidan Smith

We were convinced we’d hate it. The drive was going to take forever. It was all right for Dad, flashing his headlights at other Saabs to demonstrate he was a car-owner of taste and discernment and re-loading the hippy musical Hair! into the eight-track while smoking his Mahawat Regaliz liquorice-paper cigarettes. Two of we four kids had to face backwards, which caused sickness and a deeper longing for the comforts of home fast disappearing out of view. And what about those road bridges? We could see the sea between the struts of the one across the Forth. Were they even safe?

Four junior urban sophisticates – or so they thought – were spending their first summer in a cottage in the Mearns, purchased for £300 long before George Osborne’s Autumn Statement spearing second home owners. The first day it rained in Johnshaven, just north of Montrose, which didn’t seem to do the fishing village any favours. The first person we saw was a young woman with an old face, stomping along the seafront with a radio pressed to her ear. This, we would discover, was Alexina and we would see her every day after that: always stomping, always with her trannie, always slightly terrifying.

It would be an exaggeration to say that every day in Johnshaven for the next ten summers was sun-dappled, but we quickly grew to love it and it’s still my favourite place on earth. We caught podleys from the harbour wall and left them in a shed until they stank it out. We tattie-howked and berry-picked and with our wages bought Summer Specials and soor plooms. We flushed the loo in the cottage and ran down to the beach to stand over the sewage pipe, hoping to declare triumphantly: “That one’s mine.” Sheltered, middle-class kids in Edinburgh, we went feral in the Mearns, only returning when hunger got the better of us and there wasn’t a nearby pea field to raid.

There was a local football team with the loveliest name, lovelier even than Heart of Midlothian and Queen of the South, and we followed Johnshaven Dauntless all over. A cup-tie in Auchenblae still ranks as one of the most thrilling matches I’ve ever seen, not least because two members of the opposition wore white boots and we still won.

White boots in Auchenblae circa 1970? That must be like models-turned-actresses in Fettercairn round about now. Well, Fettercairn recently had one visit – Agyness Deyn, star of Sunset Song. The film of the book opens on Friday and everyone who lives in the Mearns, and those who wish they did, will be keen to see what cinema has done to Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s tale, regarded as Scotland’s greatest novel.

It’s Fettercairn that gets the scene where Chris Guthrie, the heroine, commences the courtship with the man she’ll marry and wave off to the Great War. This is a rare tender moment in the movie, and one with rare humour too, as a flock of hooligan sheep bump and barge down Main Street to try and steal the scene.

I can well understand the sheep’s excitement. When BBC Scotland announced they were bringing Sunset Song to the small screen, it was the talk of Johnshaven – in the general store, the Anchor Hotel, William McBay’s lobster factory and anywhere that McBays gathered (the village had lots of them). But would the film crew, having concentrated on farm locations to represent the fictitious Kinraddie, make it down as far as our spot by the North Sea? Oh yes they would …

What a day that was. Well, for my two sisters anyway. They got picked to dress up in Victorian garb and hitch a ride on the back of a horse-drawn potato cart – and my brother and I didn’t. That was probably fair: Sunset Song is a woman’s story. And we could all enjoy the series, broadcast in 1971. Here were the spires and gable-ends we cycled past every day with very little of the village requiring period alteration or removal, although obviously Alexina’s radio was kept well out of shot.

But the most striking thing about the Mearns isn’t anything man-made: it’s the rich red soil. This escaped my short-trousered observations until my father pointed it out, then re-enforced with the landscape in heavy oils he’d acquired by the Catterline-based Joan Eardley.

The producers of the series clearly understood the soil’s importance: it’s the very first shot. And I could have sworn that the colour of all 1970s TV – The Two Ronnies’ suits, cars trying to breach picket lines, the jerkins of the strikers, everything – was beige.

Sadly there’s less of the Mearns in the movie as much of the location filming, for reasons of tax breaks and a requirement for spring conditions in February, was completed in New Zealand. But Sunset Song remains a moving hymn. It’s about the power of education, the pointlessness of war, the pull of the land and, above all, Chris Guthrie. “Do you want to see him before he’s screwed down?” she’s asked regarding her just-deceased tyrant of a father. Flouting convention, she declines. Then when offered male assistance to begin the next phase of the toughest of lives, she says: “I’ll transact my own business fine.”

I liked the film fine. And the Presbyterian in me is quietly thrilled that come Friday, as a dull romcom is perhaps playing out on one side of it and a low-brow bullet-fest on the other, someone will mention Stonehaven, closely followed by someone else mentioning Laurencekirk, and then the golden moment – “Ach, I’ll hae tae gang tae ’Bervie.”

I haven’t yet ganged tae Johnshaven permanently, but every day the painting reminds me of the red, red earth and there’s time yet.