Sunset Song the speak of Scotland

WHEN, on Saturday night, James Naughtie opened the sealed envelope containing the names of Scotland's three best books, a slow smile spread over his face before he read out the name of the winner.

Many Scots will share his reaction to the news that Lewis Grassic Gibbon's 1932 novel Sunset Song had been picked, at the end of a six-month campaign to find the best Scottish book of all time.

Willy Maley, the Glasgow University professor who organised the project, was effusive in his praise for it. Sunset Song, he said, "is not just one of Scotland's best books, but it's one of the world's".

Many of its readers may have first come across it in school, where it has been a set book for years as part of Gibbon's A Scots Quair trilogy, but that is often just a hindrance to a book's enduring popularity.

For some, the 1971 TV adaptation will have further sealed it in their affections; others might have come to it through the Canongate edition which, during the mid-1990s was the top-selling book for Booksource, the distribution arm of the Scottish Publishers Association.

More will come to it through the new Polygon edition to be published next year. Below, Professor Ian Campbell, who will be editing it, outlines why the Scottish Book Trust/Orange/List project has made the right choice.

Or has it? Is there any point in the exercise in the first place? Does it lead to a debate or is it just another example of a dumbed down culture unable to discuss any topic unless it has been reduced to a list?

If 1984 was claimed as one of the 100 best Scottish novels because it was written on Jura, cannot the English make a claim for Sunset Song on the basis that it was written in Welwyn Garden City?

Stuart Kelly is sceptical of this whole business of making lists and makes a powerful case against it. What's the point of a top ten, for example, which doesn't even have Robert Lewis Stevenson on it?

Which side of the debate you fall on doesn't just depend on whether you agree that Chris Guthrie is the strongest woman character ever written about by a male writer. It goes deeper than that. So now, over to you…

Elegy for the last of 'Old Scots Folk'

THE ghost of James Leslie Mitchell would permit itself a wry smile, no doubt, at the news that Sunset Song had been voted Scotland's favourite book, writes Ian Campbell. As Lewis Grassic Gibbon, he achieved an astonishing publication list in his brief life (1901-35), but his undoubted masterpiece was Sunset Song (1932), which drew heavily on his childhood in Arbuthnott in the Mearns.

His frank picture of country life provoked his mother to say that he had made the family "the speak of the Mearns", which hurt him deeply. Posterity has not agreed, however, with his work having inspired the Grassic Gibbon Centre in Arbuthnott within sight and sound of much of the origins of Sunset Song's characters.

The book's success has been partly driven by its intense readability - thanks to his deft and innovative blend of English and Scots. The action centres on Chris, recounting her life from childhood to becoming a mother just as her husband leaves for the First World War and death in France. Sunset Song recounts her thoughts and the gossip and sometimes downright spite that makes Kinraddie a believable early-20th century Scottish small farm. Gibbon grew up on a croft and had no illusions about life on the land, which he compared in his essays to slavery and dullness. Chris realises her fate is to stay as Kinraddie is torn apart by the forces of war in Europe.

Sunset Song sounds an elegiac note, never stronger than when the minister unveils the war memorial to "the last of the peasants, the last of the Old Scots Folk". Grassic Gibbon could easily have written on in this vein and with a young family, it would have been a temptation. But he had an agenda, and with Cloud Howe and Grey Granite (1933-4) he completes the story of Chris as she moves from country to town to city, as Scotland stumbles through the 1920s into the Depression and its horrors.

A committed Marxist, Gibbon sought a new and more just society, though he did not live to see the eruption of Fascism, as his sudden death in 1935 robbed Scotland of one of its brightest talents.

• Polygon is republishing the complete works of Mitchell/Gibbon. Sunset Song, then the trilogy, A Scots Quair, should appear in 2006.

• Ian Campbell is professor of Scottish and Victorian literature at the University of Edinburgh.

Why idea is 'fatally flawed'

OF THE making of lists, it seems there is no end, writes Stuart Kelly. The nation's favourite 100 films, paintings, cartoons, songs, Britons and advertising jingles regularly clog the weekend television schedules. Navely, perhaps, I thought literature might be above this tendency so admirably described by the novelist Don DeLillo as a form of cultural hysteria. Books should be savoured, re-read and treasured, not ranked and reduced to soundbites.

Of course, it was not to be.

Hot on the heels of the BBC's Big Read, we now have the "Greatest Scottish Book of All Time", as voted for by people who seem to think these parades matter.

It is, unsurprisingly, Lewis Grassic Gibbon's Sunset Song; a fine novel and a staple of school courses from Hoy to Hawick. And what does its elevation to superlative status tell us about contemporary Scottish literature?

Nothing whatsoever.

This farrago was flawed from the outset. Each author, for example, was represented by a single title. It was impossible to vote for Scott's The Heart of Midlothian, Buchan's Witch Wood or Stevenson's Kidnapped. The compilers decided to omit poetry and the short story, but include anthropology, psychology, history, evolutionary theory, philosophy and theology. A "100 Greatest Novels" might have neatly circumvented this mish-mash.

But having decided to include such material, the list placed those hardy few who cared in a peculiar dilemma: exactly how does one compare chalk and cheese? Is The Wealth of Nations a "better" book than The Wind in the Willows? And exactly what quality are we being asked to judge?

Its defenders will maintain that such lists "inspire debate", but if you can show me a single person who read all 100 titles before making their decision, I will scoff my trilby at the top of the Scott Monument.

There is one test I challenge the organisers to take. Publish the electronic point-of-sale figures for Sunset Song in a month's time and compare it to last month's. Then we will know exactly how many Scots were inspired by this reductive and bombastic affair.

• Stuart Kelly is the author of The Book of Lost Books(Viking, 15.99)

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