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  • Print publication year: 2018
  • Online publication date: May 2021

9 - Transformative Pastoral: Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s A Scots Quair


Lewis Grassic Gibbon described himself as ‘a revolutionary writer’, and his most famous work, the trilogy A Scots Quair, appears to be a story of the movement away from the hardship and isolation of a rural peasant life, which hindered collective action, towards urban modernity and the possibilities for organisation offered by the industrial city. However, the trilogy does not end with the young communist, Ewan Tavendale, leading a hunger march on London but with his mother, now Chris Ogilvie, returning to Cairndhu, the rural croft where she was born. The closing sentences of the third volume, Grey Granite (1934), are often taken to imply that Chris dies while sitting on the hillside above Cairndhu as night falls:

Lights had sprung up far in the hills, in little touns for a sunset minute while the folk tired and went off to their beds, miles away, thin peeks in the summer dark.

Time she went home herself.

But she still sat on as one by one the lights went out and the rain came beating the stones about her, and falling all that night while she still sat there, presently feeling no longer the touch of the rain or hearing the sound of the lapwings going by. (p. 496)

On this reading, the novel ends with a symbolic return to the land, which seems antithetical to Gibbon's self-proclaimed revolutionary intent. Left-wing critics, including Gibbon's writer peers James Barke and Hugh MacDiarmid, have persistently complained about what Ian A. Bell describes as the ‘lack of engagement with urban working-class lives’ in Grey Granite: ‘the collective experience of the workplace remains drastically under-recorded by the author, and the narrative concludes with an elegiac return to a rural environment’.

This chapter proposes a radically different reading of the text, which not only relates it to the complex concept of rural modernity identified by Kristin Bluemel as concerned simultaneously with both alienated and organic relationships to nature, but also considers it as belonging to at least three other genres besides socialist realism: modernism, pastoral and fantasy.