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Hammer and thistle

(October 1993)

From Socialist Review, No. 168, October 1993.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

A Scots Quair
by Lewis Grassic Gibbon
Adapted by Alastair Cording

The Glasgow based TAG theatre company has brought Grassic Gibbon’s trilogy of books to life.

Sunset Song, Cloud Howe and Grey Granite – collectively known as A Scots Quair – are the story of a dying culture and the birth of a new one. Through the eyes of the heroine, Chris Guthrie, we see the destruction of the old Scottish peasantry accelerated by the First World War, and the encroachment of a brutal system of exploitation which leads to the open class warfare of the 1920s and 1930s.

This staging is one of the most exciting and political of recent years, bringing to mind some of the best agitprop theatre of the 1960s and 1970s.

The closed and narrow community of Kinraddie is centred on a land which has remained unchanged for generations, but which finds the outside world encroaching on it dramatically. In Sunset Song young men go off to the war, some – like Chris’s young husband Ewan – never to return. The landscape itself is destroyed when the trees are felled for the war industry.

The upheavals and class polarisation of the interwar years are central to Chris’s story. She marries an idealistic Church of Scotland minister, whose aim is to eliminate poverty in the mill town of Segget where he preaches. The failure of Labour Party reforms, the betrayal of the 1926 General Strike and the bitter fruits of that betrayal for workers in the late 1920s are all shown as contributing to Robert Colquohoun’s despair.

When a rat kills the baby of an evicted couple, he is stirred to protest at the failure of the churches and the need for revolution, but dies after giving his sermon.

In Grey Granite Chris and her now grown up son Ewan move to the city, where Chris struggles to run a boarding house and Ewan leads a strike in the steelworks, is beaten by the police and becomes a Communist. The trilogy ends with Ewan leading a hunger march to London and Chris returning to her original ruined home to end her life.

But the bare bones of the plot in no way do justice either to the books or to the plays. Perhaps the most remarkable feature of the books is their use of language. Grassic Gibbon uses the Scots dialect to convey his image of a community in the Howe of the Mearns, in the east of Scotland. At first, many of the words are incomprehensible (at least to an English reader), but Grassic Gibbon in a preface asks the reader to bear with him, and to imagine a situation if the Dutch language disappeared and the writer had to write about Dutch life in German. He would include all sorts of words and dialect which are incomprehensible to a German speaker, but the meaning would become clear.

So it is with Sunset Song. And as Chris’s story progresses and she leaves her childhood home, the language becomes more anglicised. By the time we reach the city in Grey Granite, much of the dialect has disappeared under the impact of the radio, cinema and other mass media. In place of the lyrical feel to the language of the earlier books, there is a feeling of brittleness and shattering, as the stable world collapses and Chris and Ewan’s lives diverge.

A theatre production which reproduced these stories literally could have produced a nostalgic chunk of Scottish heritage.

But this production is as political as you could wish for. It has opponents of the war imprisoned as conscientious objectors, marchers singing the Red Flag and the Internationale, strikers fighting with scabs and police.

More than that, it conveys – through music, imaginative staging and very good acting – people grappling with a changing world and new ideas, and, in the case of Chris, with the oppression of being a woman: domestic drudgery, sexual pressure from her father, the pain of childbirth, her loveless final marriage.

Yet Chris is also portrayed as a woman with strong sexual feelings and social independence.

Perhaps best about these plays is their sense of political commitment. Obviously the novels lose something in being staged, but, as Gibbon’s daughter has said, ‘a much more significant loss threatens the Quair as its revolutionary spark is snuffed out beneath the weight of academia, school syllabuses, the heritage industry.’

The plays are in the tradition of Gibbon himself – subversive and revolutionary. Whether you have read the books or not, try to see them. They are a thrilling theatrical experience.

A Scots Quair tours Scotland, including Fife, Dundee, Aberdeen and Glasgow, during October and November

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Last updated: 25 February 2017