Introduction
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1 Introduction Scott Lyall The film release of the Terence Davies-directed Sunset Song marks perhaps the pinnacle of popular international recognition for Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s 1932 novel.1 In Scotland, Sunset Song has for long been identified as a classic. The novel was adapted for television by BBC Scotland in 1971 and has had several stage revivals, most notably by that in 1993 of the playwright Alastair Cording. A set text in many Scottish secondary schools, Sunset Song was voted Scotland’s favourite book in 2005.2 In some ways, though, this plaudit remains an enigma. Why would a novel about a young girl growing to maturity on a Kincardineshire farm in the early part of the twentieth century be more popular than, say, the cool urban edginess of Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting (1993), the childhood adventure romance of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island (1883) or Kidnapped (1886), or the mature emotional inscapes explored in the work of A. L. Kennedy? In a chapter discussing emigration in his influential Scottish Literature and the Scottish People, David Craig, writing in 1961 before the more recent popularity of Sunset Song, declares that ‘nostalgia pervades through and through Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s A Scots Quair’.3 Craig speculates that James Leslie Mitchell, ‘an émigré in London, writing just before his early death, is possessed by nostalgia for the countryside of his birth’, giving vent to this homesick longing in A Scots Quair, first published as a trilogy in 1946, comprising Sunset Song (1932), Cloud Howe (1933) and Grey Granite (1934), and written under the penname Lewis Grassic Gibbon.4 Craig argues that nostalgia ‘is given good grounds by some of the main actions’ in Sunset Song, such as ‘the break-up of the farm community which loses its men to the Great War, its woods to the timber profiteers’, but that in Cloud Howe nostalgia ‘swamps all firmness of feeling’ and that by Grey Granite, the concluding novel of the Quair, nostalgic emotionalism ‘is decidedly out of control’.5 It is significant that immediately prior to his 2 discussion of Gibbon, Craig focuses on J. M. Barrie’s A Window in Thrums. Barrie’s 1889 short-story cycle, centred on the fictional town of Thrums, is one of the chief exemplars of Kailyard fiction, a hugely popular latenineteenth century genre located in small-town Scotland before the spread of industrialisation eradicated cottage industries such as weaving. The Kailyard has been accused of sentimentalising small-town Scottish life, recreating a bygone age of idyllic rural communities during a period when Scotland was actually becoming steadily more heavily urbanised and industrial,6 and the manner in which Craig manages to combine A Window in Thrums and A Scots Quair under the rubric of emigrant nostalgia for a simpler, slower way of life may give the clue to the continuing contemporary popularity of Sunset Song. If so, this misses many of the points of what that nostalgia may be for: community in an atomised era of capitalist individualism; reconnection with a particularly traumatic period of Scottish history – the Great War – and the need to retell that trauma in order to make greater sense of it; and sheer peasant endurance and decency in the face of the greed and bullying of land-owners and other proprietors – something that Scots of all classes may, mistakenly or not, mythologise as a particular national virtue. Nostalgia per se, on these terms at any rate, is neither mawkish nor reactionary, and the importance of Sunset Song lies in its brilliant rendering for a wide readership of a period of acute historical liminality, a feature it shares in common with another immensely popular text of English regional life, Laurie Lee’s Cider with Rosie. Lee’s 1959 fictive memoir of his boyhood in a Cotswold village around the time of the First World War shows perhaps an even greater nostalgia than that of Sunset Song for a world where ‘the horse was king’ and the death of which spells ‘the end of a thousand years’ life’.7 For Lee’s narrator, the task is to reconnect readers to ‘the beliefs of generations who had been in this valley since the Stone Age’ and from which, in this emergent modern age of the machine, ‘continuous contact has at last been broken, the deeper caves sealed off for ever’.8 The comparison with Lee is valuable in another respect, however, in that both Lee and Gibbon were political radicals. But whereas...