4. A Scots Quair and History
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47 CHAPTER FOUR A Scots Quair and History Timothy C. Baker Late in Grey Granite (1934), one of the Gowans strikers tells Ewan Tavendale that it is a ‘hell of a thing to be History’; as Ewan clarifies, this raises the possibility of being ‘not a student, a historian, a tinkling reformer, but LIVING HISTORY ONESELF, being it, making it, eyes for the eyeless, hands for the maimed!’1 Although critics have alternately argued that the historical elements in A Scots Quair simply establish ‘a setting for a struggle in the here and now’ or present ‘a straightforward Diffusionist account of history’ that the reader is meant to accept as ‘authoritative’, Gibbon’s approach to history is often far more nuanced.2 A Scots Quair (1932–34), the trilogy of novels which concludes with Grey Granite, can be read not simply as an account of both recent and ancient history but as, in Ewan’s words, living history itself: Gibbon not only highlights the relation of individuals and communities to various aspects of the past, but structures the trilogy in such a way that past and present are continually intermingled in order to present a view of history as lived experience. Gibbon focuses on the interrelation between history as record or text, as communal memory, and as individual experience in order continually to complicate the relation between multiple times and perspectives . In its focus on the tensions between history and experience, the Quair can be seen in relation to both Modernist and modern Scottish Renaissance ideas of history; its combination of a distrust of the artistic representation of history with a reliance on the same, however, remains almost unique. The prelude to Sunset Song (1932) suggests the complexity of Gibbon’s view of history. ‘The Unfurrowed Field’ opens with heightened diction, combining history and myth and depicting a Scotland where gryphons roam the countryside and children have their throats torn out by wolves. Familiar place-names and historical figures such as James Boswell are juxtaposed with more traditionally romantic elements. This blend of 48 myth and history is soon dispatched, however, and only a few pages later the prelude begins again in a slightly different voice: ‘So by the winter of nineteen eleven there were no more than nine bit places left the Kinraddie estate’.3 The mythic sweep of the initial section is replaced with a more focused presentation of the region and its people, just as the language transmutes from a pseudo-medieval tone to the more colloquial Scotsinflected second-person voice that Gibbon uses throughout the remainder of the novel. Myth and history remain inseparable from daily life, however; the sounds of birds and the memory of druid rituals equally inform the present. Blawearie, which will become the Guthries’ steading, is itself presented as ‘Out of the World’: although it is given a precise geographical location and a clear physical description, it is also described in relation to both local gossip and pre-historic tradition.4 The communal memories attached to a place shape it. After detailing the various steadings of Kinraddie, the prelude ends with an oft-noted reference to literary tradition: So that was Kinraddie that bleak winter of nineteen eleven and the new minister, him they chose early next year, he was to say it was the Scots countryside itself, fathered between a kailyard and a bonny brier bush in the lee of a house with green shutters. And what he meant by that you could guess at yourself if you’d a mind for puzzles and dirt, there wasn’t a house with green shutters in the whole of Kinraddie.5 The references here are to Ian Maclaren’s Beside the Bonnie Brier Bush (1894) and George Douglas Brown’s The House with the Green Shutters (1901), often held as opposed representations of Scottish rural life. While most critics have interpreted this passage as a statement of Gibbon’s intent to combine the kailyard sentiment of Maclaren with the more brutal naturalism of Douglas Brown, Gibbon also suggests the insufficiency of such an approach. Literary comparisons, as presented here by the unpopular Reverend Gibbon, are imposed from outside, and are always partial. The prelude thus introduces three possible approaches to a depiction of Scotland, whether through historical myth, communal memory and folklore, or literary sources, and suggests that none of them are independently sufficient to understand a place like Kinraddie. The prelude provides the language of the student, the historian, and perhaps the...