Being out in the countryside with my dogs gives me time to think. I’ve learnt the pleasure of solitude without being lonely, and that’s a good feeling for me.

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This is my countryside diary which appears each Saturday in the Dundee Courier newspaper.

Talking the Moon Into the Morning: Lewis Grassic Gibbon – The Scottish Banner

May 31st, 2013

JLM photo - Head & Shoulders - Ref 28 116 27THE NORTH-EAST of Scotland has been a creative cradle of artists, singers, poets, laying claim even to being the wellspring of Scotland’s national poet, Robert Burns, whose father farmed the croft of Clochnahill, near clifftop Dunnottar Castle, before seeking a new future in Ayrshire.

Writers, too, have drawn inspiration from an ancient landscape that encompasses heather clad mountains, remote hills and glens, red clay and rich brown earth, and an unforgiving coastline of sheer, rocky cliffs squalling with myriad seabirds.

The Mearns is the fertile agricultural seam between the Kincardine coast and the foothills of the Grampian Mountains, bounded on the south by the River North Esk and on the north by Stonehaven, where the great plain of Strathmore runs out.

Lewis Grassic Gibbon, pen-name of James Leslie Mitchell, was another son of a tenant crofter, born with a writing talent that might too easily never have been allowed to emerge or been suffocated in the village school he attended.

Growing up on the croft of Bloomfield not far from the village of Arbuthnott, in the Howe of the Mearns, it is clear from his writing that he was receptive to all going on around him, absorbing the sights and sounds of the countryside – “the crops and the earth in his bones”. More significantly he displayed an instinctive awareness of the characteristics of the ordinary folk he grew up amongst.

A rural school in the early years of the twentieth century could have been a barren place for the youngster showing such creative promise. The pressures of social distinction were very prevalent and the boy from the croft was expected to know his place. Physical endeavour and manual skills were better thought of than intellectual ability and there was opposition to anything that deflected a boy from learning what was perceived as a man’s work.

By good fortune the dominie, or headmaster, of Arbuthnott Primary School recognised his pupil’s ability and supported his mother’s quiet determination that her son should further his talent. Alexander Gray provided the understanding and support to discipline and refine young Leslie’s raw natural talent. The boy was fortunate, too, to be allowed the freedom of the minister’s library.

He confirmed their confidence by winning a scholarship to the local grammar school, Mackie Academy, in Stonehaven. For better or worse, after a public disagreement with the headmaster he walked out, ending his formal schooling.

It was perhaps natural that he should be attracted to journalism and, aged sixteen, he started work with the Aberdeen Journal, moving after several years to Glasgow to work on The Scottish Farmer.

Initially he did not succeed in his journalistic career. After periods of military service, first in the Royal Army Service Corps and then in the Royal Air Force, he began writing full time again in 1929. He followed his childhood sweetheart Rebecca (Rae) Middleton, who had grown up on the neighbouring croft of Hareden, to London and they married and settled in Welwyn Garden City where their two children were born.

Able to support his family from his writing, between 1929 and his death in 1935 at the tragically early age of 34, he produced a volume of work many writers never achieve in a lifetime twice as long as his own. Under his own name he wrote short stories, fiction and science fiction – a total of seventeen full-length books.

His best and most enduring work, which has outlived the others to become a Scottish classic, is the harshly authentic trilogy “A Scots Quair”, set in his native Mearns and regarded as a defining work of the 20th century Scottish Renaissance. Recognising that writing entirely in the Scottish vernacular restricted his readership even within a Scottish audience, he skilfully created a language which melded the rhythm of the Mearns “speak” with Standard English.

“You hated the land and the coarse speak of the folk and learning was brave and fine one day and the next you’d waken with peewits crying across the hills, deep and deep, crying in the heart of you and the smell of the earth in your face, almost you’d cry for that, the beauty of it and the sweetness of the Scottish land and skies.”

Leslie Mitchell wrote his Scottish novels under his mother’s maiden name of Grassic Gibbon. “Sunset Song”, “Cloud Howe” and “Grey Granite” portray the effects of the 1920s Depression in Scotland and the decline of traditional crofting life and the rural communities. He drew heavily for his characters on the country folk he grew up amongst and his characterisation, sometimes all too recognisable and personal, was resented in his home village to the extent that his mother complained to him that he had made the family “the talk of the Mearn.”

The Grassic Gibbon Centre, opened in Arbuthnott in 1991, is devoted to the author’s life and work. Run by volunteer Trustees on behalf of the Arbuthnott community it is a research resource and museum containing intimate and personal items from the author’s life such his dressing gown, overcoat, a shirt, writing materials and his spectacles and agricultural implements he would have been familiar with.

From the start the ethos of the Centre has been do-it-yourself – which they have done. The Friends of The Grassic Gibbon Centre was formed whose members include a joiner, photographer, writer, publisher, who have provided practical support and solutions whenever problems have been encountered.

A farmer provided dressed stone slabs and clay to make a burial cist to illustrate the short story “Clay”. A skeleton was required and two were offered in answer to an advertisement. The one from a university forensic anthropologist was chosen on the grounds of guaranteeing accuracy!

The Centre is a visitor centre run as a not-for-profit social enterprise and registered charity. Light meals are available cooked by local ladies who are country cooks using locally sourced ingredients where possible.

Lewis Grassic Gibbon died one week before his 35th birthday, an incalculable loss to Scottish literature, leaving outlines of further novels and an autobiography. His ashes are buried in a corner of nearby Arbuthnott Kirk on the banks of the Bervie Water.

Inscribed on the gravestone are the words – The Kindness of Friends, The Warmth of Toil, The Peace of Rest, reminding us of the lasting influence of his early environment and his admiration of the country folk who he understood so well.

As an etymological aside, ‘Quair is book, hence our quire of paper’ – Jamieson’s Etymological Dictionary of the Scottish Language, 1878. Probably from the French cahier – exercise book.
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Written on Friday, May 31st, 2013 at 10:04 pm for Claivers.