Grey Granite: Grassic Gibbon revisited

I wrote this piece in early 2020 pre-lockdown and never published it at the time. Please enjoy this B-side from the Flett-cetera discography.

Lewis Grassic Gibbon was the short-lived novelist most famous for his Scots Quair trilogy. Sunset Song, the first in the series is the most well-known and catalogues the decline of Scottish rural life, torn apart by the First World War through the eyes of its female protagonist Chris Guthrie. It is in Grey Granite, however, the final book, that the author makes his firm stand against the political cowardice he saw all about him during the Great Depression of the 1930s.

There is a tension at the heart of the novel between a romantic longing for a non-existent Golden Age, the desire to get on in life, to prosper in the moment and the iron will that sees beyond itself, to which the individual is naught but the agent of history. Britain is in crisis. Italy and Germany in the grip of fascism. Europe rearming for the next Great War. Duncairn is the setting for Gibbon’s final work – an imagined industrial city; not Aberdeen, not Dundee, not Edinburgh, not Glasgow but all and none at once. This synthetic city, like Hugh MacDiarmid’s Synthetic Scots, impresses on his characters new forms of consciousness, unimaginable in the croft or toun Manse. Removed from the land, Chris and her young son Ewan Tavendale must confront the wealth, and poverty, of nations as it is forged before their eyes.

Industry is touched upon in Cloud Howe, the trilogy’s middle book, in the form of the spinners of Segget, who work in the mill owned by the local laird and participate in the failed General Strike of 1926. Only in Grey Granite, however, do we encounter the proletariat or “keelies” up close, and it turns out that they are far from hospitable – coarse, prejudiced and unwelcoming of the “toff” Tavendale. He is more interested in the abstract questions of archaeology and ancient society than football and “queans”. After being badly assaulted up by his fellow apprentices, Ewan makes common cause with the unemployed underclass and the “Reds” marching on the City Hall. Frustrated with the leaders’ insistence on holding back as not to aggravate the police, their reasoning quickly becomes apparent to Ewan when they are forcibly beaten back; the bumbling provincial officer, “Feet” cracks his truncheon over those scrambling to get away.

This moment is the first of several political awakenings for Ewan in which he witnesses class struggle in its crudest form; he instinctively takes a side by drawing the protestors attention to the open doors of a deliver van full of glass bottles in order to even the odds. The reactions to the incident are nuanced but universally negative. From the Labour man’s condemnation of “senseless marching” to the press’s analysis of “paid agitators trained in Moscow”. Alongside the brutal upheaval of industrialisation in the Soviet Union and Britain’s interwar decline was the image of America projected on screens during cinema’s Golden Age. Chris goes to see one of these “talkies” with her landlady and employer, Ma. Where the latter is titillated by the glamour and sexual licence on display, Chris is bored and glad to leave.

Ewan’s experience at the protest shapes his political consciousness and he begins to bond with his fellow workers, attempting to understand their interests instead of remaining aloof. His efforts culminate in the formation of “The League” – a progressive youth movement with the goal of acting as an intermediary between the cowardice of Labour and the “lies” of the Communists. The group reaches its peak at a New Year dance Ewan organises with fellow English lodger and schoolteacher, Ellen. It is a beautiful moment, full of optimism about a native democratic tradition intermingled with courtship and communal feeling. For Ellen, and Ewan in this moment, socialism means the freedom to dance and be merry; it means warm beds, good drink and eating well.

Just as the League is getting established, Ewan faces a test of faith – the boom and bust economy of capitalism. The yard has new orders and work is returning to Duncairn, only the contract is for gas cylinders, ostensibly for military use. This time Ewan attempts to reach across parties and helps organise a strike.

The relentless reality of Grey Granite is the inability to convince all the workers to do what is in their best interest – to transfer that unbending resolve into a collective consciousness. With the picket destroyed and the strikers throwing the breakers in the dock, Ewan is arrested and badly beaten in a police cell. Here he has the most important revelation in what is the book’s turning point – that unless the working class can meet like with like regarding state violence, they cannot win power. This is the novel’s hard truth. It is by no means easily swallowed. Ewan’s conclusion, then, is revolutionary vanguardism:

I am all the broken bodies […] The van of the hordes of the Last of the Classes, the Ancient Lowly trampling the ways behind it unstayable […] No retreat; no safety, no escape for them, no reward […] first glory, first death, first life as it never yet had been lived.

Without a job, without the hope of personal fulfilment, comfort, stability, marriage with Ellen whom he cruelly rejects, even of revolution itself within his own lifetime, with “History our master not the servant we supposed”, with only “the glint of grey granite” in his eye, Ewan trudges on. “Yeasty sentiment and blah about Justice” is banished; the conflict, generations ongoing, distilled to that between Freedom and God – the former furthered through any and all means.

Grassic Gibbon ultimately paints a disturbing picture of a young imagination crushed under the boot of capitalism. We sympathise with Tavendale’s conclusions but do not share them. Somewhere between Chris’s apolitical sense of justice and mercy, Ellen’s pragmatic utopianism and Ewan’s disinterested Marxism we find the truth of A Scots Quair.


About alasdairflett

German & English Literature graduate. From Orkney. Interested in alternative and indie music, language, writing and politics.
This entry was posted in Review and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Grey Granite: Grassic Gibbon revisited

  1. Pingback: A bestiary of Buendias | Flett-cetera

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s