Lewis Grassic Gibbon (Leslie Mitchell)
Born James Leslie Mitchell in 1901 at Auchterless, Aberdeenshire. His father was an impoverished crofter, Danes Mitchell, and his mother, Lellias Grassic Gibbon. The young Mitchell boy was educated at StonehavenAcademy and he spent most of his childhood in Arbuthnott, a farming community in the Mearns. His family’s tie to the land was to create a love-hate relationship between this area and the writer. Mitchell was forced to leave school early, after arguments arose with the school authorities in MackieAcademy.
In 1917, still only 16 years old, he ran away from Stonehaven to Aberdeen and got a job as a reporter on a local paper. In Aberdeen he joined the trades council, which already had a strong left wing tradition. Like many other British cities in 1917, Aberdeen established its own soviet in solidarity with the Russian Revolution and its enthusiastic founder was young James Mitchell!
Shortly afterwards, he moved to Glasgow where he got a job on Farmers Weekly, where – rather in defiance of the subject of his main employment, he became aware of the depths of the problems of urban areas. He was sacked after a few months for fiddling his expenses so as to make donations to the British Socialist Party, one of the three organisations that merged to form the Communist Party in 1920. He was promptly blacklisted by the newspaper employers in the west of Scotland, and could not get a job anywhere as a journalist and turned to the armed forces for food and shelter, rather than for patriotism and attraction.
In her biography of Grassic Gibbon, long-time CPGB functionary, Betty Reid, suggests he may have only been a Communist Party member for a short time. As a BSP member, he is likely to have been a foundation member of the Communist Party but, as a soldier based abroad, it is unlikely that he would have been able, or even at that time encouraged, to hold a membership card. But, as a youth disgusted with the effects of war on his community, he does not in the least seem to have jettisoned his political affinities.
For nine years, from 1919 to 1928, he was a member of the Royal Army Service Corps. Although Mitchell hated life in the army, it did allow him to travel, in particular to the Middle East and Egypt, which fuelled his interest in ancient civilisations. A later interest was included ancient American history. His military experiences in the Middle East inspired his first short stories and much of his fiction and non-fiction.
He came out of the army in 1928 determined to devote his life to writing, and settled down with his wife Rhea in Welwyn Garden City, doing little else; a factor that appeared to have inhibited the Communist Party formation local to him from encouraging his reapplication for membership, although there is some evidence of him doing so twice in 1931 and a hint that he was suspected of Trotskyism by someone. Events over the next few years would make this a rather stupid approach. Few newspaper or magazine publishers would take his stuff, though one of his first published short stories was read and acclaimed by HG Wells. He had one novel published in 1928 and another in 1929.
From 1930 to 1934, eleven novels, two books of short stories, three anthropological books and an ‘Intelligent Man’s Guide to Albyn’ with Hugh MacDiarmid entitled Scottish Scene (1934), were published under the names Mitchell and Gibbon. McDiarmid and he were close friends and their book was essentially an attack on what was wrong with their country.
Many of his poems, with such self-explanatory titles as The Communards of Paris and On the murder of Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxembourg, spoke of his political commitment. One poem contains an unflattering profile of Ramsay MacDonald, denounced for splitting Labour and forming the National Government in 1931. He wrote for both the Left Review and the more mainstream Cornhill Magazine.
He published the historical novels Three Go Back (1932) and Spartacus (1933) under his own name. It was, however, with the output under the pseudonym of Grassic Gibbon, taken from his mother’s maiden name). that he has been remembered for. The three novels Sunset Song (1932), Cloud Howe (1933), and Grey Granite (1934), which form the trilogy A Scots Quair appeared under his pseudonym. His other novels are written mainly in plain English but the trilogy is in the vernacular of the common people of Aberdeenshire. (The word `quair’ is derived from the word quire, a measurement of paper, thus it is a literary work of some length.) A thinly-disguised autobiographical character is re-cast as a female protagonist, Chris Guthrie, who run through the trilogy. Chris’s son, Euan, becomes a Communist but goes about his relations with others with off-putting sectarianism, which is rather criticised, albeit with love, by his girlfriend Ellen, and his mother.
Extraordinarily, he wrote highly successful science fiction, Three go back and Gay Hunter) about societies seeking to find the way to make human beings free once again. Unquestionably, Grassic Gibbon would have gone on to become a key part of the left writers’ revival of the anti-fascist 1930s. During 1934, he may have attended open meetings of the Communist Party in Welwyn, although commentators have played tug-of-war with whether he was or was not still linked to the Party as such. His widow recalled canvassing for the ILP in the 1931 election but then, big sections of the LIP was by then secret members of the CP and were to come over. Whatever the case, he was beset with ill health, even before a perforated ulcer and peritonitis cut his life short in February 1935. His final novel, The Speak of the Mearns, was unpublished at the time of his death. Outlines of many other books, from novels to an autobiography were left.