James Leslie Mitchell is best remembered for the trilogy A Scots
Quair, written under the pen-name of Lewis Grassic Gibbon. These
deeply symbolic works, Sunset Song, Cloud Howe and Grey Granite,
took an innovative and evocative look at the land and the upheaval
of the country way of life.
More About Lewis Grassic Gibbon. It is worthwhile using Lewis Grassic Gibbon's real name, since he did first make his mark as Mitchell. He was a creative prodigy - and he had to be a prodigy, because he didn't have a lot of time to get things done.
Mitchell was born in Aberdeenshire in 1901. In 1917, in Glasgow, he got a start in journalism, with a minor job on the Scottish Farmer. That ended up in total disgrace when he was sacked for fiddling his expenses by three shillings. Life is strange. If the paper had kept him on, he might have ended up as a nice respectable reporter covering cattle shows
and sheepdog trials, and the world would have been deprived of a great talent.
Instead, he was out in the world. He had an insatiable hunger for knowledge: he read, he talked, he listened, he watched. In 1918 he joined the army and served in the Middle East. In the late 1920s he began to write short stories, and in 1930 published his first novel,
Stained Glass. His 1933 novel, Spartacus, about the great slave revolt in ancient Italy, was a tremendous story. The theme was taken up nearly 20 years later by the American novelist Howard Fast, but Mitchell's book is still the greatest. One critic, looking for a description to match its quality, wrote that it was 'carved from the living rock'. True.
The year before Spartacus, Mitchell launched a new series of books under the pen name of Lewis Grassic Gibbon, and it is for A Scots Quair that he is best remembered. The word quair has various meanings: 24 or 25 sheets of paper, four sheets folded over to make
16 pages, or a substantial collection of poems or other work. Gibbon's was certainly substantial. It was a three-volume novel about indomitable lassie in the north of Scotland, Chris Guthrie, and her loves, hates and unbeatable talent for survival. It is one of the great Scottish novels this century. All of the books have been adapted for television, and they
made hypnotic viewing.
A stay in Mexico led to a book published in 1934, The Conquest of the Mayas, which became the standard work on the death of a brilliant civilisation. Scottish writers have had a wierd passion for finding other names to hide behind. Mitchell had no reason for hiding. But maybe he had two names because he was the kind of writer was constantly working on several things at once, and he needed to distinguish his different personas hour to hour.
All that work was done in a frenzy of haste, maybe because Mitchell did not have a lot of time. When he died in 1935, he was only 34. He had put more into those brief years than most people put into threescore and ten.