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Dunnotar Castle: Settings for a Scene in "Sunset Song"
Dunnotar Castle: Settings for a Scene in "Sunset Song"

Lewis Grassic Gibbon lived from 13 February 1901 to 7 February 1935. Born James Leslie Mitchell, he was a Scottish writer whose book Sunset Song, is widely regarded to have been one of the best Scottish books of the 20th Century. The wider picture in Scotland at the time is set out in our Historical Timeline.

Lewis Grassic Gibbon Centre in Arbuthnott
Lewis Grassic Gibbon Centre
in Arbuthnott

James Leslie Mitchell was born in 1901 in Auchterless in Aberdeenshire. As a child his family moved to Arbuthnott in the Howe of the Mearns, Kincardineshire, inland from the coast at Inverbervie. His talent was recognised early by a schoolmaster, but after leaving school at 16, Mitchell's first attempts to make a living as a journalist, writing for the Aberdeen Journal and the Scottish Farmer were far from successful.

In 1919, Mitchell joined the Royal Army Service Corps and served in Persia, India and Egypt before enlisting in the Royal Air Force in 1920. Here he worked as a clerk and spent a further period in the Middle East. In 1925 he married Rebecca Middleton, a former neighbour and schoolfriend at Arbuthnott, and they settled together in Hertfordshire in Southern England.

Mitchell began writing full time in 1929. He produced a steady output of journalistic and critical material as J. Leslie Mitchell but increasingly also used the pen name of Lewis Grassic Gibbon derived from his mother's maiden name, for his major works. It is under his pen name that Mitchell is best known, and Lewis Grassic Gibbon produced 17 full length books between 1928 and 1934. Best known of these was Sunset Song, published in 1932. Together with Cloud Howe (1933) and Grey Granite (1934) it formed his famous Scottish Quair trilogy, a gritty account of one woman's life in the Mearns before and after the First World War. Gibbon also produced two books that can be classified as science fiction, a book inspired by his travels in the Middle East, a biography of Mungo Park, and a variety of other work. In 1934 he published a book written in collaboration with the poet Hugh MacDiarmid: Scottish Scene.

Lewis Grassic Gibbon died of peritonitis brought on by a perforated ulcer at the beginning of 1935. He was on the brink of literary success at the time, as his work was being read and appreciated by a growing audience following publication in the USA. Sunset Song has since been turned into a TV series and a film, and adapted for the stage. Given how much he produced in the time available to him, it is sad to consider how much more was lost as a result of his early death.

In 1992 the Lewis Grassic Gibbon Centre opened in Arbuthnott, where Mitchell was brought up. This commemorates his life and celebrates his work.

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