ScotLit 21, Winter 1999 |
Readers who have loved the writings of James Leslie Mitchell (“Lewis Grassic Gibbon”) will be saddened to learn that recently the death occurred in a Grampian eventide home of the woman whose early life he had immortalised in a fictionalised biography, the trilogy of novels, A Scots Quair. Chris Guthrie has for more than sixty years been regarded as Gibbon’s greatest literary creation. It is a tribute to his artistry that few people ever penetrated behind the fictional surface to make a connection with the very real woman who was his true subject. Now that Chris’s long life has ended in her hundred and third year, it is appropriate that the real relationship between the “novels” and Chris’s life should be brought into the open.
The main outline of Chris Guthrie’s life up to the age of nearly forty is well known from the pages of Sunset Song, Cloud Howe and Grey Granite. While Gibbon’s creative imagination and his obsession with the theories of Diffusionism and Communism led him to take some liberties in creating characters out of real people for the purposes of his story, the main events are true. Chris did undergo a traumatic sequence of personal losses with the destruction and dispersal of her family and friends over the years between 1912 and 1918, mainly because of the First World War; and although she went on to make a longer and happier second marriage, the pattern of her life up to middle age was a troubled one. It is not surprising that, as Gibbon vividly describes, she raised protective mental and emotional barriers to shield herself from the external world.
Only a few people now alive know how Leslie Mitchell and Chris Guthrie first met and how their literary partnership developed. When Leslie Mitchell was a boy in Arbuthnott, he used to cycle all over the district looking at prehistoric remains and historical ruins. Chris remembered meeting him first one day as she went up to the Standing Stones above Blawearie, a serious youngster who lectured her rather solemnly about the people of ancient times and then went down with her to the farm kitchen for a glass of fresh milk and a newly-baked scone. That was in the early summer of 1914 when she was pregnant with young Ewan, just a month or so before the outbreak of the Great War. Their paths crossed once or twice again before Leslie went off to Mackie Academy for his brief sojourn there; by the time he went there, Chris’s husband Ewan had gone off to join the army and Chris was running the farm almost by herself. Whether Ewan and Leslie Mitchell ever met is not known. What is pretty clear is that Mitchell used a high degree of licence in his description of Ewan Tavendale’s degeneration as a result of his military training. Chris herself was very reticent about the relations between herself and Ewan prior to his embarkation for France with the 10th Battalion of the North Highlanders, but nothing she ever said suggested that she and Ewan were totally estranged as a result of his treatment of her. Mitchell, of course, had a philosophical point to make about the degenerative effects of human civilisation and is known to have often subordinated literal truth to the needs of his thesis.
It appears that Chris Guthrie and Leslie Mitchell met again on one or two occasions about 1930 and 1931 when she was living in Segget. By this time Mitchell was married, had come out of the RAF and was living in lodgings in London trying to make himself a success as a writer. He was already beginning to take on or initiate more projects than he could comfortably handle, and it was probably about this time that he developed the idea of writing a long chronicle of life in the North-East, coming out of his own childhood love-hate relationship with the land and his home district. The idea of building it around a woman protagonist came partly from his own wife Rebecca, or Ray, Middleton and, it is now clear, partly from the figure of the young farm housewife whom he had first met years before and then renewed acquaintance with when she was a minister’s wife in Segget. Chris used to recall that they had a number of conversations in the Manse, during which she reminisced about her years of growing up in Echt and Kinraddie and spoke about the different world she seemed to inhabit as a lady of the manse. Mitchell expressed interest in her as the subject for a biography disguised as fiction that would explore social change in that part of Scotland in the first three decades of the century, and, with her permission, began making copious notes from their talk.
Once again, however, events took a tragic turn. Chris’s husband, Robert Colquohoun, died in rather dramatic circumstances while preaching a sermon of a political nature, and Chris had to leave Segget with her teenage son Ewan. They were now in very reduced circumstances and had to move to the city of Duncairn, where Ewan, like his mother before him, had to give up for the moment his thoughts of higher education and begin working as a industrial apprentice. Chris bought a small share in a boarding house and it was here that Mitchell met her again to continue discussing the treatment of her life in fictional terms, which he had already begun as the novel Sunset Song. They only met once to agree the pattern of the project, a trilogy of works covering Chris’s life in the three locations of Kinraddie, Segget and Duncairn, and further communication was by letters between Duncairn and Welwyn Garden City, where Mitchell had recently settled with his family. Unfortunately, no trace of this correspondence survives. Mitchell clearly destroyed Chris’s letters once he had assimilated their contents, and Chris’s attitude to personal belongings was for most of her long life one of total indifference.
The Duncairn volume of the trilogy, Grey Granite,turned out to be the one covering the shortest time. Ewan’s progressive involvement in left-wing politics and Chris’s unwise and short-lived third marriage caused the separation between mother and son and Chris’s move back to the farm of her birth, Cairndhu in Echt, in the summer of 1934. Mitchell brought the biographical trilogy to an end with Chris’s return as a kind of symbolic withdrawal from the world and all emotional involvement. He actually wrote the final words sitting on the Barmekin Hill above Chris’s home, creating a symbolic death or union of Chris with the natural world around her while she sat on the top of the hill meditating as night fell. Chris’s memory of the occasion is more prosaic: “I found I was getting very wet, so I just got up and went home to bed.” One could speculate that Mitchell might have written more about Chris’s life, but by the next year, 1935, he was dead. So, as far as the world knew, the story of Chris was at an end; and certainly it makes a satisfying artistic unity.
However, real life is rarely so accommodating. People’s lives go on, often in a prolonged and inartistic anticlimax. As some in the North-East know, Chris lived for another sixty-five years until her recent peaceful passing away in the eventide home where she spent the last fifteen years of her life. From 1935 until the mid-1960’s she made a slender living from her Cairndhu croft, which was latterly supplemented by her old-age pension. When that eventually became uneconomic, she let out the croft land for grazing and continued to live in the croft-house until her ninetieth year, at which point a place was found for her in a home and the house at Cairndhu was sold as a holiday home to a family living in the South of England. Until she was well through her nineties, she was physically independent, but failing sight and progressive weakness at last confined her to a chair.
Although she remained detached from close friendships and involvements, she was not totally isolated. In the post-war years, she renewed contact with her younger brothers Dod and Alec and their families in different parts of Scotland, and a number of her nephews and nieces with their young families spent occasional holidays with her at Cairndhu. The big adventure of her later life occurred when she made a journey to Argentina to visit her great-nephew, Juan Guillermo Guthrie Vasquez, the grandson of her elder brother Will, at his estancia on the pampas. Tragically, Juan later became one of the victims of the Argentine junta and is classified among the “desaparecidos”, the missing opponents of the regime, during these years. Chris’s third husband, Ake Ogilvie, never contacted her again after he sailed as a ship’s carpenter to Canada in 1934, but Chris learned after the war that he had been lost with his ship torpedoed at sea on a North Atlantic convoy in 1942. The great tragedy of Chris’s life after the period of the biographies was, of course, the death in 1937 of her only son, Ewan Tavendale, fighting in Spain with the International Brigade against the Fascist armies of General Franco.
As Chris Guthrie (she resumed her maiden name after the Second World War) moved into old age, she acquired a little local notoriety from her occasional appearances on Grampian Television talking about life as it had been in the farming communities of her youth, and her broadcasts on similar themes on Radio Duncairn. Some people pressed her to write a book about her life and times, but she always refused, saying that it had already been done. Although she never went back to education in her mature years, she was a great reader when the work on her croft permitted. One of the subjects that interested her was history, particularly of ancient and prehistoric times. She used to say that she could have a rare argument with Leslie Mitchell if he had been spared, since she had come to disagree profoundly with the ideas that he used to uphold and spread in his books.
After a long time in which she was deeply pessimistic about the possibility of anything of any value surviving, probably because of the many losses and disappointments she had had to endure, she came towards the end of her life, without being in any way drawn to religion, to believe that there was some cause for hope, against all the odds. She believed that love and charity might make some slight difference to the possible level of human happiness, and it was in that spirit that she lived out her last years. Finally, however, it was her memories that were her closest companions, coming home to her down the long tunnels of the years. It was reported by the nurse who was with her at the end that her last words were, first “Mother”, and then a few seconds later, just before her final breath, “Rob.”
The above article is a fictional tribute to the literary creations of James Leslie Mitchell
Copyright © Alan MacGillivray 1999