I read Lewis Grassic Gibbon's A Scots Quair in the summer between high school and college. It is three books – Sunset Song, Cloud Howe and Grey Granite – but the trilogy was packaged in a paperback edition by Penguin so when I read it the first time I experienced it as one novel. The chunky paperback was given to me by a friend who had a knack for finding books that would matter to me (she gave me Jude the Obscure and On the Road that same year).
When I began Sunset Song, at first I couldn't understand it. The odd mix of north-east Scots and familiar English was at first impenetrable to my 13-year-old, American eyes. I complained to my friend who said it would make sense soon enough, and to try reading it out loud to hear the music of the thing (this is how she speaks, still). Thankfully, I listened to her and went back in and caterwauled through the first 50 or so pages. After a while I could hear it and understand enough that, even if I missed some of the particulars (what did I know of a bonny briar bush?), I got swept into the story of young Chris Guthrie and didn't step away until 700 pages later.
Her story is that of Scotland in the 20th century and with sentences that, at 13, were nothing short of thrilling to read, the novel traces love and loss, war and politics, family and anger and everything in between. And though it has majestic metaphors (for example in Cloud Howe there is a passage about how religion and politics, patriotism and love are all "clouds that swept through the Howe of the world, with men that took them for gods"), the novels have a great sense of humour. That flinty Scottish wit – which I experienced first in the books and later recognised when I studied there –flies off the pages in dark sparks. I re-read the trilogy when I was studying in Stirling and understood much more of the language, and I have read it again a few times since and each time it holds up and offers something new.
The intimacy with which Gibbon portrays the characters – and the exquisite depiction of the Mearns region around Stonehaven on the north-east coast of Scotland – is magnificent. But it's the experiment of fusing the singular vernacular of Scots with everyday English that creates the potent, earthy and vivid portrait of a rural working-class community that has the stylistic audacity and timelessness of Faulkner.
Bill Clegg's novel, 'Did You Ever Have a Family' (Jonathan Cape, £12.99) is longlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2015Reuse content