Lewis Grassic Gibbon

(James Leslie Mitchell)


How I discovered the connection  

In the autumn of 1971 I travelled from Glasgow, where I was a geophysics PhD student, to Aberdeenshire to visit my paternal grandmother in Torphins. We watched on TV the first episode of a new BBC dramatisation of Sunset Song, a book that I had never heard of. As the credits rolled, Granny said You know Leslie Mitchell was a great friend of your grandfather's. I replied in ignorance Who's Leslie Mitchell?

I watched the rest of the serialisation back in Glasgow, and read the first two books of the trilogy A Scots Quair. Of course I was entranced by the language, people, and characterisation, having spent many happy summers as a child being sent away from Clydebank to holiday in Aberdeenshire with my grandparents. I loved the way that my grandparents could switch between the Doric dialect and 'proper English' as appropriate, and quite unselfconsciously.

The dedication to Jean Baxter in Sunset Song rang a bell, as I vaguely knew that she was some sort of relative.

The facts

Jean Baxter, the dedicatee of Sunset Song, was my grandfather James's younger sister. Their parents were:

    George Henderson SMYTH b. 13 Oct 1854, Aberdeen
    Martha Lawrence MCDONALD b. 1849
    Married 30 Jun 1876, Aberdeen

Their children were:

    Francis William SMYTH and Amy SMYTH b. 26 Jan 1879, Aboyne
    James Hugh SMYTHE b. 7 Oct 1882, Aboyne
    Jane Logan Rose (Jean) SMYTH b. 22 Jan 1886, Aboyne

Jean Smyth became Jean Baxter on her marriage to Harold Baxter. They had two sons, Ian (born 1919) and Malcolm (born 1922), and she died in Wokingham, Berkshire on 23 May 1968.

Francis Smyth died in Adelaide, Australia in 1958. His twin sister Amy had died young, in 1911.

Note that it was James Smythe who first appended an extra 'e' to the family name Smyth. This fancier version 'Smythe' is often the butt of jokes, since that surname is often associated in the UK with a certain type of English (not Scottish) snob.

Jean Baxter had moved to the south of England, where she presumably met Leslie Mitchell. I also presume that James Smythe was introduced to Leslie Mitchell through Jean, his younger sister. At any rate, both my grandmother and my Uncle Murray recall that Leslie Mitchell visited them periodically. This would be the period 1928-35, when my grandparents farmed at Barrowsgate, Drumoak.

There may be an independent connection between the Smyth(e) family and Mitchell, through Mitchell's schoolmaster Sandy Gray. The schoolmaster moved from a position at Arbuthnott, where he had taught the young Leslie, to Echt.

Characterisation from real life in Sunset Song

Mitchell's biographer Munro (ref) writes of Chris Guthrie:

    Apart from her immediate origins many have wondered on the source of Chris. Those who imagined the author to be a woman were paying tribute to the intuitive understanding of genius. For although all the Grassic Gibbon characters are grounded on reality, and based on experience and observation, creative instinct and poetic insight are of paramount importance. Naturally and inevitably, Mitchell used knowledge acquired and derived from others. A part of Chris comes from his wife, a part from his mother, a part from Jean Baxter, who was an intimate friend and an influence in the development of his writing. Unconscious race memory is always present, but beyond everything else Chris is Leslie Mitchell himself. A character of this stature springs only from profound personal sympathy. Chris is the creature of Grassic Gibbon, she is his voice, and also the voice of the Scottish earth.

Both Jean Baxter and her elder brother James Smythe wrote and published verse in the Doric vernacular. Jean's work was collected in 1928 in A' Ae 'Oo . This title ('All one wool') refers to an imaginary interchange between two farmers, ingeniously written in authentic Doric, using only the five vowels.

Jean and some of the other Baxters are commemorated on the Smythe family cross in Echt kirkyard.

Grassic Gibbon's portrait of Chae Strachan, one of the minor characters, begins thus:

    Chae Strachan ... would start to tell of the terrible smells he'd smelt when he was abroad. For he'd been a fell wandering billy, Chae, in the days before he came back to Scotland and was fee'd his last fee at Netherhill. He'd been in Alaska, looking for gold there, but damn the bit of gold he'd seen, so he'd farmed in California till he was so scunnered of fruit he'd never look an orange or a pear in the face again, not even in a tin. And then he'd gone on to South Africa ...

Given the obvious biographical similarities with my grandfather, the character of Chae (?James) Strachan (?Smythe) may have been drawn, at least in part, on the real James Smythe . Other aspects of James's character - independent, anti-religion, pro-education, left-wing, and profoundly disillusioned by the War - he shared with the fictional Chae Strachan, although many of these characteristics would have been commonplace in working men of the region in the 1920s and 30s. James's experiences of the horrors of trench warfare in the Great War may also have given Leslie Mitchell some of the background information for the development of  Ewan Tavendale, although such memories, even from a north-east peasant farming perspective, would again have been common.

Biographies of J Leslie Mitchell

Munro, Ian S., 1966. Leslie Mitchell: Lewis Grassic Gibbon, Oliver & Boyd, Edinburgh, 224 pp.

See also:

Young, Douglas F., 1973. Beyond the sunset. A study of James Leslie Mitchell (Lewis Grassic Gibbon). Impulse, Aberdeen, 162 pp.

Malcolm, William R. 1984. A blasphemer & reformer. A study of James Leslie Mitchell / Lewis Grassic Gibbon. Aberdeen University Press, Aberdeen, 212 pp.

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