Some Pointers for Teaching Sunset Song at Higher English

Following on from the CLPL Event held at the Grassic Gibbon Centre on 16 May, I’ve extrapolated the following personal bits of advice, taken from ruminating from the tranquillity of retirement on my own teaching of Sunset Songover the years.

These are obviously just my own reflections, but I hope they may help you in your own teaching of the text.  They may make the teaching materials that I’ve posted on the same place as this on the Centre’s website appear more accessible and/or sensible!

The ideas aren’t bulleted in any order of priority:

  • SSis a high tariff text that presents difficulties for students of all abilities. [See Amazon quotes – which can be used with your students to flag up some of the past responses that the novel has elicited from students.]
  • Don’t do SSindiscriminately – choose your classes, be open with them about the demands of the text but of its rewards, not just for narrow SQA purposes. Flag up timeless themes that are current: female rights, mindfulness, the natural environment, anti-war protest. Take special care to emphasise the relevance of the book’s themes to their own lives: the generation gap, community values, choices with regard to language and culture (‘traditional v modern’/ ‘English v Scots Chris’), life choices (staying on at home v pursuing further education), importance of family, friends, love, fidelity, belonging…
  • Be aware of what you’re taking on, and make sure your class is ready for it. Examine your options. Othellois a high tariff text, but only relevant for the essay. Why not do SSrather than The Cone-Gatherers? Study of SSis likely to yield much greater rewards, especially as one by a ‘local’ author, and especially in its emotional appeal (comedy/pathos), and in the relevance and immediacy of its themes.
  • ‘Sell’ JLM/ LGG as a personality (via the Grassic Gibbon Centre?): local hero, world renown, fascinating life story (not your normal sedentary/ reclusive author)/ rags to riches success/ tragic premature death.
  • ‘Sell’ LGG as a writer – ‘Smeddum’ as a concise exemplar, or play Eileen McCallun reading ‘Smeddum’ or SSextract – ‘two Chrisses’/ tryst with Ewan/ funeral of father etc (see possible extracts in Lewis Grassic Gibbon: The Reader!).
  • Begin gently – give the book out before summer, with brief response sheet (a couple of possibilities are posted on the GGC website).
  • Tell students they can skip the first bit of the Prelude, beginning at the modern exposition, ‘So by the winter of 1911’; the Prelude will make more sense when you analyse the book’s structure, especially in comparison with the Epilude.
  • Broach the language issue early on: LGG’s ideal of multilingualism between English/ Scots/ Mixture can be compared with wee chunks from Beside the Bonnie Brier Bushand The House with the Green Shutters(as the twin poles cited by LGG in the Prelude), alongside a bit from Johnny Gibb of Gushetneuk, maybe a Walter Scott extract (Old Mortality? The Heart of Midlothian?), and maybe Blown Seed(as a modern LGG inspired narrative); I used to do a wee ‘Spot the Real LGG’ competition with 6 or so paragraphs, by adding in a choice sample of another LGG text (I used a story, I think ‘Clay’) and a Scottish-set bit of one of the Mitchell novels, The Thirteenth Disciple. Doesn’t matter really which smartypants manage to work out which bits are by JLM/LGG , but it’s a fun way of raising the fundamental principles of the whole Scots language question.    
  • Work on reinforcing the basics of the plot first after summer – work through something like the old Tyke Publications worksheets in the first couple of weeks, one chapter at a time (which allows recalcitrant students to catch up – sneaky!)
  • Analyse normal features of novel in turn:

plot (narrative structure – exposition/complication/climax/resolution)

structure (Prelude – Epilude comparison/ Song chapters build-up towards war etc)/  sermon analysis

realism of characterisation (major – Chris/ minor ‘upjumbled’, ambivalent traits)

setting of time (historical novel, end of peasantry/ advent of war/ capitalist economics)

themes divided up – personal/ social/ cultural/ political/ philosophical

  • Style needs to be dealt with very carefully: stress the political significance of LGG creating a verbalised narrative to give the impression of ordinary people having a voice (and therefore gaining political equality in the reader’s eyes), rather than the traditional educated narrator.
  • Review and use the materials already available to you, in addition to your own teaching skills: advice & materials of colleagues/ ES Scotland units/ The Grassic Gibbon Centre/ film & audio versions (BBC TV version is on YouTube, recent Terence Davies film is on Netflix)/ and there is scope for fun annotating the lyrics from Michael Marra’s superb song ‘Happed in Mist’ (very closely linked with the book), and with doing a matching exercise of Paul Anderson’s tracks for the HMT production of Sunset Song with the (mixed up) titles.  
  • Finally, don’t be scared of the novel’s richness. Students will need a lot of teacher input, but stick to analysis of the basic features, and feed in the add-ons as required – the history, the politics, the philosophy.
  • Give me a shout if you think I can be of any further help to you.
  • Happy teaching!

Bill Malcolm, Literary Director, The Grassic Gibbon Centre                                        9/6/19 


Dr William K Malcolm

Tel :  01340 871862

Mobile : 07780832883

Email :

Teaching Materials