Lewis Grassic Gibbon

A poor boy from a farm in Kincardineshire in north-east Scotland, Gibbon (whose real name wasjames Leslie Mitchell, 1901-1935), described by one ofhis biographers as the archetypal ‘Lad o’ pairts’, became a convinced socialist during the Russian revolution as a reporter in Glasgow.’" The hero ofhis famous novel Spartacus (1933) espouses identifiably Leninist principles"2 (Figure 11.4). After serving in the Royal Flying Corps, he embarked on a writing career, with the considerable input ofhis wife Rebecca, who also came from a poor Scottish rural background. She sat in the British Museum ‘sifting through the main classical sources of the writings of Appian, Plutarch and Sallust’.1” The novel draws extensively on Plutarch’s Life of Crassus and uses specialist terminology relating to the Roman army, but there is also an unexpected engagement with Hesiod’s myth of the Golden Age and the decline of the human race with the coming of technology.114

Gibbon’s Spartacus does not draw explicit comparisons with British life in the early 1930s. But the consistent use of the term ‘the Masters’ to allude to the Romans would have made it impossible in the 1930s for readers not to draw their own transhistorical parallels. A leading character is Kleon, a maimed Greek slaveintellectual who plans that the revolt will produce a new utopian republic with

Lewis Grassic Gibbon (1901—1935) reproduced by courtesy ofArbuthnott Community Council

FIGURE 11.4 Lewis Grassic Gibbon (1901—1935) reproduced by courtesy ofArbuthnott Community Council.

its own constitution, the Lex Servorum, ‘Slave Law’. He is reading Plato on the inarch and becomes chief advisor to Spartacus.115 The slaves are international— Gauls and Germans, as well as Thracians, Greeks and Jews. Gibbon describes a scene of snowfall in Italy, to which men from different parts of the world, and accustomed to other climates, react quite differently: ‘The Negroes thought it salt and licked their hands ... The Gaul and Teutone legions ceased their shivering ... they pelted the Eastern and African slaves ... the Northern men ... were remembering the long winter nights by the Baltic’.116 Kleon describes how Spartacus grows in stature from ‘a wild, brooding slave who sought no better future than freedom in a Thracian forest to a General, a statesman’.117 Spartacus becomes a proto-socialist leader, who draws on the help of his philosopher colleague in their doomed attempt to win the war against their exploitative masters.

The continuing availability of enlightened humanistic education underlay the respect for the ancient world and its languages displayed by Gibbon’s admirers, who included the Gaelic poet Sorley MacLean (the son of a tailor on the Isle of Skye and profoundly affected by classical literature in his early 20s118) and the controversial Marxist giant of Scottish poetry, Hugh MacDiarmid (i.e. Christopher Murray Grieve, 1892-1978). MacDiarmid, a postman’s son, benefit-ted from a first-rate education at Langholm Academy in Dumfriesshire, the local library which was in the same building where he was brought up, and his teacher training in Edinburgh.119 Despite his belief that Gaelic and Welsh poets needed to penetrate beyond the European Renaissance and ‘undo that deplorable whitewashing whereby Greek and Latin culture has prevented other European nations realizing their national genius in the way Greece and Rome themselves did’,120 his prolific socialist poetry is drenched with classical allusions and quotations in both Greek and Latin, all of which deserve further research.

The historiography of Scotland is hampered by fragmentation and proliferation of religious and political identities, nationalism and ‘cultural sub-nationalism’,121 the turbulence of the 18th century, when the political class in Scotland split into factions under pressure from their English rulers, intent on ‘bridling a troublesome, vexatious and unreliable neighbour’.122 It is further complicated by the Victorian manufacture of an imagined past Highland community, the levels of emigration (far higher than from England or Wales) and the unparalleled contribution made by Scots to the administration of the British Empire.123 In a Scottish national history that can be bewildering, the longstanding reputation for good working-class education is one of the few relatively stable factors and one which helps to explain how Scotland seems to have punched above its weight in British history proportionately to the size of its population. The contribution to the public understanding of classical antiquity and its political instrumentalisation made by the individuals in this chapter, by brain, pen and printing press, is incalculable. Besides the Aberdeen graduates and Carlyle, who studied at Edinburgh University, all were self-made lads o’ pairts who, despite ending their formal education in their early or mid-teens, were inspired by the Greeks and Romans and handled them in the public arena confidently and competently.

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