When Lewis Grassic Gibbon's novel, Sunset Song, was voted Scotland's favourite book in 2006, it was vindication for a popular classic that has continued to tap into the poetic souls of its readers ever since it first appeared in 1932. This first part of Grassic Gibbon's A Scots Quair trilogy is now required reading for anyone with a serious interest in Scottish literature.

On stage, too, what on one level is the rites of passage of Chris Guthrie, a young woman who comes of age in a north-east farming community, continues to enthral new generations of theatre-goers weaned on the novel.

Kenny Ireland's new production of Alastair Cording's adaptation opens this week at His Majesty's Theatre in Aberdeen prior to touring the country. This will be the third major production of Sunset Song since TAG theatre company first commissioned Cording in the early 1990s. Cording went on to adapt the other two parts of A Scots Quair, Cloud Howe and Grey Granite for a marathon all-day version of the trilogy at the Edinburgh International Festival. Today, with a slightly reworked version of the script aiming to accentuate the story's dramatic potential, Cording retains an emotional attachment to a work he has lived with for almost 20 years.

"It's a labour of love," he cheerfully admits. "Sunset Song is still extremely close to me, and has become part of my life. I could almost tell you which parts of the book to thumb-print, so clearly is it in my mind. When I was asked to look at it afresh, it seemed so very exciting again, and gave me a real charge to go back to it."

Cording was originally approached to adapt the book while working in the Scottish literature department of Glasgow University. "Working there gave me some kind of insight into the problems Scottish literature faced in those far-off days," he remembers. "But a long way down the road, my name was passed on to Tony Graham, who was then artistic director of TAG, as someone who would know the novel, and may want to adapt it.

"It ended up being the first serious thing I wrote for the theatre, and was hugely instructive. Adapting is a different art to writing. You have to approach it in an academic way as well as a creative way. With something like Sunset Song, though, we were on to a winner from the start."

Cording's version wasn't the first dramatisation of Sunset Song. In 1971, Bill Craig's television adaptation made by BBC Scotland caused considerable waves, and made a star of a young Vivien Heilbron. A decade later, Heilbron revived her role for somewhat belated versions of Cloud Howe and Grey Granite, again adapted by Craig. As with both the novels and stage versions, however, it was the Sunset Song that captured the imagination.

"Doing the whole trilogy was an absolute joy," Cording says today. "But doing it began to lead to a particular problem, and I stress it was a theatrical problem. As a stand-alone novel, Sunset Song moves at tremendous speed. So in the second version we did, we've hardly met Chris's second husband before the marriage banns are being read. Onstage, as a standalone, there's no chance to meet him properly, so we've put something into the opening sequence which I hope opens things out enough to make more sense of the end of the play."

The original TAG production of Sunset Song opened at The Tron in 1991, and itself became something of an ever-growing epic. It toured the country's village halls, ending up at the then newly-opened Grassic Gibbon Centre in Arbuthnott, Aberdeenshire. Graham's production featured a cast of eight with choreography by Andy Howitt and music by Billy and George Jackson of folk group Ossian.

By Mayfest 1993, Graham had scaled things up to play the main stage of Glasgow's Citizens' Theatre prior to taking all three plays to Edinburgh's Assembly Hall as the flagship of that year's festival drama programme. The Herald described the process as "like watching an infant grow into maturity".

It was an infant that kept on growing. Cording's adaptation of Sunset Song was revived in 2001, almost a decade after its premiere, by Prime Productions. Benjamin Twist's production may have scaled things down somewhat for its 50-date tour, but was still full of enough life and colour to sit alongside a welter of rural-set plays that had moved on to the Scottish stage in the decade between. This production, too, was revived a year later, with Dougie McLean's original songs moving into the territory previously occupied by the Jacksons.

Cording's script had been tweaked then as well, though never, one suspects, to his complete satisfaction. This time out, Cording has worked closely with Ireland to bring out the essence of its source material while giving full flight to its dramatic possibilities.

"Kenny and I talked about the play's previous productions and how we could redevelop the script to make it work better," says Cording. "Kenny brought in Paul Anderson, who's a brilliant fiddler, to do the music. There were a couple of things that weren't quite as theatrical as they could be, like when Chris meets Rob Duncan at the end of the first act. The two are clearly attracted to each other, and in early productions we concluded with a powerful song. This time we've collectively agreed that there was another way to approach that. We can keep it musical, but we need to try to get into the deeper thought processes that Chris is going through. That was difficult, but we unravelled all the strands, which allowed me to try and capture some of Grassic Gibbon's astounding imagery."

Crucial to any version of Sunset Song is the casting of Chris, a feisty force of nature and one of Scotand's great literary heroines. In the 1971 BBC version, Heilbron lit up the screen. The first stage production featured Pauline Knowles, while the Prime Productions revival a decade later starred Cora Bissett. This time out, Hannah Donaldson takes on the challenge. She has already proved her mettle on the professional stage after taking on the title role in the Tron Theatre's production of Antigone while still a student, and has since been part of Dundee Rep's Ensemble company.

"Hannah is a splendid young actress," Cording says. "She's physically right, and while she's still very young, she has vast depths of intelligence and control at her disposal."

There are other reasons why this production of Sunset Song should be regarded as a big deal. First up, it marks the return to the Scottish scene of Ireland, the former artistic director of Edinburgh's Royal Lyceum Theatre. Since then, Ireland has himself become something of a TV star, playing a swinging expat in comedy drama Benidorm. Ireland's most recent outing as a director was at the opening of the new Eden Court Theatre, overseeing the winner of the Highland Musical competition, The Sundowe.

More significantly, perhaps, is that, following the co-production with the National Theatre of Scotland of John Byrne's Tutti Frutti, Sunset Song will be the first standalone in-house production by His Majesty's outside of panto season for some considerable time. The infant that was Sunset Song in 1991, it seems, looks like it may have come of age.

Cording's look at Sunset Song was one of the earliest contemporary stagings of apparently unwieldy material on an epic scale in Scotland. Without it and Cording's version of Alasdair Gray's similarly huge novel, Lanark, which followed, any ambitions for producing home-grown work beyond repertory stages and studio spaces might have moved in a different direction. As it is, brand new works such as Black Watch can command audiences on a global scale without ever distilling their cultural roots.

"I see Sunset Song as an interesting companion piece to Black Watch," says Cording. "Because this is the other great story of Scottish experience."

Cording won't, alas, be able to be in Aberdeen for Sunset Song's opening night. As a jobbing actor as well as a writer, he'll be filming Walter's War, a new drama about the first mixed-race officer in the British army. Cording is also working on new pieces for Eastern Angles, an East Anglian-based theatre company with which he's forged a regular working relationship. One takes a look at historical re-enactment groups hired as film extras to give battle scenes extra authenticity. The other is based on the life of John Nicoll, the Scottish sailor who fell in love with a female convict while transporting a shipload of prisoners to Australia.

"Sailing to Australia then was like trying to get to the moon," says Cording, whose fearlessness of large-scale projects is not unlike such voyages into the unknown. "I'm happy to take on the big things."

Sunset Song, His Majesty's Theatre, Aberdeen, September 5-13, then touring.

Sunset song - a life 1901 Lewis Grassic Gibbon is born James Leslie Mitchell on February 13 in Arbuthnott, Aberdeenshire. 1932 Writes Sunset Song, the first part of his A Scots Quair trilogy. 1933 Cloud Howe. 1934 Grey Granite. 1935 Mitchell dies of peritonitus. 1971 Bill Craig's TV adaptation of Sunset Song is produced by BBC Scotland, starring Vivien Heilbron as Chris Guthrie. 1982/83 Heilbron revives her role as Chris in Craig's TV version of Cloud Howe and Grey Granite. 1991 Alastair Cording's stage adaptation of Sunset Song is produced by TAG Theatre at The Tron, Glasgow, with Pauline Knowles as Chris. It tours, finishing at the newly-opened Grassic Gibbon Centre in Arbuthnott. 1993 Sunset Song is revived by TAG at the Citizens' Theatre for Mayfest, then with Cloud Howe and Grey Granite, plays the Assembly Hall, as part of Edinburgh Festival. 2001 Prime Productions revive and tour Sunset Song, with Cora Bissett playing Chris. 2002 Prime Productions revive and tour production of Sunset Song. Bissett again plays Chris. 2008 Sunset Song opens in, Aberdeen. Kenny Ireland's production of Cording's revised version has Hannah Donaldson as Chris.