Son of author Lewis Grassic Gibbon

Born: March 16 1934;

Died: June 10 2019

Daryll Allan Leslie Mitchell, who has died aged 85, was the only son of the outstanding Scottish novelist James Leslie Mitchell who published his most famous work under the pen name of Lewis Grassic Gibbon and signals the end of an era with loss of the last close family tie with his illustrious father.

Daryll, known to his friends as Dal, was born less than a year before his father’s tragically early death from peritonitis on February 7 1935, not yet 34 years of age, following an emergency operation for a perforated gastric ulcer carried out at Queen Victoria Hospital in Welwyn – a blow that resonated in literary circles throughout Scotland, Britain and America. The most profound impact, however, was personal. Rebecca (Ray) Mitchell (née Middleton) devoted the rest of her life to the mission to keep her husband’s name alive and to the unrelenting battle she had to fight as a single parent to bring up their children in the harsh social climate of the 1930s on through the Second World War.

Subsequently, neither Daryll nor his elder sister Rhea (1931-2014) had any substantive memories of their father. In addition, detachment from the world that had shaped their parents’ lives and that had inspired their father’s most enduring writing before they settled and married in the south of England in the 1920s, finally finding domestic happiness in Welwyn Garden City from December 1931, meant that both siblings struggled for the remainder of their lives to connect fully with their parents’ Scottish roots as offspring of neighbouring crofting farmers in the Howe of the Mearns in Northeast Scotland – the setting for Grassic Gibbon’s most famous work, the epic trilogy A Scots Quair comprising Sunset Song (1932), Cloud Howe (1933) and Grey Granite (1934). A poignant scene in The Lay of the Land, a BBC Television documentary screened in 2001 to commemorate the centenary of Leslie Mitchell’s birth, captures Daryll and Rhea bravely attempting to conjure personal memories from the family photograph album preserving black and white memories of times and places that were destined forever to remain agonisingly out of their reach.

While Rhea (later Professor Rhea Martin OBE) was to go on to forge a brilliant career in law and academia which in many ways made her the embodiment of her parents’ own aspirations, Daryll’s early life followed a more uncertain course. His mother chose to send him at a young age to board at Summerhill School in Suffolk, AS Neil’s liberal pedagogical experiment. In later life, Daryll regretted that his education had signally failed to provide him with the disciplined grounding in the basics – particularly with regard to writing skills – that he needed, particularly as son to such an acclaimed author. Nevertheless, for the rest of his life he shared his father’s love of reading, especially on history and particularly about human conflicts from ancient Britain up to the siege of Stalingrad and the Falklands War. Like his father, too (to whom as an adult he bore a stunning physical resemblance), Daryll had a largely negative experience of the military during his National Service in which he earned promotion to the position of sergeant in the Korean War. Again echoing his father’s sensitivities, Daryll studiously refrained from reliving the horrors that he was exposed to in the forces, including the traumatic death of his best friend by shellfire. With his positive mindset, however, the army simply confirmed him in his determination to savour the good things in life and to respect people for themselves, irrespective of their rank.

In civilian life, Daryll put his unaffected personal charm to good use in the world of business, moving from employment with Phillips and Huntley and Palmer to carve out his main career in the bed trade with leading companies including Vono and Slumberland before rising to the post of managing director of the luxury bed company Vispring. Daryll’s gregariousness was married to great professional effect with astute business acumen, and his sense of fun, commonly manifested in the mimicking of people’s accents, enabled him to forge strong relationships with his retail customers.

For over sixty years, Daryll enjoyed a happy marriage with Judy (née Mendum), with whom he treasured the simple contentment of family life together with their three children. Settled for his last 40 years in Tavistock in Devon, following retirement aged 60 he indulged his simple passion for walking with his dogs in Devon itself, in Cornwall, on Dartmoor, as well as enjoying holidays in the Lake District, Shropshire, the Sussex Downs and the Yorkshire Moors, more exotically revisiting his favourite holiday destination abroad, Port De Pollensa in Majorca. More prosaically, where his father had been thirled to the land as son to a Northeast crofter, Daryll developed a passion for the sea as a retreat from the stresses of life, which he pursued as an avid sailor around the coastline of Devon and Cornwall, or even just tinkering on his boat.

Steadfastly, Daryll and Rhea acquired a deep affection for the unspoilt rural countryside and the distinctive red clay soil of their forebears as well as developing an understanding of their parents’ social and cultural legacy back in Scotland, regularly revisiting their ancestral roots in Arbuthnott in Kincardineshire and lending sterling support to the Grassic Gibbon Centre, the memorialisation to his father’s achievement established there in 1993. Thanks largely to the generosity of Rhea and Daryll, the Centre has become the foremost repository of books and memorabilia relating to their father.

Following Rhea’s death in 2014, Daryll quietly assumed the role that she had discharged in administering the Mitchell literary estate after their mother’s death in 1978; his passing on of this role to myself, as Literary Director of the Grassic Gibbon Centre and to Professor Ian Campbell of the University of Edinburgh in December of 2017 was a rare privilege for both administrators done with the understated courtesy and graciousness that characterised his relations with all people. In addition, I shall always be grateful for the quiet kindness and consideration that he showed to me in my capacity as authorized biographer of his father by readily providing formal permissions for the procurement of archive materials and by proffering judicious encouragement in my endeavours.

In his last years Daryll bore the infirmities of age with humour, helped by the love and affection of his wife and his family.

He died on 10 June after a short illness, and is survived by Judy, his children Mark, Jayne and Ian and six grandchildren.

Dr William Malcolm

Literary director of the Grassic Gibbon Centre