NORTHERN LIGHT
Finding George Mackay Brown and Orkney
by Stuart Delves

Published: Friday, March 12th, 2010

“They carved a dragon to guard their writings.” Where are we? In a dark place; a tomb, no – a burial chamber. In the lamplight there are chambers and stone ledges. Once, bones would have lain here. The guide points to the Viking runes. They were sheltering from the storm. Big men with axes and knives. Even they, with fly agaric and bull muscle, had found it hard to shift the portal stone. There was nothing to steal. The skulls had last seen sea and sand and this flotsam necklace of islands some three thousand years before. Treasures, if there had been any, were long gone. “Here the masons built a hive.” Hive is right. We are in the hive. The combs are cold now but the sun will come. One of the sailors had written of a milkmaid back home. Her warmth would have been good here. (I see her blond and blue-eyed, anxiously watching the fjord.) Outside you see the hive. In the flat, treeless landscape it could be a pod from Star Wars. But the nearby stone rings dismiss that thought. “Here the masons built a hive/That the dead lords and ladies/Might eat always honey of oblivion.” Here is a poet I will listen to. Poetry is to be heard. When you read poetry, listen to yourself reading. Listening goes deeper than reading. The rhythms take us inward to the realm of vision. Maeshowe is an inward space. The sun spears in at the winter solstice, darting down the passageway and filling the chamber. But time stays at the door.

“Here masons and star watchers
Conspired: in midwinter
The good star, the sun,
Would awaken the sleepers.”

I first came across the work of George Mackay Brown in my mother-in-law’s house in Lauder, a small town in the Scottish Borders: ‘The Sun’s Net’ and ‘Magnus’. Novels. Magnus was a warrior and a saint. He was betrayed and cut down by a terrified cook who had drawn the short straw. Magnus was killed in cold blood. It was cold that first winter I came to stay with my new girlfriend. Before I caught the train up from Bristol I went to the Army & Navy stores and bought a fur-lined hat with earflaps. It proved to be an excessive precaution. I never wore it. It was brought out at parties or after a second bottle of wine: its ridiculous appearance never failed to cause mirth. But it was cold that first winter. And Lauder’s the coldest place I’ve yet experienced. Colder even than Orkney. But back then I was hardly aware of Orkney. I’d come north, but Orkney was in the far north. Was it even in Scotland? The name made me think of orca whales, Prussian Blue seas. And there in my future mother-in-law’s house amongst the oak shelves and the Swedish candles (she had a deep affinity with Scandinavia) were these novels.

George was my maternal grandfather’s first name. He was Scottish with German ancestry. George was a popular Hanoverian name. My maternal grandmother was a Brown – a good Scottish name. Clan names were often abandoned and colours adopted after the defeat of Bonnie Prince Charlie in 1746 as a protection against reprisal. I was returning to an ancestral domain. I was hungry for all things Scottish and Literature was the master key. Knowledge was bound up with the buds of love, and my new love was my muse, blond and blue-eyed…But the irony was that the writer whom I came across that first winter, in that comfort of a new-found home, was from an archipelago of islands that are as much if not more Scandinavian than Scottish. But I wasn’t to discover that for a further ten years.

For ten years my wife and I moved from place to place around the UK. Edinburgh, Kent, London, Bristol, Somerset, Devon, Inverness, Glasgow, Edinburgh and now here we are in the Scottish Borders. I always felt myself rootless, in that I could call no valley or pile of stone my home. Very different from George Mackay Brown. Brown rarely left Orkney. His roots were there, in the culture and in the blood: in the stone croft and the fisherman’s boat. In his early adulthood, however, he despaired of what he thought was the islanders’ neglect of their unique culture and he longed to get away.

When he was 29 he did get away to study under fellow Orcadian Edwin Muir at Newbattle Abbey south of Edinburgh. Muir, himself a great poet, was Brown’s touchstone. His recognition and encouragement of the younger poet’s talent helped him to see himself as a real writer. Brown had already started writing journalism and guidebooks on Orkney – in fact he continued writing journalism all his life and even though he became internationally acclaimed as a poet, novelist and short story writer he maintained that some of his best writing was to be found in his newspaper columns about day-to-day life in Orkney. But in 1956 after five happy years at Newbattle – interspersed with illness – he went on to read English Language and Literature at Edinburgh University and fell in with the esteemed poetry crowd that frequented Milne’s Bar and The Abbotsford in Edinburgh’s Rose Street. A favourite line from one of his stories sums up that moment of buying a drink in any brightly lit bar anywhere: “the erratic jingling commerce of silver and glass across the bar”.

Alexander Moffat’s painting ‘Poet’s Pub’ in the National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh captures the scene at Milne’s. 20th Century literary giant Hugh MacDiarmid holds court with Sorley MacLean, Norman MacCaig, Iain Crichton Smith, Edwin Morgan, Robert Garioch, Sydney Goodsir Smith and George Mackay Brown in attendance. A very male literary chapter (how different would a painting of today’s leading Scottish poets be with Liz Lochhead, Carol Ann Duffy, Kathleen Jamie and Jackie Kay propping up half the bar!) This was an intense time for Brown – in stark contrast to the mostly solitary existence he led otherwise in Orkney before and after – and there was one woman on the scene, Stella Cartwright, whom he remembered in a poem on her birthday some twenty years later:

“To him, she spoke sweeter than rain among roses in summer
While poets like columns of salt stood
Round the oaken Abbotsford bar.”

For Brown Stella was very much a part of his time in Edinburgh. When she visited him in Orkney some years later Brown felt uneasy: the clash of two worlds. But there’s regret in the birthday poem. He remembers her still as a “star” through “storm-clouds” and refers to himself in the 50s as a “crazy chap, high among cloud”. But Brown dedicated himself totally to writing and was prepared to live simply and with few attachments to pursue his art. He had success and recognition but his newspaper columns and Orkney guides helped to sustain him. He was known and honoured in the community. In fact, he wrote for his community, revitalising and celebrating their myths, their history, their ways and turns of phrase. I have a picture of him looking out to sea, from which came much of his inspiration, came the boats of today’s fishermen and yesterday’s voyagers – heroes old and new of his tales and poems. So, his life wasn’t glamorous, or particularly complicated. But his language was like iron and silver, starlight and granite. His vision was pure.

In the middle of our ten year shunt about the UK I was appointed as the Centre Director at the Arvon Foundation’s Devon Centre – Totleigh Barton. Arvon was the closest I’ve ever got to The Abbotsford or Milne’s Bar in that I was involved in a living, breathing literary tradition whereby aspirants spent an intense week with established practitioners. One of the founders, John Fairfax, was the nephew of the energetic and iconic English poet George Barker. Barker had had a magnetic personality and had naturally gathered people around him for long night discussions of that most vocational of forms – poetry – aided by wine and song (as the father of fifteen children he is well known for the women in his life and as his widow Elspeth has wryly remarked “each autumn, in the churchyard, a solitary specimen of the brazen mushroom phallus impudicus rears from his grave.”). Fairfax wanted to take something of this impromptu milieu of discourse and learning and ground it in a ‘retreat’ setting.

It was while I was the steward of Totleigh that I came across George Mackay Brown again: a book of poetry, ‘The Wreck of the Archangel’ found in a bookcase bursting with spines between Delabole flagged floor and eleventh century rafters.

“Prow set for Greenland, a westerly
weeks-long, a graybeard gale
Drove Skarf at Iceland,
A bleak shore, behind it

A burning mountain. One farm all night
Thrummed with harpsong and saga
But a hard mouth at dawn
Bargained for cheese and eggs.

The gale northerly then, a hag
Spitting hail, herded Skarf
Among Faroese yoles, rowlock-deep
In drifts of salmon.”

So begins ‘Sailing to Papay’. I could have chosen any poem from the collection. But the page fell open on that one. And that one will do perfectly for it has many of the elements in Brown’s work I find so appealing: the strong narrative drive, the vivid sense of place, the pared language, the combination of the mythic with the rudiments of life. Seamus Heaney wrote that Brown passed everything “through the eye of the needle of Orkney.” Orkney, or rather Brown’s use of Orkney, became my lodestar. The north had an iron pull. I had to go there.

Four or five years later I got my chance. After Totleigh my wife and I returned to Scotland with a Christmas baby in tow and in 1995 I got a job as a writer with a design consultancy in Edinburgh. Unsurprisingly, being Scotland, we worked for a number of whisky distilleries. This didn’t mean, necessarily, that I got to visit them. But when I was assigned to work on Highland Park, from ‘the Northernmost Scotch Whisky Distillery in the world’ I hoped I might get a chance. The brand name seemed very un-Orcadian but as I learnt more about the history, geography and culture of the place in order to write about the whisky that seemed by the by. Orkney was the land of the Midnight Sun, the Northern Lights, a Neolithic complex of sites, a trading post between Canada and continental Europe, a conflict zone in both World Wars. It was also a land of storytelling. And when I came to write the label for the outer box of Highland Park 25 Year Old that was to have a beautiful calligraphic treatment I wanted words that were meaningful. And words of value – each bottle retailed at £99! I turned to George Mackay Brown’s ‘John Barleycorn’ in which the barley says “Forever I flush the winters of men with wassails of corn.” I was using poetry in commerce. I remember questioning my integrity but the whisky was good, made with integrity from the elements of Orkney. It felt organic and right.

Writing for Highland Park led to writing for the Orkney Tourist Board and I used Brown’s words again because he was, for me, the voice of the islands. Little wonder his autobiography is called ‘For the Islands I Sing’. I used his line ‘The Orkney imagination is haunted by time’ because finally I had visited and found this to be true. Nowhere else that I have visited has such a presence of history all around. Not only are there some 3000 ancient sites on Orkney but traces of the two World Wars – the Churchill barriers, the rusting block ships, the slicks of oil from the sunken Royal Oak, the roll call of the drowned in St Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall and the Italian Chapel at Lamb Holm built by PoWs from an old Nissan hut – are constant reminders that the present is progeny of the past. Visiting the Italian Chapel and its religious icons made from debris, driftwood, barbed wire, bully beef cans – the “rubbish and tinsel of war” as Brown put it – you can’t help but be moved by such a monument to human ingenuity, faith and resilience.

Orkney, and its whisky Highland Park, were the subjects of my first sustained piece of prose writing ‘Hourglass’. Like my adopted mentor I was writing about time – the effect of time on the whisky and the expanse of time experienced in the islands. There’s a strange temporal elasticity in Orkney: a suspension. My wife and two children came with me when I did my research for the book. I have an abiding image of my children in anoraks, virtually at 45 degrees, battling their way round the calendrical stones at The Ring of Brodgar through driving wind and rain – dwarf druids; young life in the ring of time.

George Mackay Brown used Orkney, its legends, its people, its landmarks, as the raw material for many of his poems and stories. Some material he worked on again and again wresting new insight from it. He also commented on the daily life of the islands and his place within it in his columns and journals. In his view his output was seamless. He simply wrote about where he lived. However, although rooted in the particular, his vision was universal: the mark of any great writer. For me, having come to rest in a village over 250 miles south of Orkney, having found a community that engages my energies with a history and landscape that snares my attention I find the inspiration of Brown guiding me to write with and for whatever and whomever is at hand. So Orkney is not a spiritual home for me: it’s a spiritual bolt-hole. I am grateful for it and its tangential distance. Its poetry helped me find a way to connect with another corner of this world.

One day at the winter solstice I hope to stoop into the hive and womb of Maeshowe and experience – through the power of ancient geomancy – that the nadir of the sun, held for a spell in this timeless chamber, is its gradual re-birth. And if I don’t recite this catechism I’ll whisper it; and if I don’t whisper it I’ll think it: Sometimes. Sometimes when you’re alone on the earth and the wind’s belting you and you feel you have no roots, no claims, no reverence and that you could be blown to kingdom come and it would make no difference to anybody – in fact the world would be a slightly less messy place without you – it’s good to know that you didn’t just land here, that your nakedness is common to all, that you’re linked by blood and language in whichever tongue it’s spoken, that your darkness is my darkness and your light is my light and the light of all who’ve ever lived or are yet to walk alone on the hard stone of earth.

Notes

Magnus, Hogarth Press 1973; Beside the Ocean of Time, John Murray 1994; The Wreck of the Archangel, John Murray 1989; Collected Poems, John Murray 2005;
For the Islands I sing: An Autobiography, John Murray 1997; Interrogation of Silence, The Writings of George Mackay Brown by Rowena and Brian Murray, John Murray 2004.

The Arvon Foundation www.arvonfoundation.org is a registered charity. It runs writing courses on many different kinds of writing at four houses around the country – Devon, Inverness-shire, Shropshire and Yorkshire.

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