Over a delightful meal with Fran Flett Hollinrake — historian, storyteller, tour guide, writer, and the manager of St. Magnus Cathedral for the Orkney Islands Council — I asked for her recommendation of a book to read about this remote, windswept, northern outpost of Scotland. She didn’t hesitate.
“Anything by George Mackay Brown will do,” she replied. In a wonderful independent bookstore on our next stop in the Shetland Islands, I bought two volumes and immediately dived in to one of his early works.
Magnus, the second novel of George Mackay Brown, the acclaimed Orkney writer, was published in 1973 (and republished by Polygon in 2019). It is the fictional account of the real-life murder of Earl Magnus of Orkney who “walked calmly, knowingly and completely unarmed to a terrible death at the hands of his cousin Hakon Paulson.” Told through the eyes of several peasants, most notably the farmer Mans and his wife Hild, as well as the tinker Jock and his blind wife Mary, it is both atmospheric in capturing the spirit of the islands, and descriptive in recounting the hardships and terror of life in the 12th century.
George Mackay Brown (1921 – 1996) was one of the greatest Scottish writers of the twentieth century. A prolific poet, admired by such fellow poets as Ted Hughes and Seamus Heaney, he was also an accomplished novelist, dramatist and a master of the short story. Bar a brief period in Edinburgh … Mackay Brown spent most of his life in Orkney, and his work is saturated with references to his native islands.
Seamus Heaney once remarked that George Mackay Brown passed everything “through the eye of the needle of Orkney.” That is true in Magnus, where Brown takes off on a dream flight in the midst of the description of the killing of the 12th century martyr to meditate on the murder of famed German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer at the hands of the Nazis near the end of World War II. He returns with a short tale of Jock and Mary three years after the murder, where Jock prays over the recently buried bones of Magnus and a miracle follows.
I finished the book after we left Scotland for Norway, but I was certainly called back to that haunting landscape, in part because of Mackay Brown’s use of language and images. In fact, lines from Hamnavoe, his most famous poem, speak to why he is so effective and evocative.
In the fire of images
Gladly I put my hand.
In reading Mackay Brown, I recalled our day in Orkney with National Trust Tours and the visit to the majestic St. Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall.
Known as the “Light in the North”, the cathedral was founded in 1137 by the Viking, Earl Rognvald, in honor of his martyred uncle. Built of red and yellow standstone, this internationally recognized site has a striking and unique appearance.
The worshipping community over the centuries has been part of the Roman Catholic Church, the Norwegian Church, the Scottish Episcopal Church, and the Church of Scotland (Presbyterian). The worshipping community thus inherits an ecumenical tradition.
I mentioned to Fran that in my research for the trip, I found stories that suggested that the residents of the Orkney Islands were both resilient and pragmatic souls. She suggested that was true and told a short story as an illustration. St. Magnus Cathedral had weathered the Reformation physically and in spirit. The same clergy who just weeks before were Roman Catholic priests simply became Scottish Presbyterian ministers following the change. Same team, different uniforms.
The stories we tell give us a sense of why particular places matter. Stories connect people to a certain place in a certain time, yet they add to the continuum of a community’s narrative. Stories don’t have to reveal something new. Often, they are more about tapping into our memories, our values, and our deepest longings, and so they resurrect what is very old, and very wise, and very precious.
People and places are intertwined. It is why, when discussing their communities, so many people focus on the stories attached to places and less on the intricate architectural details of the buildings.
Consider the stories surrounding Skara Brae. If a landmark’s essential feature is not its design, but the place it holds in our memory, then the stories of this Neolithic village are ones for all humanity. Stories place Skara Brae in the larger context of human history — predating the pyramids in Egypt and Stonehenge in England.
We learn from places like Skara Brae that life doesn’t stand still. Ritual ― trying to make sense of the changing world around us ― is part of who we are. Resiliency is an important part of our make-up as humans, but so is adaptability. Skara Brae was abandoned around 2500 ― but we are unsure why. Even those places that no longer exist as living communities still have lessons to teach us and imbed stories into our collective consciousness.
Historian David McCullough likes to remind us that history shows that we have been through difficult times before. Yet in face of difficult times “we have an all-important, inexhaustible source of strength. And that source of strength is our story, our history, who we are, how we got to be where we are, and all we have been through, what we have achieved.”
Sometimes, stories in Orkney are enigmatic, like the stone henge of the Ring of Brodgar. We visited the ring — part of the Heart of Neolithic Orkney World Heritage Site, a series of important domestic and ritual monuments built 5000 years ago in the Orkney Islands — with master archaeologist Nick Card.
It was a magical day, one that provided images and stories of Orkney that will remain for a lifetime.
More to come…
For other posts on my reports and impressions from the Scottish Islands and Norwegian Fjords National Trust Tours trip, click here for Glasgow and the Scottish Highlands, here for the cultural landscapes of Norway and here for the Edvard Grieg home.
Image: Skara Brae by DJB