An excerpt from One Christmas in Birsay by George Mackay Brown
Two boys were down in the ebb at Birsay, they moved from rockpool to rockpool, probing. Their faces looked back at them from the still mirrors, with the winter-blue sky behind. Then one of the boys put his foot in a tassle of seaweed and he slithered and half fell into a rockpool with a small splash.
‘Watch where you’re going, Magnus,’ said the other boy. ‘The man who looks always at the sky will have a fall….’
‘If we don’t go up to the Hall soon, we’ll have to swim ashore.’
‘The old grandfather will be sitting over the fire…. Will he be able to go to the church tonight? Will Thorfinn know it’s Christmas Eve?’
The two boys did not sit long over the mid-day meal. It was fish and thin beer. The old earl, their grandfather, did not come to the table. A woman knelt beside him with a bowl and put pieces of fish into his mouth. ‘That’s enough,’ said Earl Thorfinn. ‘I’m not hungry. I’m cold, though. Put more logs on the fire.’
The two boys went over to greet their grandfather.
‘Who are you?’ said Thorfinn Sigurdson. ‘Where have you come from? I don’t know you.’
‘I’m Hakon,’ said the elder boy.
‘I’m Magnus,’ said the other.
‘Don’t stand between me and the fire,’ said the old man. ‘Boys ought to be out in the wind and sun. You’ll draw to the hearth soon enough.’
The two boys climbed to the summit of the steep green island. It was a still winter afternoon. The globe of the sun hung low on the horizon. The sea ran gold, then crimson as blood.
They stood together, their arms on each other’s shoulders, looking out over the ocean. Already from the north, darkling shadows moved on the flood.
They were attacked by a bird! Suddenly out of the sunset it came at them, there on the clifftop — a threshing and flurry and beat of wings, a frenzy of beak and claws.
The bird went after the boy Hakon. He turned and ran, helter-skelter. Then, remembering that the pulse of sea-kings beat in him, he picked up a large stone and hurled it at the bird. The stone missed but the bird rode higher on the wind and turned and fell on the boy Magnus who stood where he was, on the cliff edge. The bird fell about the boy’s head with shrieks and a concentrated fury of wings. And still the boy stood.
Hakon covered his eyes.
From the church below — in a time and place far removed — he heard the plainsong…. The torrent would have swept over us: over us then would have swept the raging waters.
Blessed be the Lord, who did not leave us a prey to their teeth….
Hakon dug another stone out of the turf and turned to help his friend.
What he saw, black against the glow in the south-west, was the bird sitting furled on the outstretched hand of Magnus.
When Hakon approached, the bird opened its wings and flew unhurriedly out over the waves.
Then Hakon saw that there was a fresh claw-mark on his friend’s forehead, and blood was seeping and dropping from the wound.
‘Time to get back,’ said Magnus. ‘Look, a lantern in the byre door.’
A chair had been brought into the church for the old Earl to sit on. But nobody thought he would come.
A Birsay farm boy lit the candles on the altar.
They came slowly, in little groups, crofters and fishermen and wives and children; they stood here and there in the little cold church.
Something wonderful would happen soon.
The palace officials entered — falconer and the keeper of the horses and the three skippers and the treasurer and the scrivener and the king’s man from Norway and the beautiful lady Thora. They came in one by one and genuflected and stood near the altar.
Two boys came in — those who would be earls some day — and the common people saw that one of the boys had a bandage round his head. The boys knelt one on each side of Thora.
There was a stir at the door. The old Earl Thorfinn Sigurdson was entering. Two men hovered about him, in case he should stumble. One took him lightly by the elbow and pointed to the carved chair over by the altar.
The old man paid no attention. Painfully he knelt down at the back of the church, among the croft-folk and the fisher-folk.
Plainchant drifted from the young mouths in the choir. Dominus dixit ad me: Filius meus es tu, ego hodie genui te.
The young bishop entered, William, with three boys to serve at the Mass of the Nativity.
Birds called from the enfolding waters below.
The church seemed to be afloat suddenly on a tide of joy.
One Christmas in Birsay is part of the collection Christmas Stories (2021) by the Orkney-born writer George Mackay Brown. 2021 was the 100th anniversary of the birth of Brown, one of Scotland’s most revered authors.
In his latter years, Brown was “commissioned every Christmas by the Herald and the Tablet to write an original short story suitably themed for the time of year. Many of these, never published before in book form, are collected in this work for the first time together with other stories that he wrote with a seasonal background.”
The result is a literary feast and a most suitable celebration of this great writer, whose voice is entirely unique.
Have a Happy Christmas, everyone.
More to come…
See also: Through the Eye of the Needle of Orkney.
Image of Scottish winter by Lee from Pixabay. Image of cliffs in Orkney by David McCreight from Pixabay. Image of Viking Church ruins on Orkney by marilynreid from Pixabay. Image of St. Magnus Cathedral and stone walls on Orkney by DJB.