‘“Rhythms and Images and Legends are everywhere”: George Mackay Brown’s Orkney’ – Dr. Linden Bicket

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On the 14th of May 2019, the Centre had the pleasure of welcoming Dr Linden Bicket for the final seminar of this series, and thus aptly coming full circle by concluding on a topic dedicated to our theme: ‘Islands’. As the rays of the ever-hopeful Glaswegian sunshine glimmered through the windows on University Avenue, Prof Kirsteen McCue opened the talk by introducing Dr Bicket: Senior Teaching Fellow at the University of Edinburgh within the School of Divinity, Dr Bicket is also a University of Glasgow alumni, having studied within the Scottish Literature department from undergraduate level all the way through to her Carnegie Caledonian Scholarship funded PhD. Emerging as a central vein of interest during her time at the University of Glasgow was the study of the works and life of Orcadian poet and writer, George Mackay Brown (1921-1996). It is towards him that we turned our attention as Dr Bicket guided us through the introduction of her talk: ‘“Rhythms and Images and Legends are everywhere”: George Mackay Brown’s Orkney’.

Image result for George Mackay Brown

George Mackay Brown  (www.scottishpoetrylibrary.org.uk)

We must therefore first cast our gaze to the very north of Scotland, where the Orkney archipelago stands at the collision point of the forbidding North Sea to the east and the raging storms of the Atlantic Ocean to the west. It is between these realms that Brown lived and died, and – as Seamus Heaney famously noted – his resulting works simultaneously emerged out of and were passed ‘through the eye of the needle of Orkney’. Dr Bicket outlined how Orkney is a major influence and presence in both building Brown as a writer and in Brown building his works: Orkney’s centrality allowed Brown to be a “writer of community”, place and space, the environment and, significantly, the “Catholic Imagination”. Brown converted, through a prolonged and gradual process, to Catholicism, and so Orkney emerges as a place of myth and wilderness alongside its presence as a distinctly sacramental and spiritual sphere. It is through this lens of the folkloric balanced within the Catholic gaze of Brown that runs across and through Orkney, and which Dr Bicket draws our focus to.

Brown’s writing was influenced by these striking mixtures of biblical and folkloric narratives, including fairy stories passed down through the Celtic tradition – harkening back to his Mother’s Highland ancestry – alongside the Old Testament and Hebrew stories circulating within the religious routes of the island. Dr Bicket drew our attention to Brown’s first poetry collection and its prologue in particular, where we see Brown start to discuss and gesture towards the mixture of Scottish and Orcadian history:

For Scotland I sing,

The Knox-ruined nation,

That poet and saint

Must rebuild with their passion.

Reminiscent of fellow Orcadian poet and real-life mentor, Edwin Muir’s work ‘Scotland 1941’, Brown responds to the idea of the Scots people and returning to poetry: the return to poetry mirroring the return of the eucharist to the people, to artistically and spiritually nourish them. This leads us through to Orkney and the Reformation: Brown’s thinking on the reformation and its principles evolves out of the literary tradition rather than his own evidence. Dr Bicket highlights how Brown was keen to stress the damage done to modern Scotland through the lasting stereotype of Scotland as gloomy and dull. Instead, Dr Bicket pauses to outline Brown’s ideas surrounding the iconoclasm of the Reformers, showing the ferocity of the Orkney witch trials that are still infamous within Scotland’s history to this day. In Brown’s short story collection, A Calendar of Love (1967), the story titled ‘Witch’ lays out the trial of Marian Isbister. We see the scenes proceed through a script format that is dominated by the 16th century legalist voice. However, through the multiple voices that are interwoven within this story, we perceive the falsity of the trial, and eventually we are guided through the final walk of shame to the execution stage. It is here, after Marian has undergone multiple layers of torture and abuse, that we see her perform an imitation of the stations of the cross: “a female Jesus” who draws our attention to the grotesqueness of the legal system, and the need for good governance. Dr Bicket illuminates Marian as this biblical character growing within the Orcadian history: we are drawn towards Marian’s name, as another form of the name ‘Mary’, referring back to the biblical origins of St. Mary. As Jocelyn Rendall has noted, St. Mary’s presence on the island is felt through the 33 parish churches established in her name. Brown wrote this figure into his works, which is most clearly depicted through ‘Our Lady of the Waves’ (1965/1991). As Marina Warner has commented for this poem, we see the iconic image of the Virgin Mary transfigured into the “private sweetheart of monks and sinners”.  

We see that Brown populates his poetry, short stories and novels with various examples of these biblical characters, allowing them to inhabit and thrive within the domestic and rural spaces of Orkney’s everyday life: in Greenvoe (1972) we see Samuel and Rachel, like their namesakes, longing for a child and living devotedly on a croft on the island. We encounter the ploughman working the fields as a divine figure, and we see St Magnus – the patron saint of Orkney – live and die on the island. Dr Bicket outlines the importance of the story of Magnus to Brown’s works – not only as a representative of Orkney – but as an individual, and personal, narrative. St Magnus refused to fight in the civil war on Orkney and instead forgave his enemies, sacrificing his life as a means to ending the war. It did. So, this Christ-like figure appears as a guardian of Orkney, and a guardian of Brown himself. After contracting TB at the age of 19, Brown spent a large section of his youth recovering in hospitals and sanatoriums, and therefore unable to fight in World War II. Brown returns to this story of St Magnus again and again, namely in his novel Magnus (1973). And once again, we become acquainted with the reborn, rural, and domesticated saints living in the isles of Orkney.

It is this rebirth that Dr Bicket concludes on, with the final idea of ‘An Orcadian Nativity’. A literal rebirth of Christ within the thresholds of Orkney, Brown wrote poems specifically outlining what and how this would look. In this way, we are guided through the genesis of Orkney in ‘Beachcomber’ (1969), to the trials of Mary and the lives of the saints inhabiting the crofts and farms and coming to the martyr’s death that reincarnated an island. The rebirth is just another image of Brown’s ever circulating island routes. It is gesturing to this idea, that we leave Brown’s “Rhythms and Images and Legends”, as Dr Bicket draws us to at the very beginning of our talk, so we end on the words that Brown stated himself: 

Orkney is a small green world in itself. Walk a mile or two and you will see, mixed up with the modern houses of concrete and wood, the ‘old farmhouses sunk in time’; hall and manse from which laird and minister ruled in the eighteenth century; smuggler’s cave, witch’s hovel; stone piers where the whalers and Hudson’s Bay ships tied up; the remains of pre-Reformation chapel and monastery; homesteads of Vikings like Langskaill where Sweyn Asleifson wintered, the last and greatest of them all; the monoliths of pre-history; immense stone-age burial chambers where the Norse Jerusalem-farers broke in and covered the walls with runes.

Dominating all the islands is the rose-red Cathedral of Saint Magnus the Martyr in Kirkwall, called ‘the wonder and glory of all the north’. This Magnus was a twelfth-century Earl of Orkney in a time of terrible civil war. One April morning he heard Mass in the small church of Egilsay; then he walked out gaily among the ritual axes and swords. Next winter the poor of the islands broke bread in peace.

Round that still centre all these stories move.

And so here we stand, rotated around that still centre, at the end and beginning of our island.

Hannah Pyle

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