Exploring the treasures left by Chrissie Costie

“Out doing detective work.” This message has appeared under my name on the Centre for Nordic Studies in/out board quite regularly over the last year. The reason is that I have been working on a book about the writer Chrissie Costie. It all started about a year ago, when I was preparing a class on Orkney dialect poetry and went to the Kirkwall library to ask for a biography of Chrissie Costie and discovered that there wasn’t one. At that stage, I didn’t know much about her at all. Ten years previously, following my very first visit to Orkney, my friend and tutor Berit Sandnes had given me a copy of Chrissie’s book Wullie o Skipigoe or the True Story of the Harray Crab. I had read it and liked it, but at that point found the dialect quite difficult to read, so I had put it away and not opened it since. But now, on discovering that nobody had written a biography or any critical work on Chrissie Costie, I decided I would have to do it myself. I set to the task and was delighted to re-discover her poetry now that I was better able to understand the dialect. And as the detective work unfolded, my admiration for Chrissie grew and grew. What a fascinating person!

One of the first things I did was to go to the archive, where I got a little collection of letters that Chrissie had written to Ernest Marwick and his wife Janette in the winter of 1953-54. They were Chrissie’s next-door neighbours on Willowburn Road, and good friends, but the reason she was writing was that they were living near Edinburgh for some months – hence the very rare treasure of letters preserved amongst Ernest Marwick’s papers, which we otherwise would not have had. In these letters were thoughts on literature, discussions of her own latest poems which she enclosed for Ernest to give his opinion on, accounts of the ongoings and gossip of Kirkwall, and stories about everything that Chrissie and her friends had been up to lately. These friends were called Robert, Embla, George, Allison – but who were they? Chrissie didn’t tell me because Ernest and Janette knew them as well as she did, so there was no need for surnames. So this is where my detective work began.

The first one I cracked, was Robert. Chrissie’s letter said that Robert was just back from Italy, he had done some lovely paintings, and was also working on his shell book. Aha, I thought, this sounded familiar. It was Robert Rendall! Until then I hadn’t realised that Chrissie was part of a circle of friends consisting of other writers and folk of literary and cultural interest, but there she was, and the group’s headquarters was right next door at Ernest Marwick’s. I see the house with new eyes now. I had walked past Ernest’s house and Chrissie’s house so many times on my way to and from Papdale school, but before they were just houses. Now they were both radiating with history. When I walk past there now, I see Chrissie and her sister on the front steps, waving and smiling to me, and Ernest busy in his study while Janette is making tea for the next poetry reading evening. When I walk through The Willows, I imagine Robert Rendall on his way through the trees, running, clutching a note in his hand with a new poem written on it. He is heading for Chrissie’s, and next he will be going up to Eastbank Hospital to show it to –yes, you have guessed it – George. George Mackay Brown, a young and eager member of their group. On their way to Janette and Ernest’s poetry reading evening are also Embla Mooney, daughter of the historian John Mooney, and Allison – she was a big mystery for a long time. But amazingly, in the end it turned out she had been hiding in our box of old family photos all the time. “Could it be Allison Leonard?” my husband suggested after having endured me talking about her for the umpteenth time – this being a cousin of his who was a poet with two poems in An Anthology of Orkney Verse by Ernest Marwick. He showed me a photo of a beautiful young girl wearing graduation robes. But how was I to know if it was her when the only thing I knew from Chrissie’s letter was that she was keen on poetry and was expecting a baby? I searched through all the births announcements in The Orcadian and The Orkney Herald for 1954. I didn’t find her there, but I found her in the paper right enough, and the mystery was solved – although the story had a tragic ending which upset me for months, which you can read more about in the book.

The thing about Chrissie Costie’s writing is that there are so many hidden treasures to discover! It’s very fitting, then, that her book of short stories which was published in 1956 is called Benjie’s Bodle. Here, the “bodle” is a hidden treasure of gold sovreigns which the protagonist Benjie has hidden away for someone to find – but it can only be found by someone who cares to look for it and invests some commitment. This is how I feel about Chrissie’s poetry and stories too. They are packed with hidden treasures that keep turning up: The more I read them, the more gold I find! Because many of her stories are built around Orkney folk tales, they are great cultural treasures from a near forgotten storytelling culture. Her stories have a fantastic oral feel to them, much like Walter Traill Dennison’s stories. Listen, for instance, to this:

“Yaas, A’ll tell thee a story indeed, if thoo bees a geud boy an’ taks up thee supper. No’ hid’s no aboot Tammie Norrie ither, hid’s aboot the Aald Man o’ Hoy, an’ wan time that he gaed aff for a holiday.” (Chrissie Costie, When the Aald Man o’ Hoy took a holiday).

It’s like we’re sitting there in a country kitchen, a good fire blazing in the range while the porridge is going “plug-fuff, plug-fuff, plug-fuff” in the pot. And the dialect! I love the Orkney dialect, and after having read Chrissie Costie I love it even more. How could you not, when it contains imaginative expressions such as “pit the heid o the soo tae the tail o the grice” meaning to add all things up, or wonderfully sounding words such as “ceutikins” meaning a sock.

For those interested in cultural heritage, Chrissie Costie tells us of old customs such as Orkney wedding celebrations, customs surrounding childbirth (why put a knife in the bed? To protect against abduction by supernatural beings), divination rites at Hallowe’en, Yule celebrations and more, as accurately as any good folklorist but yet as lively as any good novelist would have done.

It required a good bit of detective work to figure out some of her place-names too. Readers of this column have already taken part in the hunt for Hammer Mugly. As far as I have been informed, there is no Hammer Mugly at Faraclett, Rousay. However, the farm does have a field called just Mugly (“the big”), and it also has an area of hammers (crags), so I feel that the legendary Hammer Mugly is there but hiding just out of view for me, teasing me. Another place which I tracked down with help from a number of people, was Maxwell’s Closs. In the end, I concluded that it is most likely beside The Frozen Food Centre in Kirkwall. This was formerly Maxwell’s Shop, as many still remember. This building has a very interesting history, and it also appears in Chrissie’s writing under the name of Dishington’s Land because in the 17th century it belonged to the Dishington family. A nearby “Lucky Flett’s Alehoose” which Chrissie writes about, turned out to be fictional.

I love the way Chrissie Costie’s writing is so firmly rooted in Orkney, but yet contains universal themes that we can all relate to. Many Orcadians have heard and been moved by her poem The Peerie Grandson, where she lets a grandmother see the likeness of late family members in her baby grandson and reflects that it is as if God “the Gae-er an’ Taaker o’ men” has gathered all these beloved dead in a little bundle and given her them back again. I also love the rootedness in the Orkney soil: The people and the land are closely bound to each other with a bond going back centuries and millennia.

And I love the humour. As The Orcadian wrote on the publication of Chrissie’s collection of poems, But-End Ballans in 1949: “Everyday situations in the Orkney country way of life supply the material for these verses, but they are recorded with such realism and with such humorous shrewdness, bordering at times on homely satire, that incidents trivial in themselves become an occasion for spontaneous merriment. Orkney matter-of-fact-ness here views with edged but kindly tolerance those little human foibles always so evident in domestic life and in small rural communities.”

All in all, the last year has been an amazing exploration, which has been rewarded with heaps of treasure: Chrissie’s own “bodle” to us.