Magical Orkney

Orkney: Our magical islands. At this time of year: dark, stormy. But also snowy and bright. The snow reflecting the brief sunshine is so bright and brilliant that it can be hard to keep your eyes open. The storms are super powers, foam being thrown about in the air. I’m writing this the morning after our garage door was blown to pieces. Only a few days ago, my mother-in-law witnessed a tornado in Birsay lifting up a shed and smashing it to smithereens. There is something powerful and god-like about that.

In the summer, Orkney is blue and green, and in the autumn, gold: “The sun's a cornstalk” says George Mackay Brown. When folk are asked to describe what is so special about the Orkney landscape, they say that there is “something about the quality of light”. It gives Orkney this mystical appearance, which gives photographers, painters and writers endless inspiration.

In Mimir’s Well today I am going to look at something which my students and I discussed in our Orkney and Shetland Literature module, and that is how Orkney is portrayed as a magical place in modern literature.

One thing which makes our islands magical is that the landscape and seascape are ever present and very near. The land and sea are almost living, which in literature means that they are sometimes personified, as in the following quote from George Mackay Brown:

All morning the sun had fought with silent blind blunderings of sea fog for possession of the island. Ivan Westray, sitting on the edge of the pier waiting for his passengers to arrive, watched the struggle of the grey ram and the golden god. Within an hour the weather for the day would be decided, one way or the other. The fog leapt forward suddenly, then retreated as a sword of light shore through its outer fleece; then backed about again (...)” (George Mackay Brown, Greenvoe).

Being so near to the landscape and the elements all the time underlines the sense of living on the edge; of being but a small speck of life in an enormous Nature, but yet being part of Nature. Robert Rendall captures this feeling very well in his poem Celestial Kinsmen, where we are looking down from the enormous starry universe onto a little Orkney farmer and realise that the constellations Taurus and the Plough are reflected in Mansie and his plough and that they belong together as kinsmen.

Another piece of writing which captures the Orkney landscape on a universal scale is Luke Sutherland’s description of the Hope Bay at night, adrift in a boat as it reaches the edge where the sea bed suddenly drops: “The Hope Bay and all the salt seas of the world, puddles of joy. God’s tears. We held hands tight. Craned over the gunwales. Braced ourselves for a revelation. Fell back, gasping, as the sea bed’s pale-green floor suddenly plunged to pitch-black. If it’s possible to get vertigo on a boat, we got it. And then, just when we were getting over being so high up, the seals started.” (Luke Sutherland, Venus as a Boy, page 55).

There is something very old about Orkney, but yet something very new. As George Mackay Brown wrote: “The Orkney imagination is haunted by time.” The age comes across very well for instance in George Mackay Brown’s novel Greenvoe, where the character The Skarf, the fisherman who doesn’t fish, tells the story of the island Hellya from the beginning of its habitation. The ruined broch is the island’s navel: a round mark left to remind the islanders of their ancestors; a visible link to the past. “Hills tell old stories.  Cliffs are poets with harps” (George Mackay Brown, Rackwick, a Child’s Scrapbook).

But Orkney is also new. Orkney, as portrayed in literature, feels new because of its continual sense of wonder. It feels like Narnia, which has just been sung into existence by the great lion, and where anything is possible. Where, for example, as in Luke Sutherland’s novel Venus as a Boy, it is not surprising to find an angel entangled in the tail of your kite:

“Flying kites on Ward Hill. I saw what I thought was another sun: this flaming wheel in the sky over Widewall, coming right at me. Tricks of the light, or just island life... the shooting star turned out to be a man with my twenty-foot kite tail caught in his feet. I didn’t see or hear any planes. Blue sky all over. His parachute like a giant poppy. The whole hill felt it when he landed. (...) I watched him windmill the parachute over his arms. Fold it into a square. Goggles and cap off he was blond and blue-eyed. Stood over me, hands on hips. Looked like the sun shone out of his side. My name is Engel, he said, and his teeth were so white.” (Luke Sutherland, Venus as a Boy, page 28).

Being a modern novel, the angel is explained as a parachute diver named Engel. But yet, there is something supernatural about him. The reader is never sure whether his divinity is real or imagined. On the one hand, he has stubble, goggles and a Danish accent, but on the other hand he shines like the sun (or is the sun just behind him? one is never sure), he is named Angel in Danish, and is later described by the protagonist as someone who seemed “immortal”.  He asks himself if it is a trick of the light, or just island life. By asking that, he recognises that part of “island life” is the possibility of magical things happening.

In the same novel, the protagonist discovers that by wearing a big dress in a winter gale, he can actually fly: “That same winter, Finola and me learned how to fly. (...) Finola’s first jump was from a fence post in a big blue skirt. She flew fifty feet. I thought: Regal blood and bones, she’s light, the wind likes her. But when I tried it, I flew just as far and landed light as a feather. We went from fence posts to the roof of her house and from there to clifftops. Christmas Day, Finola in Eva’s wedding dress and me in a mock eighteenth-century ballgown Eva got in some West End musical, skydiving off Hoxa Head.”

One of my students, Alison Munro, pointed out that the occurrence of metamorphosis is another thing which makes the literary Orkney magical. For this, the writer’s imagination has a flowing spring of inspiration in folklore and mythology. For instance, in Eric Linklater’s short story Seal Skin Trousers, a young woman from Orkney has a cliff-edge sexual encounter with a Selkie man. However, Linklater brings the story firmly into the modern world by letting the woman recognise the man as “Roger Fairfield”, a student who drew attention to himself while they were both studying at Edinburgh University by swimming “on a rough autumn day from North Berwick to the Bass Rock to win a bet of five pounds.” When meeting him again by the Orkney cliffs, she notices his peculiar outfit:

“ ‘Why,’ she stammered, ‘why do you wear fur trousers?’ He laughed, and still laughing caught her round the waist and pulled her towards the edge of the rock.”

The sealskin trousers are, of course, the same kind of seal skin which in Orkney folklore needs to be hidden from a Selkie spouse if he or she is not to return to the sea. Unlike what happens in the tragic ballad which the Selkie man is about to sing, this Selkie does not intend to abandon his human lover, but rather intends to transform her and bring her with him:

“He felt the warm drops trickle down his skin, and from his skin she drew into her eyes the saltness of the sea, which made her weep even more. He stroked her hair with a strong but soothing hand, and when she grew calm and lay still in his arms, her emotion spent, he sang quietly to a little enchanting tune a song that began:

I am a Man upon the land,

I am a Selkie in the sea,

And when I’m far from every strand

My home it is on Sule Skerry.

After the first verse or two she freed herself from his embrace, and sitting up listened gravely to the song. Then she asked him, ‘Shall I ever understand?’ ‘It’s not a unique occurrence,’ he told her. ‘It has happened quite often before, as I suppose you know. (...) The one thing that’s unique in our case, in my metamorphosis, is that I am the only seal-man who has ever become a Master of Arts of Edinburgh University.” (Eric Linklater, Sealskin Trousers.)

Is the magic of Orkney just the invention of over-romantic incomers or super sensitive artistic souls? That is up to you to decide. But I have certainly felt it. And even in Luke Sutherland’s novel, which is rather critical of Orkney in other respects, the magic is abundant. He concludes:

“Once you have lived there and come away you never quite stop pining for the beauty and magic. Regardless of the nastiness and violence and hate and how shittily people there have treated you, you can always imagine going back. What can I say? When I was a kid, I kind of took it for granted, but now I see how it’s almost everything I am. Islands everywhere. Seals singing all along the shorelines. Standing stones and ancient ruins as much a part of the landscape as the bothies and farms. Rusted battleships sunk in the sand at the Churchill Barriers. The diving, the fishing, the out and about in boats. Daylight to midnight in the summertime, and millions of miles of sea.” (Luke Sutherland, Venus as a Boy, pages 8-9).

So when it’s dark all day, the rain lashes horizontally against your window, the pieces of your shed or garage door lie scattered about in what’s left of your garden, and everything seems hopeless: Just pick up one of these books and remind yourself of why you love Orkney. And if you’re looking for me on Christmas Day, I’ll be wearing a ball gown, skydiving off Hoxa Head.


Ragnhild Ljosland. Originally published in The Orcadian, 29 December 2011