An Orkney Tapestry by George Mackay Brown - review by John Burnside

John Burnside

Et in Orcadia Ego

An Orkney Tapestry


Polygon 304pp £12.99

‘Art, considered as the expression of any people as a whole, is the response they make in various mediums to the impact that the totality of their experience makes upon them, and there is no sort of experience that works so constantly and subtly upon man as his regional environment,’ wrote Mary Austin in The English Journal in 1932.  ‘It orders and determines all the direct, practical ways of his getting up and lying down, of staying in and going out, of housing and clothing and food-getting; it arranges by its progressions of seed times and harvest, its rain and wind and burning suns, the rhythms of his work and amusements. It is the thing always before his eye, always at his ear, always underfoot.’

In this short article, one of the most precise definitions of regionalism ever written, Austin was talking specifically about American fiction, but her reasoning could just as easily be applied to George Mackay Brown, whose work, throughout a long and varied career, not only captures the totality of Orcadian life but also draws from that life a humane vision of creaturely dwelling, of man’s symbiotic relationship with the land and its history that, to his mind, was becoming dangerously eroded by the treacherous mythologising of ‘progress’. Nowhere was that vision more inventively expressed than in An Orkney Tapestry, a book that, as its title suggests, weaves together a series of lyrical essays on the topology, wildlife and art of the islands, with meditations on the twin aspects of Orcadian folk beliefs (which Brown divides into ‘Midsummer’ and ‘Midwinter’ lore) and, perhaps most powerfully, a panoramic history of the Hoy settlement of Rackwick, from the arrival of the first longships to the present. Rather daringly, he adds to this mix a running stream of incidental poetry and even a self-contained play, entitled ‘The Watcher’, about a cobbler of Hamnavoe (the old name for Stromness), a pompous laird and a mystery at sea. What binds all this together is the author’s poetic sense: even the stage directions of ‘The Watcher’ are slyly lyrical, with one character’s smile described as ‘a momentary brightness like buttercups over a grave’.

It could be argued that Brown took his regional sensibility one step further by creating a land-based metaphysic that seems even more urgent now than it did in 1969, when An Orkney Tapestry first appeared. Increasingly troubled by what he called the ‘new religion’ of progress – ‘concerned only with material things … a rootless utilitarian faith, without beauty or mystery’ – he offered in An Orkney Tapestry (originally commissioned by Gollancz as a tourist guide) a lyrical investigation of all the ways that our connection with the land (or lack of it) determines our sense of belonging. In the chapter he dedicates to ‘Lore’, for example, he observes: ‘The rhythms of art were closely related to the seasonal rhythms, to a dark potent chthonic energy that raised cornstalk and rose from their roots underground. Grave and womb deepened the mystery; in those darknesses, too, new life quickened and burgeoned. Ploughing and love have always been linked in the imagination of farmers’ – and he adds:

Death was the third part of this trinity; and all three were gathered up into the crowning idea of resurrection. The crofter could not fail to be impressed by this. For him life and death were not stark opposites but woven the one into the other, a seamless garment … These profound frightening mysterious energies lay deep in the earth the crofter tilled. The same energies were present to him in a delightful way in fiddle music and ballad. He was a part of the earth, he was a part of the dance.

This sort of thing was, to say the least, unexpected in a work that was supposed to be ‘a glorified guidebook’ – and, in 1969, several critics picked up on the apparent incongruity (‘a poet cannot be expected to compose a guide book,’ opined Eric Linklater in The Guardian), while others objected to Brown’s jeremiad against progress, with New Society’s reviewer, Pat Barr, railing against ‘this patchwork tapestry with its somewhat strident, ill-supported opinions on the nature of demon progress’. It is revealing, now, to read these attacks on An Orkney Tapestry, as quoted in Linden Bicket and Kirsteen McCue’s excellent introduction to this new edition of the book, republished for the first time since 1978 to mark the centenary of Brown’s birth. How could those reviewers have guessed, in 1969, where a slavish devotion to progress might lead us during the next fifty years? Yet Brown knew – and it is to his credit that he transformed a seemingly routine commission into an exemplary praise song of the Orkney archipelago, a land where the dark chthonic energy that raises cornstalk and rose from their roots is perhaps more present than anywhere else in Britain. Drawing on all the marks left by earlier Orcadians, from the Neolithic people who made the Ring of Brodgar and Maeshowe, through the Vikings to poets like Edwin Muir and Robert Rendall (‘a draper in Kirkwall who taught himself to be a world-acknowledged expert on shells and the life of the shore, and in the latter part of his life wrote marvellous lyrics’), Brown offers his imaginary traveller a good deal more than a factual history of St Magnus Cathedral or where to find a nice cream tea in St Margaret’s Hope.

As to form, it must be said that Pat Barr’s description of the book as a ‘patchwork tapestry’ could not be more wrong. Patchwork is makeshift, haphazard: it involves roughly matching scraps of available material and stitching them together to make a passable whole. A tapestry is something far more artful – and Brown’s tapestry is beautifully wrought, combining poetry and prose, personal reminiscence, folklore and, yes, a prophetic gift for jeremiad, to make a rich and multi-layered whole. As Seamus Heaney noted, in his own, perhaps more insightful review, ‘The whole thing is a kind of loosely organised poem although there isn’t a loosely written sentence in the book. The style is what holds the essays together, plain and carefully locked as a dry-stone wall.’ There is no better entry point to Brown’s work in all its facets than An Orkney Tapestry, which still stands not only as one of the finest regional works of the last century or so but also as a lyrical and moving meditation on art, death and resurrection.

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