The great skua is known in the Scottish islands as a bonxie, a Shetland name of Norse origin. He flies low over the sea but think of him cruising into a higher slipstream and circling the string of rocky outcrops that make these other islands, ‘the green hills and the blue waters of Orkney’, the treeless open ground where the men and women of the small population tend the planticrus (walled vegetable patches) and haul up their boats from the chafing sea onto the noust (a scooped-out trench atop a beach, protected by a shallow wall of stones), ready for the next foray into the waters for fish. The low walls are everywhere, sign of the need to win shelter from the wind that sweeps over the low ground, the wind that tosses the bonxie as he espies the pattern of existence that has been the same and changed endlessly over the centuries here.
For these islands have played unwilling host to succeeding waves of ‘land-hungerers’ as George Mackay Brown terms them in this novel, one of a series exploring the vicissitudes and intrigue of Orcadian life. In it he traces the dwindling lines of a story which slips in an out of the strands of history of these people – particularly the abiding menace of ‘war-hunger’: the advent of the Norsemen…the days when the Oracadian men marched south to join Robert the Bruce on the field of Bannockburn against the English come, in vain, to subdue all Scotland…the final chapter of the incursions, a great onslaught of concrete and tarmac at the outset of the war against Germany, laying flat the farms and holdings of the Orkneys as a base for fighter planes to combat the waves of bombers, slashing through the skies at speeds inconceivable to the bonxie and seeing beneath them, on the raw stone, scraped clear of ploughed farmland to make way for landing strips, men and women at war but not displacing the centuries-old hard toil of harbouring the fish, culling the oats for the staple cakes, churning the goat milk to butter and cheese, cutting the peat for the fires that must never be left to die out, for when a fire goes out ‘the croft dies’.
Mackay Brown is a writer of haunting spell, a compelling weaver of yarns – how apt that the image of the woollen garments the Oracadian women knit should chime with the tales that beguiled their long winter evenings by lamplight. He is an outstanding embodiment of what he calls ‘the music of (the) island speech’, a language that laces together Norse, English and Scots, exploring the pull of ‘the ocean of eternity, the many voiced sea’. One young woman, though, has a voice that is quite different. ‘Her speech had something of the music of breakers in a cave-mouth, or far-off horizon notes, or dolphins in the flood tide.’ She is a selkie. If you don’t know what a selkie is, what enchantment awaits you in finding out. For the selkie is part of the continuum of these island stories and Mackay Brown is a shrewd and kindly companion in the roaming through them.
At the conclusion of the novel, a woman returns there to live, to be with the man she met when she came first and they were young - he written off as an idler, a good-for-nothing and the central narrator of the stories that fill the book to bursting, like the stomachs of Burns’s haggis-feasters, ‘bent like drums’. She contemplates her future: 'I'll dig my three acres and milk my goat,' said Sophie. 'I'll settle for that. We never find what we set our hearts on. We ought to be glad of that.'
For there is no quarrelling with the wind or the winnowing storm. The choice is resignation or accommodation. The peoples of the island, prey to all manner of invasion and incursion, natural and human, are stuck, to a degree, but persist, somehow. Their wandering – their continued defiance - is expressed in the stories they tell, the plunderings of the outer reaches of the imagination where they travel in ‘dream time’ which they bring back to the fires in the crofts, the work on the creels outside the stone-built dwellings, the quiet of the times on the calm seas as they wait for fish...
‘The body laments, the body dances; from somewhere deep within, in the heart’s heart, or from beyond the furthest star, the good angel, the guardian,is playing on his pipe’.