June 16th, 2008


The Orcadian

George Mackay Brown, the unworldly lantern-jawed Orkney poet who looked like a cross between Stan Laurel and Donovan, has dominated our last couple of days. We've been walking, my mother and I, up and down the fairytale-pretty main street of Stromness, his town. And I've been reading the columns he wrote for The Orcadian, the local paper (but read by Orkney exiles all over the world) between 1970 and 1996, when he died of alcohol-induced liver fatigue. He doesn't seem to have been a happy man at all, but he finds startlingly apt phrases, and his stories have a folksy clarity to them.

Mackay Brown found the urban nihilist Modernism of writers like Beckett and Burroughs (and even Muriel Spark) repellent, and turned instead to ancient themes, playfulness, directness, clarity, sincerity, sentiment. And, importantly, he looks incredibly Pictish and nordic.

We've seen so many neolithic houses, villages, burial sites now that they're all beginning to blur into one. Yesterday it was the Standing Stones of Brogar, and Skara Brae. Today we spent an hour inside a 5000 year-old burial mound which, on the day of the winter solstice, is flooded with light lined up between two hills and a distant standing stone. I should probaby have felt awestruck, but I think I have some kind of awe blindspot. All I think about is how we might be able to use some of these forms today. With that in mind -- copying some cool designs -- the things which have impressed me most have been the kidney-shaped Bronze Age buildings at Jarlshof in Shetland, a fringed hide hood and cape top combo found in an Orkney bog and restored by the Kirkwall Museum, and a restored crofthouse, with its capsule hotel-like box beds -- places of warmth and micro-privacy where adult crofters could fuck even with children in the room. Oh, and I love the wicker Orkney chairs, which supply semi-privacy by means of wicker. I love anything wickery. And the smell of burning peat.

This would all make much more sense with pictures. I've taken thousands, but they'll have to wait until midweek. Tomorrow I'll be revisiting student haunts in Aberdeen.