Great Scottish Writers, George Mackay Brown (2019 ) The Golden Bird. Two Orkney Stories.
Posted by celticman on Sat, 03 Jun 2023
George Mackay Brown writes about what he knows. An Orkney life. His characters are crofters, grounded in the shallow soil and windblown sea, their surnames a mark of where they bide. One bleeds into the other in a communal life in which Mackay Brown is poetically versed.
The opening lines of The Golden Bird show this by documenting an island feud.
‘They had not spoken to each other, the crofts of Gorse and Feaquoy, for three generations.
And once Gorse and Feaquoy had shared the same boat, Hopeful. Together Amos of Gorse and Rob of Feaquoy had built hopeful on the greenward above the shore stones, when they were young men.’
The text hooks the reader with a question. What happened to these two men that shared a boat, Hopeful, and shared the largesse of the sea that not only kept them alive, but bound together in the deep?
The answer is in the paragraph that follows. Amos of Gorse had married Tomina from Voes. The following season, Rob married Mary Jean, who lived in the neighbouring croft, Aird.
Tomina and Mary Jean hate each other on sight. They tear into each other, raising blood. Amos and Rob’s attempts at reconciliation are met with a renewed vindictiveness. The men are forced apart and their children follow. Hopeful rots into the ground.
The Golden Bird of the title has two references. A (golden) eagle swoops and seemingly takes the son of Magnus and his wife Willa. It was common practice to take the youngest children out into the fields when harvesting barley and corn, and place them out of the sun, under a stook. The women cried, seeing it with something white in its talons. They went to check on their children.
Willa returned and told her neighbours her son, John, was missing. She left the field to look for him.
Magnus went to follow her, but stopped.
‘The child is dead,’ he said. ‘We may be sure of that. The living must have food next winter. I will go on with the scything.’
His late nineteen-century pragmatism seems by twenty-first century standards almost crueller than the laird. But the Orkney then was of if you don’t work, you don’t eat, not metaphorically, but literally. Without each croft owner helping their neighbouring crofts to bring in the harvest, more than one infant would die. Orkney men did not learn how to swim. The sea must also have its offerings. Paganism rubs shoulders with Christianity.
But there is a happy ending of sorts. Willa claims to have climbed the eyrie and taken her child from the nest. Her son was thereafter referred to as Eagle John. Willa had scars on her wrist and arm to prove she’d won that fight.
Eagle John attends the same school as the sons of Gorse and Feaquoy, Peter Sinclair and David Flett and the other crofts. Macfarlane, their teacher, was an outsider. But in all his teaching years he’d never taught anyone as able as Eagle John. He urged his parents to let him continue his education in Edinburgh or Aberdeen where they had universities, and even assistance for pauper students.
The savant, Eagle John, returns to the island with a degree in Classics and takes up the job of teaching, after a woman school teacher, Miss Yvonne Strachan, had left for another position in Kirkcaldy, but takes a piece of Orkney with her, marrying an island man. She was a modern woman, a vegetarian, who got on the wrong side of the gentry and laird with her outspoken opinions. Eagle John stepped out of the past and into the present, an outside and insider, that champion’s progress. He lets it be known, for example, he doesn’t believe in selkies, or the rumours his own mum plucked him from an eagle’s nest. Her cuts had come from stumbling against a scythe.
David Flett uses his inheritance of £100 to buy a boat—with no sails and an engine. Around the price, Jock Voe hoped to but the Brett croft in a public auction. The boat is a marvel of the age. He can go out further and for longer than the other crofters. Like those other fishing boats with engines and big nets that had come into their shores. Outsiders had swooped and taken most of the fish. Orkney islanders, such as Flett, had pushed off from shore. They cut their nets at night, in an attempt to stall and dissuade them from leaving them little food and thin pickings as any laird. David Flett was no Luddite. If you can’t beat them, join them mantra. His boat, The Golden Bird, was a sign of progress, but also the destruction of a traditional way of life (then as now with larger and larger factory ships).
Home remedies are best? Read on.