No a Petch on Birsay

The Orkney poet Robert Rendall (1898-1967) loved European travel almost as much as he loved his home islands. The antithesis of the parochial islander, he travelled extensively, sampling the cultures of Germany, France and Switzerland. He made no fewer than nine trips to Italy, and it was on one of these visits that he and a travelling companion stood on the Palatine Hill, surveying the glories of the city of Rome. ‘Hid’s bonny’, conceded the poet, ‘but hid’s no a petch on Birsay!’

Rendall was the comical and mildly eccentric local businessman who hated the monotony of town and commercial life. He fished for trout in the lochs and burns of his beloved Birsay. He painted the greens and browns of the Orkney landscape. He wrote respected scientific, archaeological and theological papers. He was at his happiest wandering the Atlantic shore at Buckquoy, or by the North Sea at Carness, his trademark cloth cap in his hand, filling it gradually with the sea shells he knew so well. He was ‘blide o ordinar folk’, and the Orkney countryside and its people held for him an endless fascination and joy. He was also, by the way, one of the great lyric poets of Scotland.

MacDiarmid’s achievements as a modernist writing Scots lyrics enabled Rendall to do something similar for his own locality, in a voice that was natural and alive. Rendall would not exaggerate the Nordic themes so beloved of many writers in Orkney, preferring to draw his inspiration from the likes of MacDiarmid, the Scots Ballads, or the Sixteenth Century Castalian sonneteers of the court of James VI. While his neighbour and friend the poet Chrissie Costie explored the kinship between Orkney Scots and the Scandinavian languages, Rendall placed himself quite firmly – and, it should be said, quite comfortably – in the Scots tradition. Key poems include ‘Cragsman’s Widow’, ‘By wi’ the Sea’, ‘The Planticru’, ‘The Fisherman’ and ‘Celestial Kinsmen’, poems which George Mackay Brown ranked as among the finest written in Scotland in the Twentieth Century.

One of the great triumphs for Orkney literature in recent years has been the long-awaited publication of Robert Rendall – Collected Poems , edited by John Flett Brown and Brian Murray. This book brings Rendall’s poetic work together in its entirety for the first time. Rendall’s themes are rural and philosophical, his instincts antiquarian. These points are summed up in an anecdote told to me by Bertie Harvey in Birsay. Rendall and his friend the QC Harald Leslie, Lord Birsay, were standing looking out to sea beside a drystane dyke near the Palace. Rendall invited his friend to rest his hand on the top of the dyke and look out towards the western horizon, saying to him: ‘Now you’ve got your hand on history, and your eye on eternity’.

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