Ghosts, Stones, the Sunset


Every six months or so, the sale ring of the Orkney Auction Mart in Kirkwall is swept clean with a stiff byre broom, and made ready for a sale of Orkney books. The muscular Limousin steers or prime Texel lambs usually passing through this ring make way on these occasions for other products of the islands’ agricultural hinterland. Dusty copies of Eric Linklater’s magnificent Orkney novels. Sooty collected folk tales or histories by Walter Traill Dennison or Ernest Marwick. Slim volumes of exquisite verse, written by Robert Rendall or Christina Costie in the Orcadian variety of the Scots language, their pastel-coloured dust-jackets faded with age. The air carries a powerful smell of livestock. On the surrounding benches – usually populated by canny Aberdeenshire buyers – assembles a discerning local clientele. The auctioneer begins his rhythmic chant. The gavel cracks.

One book above all others has the power to create a frisson among the seasoned Orkney book buyers: The Storm and Other Poems, by George Mackay Brown. It’s more than sixty years since this maiden work of the great poet appeared, and the story of its publication has become a local legend. The young Brown was dogged by a black combination of tuberculosis, depression, and near-alcoholism. Had it not been for the love of a devoted mother, Mhairi Brown, and the guidance of a poetic mentor, the Orcadian modernist Edwin Muir, the great bard of Stromness might never have made it into print. But thanks to the encouragement of Muir, who wrote of the ‘grace’ of these early poems, and the help of the historian Ernest Marwick, who published two of them in An Anthology of Orkney Verse (1949), Brown found the self-belief to complete his first collection, and the courage to take it to a Kirkwall publisher, The Orkney Herald. A modest run of three hundred copies of The Storm and Other Poems went ahead, after which the press was dismantled. The book promptly sold out, and the rest is Scottish Literary History. Over the next three decades, George Mackay Brown became internationally famous, earning the acclaim of poets and critics the world over. A fragile copy of The Storm and Other Poems that has lain in a drawer in an Orkney farmhouse, the damp air of sixty northern winters rusting its staples, has the power today to excite the passions of even the most reserved and conservative of book buyers at the Orkney Auction Mart.

Some of the poems in The Storm and Other Poems brim with a kind of Hopkinsean gusto that is typical of Brown’s early work. The title poem especially is loud, dramatic, and flamboyantly musical. And there are occasional flashes in The Storm and Other Poems of a punky young poet, setting out to sing ‘for Scotland, that Knox ruined nation’, nationalistic and confrontational in a way that readers of the later Brown wouldn’t quite recognise. But of course, his perennial themes – land and sea, farming and fishing, sanctity and sacrifice, history and cycle – are all there from the outset.

Brown was born to be the poet of his community. His point in history enabled him to create a bridge between the ancient agrarian and maritime Orkney of the peasants and the jarls, and the modern world of international communication, publishing and poetry. His circumstances dictated that he would never be able to hold down any other kind of job, and so there was an inevitability to his development as a poet and author. And his rise to prominence during the sixties and seventies coincided with wider New Age ideals of a reversion to innocence and a seeking after pure sources. For many metropolitan migrants these ideals extended to uprooting themselves and moving lock, stock and barrel to some of the ‘remoter’ parts of Scotland. Brown’s work, which is scathing towards modernity, science, technology, and nuclear weaponry, struck a chord with an idealistic generation of southern readers. 

Critics lauded Brown’s ‘unadulterated’ art, and were blown away by the ‘purity’ of his poetics, imagining that this meticulously crafted and painstakingly developed poetry had somehow always been here in the distant north, like Neolithic treasure waiting to be lifted by southern hands from the damp northern clay. And while it may represent part of the truth of GMB’s art, this view fails to sufficiently recognise his dedication, his extensive reading, his literary network, or his individual genius – not to mention a certain canniness, his sense of the wider audience sitting round the sale-ring. 

A cynic might say that those ‘pure sources’ of Brown’s poetry have all but dried up in Orkney today. Wind turbines grind out their clean energy. Every square metre of pasture or tilth is satellite-mapped, assessed, and subsidised. Hundreds of thousands of tourists spill from ocean liners to shuffle round the rocks at Skara Brae and the Ring of Brodgar. The tides, the waves, and the very seabed have been leased to renewable energy developers. You can drive the roads of the West Mainland late in a summer evening before harvest time, seeking George Mackay Brown’s mythology, but all you’ll find are ghosts, stones, the sunset.

(Adapted from the introduction to Orcadians: Seven Impromptus by George Mackay Brown with illustrations by Simon Manfield, published by Kettillonia: )


Haggis tasting notes, and whisky pairings


The Olivebank Haggis, Island Nation o Stronsay, Orkney

It’s a common misconception that aal haggis is the same. Nothing could be further fae the truth. As always, we aim tae promote cultural diversity – wae a peedie bit o positive northern chauvinism thrown in for good measure. This month, Brisknortherly brings you tasting notes tae three classic haggises o the north.

Haggis #1 – George Donaldson and Sons, Kirkwall, Orkney

Generations o Orcadians hiv been browt up on Donaldsons’ haggis. This is an exceptionally light haggis, wae a very high oatmeal content – meaning the haggis can be fluffed wae a fork. The colour is light, and the morsels o meat dotted among the oatmeal mean the cooked product has a bonny speckled appearance, like the breist o a Mistlethrush. The flavour is mild – as haggises go – but rich nevertheless. Donaldson’s is an outstandingly good haggis, made tae an owld family recipe. If you are new tae haggis, this is the ideal introduction. Serve wae clapshot, and pair wae Scapa the Orcadian single malt – because a refined pudding deserves a polite whisky.

Haggis #2 – George Cockburn and Son, Dingwall, Highland

This Hieland haggis is especially moist and mealy, wae powerful aromas o gravy and caramelised onion. High oatmeal content again maks for a haggis that is faer lighter and moister than supermarket haggises, or indeed the styles o haggis typically prepared in southern Scotland. (Brisknortherly’s advice is never tae buy a supermarket haggis.) Cockburn’s semolina-textured haggis has been judged the world’s best, proving ye don’t even need tae drive sooth o Inverness tae sample the cream o the crop. Serve this noble baest wae clapshot, mince and gravy (yes, a peedie bit o mince and gravy is traditional wae haggis!) and pair wae Laphroaig for a bit o complementary paet reek.

Haggis #3 – Maurice Williamson, Isle o Stronsay, Orkney

And this ane is completely different again! A denser haggis, wae cheust the right balance o cloves (more cloves than Donaldson’s or Cockburn’s, BTW, so a sweeter flavour) and a generous dash o white pepper that’s verging on pungent, but doesna owerstep the mark. An exotic pork haggis, Williamson’s honest sonsie face when boiled and drained luks like a marble boulder. Cut it open, and the pork heart nuggets inside are sweet chocolate chips in a plum duff. This is yet anither very fine haggis, fae a plucky, independent producer in a properly peripheral place. Fair fa ye, Olivebank butchers! Serve wae mashed tatties and a dram o Owld Pulteney – salt tae go wae the pepper 🙂


Dandie Dinmont


This is the dog that was invented by Sir Walter Scott. Well, that’s not strictly true. Scott was responsible for the ‘invention’ of many Scottish myths, as well as the global popularisation of many Scottish truths. Sometimes it’s difficult to tell where fact ends and where fiction begins. But when, in his 1815 novel Guy Mannering, Scott invented the dog-loving farmer character Dandie Dinmont, he coined a suitably colourful and comical name for what is probably the oldest breed of dog in Scotland; a proper terrier that had been catching rats, roaming the heather, and digging holes in the Scottish Borders for centuries.

The Dandie Dinmont is a mixter-maxter. The long body is reminiscent of a Dachshund (Dandies were known to have been put to ground to dig out large quarry such as badgers). The tail of a happy Dandie rotates like a hound’s tail. The head is heavy, not unlike the head of a Skye Terrier or a Scottie, and is topped with a silky ‘topknot’ of fine hair. The eyes are large, lustrous, and soulful. For a small dog, the Dandie has disproportionately large, powerful front legs and paws, designed for digging. The bark is deep and throaty – suggestive of a much larger animal.

Our family have been the privileged owners of two Dandie Dinmont terriers. Archie, pictured above, was a ‘pepper’ coloured dog, while Fara (pictured bottom) is a ‘mustard’ bitch.

Between them, Archie and Fara produced ten pups. We are very proud of their contribution, because the Dandie Dinmont is now a critically vulnerable breed, with only 130 pups being born in the UK last year. (By comparison, there were 35,000 Labrador pups, and 30,000 French Bulldogs.) In 2011, Fara delivered us a Christmas gift of six pups, which made for a lively holiday season. Some of the owners of these pups have become friends, and we keep in touch with people in Glasgow, the Scottish Borders, and in the Netherlands who have our Dandies.


I can say with complete impartiality that Fara is beyond doubt the finest and best-behaved dog that I have ever had the good fortune to own. She is sweet-natured, loyal and loving. She is impeccably well behaved. She sheds no hair. As I write this on a cold November afternoon, she sleeps at my feet between the sofa and the wood burner. When I ask her whether she agrees with my views on Brexit, her tail rotates accordingly.

The Brisknortherly blog is falling into a bit of a pattern of lamenting the loss, in the face of global standardisation and conformity, of things that are culturally unique. I offer no apology. There are breeds of lovely dogs like the Labrador or the French Bulldog that are hugely fashionable, and which whelp in their tens of thousands each year, and then there are the vulnerable breeds. I wish more folk would consider the endangered dogs. There is literally nothing like them. Sir Walter Scott’s invention, like so many other wonderful things, is on the verge of endless extinction.


Lands o Twatt

fullsizeoutput_1bThrough no fault o its own, the district o Twatt has become the most ridiculed in Orkney.

Eighty year ago, wartime servicemen sniggered like schoolboys when they discovered they were being posted tae the Twatt Aerodrome. Nooadays, English tourists delight in takkan selfies wae the arrow o the Twatt roadsign aimed at their grinning, empty heids. Tack shops in Kirkwall capitalise, flogging Twatt mugs and t-shirts tae ignorant punters. Aal o this is just the worst kind of patronising cultural misappropriation. The name is Old Norse, and it means ‘The Cleared Place’.

Me own recent experience o the district o Twatt is as a novice tenant fermer. I rent a bit o grund there fae me fither-in-law. I keep sheep, and it’s been a steep learning curve. The grund is heavy, acidic, and dense wae clay. It’s weet and cowld, and, as a neebor remarked tae me,  ‘hid’s slow tae come in the springtime’. Rashes and parasites thrive. The rock is close tae the surface, and tae plough is tae bring up stones in thur hunders and thoosands.

But aal o this is counterbalanced by the pure and absolute joy o country life in the West Mainland. A merlin crosses a field in a January gale, eight inches fae the grund. A stoat darts doon a ditch. A hunder Golden Plover alight in late winter sunshine. The brier comes on the fields in the springtime. Whaups’ nests and shalders’ nests appear. There’s the glory o cut hay, turning like a green wake in the rear-view mirror o the tractor. Silage and hay bales are the bounty of summer. A crop o fresh mushrooms appears miraculously on a damp August morning. Lambs gain weight, content on new pasture. A hare shoots oot o a peedie hollow; I stoop tae feel its residual body heat on the gress. And, best o aal, me good neebors in the owld districts o Reekiebraes and Durkadale have shown me nothing but kindness, and have given me their unconditional help, and their carefully considered advice.


Tame Hogmanay


Moonrise ower Wyre fae Evie

Orkney’s New Year traditions are no whit they used tae be. In the last twenty year, the tradition o First Footan his aalmost completely died oot. It used tae be that ye could visit any hoose in yur neighbourhood eftir the bells, sure o a warm welcome, a dram and some supper.

Gangs o young folk wid waander fae wan hoose tae anither and anither – the length o a parish or a small isle. A neebor tells me that when he flit intae his new hoose in the West Mainland in the late eighties he hid a hunder visitors the first New Year.

The celebration wis immense, and the drinking wis legendary. It wis aal the better because ye didna ken who might turn up, or whit might happen. When Hogmanay came roond there wis a mixture o trepidation and excitement. Gossip and funny stories were repeated, and it gaed ye a rare chance tae sit doon and enjoy the company o neighbours, freends, and family. Ye took a peedie gless o whisky, and moved on kweekly. It wis unpredictable, and it wis great fun.

Nooadays, half the country hooses are inhabited by folk belonging tae the new, mobile, professional class. A lot o rural Orkney is effectively a commuter belt for workers in the Toon, and many o these folk set off on the first boat sooth when the Christmas holidays begin. There’s no the same critical mass o likeminded neebors sharing an Orcadian culture. Wur traditional fower- or five-day-long festival o wild daftness his geen wey tae controlled family ‘New Year’s Eve’ parties, tae planned ‘open hoose’ nights, or, worst o all, tae Tesco Kirkwall urging us tae ‘celebrate Hogmanay’ – but whit dis Tesco really ken aboot Hogmanay, apert fae the name?

I’m minded o George Mackay Brown and Ernest Marwick writan oot lists o things they hid seen disappear fae Orkney in thur lifetimes. These writers hid a romantic urge tae record the last o things as they remembered them: workan watter mills; strings o sillocks dryan in the wind; rare Orkney words. Hoo sad it will be if we hiv tae add ‘Hogmanay’ and ‘First Footeen’ tae this evocative list.

So, Ah’ll be settan oot shortly tae First Foot wan or two o the neebors wae a bottle o whisky and a couple o funny stories Ah’m heard lately. I hope ye’ll mibby brave the cowld waather and dae the same yersels. A Happy New Year tae ye, beuys and lasses!



Review: ‘Swiet Haar’ and ‘Dark Island’ (Abersee Press)

Swiet-Haar-FB cover

Swiet Haar, the first of these two new chapbooks from the Stenness-based Abersee press, brings together two established, stellar figures from Shetland literature with two younger but equally exciting Orcadian writers.

The Shelties are Robert Alan Jamieson and Christine De Luca. Jamieson is the novelist and poet who lectures in creative writing at the University of Edinburgh, while De Luca is the current Edinburgh Makar, the official poet of the city.

Highlights of the poetry collected here include Jamieson’s lyrical Shetlandic versions of a range of Icelandic, Norwegian, Faroese and Orcadian poems (the title ‘Swiet Haar’ comes from his translation of the GMB classic ‘Hamnavoe Market’), while De Luca’s ‘Digestin a poem’ is a sharp Shetland satire on Hugh MacDiarmid’s pompously ‘intellectual’ appropriation of Norn language during his residence in Whalsay in the thirties.

The first of the two Orkney writers represented in ‘Swiet Haar’ is Kevin Cormack, the Kirkwall-born artist and musician who now lives in London. Cormack is emerging as an especially interesting poet. His work gathers family, personal, or community memories, rendering them in particularly sure-footed Orcadian; maybe this has to do with his musician’s ear. The poems are postmodern, lyrical, and often satisfyingly surreal. There is a little darkness and lot of wit in all of them.

Cormack’s ‘Hert’, I think, is a poem that will find its way into a future anthology of the best Orkney poems of the 21st century. It is certainly a community poem, but it’s also a slightly dark, contemporary piece without sentimentality, and with none of the literary ‘heritage’ problems that are apt to afflict writers in rural parts of Scotland: ‘Wur hert is a ba./ A cork-filled, leather-bound,/ harlequin, humbug ba. A game,/ played through the streets – a skreed,/ a scrum, a buull in a china shop,/ driven up t’waard the hospital, or doon/ t’waard the pier -/ bite the watter or bite the waall.’

There’s also a short and poetic prose piece – previously unpublished – from Amy Liptrot, author of the now famous memoir The Outrun. ‘Sunlight on Stone’ is a finely crafted essay where Liptrot reflects with characteristic candour on homesickness, and the curiously comforting prospect of carving the letters on her own gravestone.

The other booklet of this pair, Dark Island, represents the most welcome return, after a long absence, of Duncan McLean the writer of fiction – reinvented as an integral part of the emergent and indigenous Orkney literary scene. Well, I say ‘reinvented’, but there’s all of the trademark wit and outrageous satire that we know, love and expect from McLean – it’s just that now these talents are being applied to contemporary Orkney. Stories like ‘Larkan’, ‘Housewarming’ or ‘Twatt’s Tearoom’ are deadpan hilarious, and we should be glad that we have a writer this sharp and this perceptive in our midst.

A great many people are writing fiction about Orkney these days, and some of them, I might sarcastically add, have even visited Orkney. But we can’t accuse Duncan McLean of cultural appropriation – he’s been here too long, and he’s simply too accurate, too entertaining, and too perceptive for that. McLean might never be an ‘insider’ Orkney writer, but he’s the next best thing – an honorary Orcadian, and ‘Dark Island’ represents a bizarre, irreverent and absolutely necessary component of our new island canon

Dark Island FB cover

Swiet Haar and Dark Island are available from Stromness Books and Prints, The Orcadian Bookshop, and Kirkness and Gorie.

Patron Saint of Electricians


No one of my generation can walk round the glorious port of Gdansk without thinking of Lech Walesa. The heroic, moustached electrician and activist was the darling of the British media in the eighties. We rooted for him, and for the wider Solidarity movement.

Walesa was that rare thing, a true socialist, demanding the return of workers’ rights from the bloated communist elite, and lighting the spark that eventually resulted in the collapse of the Soviet Union. Under the dockyard cranes he spoke, incomprehensible and urgent in the Baltic sunlight, demanding justice. An inspirational Pole.

Behind the docks is the magesterial new Museum of World War Two, and to view it is a harrowing experience, like visiting a concentration camp. I spent four hours there, and was reduced to tears. The Polish perspective on WW2 is vital. For Poland was destroyed twice: once by the bastard Nazis, and then again by the rapists of the Red Army. Being a refugee, a migrant, a traveller and survivor by necessity, is at the core of the Polish experience.

The Gdansk old town was completely obliterated. So the medieval crane and bright gables of today’s dock front – indeed all the central streets and buildings – are modern replicas, rebuilt to the original specifications. St Mary’s church, the largest brick built cathedral on earth, was pieced together again brick by brick; such is the devotion of the Gdansk faithful. Every European should see this magnificent town now.


But the realities of Lech Walesa’s later political career are more difficult to chart. Some allege that he colluded with the Communist secret service. The older Walesa has proved to be small c conservative in the nasty way, and seems pretty narrowly nationalistic in his outlook. Other aspects of Poland emerge. Gay visitors, a guide book points out, should remember they are not in Soho any more. And the backward Right are on the march in Poland’s city squares, perverters of their own history. It seems to me that the Poles – of all people – should know exactly what it means to be persecuted, to be refugees.


Poor Peedie Gaelic

Poor peedie Gaelic.

Peedie tottie grottie buckie.

Atlantic o pressure bearan doon on thee.

Hoo kin thoo stand it, peedie thing?

Thoo’re only peedie.


Poor peedie Gaelic.

Empty shell cast up on a skerry.

Ootcast on the maritime periphery.

Peedie breist wae livan, roseate hue.

But when I turn thee ower I see

A peedie skull grinnan back at me.


Still, thoo are blessed compared wae me:

Thur’s Alba on the BBC,

A Language Act fur aal tae see,

And thoo’re distinct.

But haters willna let iss be,

Till wu’r extinct.

IMG_0225Listen to Poor Peedie Gaelic, read by the poet on Soundcloud:

New Lambs, Owld Stone



Picture: Anja Hall

Sorry, but the picture o the lambs is cheust clickbait. This post is aboot sometheen else. It’s aboot pittan up a new lambeen shed. Read on, though! Pittan up a new shed is a big event.

Ally arrived shortly eftir Christmas wae his Japanese digger tae dig oot the found. He worked long oors, and soon struck rock; the kind o stuff we caal ‘blue whin’, tae be precise. Haird as diamond. Whit ancient sediment wis he brakkan up? Whittiver it wis, stoor stood oot o it when Ally pit the brakkar on it. That slowed us doon a bit. We enjoyed Ally’s company when he wis here. But when he wis feeneeshed, we didna miss the noise o the brakkar gaan aal weekend long. D D. Ddd ddd ddd ddd ddd ddd ddd ddd ddd ddd ddd. Ddd ddd. D d. d.

Eftir the hole wis dug, Bruce and Scott arrived tae assemble the kit. It gaed up in no time. These boys work haird, teu. And in any weather. Drivan rain, howlan wind, freezan cowld. Nane o it bothered them much – they cheust worked and worked and worked. And the shed wis up – a bonny new structure gleaman in the April sunshine. They got the concrete floor poored in the nick o time.


So. Tak the sheep in, and stert lamban. The usual, cutesy ‘Lambing Diary’ stuff sterts tae happen. Multiple births. Easy lambeens. Bad lambeens. Up aal night. Unsuccessful adoptions. Successful adoptions. Orf. Snatchan some sleep through the day when ye can. Calorific breakfasts, and litres o cappuccino. Faalan asleep on a weet bale in the new shed at 4.45 am. Steam in the haet o the piggy bulbs. Milk. Mithers. Atrocious waather. Joni Mitchell on the radio. Boiler suits laggered in … best no tae say. Red Throated Divers caalan ootside. Peedie lambs gaan Meeeh! Meeeh! Meeeh! till yur cheust aboot demented wae it.

Soon, the new shed, that began as an empty hole in the grunnd, is fill o life.

I step ootsite the shed door wan morneen at aboot 6.00. The sun is shinan eftir a few days o April shooers. The rain haes washed the gutter fae the thoosand fragments o blue whin that lie aal roond the site. In the corner o me eye, I see the fossilised underjaw o a peedie fish – no unlike a troot fae the Harray Loch. If thur’s new life in the new shed, then thur’s the remains o some o the owldest life on Earth rooed up ootside. Fossil fish fae the sediment o Devonian Loch Orcadie, when Orkney wis in the southern hemisphere.


Island driving etiquette

Learning tae drive on an island is easier than learning tae drive in a city. No roondaboots. No traffic lights. No dual carriageway. Ye might hiv tae watch oot for ducks crossing. Or owld fermers oot for a slow drive, lukkan at the kye. But there’s no doot, it’s easier tae learn tae drive on an island.

Ye come tae understand that ye’ll probably recognise just aboot everybody ye meet on the road. When ye’re gettan lessons, ye mak a peedie, surreptitious glance at the driver o every vehicle ye pass (hoping your driving instructor doesna notice). When you pass your test, you are free tae gie them aal a freendly wave when ye meet; it’s fun when ye see yer pals.

Folk hiv got their own, idiosyncratic waves that they use when drivan. Wan freend acknowledges ye wae an almost imperceptible lift o the finger. Anither flaps his airm up so high he hits the roof o the ker.

So it saddens me that there’s a lot o folk livan here noo who hiv no idea aboot island road etiquette whitsoever.

An owld freend o mine, who is in his 80s, wis accosted in November by a fast driver who nearly ran intae him in a 30 MPH zone. The driver pulled in ahead o him, and accused me freend o pullan oot in front o him. When me freend pointed oot that is wis a 30 zone, the ither driver became aggressive. Anither freend haed the misfortune tae go off the road on the ice in December, ending up in a field. A passing driver stopped, not tae ask if he wis OK, but tae shout ‘idiot’ at him. Giving a teenager a lesson in Kirkwall last week, I couldna believe it when a ker behint impatiently peeped the horn at her.

Whit folk like these fail tae appreciate is that this island only has a limited number of folk, and a limited number o roads. Ye’ll go roond and roond, and meet the sam folk ower and ower again. It’s worth mindan on that the sam applies tae island life in general. That’s why we tend tae be polite folk, who avoid confrontation if we can help it. 21st century road-rage doesna work in wae island living.