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Simon Hall,The History of Orkney Literature

Edinburgh: John Donald/Birlinn, 2010

224 pp., ISBN: 1906566216, £20


Reviewed by Manfred Malzahn


There are books whose very existence is bound to raise eyebrows: and The History of Orkney Literature by Simon Hall is surely one of them. As would e.g. A Companion to German Humour, the simple noun phrase of Hall’s title contains a bold proposition asking to be verified by argument and evidence. His self-set challenge is not, however, merely to prove that there is such a thing as Orkney literature; of this alone, it would be fairly easy to convince any Doubting Tams by pointing out a few salient examples. The greater part of Hall’s declared task is to demonstrate that the growth and development of Orkney literature can be charted in a coherent historical narrative. If we agree to gauge the magnitude of any such undertaking in inverse proportion to the size of the community dealt with, we should come to see in Hall’s project a truly gargantuan venture and a prime example of literary history as provocation, to borrow a term coined by German scholar Hans Robert Jauss in the late 1960s.

It is not so long ago, after all, that historical accounts of Scottish literature were likely to meet with similar incredulity, and not just from the totally ignorant. Hall’s pioneering spirit both echoes and exceeds that of Kurt Wittig, who just over five decades earlier chose to foreground authors and works commonly placed on the margin of English literary histories as e.g. Scottish Chaucerian or Pre-Romantic, and to parade them as central to The Scottish Tradition in Literature. Hall in turn accords centrality to Edwin Muir, Eric Linklater or George Mackay Brown, all in different ways odd men out in twentieth-century Scottish writing, and now joined at the Orcadian centre-stage by figures hardly ever represented in Scottish literary historiography, such as Walter Traill Dennison, Robert Rendall, or Ann Scott-Moncrieff. While this is a logical continuation of literary devolution, it also tests the limits of the process, by zooming in on a territory that counts no more than 20,000 inhabitants. Local histories have surely been written about many smaller communities, but literary history is a different story.

Simon Hall is nothing if not conscious of the difficulties inherent in his chosen enterprise, and this consciousness contributes to the scale of his success. He makes no bones about lacunae apparently militating against efforts to find continuity: but in acknowledging rather than glossing over blatant discontinuities, Hall’s vision of an ongoing if not unbroken thread accommodates a gap of more than a century between the fictionalisations of Orkney in Scott’s The Pirate and in Linklater’s White-Maa’s Saga, and even a hiatus of more than seven centuries between the Orkneyinga Saga and the poetry revival of the 1940s and 1950s. Moreover, by linking virtually all Orkney literature until the present day to the Saga as Ur-text, Hall’s inventory establishes a sense of both long lineage and specific difference. In his portrayal, the Orkney canon is further distinguished by recurring literary topoi, themes or motifs related to a particular kind of world view, which is in turn the product of a particular island experience.

While Hall does not presume to speak of, let alone for a homogeneous population whose members would all think and feel the same, he does highlight patterns of thought and expression as being peculiar to and characteristic of Orkney. One of these patterns is grounded on a perception of nature as essentially benevolent; this Hall finds epitomised for instance in Rendall’s poetry, by ‘a clifftop view looking down over a reassuringly sun-warmed island and its surrounding waters to suggest ... a natural order and the regenerative, cosmic tidal rhythm’. Hall’s survey shows that in spite of Orkney’s northern and windswept location, its literature typically tends to envisage the place as one that provides amply for its people, but not to an extent that would unduly favour the accumulation of riches, and hence foster a sharp class division. Consequently, Hall suggests, the Orcadian Weltanschauung grown out of such circumstances had but little room for what flavoured the writings of Rendall’s contemporaries in the so-called Scottish Renaissance of the early twentieth century, and most notably those of Hugh MacDiarmid: a mixture of cosmic pessimism and social radicalism.

If an Orcadian such as Edwin Muir came to see the world as ‘governed and corrupted by market forces’ that eventually drove his family out of Orkney, Hall emphasises that ‘it was only once he was actually resident in Glasgow that these negative aspects of the capitalist system became fully apparent to him’. Images of the Garden, the Fall and the Expulsion in Muir’s work are shown to link the real via the imagined Orkney with a particular state of mind: markedly post-Edenic, yet confident and hopeful. This provides the leitmotif also in Hall’s discussion of George Mackay Brown, who predictably and fittingly gets more attention than any other individual writer. Hall once again stresses difference by remarking e.g. that ‘characters, location, language, or patterning of Brown’s fiction could not be further removed from the work of Scottish contemporaries’. Hall also makes no bones about his admiration for Brown: and to me, the in-your-face pro-Brown bias is a fair counterweight to the less enthusiastic stance of some Scottish critics for whom Brown is too detached from the reality they inhabit.

Hall could arguably have made more of such criticism as additional evidence of an antithetical relationship between Orcadian and Scottish sensibilities; and he could also have given space to some more of the other minor writers or writings that the Orkney Islands must have produced, and of whom not only the present reviewer is unaware. Such speculation about omissions should not detract from, but rather underline the validity of Hall’s project, for had he scraped the bottom of the barrel clean and incorporated each and every minor author and work in his account, this would have been at once laudable and self-destructive. Even as it is, readers who note the inclusion of non-Orcadian writers such as Walter Scott and Naomi Mitchison, and who understand why their respective novels The Pirate and Early in Orcadia have a legitimate place in Hall’s narrative, might nevertheless come to suspect that in so catholic a selection, nothing even vaguely eligible could have been left out.

This, however, is quite obviously not the case, and I have two exhibits to prove it. One is a copy of Frankenstein, where Orkney makes a cameo appearance that might not have contributed much to Hall’s argument, but would still have been worth a passing mention. More importantly, though, I have the good fortune to possess a copy of a rather rarer book entitled Orkney Short Stories, edited in 1983 by none other than George Mackay Brown himself. It features fourteen pieces of fiction by fourteen different authors who entered the tercentenary competition of the Orkney Library: and these stories of varied but mostly remarkable quality can very well be seen as linked to the literary tradition that Hall delineates. In short, here is material that might come to enrich a second edition of Hall’s book; and the first edition should by rights sell so fast that a second is soon to follow.

What I particularly look forward to in this second edition is an update on most recent developments. One of my favourite parts of Hall’s present book is the seventh and last chapter, dealing with novels published by Margaret Elphinstone and George Lamb in the 1990s, as well as with the aforementioned Early in Orcadia by Naomi Mitchison (1987). Here I find the most vivid proof of Hall’s contention that there is not only a ‘robust island canon’ of Orkney literature which has emerged over centuries, but that this canon represents a living and productive heritage which warrants the prediction that ‘any Orkney literature of the future is likely to want to continue to associate itself to some extent with the traditions of the past.’ It would be good to see this prediction revisited at regular intervals.

Meanwhile, the attentive reader will have noticed that this review has almost entirely bypassed the question of Orkney’s enduring Norse or Scandinavian traits. Suffice it to say that I found this issue most capably and convincingly dealt with in Hall’s book, where I also found interesting reasons to rethink any suggestion of a binary Celtic/Germanic opposition in the light of distinctions between Norse and Anglo-Saxon or Scandinavian and Teutonic, as e.g. indicated in Samuel Laing’s insistence that fundamental British values ‘are the legitimate offspring of the Things of the northmen, not of the Wittenagemoth of the Anglo-Saxons – of the independent Norse viking, not of the abject Saxon monk’. Evidently, coming to terms with Orkney demands a refined set of stereotypes: and bearing this in mind, even we non-Orcadians may benefit from trying to locate our individual coordinates between polar types of human behaviour respectively set out by Eric Linklater in The Ultimate Viking, and by George Mackay Brown in Magnus. In reading these and other texts of the island canon, Hall’s mapping of Orkney literature can serve us as the authoritative guide to a specifically Orcadian mapping of universal humanity.