Orkney Voices

When George Mackay Brown read Eric Linklater for the first time, he experienced a kind of epiphany: ‘Here were field and shores that we actually knew, our feet had walked on them. Recognisable people came to life, and suffered and laughed out of the pages. […] it was as if at once the common landscapes and seascapes became precious to us.’1 Now Brown, especially since his centenary in 2021, is himself celebrated for validating the landscape, people and history of Orkney. Yet Linklater and Brown rarely used Orcadian as the dominant voice in their work. The latter claimed that only poet Robert Rendall did that well. Recently, however, there has been an explosion of Orkney voices. Harry Josephine Giles’s major contribution to Scottish literature, Deep Wheel Orcadia, has received most (and divided) critical attention.2 But a quiet revolution is also taking place in smaller volumes of poetry.  Gousters, Glims and Veerie-orums: Writeen fae Orkney Voices (published in Kirkwall by The George Mackay Brown Fellowship, 2021) is a vibrant collection of poetry, edited by Alison Miller and emerging from the Orkney Voices’ Writeen Group. Miller was appointed to the post of 2021 Scots Scriever, in association with the National Library of Scotland and Orkney Library & Archive, supported by the National Lottery and Creative Scotland. Working with the writing group as ‘Orkney Scriever’, she has certainly fulfilled the brief of raising the profile, understanding and appreciation of Orcadian. The group (in the end all women) met virtually during the pandemic and assembled a volume that is resolute in its use of Orcadian, including the introduction by Miller and the preface (by established critic and advocate of Orkney literature, Simon Hall). The influence of Brown is evident throughout – particularly in the eight-page section of work dedicated to him, which includes acrostics of his name and a fine reflection by Vera Butler on filming a memorial to him in the kirkyard where he was buried: 

Wid George feel this love o his wark vibrate
throo rock, gress and earth tae his eternal bed?
Or wis he here wae is?
(p. 27) 

But the broader reach and contemporary engagement of the collection show in its diverse range of sections. These include ‘Mappan Orkney’ – where the richness of place names adds texture to the verse and, as in Ingrid Grieve’s ‘A Bad Mood’, the influence of Edwin Morgan’s wordplay is as much evident as Brown’s poetry:

That grett Muckle Eskadale!
He’s nutheen bit a Thickbiggeen!
A Fidge o Piggar!
Blaster Hole!!
(p. 12)

The underpinning organisation of a writers’ group can be seen in the volume’s structure – with topics such as ‘Seasons’; ‘The Body’; ‘Weemen’s Lives’ – but there is a real diversity of language across the pages, reflecting both the different parts of Orkney in which writers are located and the capacity of each contributor to experiment with their own voice. The volume thus produces a pleasingly cumulative effect of getting to know places and idiolects. It is particularly productive when combining folk tale and the modern world – as in Miller’s own contribution, ‘Warneen’, which brings together tales of ‘Trows’ in the darkness, Google and smartphones. Some of the most interesting poems likewise engage with the contemporary through experiences of lockdown. ‘Funerals in Lockdoon’ by Issy Grieve (p. 32) recalls the funeral of ‘Annie o Spurdagrow’, ‘the last owld Marwick wife’, with 

Peedie groups dotted
Folk in twos or threes
Spaced, isolated

Mourning is more prosaic but also evocative in ‘Lost Shoes’ by the same author, which laments shoes unworn, including trainers for gym classes that ‘Are lyan doon yernan, / For me feet that’s lost the beat’ (p. 102). Sheila Garson’s ‘Wur Masked dance’ also captures lost social rhythms, the awkwardness of sanitised lives, people in ‘a solitary waltz’,

Is wae watch
Wur world birl
Tae a deadly tune (p. 158)

While at times the instigating themes may seem a little obvious, the generosity and excitement of group work shows in the collective poems: energy surges through ‘Hert in shellmaleens’, a renga in autumn completed by email (p. 93), and shapes the humour of ‘Orkney Satnav’ (p. 137). If the poetry works well when communal, it is also strong when at its most specific, detailing the everyday. Here Lorraine Bruce excels with ‘A boileen o tatties’ (p. 81) ­–­ potatoes served with ‘spirkan ferm butter / turnan salt poodered pearls / shiny an golden’ – and ‘The Nugget’, reflecting on a piece of cheese mouldering under the table (p. 88).  Poems about the weather are again infused with a very specific and local energy, pushing a rich vocabulary to the utmost, as in ‘The Weather Dance’ by Greer Norquoy (p. 154). Unsurprisingly the conditions of the environment – including the group environment –generate the most powerful poetry, poetry that is, in Issy Grieve’s phrase ‘Birlan wae th’wather’:

Turn tae yir left and grip the hail and sleet,
Step forward fur twa, and back fur fower.
Turn, and lit hail and sleet go.

Turn tae yir right and grip had o the drizzle and pelters
Then sweeng them tae the right, and sweeng them roond and roond.
(p. 153)

Here it is not only the vocabulary but the different rendering of prepositions and possessives ­– ‘tae’, ‘fur’, ‘yir’ ­ – and the long pure vowels in unexpected places that set the rhythm and mark the culture. 

Alison Miller also contributes to another vibrant initiative in Orkney writing. As was recognised in the 1920s by the Scottish Literary Renaissance movement, the flourishing of a culture is strengthened by local publishers supporting writers and finding readers. Abersee Press, labelling itself ‘The soond o yung Orkney’, demonstrates the importance of an energetic and local print culture. Swiet Haar: New Writing from Orkney and Shetland (2017), edited by Duncan McLean, features prose and poetry by Kevin Cormack, Robert Alan Jamieson, Amy Liptrot and Christine De Luca – the latter three already well known in Scotland and beyond. The established nature of Shetlandic writing traditions shows in the confidence of Jamieson and De Luca, finding their own voices while acknowledging wider inspirations and influences. Jamieson offers an international range of literary references, and includes standard English versions of his poems in Shetlandic. To add a further layer of complexity, some of his poetry is ‘eftir de Faerose o’ of the writing of William Heinesen (1900–1991) or ‘da Yslaandic o sigurbjörg Þrastardóttir’. De Luca meanwhile weaves elegantly between Shetland, Orkney and Norway, Gerard Manley Hopkins and MacDiarmid. 

Tūrangawaewae, Beuy also works across space and cultures (2018). ‘Tūrangawaewae’ is a Māori word, meaning both a place to stand and a place of empowerment, of connection; the use of ‘Beuy’ signals Orkney origins and carries multiple markers of identity beyond ‘boy’. A collaboration with New Zealand poet Craig Marriner, and featuring work by Steve Braunias, Mervyn J. Inkster, Morag MacInnes, Alison Miller, Paula Morris and Marriner, the volume is propelled by the desire to escape  being ‘in thrall to the sunny miniatiurism of ‘Under Brinkie’s Brae’ (the column Brown wrote for his local paper The Orcadian for many years) and its equally unrepresentative alternative: ‘the antiquarian maximalism of a hundred scholarly monographs about ancient carvings, ancient customs, ancient accents’ (p. 3). This is a caustic collection which uses illuminating overlaps between New Zealand and Orkney to probe the intersections (or interactions?) of marginality and ‘authenticity’. Its internationalist comparativism brings together cultures in which the ‘lifeblood’ of tourism is based upon versions of valued pasts and ethnicities – as in Marriner’s ‘Don’t Fuck with the Revenue Stream’ ­ – at the expense of addressing present challenges. The collection pushes too at difficult questions of home. In ‘Up the Creek’ Paula Morris moves between the varying realities and representations of swimming in a creek. While it offers iconic spaces for novelists, the experienced location of everyday creek swimming is different. Even with its imaginative draw, she concludes, ‘the creek, both feral and ordinary, would always be there, brown with dirt and secrets, reflecting nothing.’ (p. 31) 

The more recent Toonie Void (2021), the first collection by Kevin Cormack and another produce of the Abersee Press, also challenges the rich topographies of Orkney space and history. It too engages with an Orcadian everyday and locale but through excitingly different images. The poetry makes rich use of ‘the shared speech bubble o Orcadiian’ (‘Noah, or the Feraway’, p. 25) but moves across a range of landscapes that can be alienating yet familiar in their contemporaneity. In ‘Island o Death’ an old man apparently dead on a mobility scooter‘, is ‘deid, within sight o the promeesed land / the back berr o The Kirkwall Hotel’, like  ‘an abandoned alien / radio-rig atop some harr-drenched hill’ (p. 30). In ‘Pierceens’, the body studs and rings of ‘Young Clettring’ are recontextualised as flotsam on Brough beach ‘Saalt watter tummlan / an slooshan / through the holes’ (p. 24). In this Orkney, weather and sand are pervasive but not exotic: ‘Sand in yir hair / when aal yiv done / is go tae the shops’ (p. 13). 

Cormack sits with those who, as Miller describes, aim for grittiness, a swipe at ‘theme park Orkney’ (p. 36). Yet for all its humour, emotion and attention to the everyday, Gousters, Glims and Veerie-orums also goes beyond any superficial miniaturism. McLean’s claim that anthologies of Orkney writing shy away from depictions of conflict might appear borne out by Miller’s collection but it too acknowledges the power of gossip and rumour in a small community. And, as McLean also recognises, this community sometimes seeks to avoid conflict in order to function.   

To read across these volumes is to gain real insights into the complicated dynamics of island existence and into the different and at times conflicting possibilities of representing it. Together they also offer much more: a demonstration of Orkney voices flourishing in print. As Miller notes, there is no standard orthography for writing in Orcadian. But these collections, combined with Deep Wheel Orcadia, make striking claim for the literary power and presence of Orkney voices. 

Gousters, Glims and Veerie-orums: Writeen fae Orkney Voices (2021), selected and edited by Alison Miller, is published by The George Mackay Brown Fellowship; Swiet Haar: New writing from Orkney and Shetland (2017), edited by Duncan McLean, is published by Abersee Press; Tūrangawaewae, Beuy (2018) is published by Abersee Press; Toonie Void (2021) by Kevin Cormack is published by Abersee Press.


End Notes

  1. Simon W. Hall, The History of Orkney Literature (Edinburgh: Birlinn, 2021) p. 82.
  2. See the review by Martyn Colebrook in The Bottle Imp Issue 30: https://www.thebottleimp.org.uk/2022/08/deep-wheel-orcadia-by-harry-josephine-giles/.
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Glenda Norquay

Glenda Norquay is Professor of Scottish Literary Studies and Director of the Research Institute for Literature and Cultural History at Liverpool John Moores University.

More articles by Glenda Norquay

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