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PART OF THE Force of Nature ISSUE

‘The wind is rarely still. It shifts from airt to airt, and everything – flowers, clouds, birds, animals, boats – are caught up in the invisible stream. In late summer afternoons the wind goes through the corn in deep resonant surges, but the evenings are marvellously tranquil, except for a broken thunder all along the west coast of Orkney – Noup, The Brough, Marwick, Yesnaby, Black Craig, Rora; the Atlantic glutting itself among the caves and rock-stacks. The sea remembers, like an ancient harp.’

George Mackay Brown (1921–96) was one of the twentieth century’s most distinguished and original writers. His lifelong inspiration and birthplace, Stromness in Orkney, moulded his view of the world, though he studied in Edinburgh at Newbattle Abbey College, where he met Edwin Muir, and later at Moray House College of Education. In 1941 he was diagnosed with pulmonary tuberculosis and lived an increasingly reclusive life in Stromness, but he produced, despite being in poor health, a regular stream of publications from 1954 onwards. His work is permeated by the layers of history in Scotland’s past, by quirks of human nature and religious belief, and by a fascination with the world beyond the horizons of the known.  

 

Extract taken from An Orkney Tapestry
By George Mackay Brown
Published by Polygon

 

The weather is good, if you like a temperate climate. Thermo-meter and barometer measure our seasons capriciously; the Orkney year should be seen rather as a stark drama of light and darkness. In June and July, at midnight, the north is always red; the sun is just under the horizon; dawn mingles its fires with sunset. In midwinter the sun intrudes for only a few hours into the great darkness, but the January nights are magnificent  – star-hung skies, the slow heavy swirling silk of the aurora borealis, the moon in a hundred waters: a silver plate, a broken honeycomb, a cluster of fireflies. 

There can be spells of rough weather at all times of the year. Sometimes, winter or summer, the wind breaks bounds and flattens everything. In the great hurricane 14 of January 1952 hen-houses were blown out to sea, cockerels raging aloft over the crested Sounds. A fishing disaster happened last century, in June – a sudden gale that caught the herring fleet off Hoy and swamped two boats. 

Rain falls at all seasons, but not so persistently as in the Hebrides or the west of Ireland. A city shower is a meaningless nuisance, a liquidity seeping into collar and trouser-leg. In the north, on a showery day, you can see the rain, its lovely behaviour over an island – while you stand a mile off in a patch of sun – Jock’s cows in the meadow a huddle of ghosts, Tammy’s oat-field jewelled; the clouds a rout of fabulous creatures dissolving at last through their prism . . . Nothing is more lovely than the islands in a shifting dapple of sun and rain. 

The wind is rarely still. It shifts from airt to airt, and everything – flowers, clouds, birds, animals, boats – are caught up in the invisible stream. In late summer afternoons the wind goes through the corn in deep resonant surges, but the evenings are marvellously tranquil, except for a broken thunder all along the west coast of Orkney – Noup, The Brough, Marwick, Yesnaby, Black Craig, Rora; the Atlantic glutting itself among the caves and rock-stacks. The sea remembers, like an ancient harp. 

In the course of a single day you can see, in that immensity of sky, the dance of sun, cloud, sea-mist, thunder, rain: the endless ballet of the weather. 

 

An Orkney Tapestry by George Mackay Brown is published by Polygon, in June, priced £12.99.

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