The Golden Bird: Two Orkney Stories (1987)

Recently the excellent blog The Island Review featured a list of books set on islands around the world. This was followed up by reader selections. All very excellent books and some great suggestions, but neither of the two books I’ve been reading recently are on the lists (although on of George Mackay Brown’s books, Greenvoe, is featured). Both the books I’ve been reading have been set in Scotland: a modern novel set on the fictional island of Bancree and an historical novel set in a fictionalised Orkney.

The first of the books, The Visitors by Simon Sylvester, is one of the choices for my side project over at The Betterment Society, so I won’t say any more here on that book, other than to contrast the very different style with second book. Both are about remoteness in island life, despite different points in history. Both feature young lives in those island communities and the sensitivities of change brought about by new arrivals.

GoldenBirdThe second book is one of the James Tait Black winners: The Golden Bird by George Mackay Brown. Strictly this is two separate novellas, The Golden Bird and The Life and Death of John Voe. The title story, over a relatively small number of pages, captures a way of family life that has pretty much disappeared in the Scottish islands: remote crofting communities. In around 150 pages, we live through the lives of three generations in the late 19th century and possibly the early 20th century. Three main families feature, the Fletts of Gorse, the Sinclairs of Feaquoy and the Fiords of Don. Early on we learn, for rather trivial reasons that the matriarchs of Gorse and Feaquoy have a absolute hatred of one another, despite their husbands fishing at sea together in a shared boat. This conflict is passed down to the next generation, to the extent that the eventual wives of the grandsons are forced to meet under cover of darkness to maintain their friendship, for fear of scorn from their husbands.

We trace the lives and deaths of the families as year by year incremental changes take place. Initially a school is built and Mr MacFarlane, the newly appointed school teacher, begins the first formal education for the children of the remote valley. Such an influence is he that by the end of The Golden Bird, one of this early pupils himself becomes the school master. Further changes occur, the biggest being the arrival of motor vehicles and then towards to end petrol powered fishing vessels. At the heart of the story though is conflict, and the generational war between the Fletts and the Sinclairs which echoes the conflict that modern life is placing on traditional skills and crafts in the valley. Given the time in which this story is set there are probably even echoes of the ultimate conflict that would tear apart small communities of this type, a conflict we are only too aware of this year. Whilst it is never mentioned, the Great War would have been the next big change for the community depicted, and the powerful ending is perhaps a forewarning.

Stromness or Hamnavoe
Stromness or Hamnavoe

The Life and Death of John Voe is very different in style and begins with the return to Orkney of Jock, whose has spent years traveling the high seas and experienced the world in a way that very few Orcadians will have done at the time. He arrives on the day of the Lammas Fair in Hamnavoe (modern day Stromness) and a vibrant scene is depicted. This lengthy opening chapter weaves around from the harbourside in Orkney, to the quayside in Buenos Aires; from romance with Juanita, to drinks down the pub. There’s even a dream sequence where Jock is standing trail for turning his back to the traditional Orcadian way of life, choosing the bright lights of the world beyond.

The remainder of the story takes us through moments in the rest of his life, both highs and lows. From the unexpected gift of a croft, to his fruitless pursuit of gold in the Californian gold rush. The difficulty is the chapters become shorter and more confused at the story unfolds, and lack the vividness of his arrival on Lammas Fair day. There’s a mix of genres here to, with Brown shifting to poetry for the final chapter.

Overall an interesting book, particular given I’ve traveled a fair bit in this part of the world. The main feature, The Golden Bird, the more compelling of the two stories, and I’m not sure what benefit Jock Voe brought to proceedings. Despite it’s simplicity, there were some intriguing messages hidden away in the prose.  A surprisingly old fashioned book to winner a major literary prize in the late 1980s.



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