The University of Aberdeen Degree Disseration MA Honours English and Scottish Literature
The Dragon in the North: The Norse Inheritance in the Writings of George Mackay Brown
One of the most noticeable things about Orkney is the
strong sense of the past and of historical continuity, "the
dark backward and abysm: the standing stones at Stenness and
Brodgar; a Megalithic burial mound at Maeshowe ; chambered
cairns on Rousay ; a Neolithic village at Skara Brae; the Pictish
brochs. But the most noticeable and pervasive inheritance
is that of Scandanavian peoples who came mostly from
Norway and began settling the islands around 800 AD. Orkney
was in Norse hands from this period until the late Fifteenth
Century, when it was given to Scotland by the Norwegians as
part of a marriage contract. Orcadians are strongly aware of
this cultual ineritance and it manifests itself in many ways:
in the laws and customs; in the archiitecture; in the rhythms,
cadences anc vocabulary of the speech; in the names of people
and, most strongly, in the place-names - the overwheming
majority of which are of Norse origin.
Edwin Muir discussing Wyre, the island where he spent his early childhood, comments:
There were seven other farms on the island,
with names which went back to the Viking times:
Russness, Onziebist, Helzigartha, Caivit, Testaquoy, Habreck, the Haa."
The Norse period, like other eras of Orkney's past, has
had a profound effect on George Mackay Brown; it is apparent in
all areas of his writing: poetry , short stories, novels and in
his miscellany An Orkney Tapestry , where he writes:
"For the Vikings especially we keep a welcome;
they are our true ancestors who came
by the salt road, west-over-sea from Norway,
a thousand years ago and more..."
Thus , the Norse inheritance in Orkney is strong; the following
is an attempt to demonstrate just how pervasive and influential
it has been in George Mackay Brown 's work.