The Dragon in the North

The University of Aberdeen Degree Disseration MA Honours English and Scottish Literature
April 1987

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.