Under Brinkie’s Brae

Alfred Street in Stromness

I have been to Stromness in Orkney twice, once in 1976 and again in 1998. It is a strange little town with narrow winding streets—and, oh yes, a great poet and storyteller who lived here until his death in 1996. I am talking about George Mackay Brown (b. 1921), whose work I have been reading since I met him outside the town’s bookstore in 1976 while clutching a copy of his poem collection, Fishermen with Ploughs.

Tongue-tied, I asked him whether he was George Mackay Brown, knowing full well that he was, as his likeness was familiar to me. He smiled and said, “I cannot deny it.” If my heart were not in my throat, I would have invited him out for a pint. As it was, I showed him my book, being even too shy to ask for his autograph. We went our separate ways.

What I hope to accomplish here in my blogging here on WordPress is what Brown accomplished in a weekly column he wrote for The Orcadian, a newspaper published in Kirkwall, some fifteen miles eastward. Just to give you an idea of the flavor of his work, here is one of his essays entitled “Place names”:

I was sitting idly in the sun the other afternoon when seemingly out of the blue, the words “Orkney Islands” came into my mind. A waste of syllables, really: since Orkney itself means Orc islands. The fault is what is called, I think, tautology. (Whether “Orc” means whale, or seal, or boar, I leave to the experts to decide.)

That’s not the only tautology in our list of place names. “Houton Head”—the Hout part itself signifies headland (like Howth promontory outside Dublin).

Another misnomer is Brough of Birsay. Possibly the whole parish derives its name from the tidal island where there was originally a keep or fortification of some kind.

The very south end of Stromness is called the Point of Ness; which is to say, “the point of the point,” Ness meaning a piece of land thrusting into the sea: in this case, into the tiderace of Hoy Sound. That is why Stromness is called what it is. Living in the town itself, this is not so obvious. But coming down the Scorradale Road into Orphir, there it lies, a thrust of hard land into the wide strong waters. (Maybe the Norseman who gave Stromness its name was looking west one day from the Orphir foothills.)

Brown’s little essay goes on and names other places in the archipelago, ending with “Hrossey,” the island of the horse, which was the original name of what is today called the Orkney “mainland,” though it is by no means a mainland, but just the largest of the isles off the north end of Caithness.

I have just finished the second volume of Brown’s columns for The Orcadian, called Under Brinkie’s Brae, after the hillside overlooking the east end of Stromness. The pieces were charming and often quite lyrical, full of northern Scots words such as “haar,” “peedie,” “noust,” “Hogmanay” (that’s New Years), “clapshot” (mashed “tatties” and “neeps” with a liberal infusion of butter).

To get to Orkney, you have to take the slow train from Inverness to Thurso, and thence via a short bus ride to Scrabster, where the roll-on roll-off ferry St. Ola will transport you past the Old Man of Hoy to Stromness. There you will find an austere land almost entirely devoid of trees (the wind is so fierce). On Orkney, you will never be far from the sea, and you will never be far from George Mackay Brown, the poet of Hamnavoe (the old Norse name for Stromness).