George Mackay Brown was born in Stromness on October 17th 1921. Readers of Rousay Remembered’s coverage of newspaper snippets from The Orcadian and Orkney Herald will be familiar with George’s contributions to the latter publication, and to mark the centenary of his birth I include two more of his weekly articles written under the pen-name ‘Islandman.’
1949 September 20 Orkney Herald
THE ROUSAY GIRL IN HEATHER BLEATHER
This week I am utterly squeezed dry of inspiration. There seems nothing in the wide world to write about. Heaven and earth are empty of subject matter. So the best I can do is to tell a story.
“ONCE UPON A TIME”….. – It was a long while ago, before your eyes or mine beheld the light of day. A young Rousay girl was wandering about the beach, in the ebb tide, looking for whelks and dulce. People were poor in these days; there were no Government subsidies nor London night-clubs clamorous for lobsters; humble folk were glad of anything to eat, and often enough they went to bed with empty stomachs.
She wandered, barefoot and pensive, among the boulders. Occasionally her foot slipped in the shiny tangle, but she was young and supple and took little harm from a fall. From this shallow pool and that she gathered her meagre harvest of whelks, and dropped them in the cubbie she carried by her side.
It was a summer day, in late June. A bank of mist lay over the Mainland and Eynhallow, thick and opaque. The waves were a tarnished silver as they splintered on the rocks beneath her….. But presently, as the sun strengthened towards noon, it would break the bondage of the mist. The veil would be withdrawn from the brown hills and the green fields. The sea would run blue and gold, except towards Eynhallow where, even on a fine day, it was nearly always white with menace.
INNOCENCE – As she walked about the rocks, sometimes she sang. A low tuneless chant it was, which we moderns would think peculiar. Sometimes she paused in her work and stood for long seconds, with a pleased smile on her face. We will never know what she was thinking then, but the expression on her, face looked like the awakening dawn of love…..
She saw a boat gliding out of the mist with two men in her. Little heed she paid; but she stopped her song, for she was young, and it embarrassed her that anyone should hear her singing. She turned her back on the phantom boat, and bent her serious face over the rock pools. Her deft slim fingers picked the fat whelks from their hiding place among the tang.
She heard the boat scraping on the shingle as it was hauled a little way up the beach. She heard approaching the cautious footsteps of the fishermen. She crooned low to herself, and her eyes laughed as they watched her face’s wavering reflection in a glassy pool. It was good to be young and strong on a summer morning such as this…..
THE ABDUCTION – It occurred to her suddenly that she could no longer hear the footsteps of the fishermen. Before she had time to wonder, a pair of scaly hands seized her arms and swung her about. Two strangers stood before her, tall and grave men. She opened her mouth to shriek, but one of them stepped behind her and put his hands over her mouth. Her eyes shone with terror. They forced her, step by step, down the beach to the waiting boat…..
When she never returned home her brothers went to look for her. It was as if she had been snatched clean off the earth. None of the herd boys had seen her, nor the crazy old begging woman who wandered round the island and knew everyone’s doings. Perhaps, they reasoned hopefully, she had got lost in the fog and would be waiting for the sun to come through. But, on the beach, they found the upturned cubbie, its treasure of whelks scattered over the rocks. They looked at each other and drooped their eyes, unwilling to admit the tragedy that was so apparent. Without doubt their sister had been drowned; she had climbed out on a sea-fringed rock, slippery with tang, and the inevitable had happened. Even now her young body would be floating out on the tide towards the great western ocean, with only the sea birds to sing a forlorn requiem over it.
THE LOST ISLAND APPEARS – As they lingered sorrowfully on the beach, the sun burst dazzling through the mist. The world was splashed with colour. Land and sea lost their treacherous vagueness, and became solid and well-defined.
They were about to turn, dazed and distracted homewards, when one of the brothers seized the other by the arm and pointed towards the horizon. The last streamers of mist were dissolving from the sea. There, beyond Eynhallow, an island lay. They saw, far away, the blue hills, the modest cliffs, the clusters of trees and houses, which were never recorded on any map.
“It is Heather Bleather,” said one to the other. They were well versed in the old traditions, and there could be no doubt about it. It could well be that the sea had taken their sister, but it was equally possible that the men of Heather Bleather – the selkie men – had fallen in love with her. What wonder, indeed, seeing that many a Rousay man would have given much to possess those laughing eyes, those sweet lips, that miracle of life awakening in her. But even as they looked and speculated Heather Bleather dissolved and faded from their eyes, and they knew that they had lost her forever, not to death, but to an enchantment more potent.
TEN YEARS AFTER – But they were wrong. They saw their sister again, they spoke to her, a long time afterwards.
The young girl at length became only a memory to the Rousay people. Be one ever so sweet or beautiful, one’s image at length fades from mortal memory. In the Orkney of old there was no leisure for the cultivation of memory. A dead girl was dead, and living men had to struggle grimly for a livelihood. Whatever the weather, the boats must be launched in summer, the plough taken down and driven through the wet mould in spring.
On the particular summer day of which we speak, ten years after the disappearance of the Rousay girl, her brothers and their father were out fishing. Suddenly the mist unrolled in silent, menacing billows, and they were lost. Without doubt all three were reminded of a similar misty day long ago, when tragedy had suddenly come upon them. Life, they said to each other, is full of coincidences; perhaps it is our turn to die to-day.
A STRANGE STRAND – The thought was scarcely a spoken when they saw, looming through the white opacity, a sandy beach. No men were ever so glad to see land. They couldn’t tell whether it was Rousay, or Evie, or Eynhallow, but it was land and meantime nothing else mattered. They leaped ashore, pulled up their boat over the shingle, and, chilled to the bone, made for the first house on the links.
It was when they heard the people speaking that the first doubt entered their hearts. The dialect was fantastically strange – not even Frenchmen spoke so drolly. But they were given seats, and bowls of hot ale, and the people of the house smiled kindly at them. The Rousay men ate and essayed conversation, like people in a dream.
A woman came in from the but-end, with a board of smoking new-baked bannocks. Something familiar in her gait struck the old grey father. Memory, a ferment, worked in his confused mind. He spoke, audibly, the name of one very dear to him who had disappeared out of his life long ago….. The song left the woman’s lips, her eyes leapt from face to face of the three Rousay men with incredulous delight. It was then they knew that they were in Heather Bleather, and that the woman of the strange household was their sister, their daughter.
NO RETURNING – But she never returned with them to Rousay. The selkie men loved her too much for that. They had seen her one day, gathering whelks among the Rousay rocks with the seed-pearls of mist in her hair, and now, having made her their own, they would never let her go. Some say she longed to get back to Rousay, and gave her father instructions how to return for her when they pushed off in their boat later the same day. No mortal ever saw her again. She was swallowed up once more in an enchantment as wonderful and mysterious as death. Out of that enchantment her story still comes occasionally to our incredulous ears. – ISLANDMAN.
1949 December 6 Orkney Herald
THE MOZART FROM EYNHALLOW
One of the most delightful winter pastimes is the writing of short stories. Having written one the other night, when it was too cold and wet to go out, I intend to inflict it on you this week.
It is an escape into the realms of pure fantasy. Here it is.
[A mallimack soars above Eynhallow and the shimmering, sparkling surface of the sea.
My photo was taken from the end of Hullion Pier.]
BIRTH OF THE GENIUS – Storm Kolson was the name of the first Orkney composer of note. He was born in the island of Eynhallow in the year 1956, the sixth son of a prolific crofter. Music was in his blood. His father played the fiddle with joyous gusto on Saturday evenings when he was slightly tipsy with home-brewn ale. At other times he was a melancholy man, and the tunes that his fiddle gave out then were sad and plaintive. Storm’s mother came off a long line of accordion players, every one of them stalwarts in the Strathspey and Reel Society. The lady herself, who gave birth to a child every year with great punctuality, had played the kirk organ before her marriage.
Storm, then, was born into music. He was also born into mystery, and this was even more important for his future development. The island on which they lived, Eynhallow, was haunted with the ghosts of vanished ages. Not only had it a great history behind it; that history shaded off by imperceptible degrees into shadowy legend and enchantment.
Storm’s father had frequently caught sight of the mythical island of Heather Bleather, which appeared sometimes to men. He never tired of telling his children about it. It was noticed that he most often saw it on Saturday nights, when he was in the habit of taking home-brewn ale.
HE IS DISCOVERED – The discovery of little Storm’s particular talent was highly dramatic, and, in its beginning, not unlike young Mozart’s. One summer afternoon his father, Tam, came in tired and melancholy from the hayfield. He was already far gone in the illness that finally killed him. As he crossed the threshold he heard music of astonishing vigour and tunefulness. “Nobody in the family,” he thought to himself, “can play like that.’ In the kitchen young Storm sat on the low stool before the peat-fire, his father’s fiddle tucked under his chin. The bow flew like lightning over the strings, the small supple fingers moved with miraculous ease and fluency. Marget, Tom’s wife, stood smiling fondly at the sink. Lost in amazement, Tam stood drinking in the sweet flow of sound for fully five minutes.
Soon afterwards he died, happy in the knowledge that he had begotten another Mozart.
Storm’s fame grew apace. By the age of ten he was the best fiddler in Orkney. By the age of twelve he was the best accordionist. In addition, he could play the piano, the cello, the saxophone, the trumpet, the zither and the flute, with superb ease and accomplishment.
HE MATURES – This genius for music – for it a was nothing else – was almost the death of the boy. There wasn’t a wedding, from Rousay to South Ronaldsay, but Storm was there with violin or accordion, making the clumsy feet of the dancers move swiftly and joyously. Not a funeral, either, but the pale-faced lad, not yet twelve, was summoned to the organ, where the purity and melancholy of his performance brought tears to the eyes of the most flippant and hard-hearted.
Young Storm was overworked. He fell ill of nervous exhaustion, and for a while hovered between life and death. But the devoted nursing of old Marget saved him for humanity.
He grew and matured, and now musical compositions began to come from his pen. He made settings of a cycle of Orkney poems, and these were widely popular in all the islands. Some old-fashioned people sneered at their novel technique, but even they were won over in time.
It seemed that the boy took after his father in temperament. He was usually dreamy and melancholy, and he disliked farm work. Early, too, he showed his father’s remarkable relish for home-brewn ale. Nor did he confine the drinking of it to Saturday nights.
His concerto for accordion and orchestra, written at the age of nineteen, delighted all Orkney. It was entirely made up of old Orkney tunes, expanded here and intricately developed there. The serenity of the first movement, the joyous abandon of the third, were recognised by all. But most remarkable was the pure melancholy of the andante. The paternal strain persisted.
THE NOTORIOUS RECITAL – Storm took to giving organ recitals in St Magnus Cathedral every Wednesday evening. A wave of musical fervour broke over Orkney. The old minster was crammed to the doors on every occasion, and the people went home flushed with ecstasy, babbling with enthusiasm.
One Wednesday evening a strange thing happened. The pealing organ gave off the weirdest melodies imaginable, without form or cohesion – a jagged litter of jarring sound. People looked at each other in alarm and confusion. The more knowing “high-brows” intimated to their neighbours in the crowded church that Storm was giving that night a recital of the most modern music. . . .
At length the cacophony ceased. When the “highbrows” streamed round the massy concealing pillar to congratulate the musician on his fine technique, they found him slumped dead drunk over the keys. Storm never played the Cathedral organ again.
THE PEAK – His genius grew more radiant and more accomplished. His Hoy Symphony was played at the Edinburgh Festival. His opera, “The Lathy Odivere,” made the works of Gilbert and Sullivan look meagre and silly. The charm and mystery of his “Heather Bleather Suite” for strings converted the last of his carping critics into an idolater. Yehudi Menuhin celebrated his 50th birthday by giving the first performance of Storm Kolson’s Violin Concerto in the Albert Hall. The Eynhallow farmer’s son, it seemed, was on the high road to immortality.
HE VANISHES – And then disaster fell. Storm got married. Everyone was amazed at his choice. She was a cheap, slatternly woman, pretty in a flashy way but otherwise unbecoming. He picked her up in some London district, married her, and took her home to Orkney. He was aged 32 at the time.
Perhaps he saw some fleeting enchantment, hidden from other men, deep in her soul. If so, he learned to regret his vision. His life, hitherto serenely and quietly melancholy, became a lurid hell. He was nagged and harried, whatever he did, by her bitter tongue. At the end of the first year he was more often drunk than sober. And the steady stream of immortal compositions petered out to nothing.
He vanished completely and irrevocably. He was last seen by the country folk, walking slow and dejected among the hills, in the direction of the cliffs. No body was ever found, but everyone believed that Storm Kolson had committed suicide.
Not quite everyone. Storm’s mother, prematurely aged and withered with child-bearing, survived him. The toothless old woman sat in her chimney corner chanting old snatches, mumbling old stories. Among other tales was one of a country fiddler, going home from a riotous wedding. The peedie folk fell in love with his sweet music, and carried him off to live in their enchanted hollows. He was never seen on earth again. But there he bides playing immortal music on the greenswards that no human foot has ever trod. . . . . ISLANDMAN.