A poet and a photographer combine their visions to describe an ancient place of deep meditation


By Gunnie Moberg and George Mackay Brown

Colin Baxter Photography Ltd.

112 pp., 20

In an island, time is a simple pure circle.

The line is from a recently published poem by George Mackay Brown (1921-1996). Brown, a prolific source of poems, novels, short stories, and other forms of writing all closely connected with his native Orkney, had islands - and the concept of pure circles and cycles of time - in his veins.

Orkney, at the northeastern tip of mainland Scotland, across the Pentland Firth, is not, strictly speaking, "an" island. It is 67 islands. Sixteen of them are inhabited by people and cows; many more by birds. Even a hasty visitor (the only kind of visitor I have so far been) to this remote outpost of Britain immediately senses that to Orcadians, the archipelago is unquestionably the center of the known universe. It makes all those other places elsewhere seem peripheral and distant.

Brown was no visitor: He was virtually the one-man literary genius of Orkney, its voice.

Two books of poems by GMB (as he is familiarly known) have been published this year: "Following a Lark" and "Orkney: Pictures and Poems." Both books have turned out to be posthumous. (Both are available only in Britain.)

The second book was unusual in its genesis. Brown's writing and Gunnie Moberg's photographs have been published side-by-side before. But on this occasion, the poems were written in direct response to the photographs. The Swedish-born photographer, who has lived on Orkney for 20 years (and in Scotland for almost 30) was not asked to illustrate a text; the procedure was the other way around.

For about six months, she lent Brown prints of the photographs she had chosen for the book, which was to be published at the opening of a first retrospective of her work (on show at the Pier Arts Centre, Stromness, through July 13). The images were propped on an easel, several at a time, in Brown's sitting room. Moberg had asked him just for short captions. But secretly - until the final drafts - he wrote full-fledged poems, 48 in all.

Photographs and words together form an unusual procession of contemplative insights into the small part of the world that poet and photographer know so intimately.

There is a certain rightness about the Scandinavian nationality of the photographer. Although the Orkney Islands have been Scottish since 1468, their links before that were all with Scandinavia. As with Shetland, farther north still, Gaelic is not spoken in Orkney. Most of the place names here have a Norse ring to them. (Hypothetically, the Viking occupation was preceded by Picts and the "first Orcadians" spoke a Celtic language.) The main island used to be called "Hrossey," Norse for "horse island." GMB's poems are punctuated with such local names as Scapa Flow, Rinansay, Swona, Hamnavoe, and Egilsay.

Even though Orkney is the theme of the book, there is an intriguing counterpoint between its two covers. Brown could never be called an abstract writer. But Moberg's photographs do sometimes tend in that direction, as if the scale or specificity of a close-up rock pool or an aerial view over the land - an isolated church casting long morning shadows - have taken on a new and independent life of color and texture and light as photographs.

Brown rather literally brings them down to earth. He sees them as places. His verse is quietly informative, as if he realized the need to make these poems act as captions.

It is interesting to know that while Moberg recently had a period when she gave up photography because she felt it was too tied to "what's there," Brown was preoccupied undeviatingly with a theme and a subject, and he knew it. He never ceased to explore and re-explore its meanings and implications.

While Brown's concerns are the times and history - the folk history above all - of the place that absorbed him, Moberg mainly provides a sense of the landscape, both near and far.

ALTHOUGH much of the Orkney coastline is composed, spectacularly, of caves and sea-stacks and wave-cut inlets, the islands are not ruggedly mountainous; the hills are mainly low and rounded, the land fertile and green. There is heather. And there are pastures for sheep and cows.

But there are also rocks: flagstones of varying color, some making highly durable building material. Having been populated for an exceptionally long time by stone builders, Orkney is a paradise for archaeologists. Amazing discoveries continue to be made, as if the renowned prehistoric riches of the Skara Brae village, the brochs (or fortified towers) of Midhowe or Gurness, the burial cairn of Maes Howe, and the henges or stone rings of Stenness and Brodgar were not enough.

These have all become essential parts of modern Orkney and its tourism. Yet Brown and Moberg have not pieced together some trite tourist brochure, anything but. They potently insist that in spite of day-trippers and vacation-home dwellers, in spite of traffic and technology, Orkney survives as an ancient place of deep meditation.

Brown was a poet who looked across modern Orkney with a sense of history, a preference for the past, and the persuasive idea that time will tell.

The line quoted at the beginning of this article is from a poem in the book called "Churchill Barriers." These barriers were built during World War II, partly to protect Scapa Flow, where a Nazi submarine had torpedoed a British battleship with great loss of life, and partly to make road crossings (instead of boat crossings) between several of the southern islands.

A guidebook today comments that the barriers have "probably saved these isles from postwar depopulation."

But Brown's poem suggests that these feats of engineering (built by "Italian prisoners, Glasgow navvies") meant that every islander woke one morning to say, "I am an islander no more!" and consequently that an "enchantment is gone from his days."

Characteristically, though, the poet ends by seeing time as coming full circle:

What does Time say, in its circuits?

'Spider-web, Earl's Palace, sea stack -

I bring all to ruin

And to new beginnings.'

Will the stars shine over islands again?

Will sails fly from shore to shore to shore?

Although George Mackay Brown forever asked such questions, there was something in the grit and foresight of his writing that suggests he knew that sometime, somehow, the answer would be yes.


The eye of the camera seeks patterns

On shore, on hill, in fields and lochs,

And at all seasons. The swans

Rejoice in their ice prisons,

The sheep, sea music all round their jail,

Have inbuilt faith that dew and green croppings

Wait their release.

Even children among beach waves

Are incarcerated in the sweetness of bone.

(The shackles lie, under Warbeth stones.)

And what of the seamen

In their wooden cells

Daring, over centuries, the rocks of Orkney

And wrecked despite the web of warning

From Rinansay to Swona

The flaming winter beacons?

It hasn't changed much since Skarabrae

Folk plucked fleeces and ears of corn

And set out in skin boats

For lobsters, under Yesnaby,

And women heard anxiously a sudden windgrowl.

The patterns were there, for withering eyes

To stook and store

In granaries of story and legend.

A century or more since, the recording

Eye of the camera looked on the chaos

Of history and the psalmist's

Brief seventy years; and now

We may note, page by page, the new

And the old works of time; how all

Fall into ruins, or go dancing

Towards green April harps.

Forever, somewhere, are joy and dancing.

Flowers on Ice

Ask the flower:

How long are you with us?

'A month and a day.'

And the ice,

'I stayed last time

Ten thousand years.

Now I send a winter greeting or two.

I'll come again, traveller.'

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