An Orkney Tapestry by George Mackay Brown is a unique look at Orkney through the eye of a poet, and is now back in print for the first time in over 40 years. Edited by Linden Bicket and Kirsteen McCue, this book was a landmark in Mackay Brown’s career, and combines environmental writing with short stories and folk tales. The folkloric element to Mackay Brown’s writing is evident in this short extract from the chapter ‘The Midsummer Music’.
Extract from An Orkney Tapestry by George Mackay Brown
In Orkney, one summer midnight, two fiddlers were walking home together from a wedding. In a field at the roadside was a mound – a howe, a knoll, a knowe – one of those artificial green humps that we now know to be burial chambers of the neolithic people. One of the fiddlers turned to answer his companion’s half-finished sentence. He was not there. The lonely fiddler on the road knew then that the other fiddler had been taken down into the darkness. He was entombed, alive and enchanted, in the howe.
Some time later – none of the legends agrees as to exactly how long; some say a year, some ten years, some forty years – the unenchanted fiddler was walking along that same road with the knowe at the verge of it when he heard a lithe step beside him. He turned and saw that the howe-taken fiddler was once more on the road, walking home with him, his fiddle in his hand, in his mouth the end of the sentence he had not managed to complete. He was not an hour older than the day he disappeared, his beard was still black and curly and his eye bright. But time had happened to the workaday fiddler; there was grey in his hair and labour had worn his hands closer to the brightness of the bone.
On they walked together.
It is perhaps an attempt to explain what used to be called ‘the timeless quality’ of art. But the myth goes deeper than that; it shows how, in the minds of the peasantry, art is interwoven with death and fruition. The fiddle, the skull, and the cornstalk yield their full significance only when they are seen in relation to each other.
The fiddler had been stolen by the earth people; not by the winter trows, who are all famine and deformity, but by the good trows, the potent energies of the earth that quicken grass and corn. They had stolen the fiddle so that its music would make the corn tall and golden under the sun that summer.
(It is interesting to know that the parents of Washington Irving belonged to the island of Shapinsay in Orkney. His story Rip Van Winkle shifts the Orkney folk tale to an American setting. Rip Van Winkle is an accomplished but rootless story – the power and urgency and meaning of the myth have vanished.)