George Mackay Brown, Greenvoe (1972) 1921-1996
‘Contemporary Orkney, cut off from the story of its past, is meaningless…I will attempt to get back to the roots and sources of the community, from which it draws its continuing life, from which it cuts itself off at its peril.’ George Mackay Brown, An Orkney Tapestry
Born Stromness, Orkney Islands. Wrote poems, plays, short stories, and novels. Lived most of his life in Orkney. Nominated for Booker Prize 1994, for Beside the Ocean of Time. See the BBC writing Scotland website or www.georgemackaybrown.co.uk for full biography (details below). See also his obituary (below) by Maggie Parham in The Independent.
‘His imagination is possessed by natural and supernatural rhythms, the rhythm of the seasons, of man’s life from birth to death, of ploughing, sowing, reaping and harvest, and a less tangible rhythm of divine protection and care, often expressed in the language of the rituals and ceremonies of the Roman Catholic Church, which Mackay Brown joined as a mature adult in 1961 […] Much – perhaps most – of Mackay Brown’s imaginative writing is concerned to celebrate the natural lives of small communities, close to nature, to natural rhythms, and to their own past. [...] If MB’s theme is this celebration, a more sombre note too often shadows it. Mackay Brown perceives only too well that this old hallowed life is receding, small agricultural communities are becoming depopulated, and the old ways are dying. Frequently he points to the beautiful green valley of Rackwick on the island of Hoy, shrunk from a thriving community to one farm only (e.g. An Orkney tapestry, 25-52). He blames the nature of the modern world, the worship of material ‘progress’, and also the dislocation of religious and natural life that we have seen he blames on the Reformation and Calvinism. So an undercurrent in Mackay Brown’s works about modern Orkney is always one of lamentation at modern change, which impoverishes the community, and at the gradual disappearance of the communities themselves.
Beyond this sadness is a further horror, what Mackay Brown calls ‘the atom-and-planet horror at the heart of our civilisation’ or a ‘Black Pentecost’ (An Orkney Tapestry). The possibility of nuclear war, of mankind’s simultaneous self-destruction and the destruction of all creation, is a horrifying, constant threat. This gives potency to the evil image at the heart of Greenvoe, the Black Star. And as long as civilisation as we know it is threatened by nuclear holocaust, Greenvoe will have a profound effect on readers who may share few of the novelist’s detailed beliefs.
Isobel Murray & Bob Tait, ‘Greenvoe’, in Ten Modern Scottish Novels (Aberdeen: AUP, 1984)
Take your oil rigs by the score
Drill a little well just a little off-shore,
Pipe that Oil in from the sea,
Pipe those profits - home to me
I’ll go home when I see fit
And all I’ll leave is a heap of shit.
Song sung by Texan Oil magnate in John McGrath’s play The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black Black Oil (1973)
Most of Scotland had suffered Industrial decay since the 1950’s. When Oil was discovered (in 1969) it caused a transformation in certain pockets of the North of the country, with the city of Aberdeen most affected. Oil became (and still is) a hot political issue, with the discovery coming simultaneous to a rise in fortunes for the Scottish National Party (SNP). The ‘Nats’ claimed the black stuff for Scotland alone, the fields being mainly in Scottish (but also of course, British sovereign) territory. Thus Oil became part of the argument for Independence, it being a resource that would render Scotland internationally powerful, fiscally and economically self-sufficient. The argument was deeply charged and controversial, of course, in that the drilling platforms, extractions, pipe-laying, refining, etc was made by British and International Companies. The power and interests of Multinational Corporations were not much directed towards claims for Independence. In fact the arrival of multi-national capitalism to the western industrial belts and northern areas of Scotland did much to make the Scottish left (traditionally unionist) think again about the social benefits of Independence.
What has also been a controversial issue is the presence of Military Bases, (British and especially American) throughout parts of Scotland.
Oil reserves were discovered in the North Sea in 1969. By 1975, extraction was underway, and by the end of the decade Britain was self-sufficient in Oil and Gas.
Arthur Marwick notes the affect the spread of the oil effect had on Northern communities:
The black fingers [of oil] spread further afield than the Grampian coastal towns of Aberdeen and Peterhead. Docking facilities for tankers and construction yards for oil platforms were in demand. Of course, the Highlands had long had hydro-electric schemes, aluminium works, a missile-base, a missile-testing range, and an atomic energy station. Now they were well on their way to becoming a type of region specially associated with late-twentieth century civilisation: wild, remote, beautiful, neglected, with dotted here and there the advanced industrial-technological complexes which the inhabitants of more developed, more populated, areas preferred not to have sited in their midst. However, one man’s environmental poison is another man’s daily bread.
But also, one man’s fish is another man’s environmental disaster. International agreements on the conservation of fish stocks badly hit Scottish fishermen (who formed nearly half of all fishermen in Great Britain). The tragic story of the Scottish fishing industry highlights the point that the Highlands were still basically in decline, despite the new technological marvels.
Arthur Marwick, British Society Since 1945 Christopher Harvie has noted the relative ignorance of the majority of British people about an industry that often absorbed about 25% of British industrial investment. He points to this effect on the relative lack of oil as a topic or event in British culture. Oil caused:
‘Disruption to older communities and local and regional ecologies. Others would later demand an imagination which dramatised the hopes of prosperity raised and shattered, the testing and rejecting of local and national political elites. But at a British political level – and one whose instabilities were provoking repeated fictionalisations, this refused to arrive […] Oil failed almost totally to surface in the imaginative literature of Anglo-Britain [yet] some authors were vividly conscious of the implications of the oil, particularly for politics, and nearly all of them were Scots.
The rigs and platforms occurred off a highly literary coastline, from the sagasteads of Shetland and the place of Hugh MacDiarmid’s exile, south to the Orkney of Saint Magnus and Edwin Muir and the Aberdeenshire of George MacDonald and Lewis Grassic Gibbon […]
The Clearances were to become the metaphor for the destruction and dispossession wrought on Scotland
Political disfranchisement meant an absence in Scotland of the ‘politics as theatre’ novel, but it encouraged this migration of political and economic themes into the metaphor or the fable, as in George Mackay Brown’s Greenvoe (1972). As with his teacher Edwin Muir, the whale-backed Orkneys were an Eden, and one which, unlike Muir, he never left. But now mechanism was moving in on them too. Greenvoe was written evidently with Occidental’s Flotta terminal, or something like it, in mind. The Orkney island of Hellya, whose quiet, co-operative life is celebrated in the early chapters, is taken over to house a project called Black Star. Its people are dispersed, its houses, church and school bulldozed to make way for tanks and piers and ‘installations’. Yet at the end, when Black Star is itself evacuated, the islanders come back to act out the ceremony of the death and resurrection of the Harvest King.
Despite the social changes, the faith – which Mackay Brown shared with Muir – would persist, as indeed would the interpretive sophistication of an intellect, not so much national as aware of the complexity of Scottish identity, which could juggle with economics, ecology, and Frazer’s Golden Bough.
English novels about political and economic life in the late 1970’s – are portentous. A nation-shattering crisis appears to be imminent. Scots writers, on the other hand, treated social change imaginatively and even playfully. This may sound like a contradiction in terms, given the importance of the project. But they realised that it was a very complex experience, at once local and international, worth treating experimentally and using it as a means of focussing Scottish history. Thus, while the ‘oil thing’ itself was local, occurring in specific basins of activity, it was incorporated into the national repertoire of metaphors.
Oil had this sort of protean impact, and North Sea oil was crucial to the 'Thatcherite’ economy, but it was unobtrusive, capital-intensive, implying no revolution in the labour force. It affected one remote part of the United Kingdom, in a period when most of the population had edited remote areas, especially troublesome ones such as Northern Ireland, out of their concerns. It was a large-scale construction and extraction project, at a time when the British economy was tilting further towards the service sector. So its impact was in a cultural sense, patchy. The Scots picked it up and wove it into their own complex national revival, partly because this revival was itself intellectual and civic as much as political.
All above are selections from Christopher Harvie, ‘North Sea Oil and Scottish Culture’ in Susanne Hagemann (ed), Studies in Scottish Fiction: 1945 to the Present (Frankfurt: Peter Lang, 1996)