Today The Scotsman is proud to show a previously unpublished short story by George Mackay Brown, one of the great Scottish writers of the twentieth century
On April the sixteenth 2001 AD, the island region of Orkney unilaterally declared its independence from the state of Scotland. Three years previously the island region of Shetland had declared its independence.
The new state, Shetland, was one of the richest states on earth, surrounded as it was by marine oilfields. As soon as one oilfield in the North Sea or the Atlantic was exhausted, another was discovered. The Shetlands were so rich they could afford a small army, a fleet of gunboats, a squadron of fighters, to defend their independence. As it happened, Scotland took no military steps ‘to preserve the Union.’ Scotland was too absorbed in bitter years – long bickering with the English. Also the Ulster problem had infected the central belt of Scotland. Orangemen and Fenians murdered each other by stealth, planted bombs by daylight and got away in swift waiting cars. (Better call them Orangemen and Fenians, because the activists were grossly ignorant of the most basic tenets of Protestantism or Catholicism.)
The Orcadians hesitated for a decade before opting for independence. That is typical: the Orkneyman is slow to make up his mind. What finally decided the issue was the discovery of an immense oilfield in a barren region of the main island, between the village of Dounby and the Evie shore. The island council declared itself to be the parliament of an independent sovereign state – Orkney. They chose for president an intelligent successful farmer from one of the north isles: he, and all succeeding presidents, was to hold the office for five years.
They applied for membership of the EEC.
They appointed envoys to Shetland, Faroe, Iceland, Uist, Norway. (Scotland refused to receive the Orkney envoy. He was sent packing home on the next plane, which however didn’t land at Kirkwall – that service had been cancelled since the Declaration of Independence. The rejected envoy had to find his way home in a fishing boat from Wick.)
They chose their flag: blue, with a white cross halving the vertical with one-to-two ratio measuring from the flagstaff, after the manner of Scandinavian national flags.
The choice of a National Anthem was left to a committee specially appointed to the task. ‘Lonely Scapa Flow’ was thought to be alien to the spirit of the new state. (Should the departure of foreign battleships from that beautiful stretch of water be lamented so?) At last a new anthem was put out for public competition. ‘Rise, Dawn of Orkney!’ was the winner.
Kirkwall, of course, was the capital of the new state; but its name was changed to Kirkvoe, for it was argued that the ‘wall’ part was a corruption of Scottish geographers, who in the fifteenth century had taken the local ‘wa’ pronunciation to be the shortened form of what it stood for in Scotland.
The new nation wasn’t wealthy enough, as yet, to afford an army, navy and air-force, (like the Shetland sheikhs). But a corps of part-time vigilantes – farmers, fishers, oil workers – kept watch nightly round the oil-stockade, and they also scanned the Pentland Firth in case a Scottish punitive force should suddenly come against them. Nothing. Night after night the waters were empty. And at the oilfield the American, Norwegian and English technicians probed down to the lake of unimagined wealth under the moss and the heather. (England accepted an Orcadian envoy in 2002AD, as did Australia, New Zealand, Canada. Orkney whisky, Orkney knitwear, Orkney butter and cheese were exported to all these countries, which had had Orkney minorities from their beginnings. Such trade was vital to the young struggling state until such time as the black fountain began to leap skyward.)
In fact, nearly all Orkneymen and women worked, in some way or another, for Orkney Nationalised Oil; even the farmers and the fishermen. The thick wad of notes in the hand on a Friday afternoon was a much more sure and exciting recompense than the wayward drifts of corn and fish.
Russia offered to exchange envoys with our new island state, but in Washington some words were uttered into the Orkney envoy’s ear and the Russian offer was not taken up. From China, about the same time, arrived an astonishing telegram on the President’s desk, offering rice in exchange for oil. The amount of rice offered was immense. Orkney would have been smothered! A sarcastic telegram was despatched to Peking, saying that Orcadians were not all that fond of the trimmings to curries and sweet and sour pork.
From Edinburgh came daily telegrams, sometimes threatening, sometimes conciliatory, sometimes paternalistic, occasionally wrathful. No answer was returned. To the eyes of the vigilantes on the Pentland Firth shores of Orkney the waters remained empty.
‘Well,’ said the teller of the fairy tale, ‘ you know how it all ended. For about five years the wells on that black moor threw up oil, then they suddenly guttered out.’
Nothing. There was no more. Ten million barrels of oil had been spirited out of Orkney. The little nation was sucked dry. One Friday afternoon the seven thousand workers got slips in their pay packets, stating that as from the Friday following there was no work for them to do …
The President made a solemn speech that was heard on radios in every house and croft; it blanched the faces of the listeners. The golden goose was dead.
In other latitudes there would have been rioting in the streets of Kirkvoe, windows smashed, offices burned, rabble–rousers at every corner.
The Orcadians went back slowly to their neglected fields. The fishing banks, having had several years of peace in which to renew themselves, were quick and bright and numerous with haddock and whiting. Boats were patched, launched, pointed at the western horizon. In the distillers, the golden gurgle of malt whisky had never ceased: that little thread of song survived the violent black arias of oil.
The tiny state survived, in spite of the fact that America and Norway gave its envoys free passage home. The other envoys were withdrawn voluntarily, as being too expensive – local born consuls could do that job as well, or better.
The vigilantes ceased to keep an eye on the Pentland Firth. Scotland herself was now two nations – the Highlands (calling itself Alba) had hived off from the industries and the dangerous factions of the south. Alba sent kind greetings to Orkney; there would be eternal peace between Norseman and Gael.
History, suddenly, seemed to interest itself in these small innocuous entities; it turned away, surfeited and bloodstained, from the superstates with their notions of destiny and story. Books about Liechtenstein, Andorra, San Marino, were avidly read, especially in the huge nations. In such quiet unheroic mirrors men saw what their image ought to be.
All over the world such little nations began to come into being. They went about their business and never interfered with their neighbours. They tried to be as inconspicuous as possible; for the goliath nations were still rattling their armour at every available frontier; little knowing that the tide of history was set against the arrogance and brainlessness, as in the distant past it had set against the dinosaur and the sabre tooth. Here and there, in such cities as New York, Leningrad, Hong Kong, people were murmuring, “Small is Beautiful”, as if the words were a password to some millennium.
In the year 2037 Alaska and Hawaii declared their independence; and this time there was no Lincoln to force the yoke of the recalcitrant. In the twenty-second century the many islands and cities of Japan declared themselves to be, in the mannered metaphor of a Nagasaki poet,
“independent bees working towards sweetness and nourishment of whole hive.”
In Orkney they stopped singing the ridiculous national anthem after a year or two. The generation of Orcadians of the first decade of the 21st century had to work very hard indeed. They were poorer than their grandfathers had been, and sometimes they were hungry after a hard winter. They were always glad when springtime came; not for themselves alone, but for that tenuous network of small communities and societies that was now increasingly covering the earth. Each small nation, no matter how remote, kept an instinctive, delicate sympathy for the other, as if a grain of dust on one strand set the whole web trembling. The prophecy of the great Scottish poet seemed possible at last: “man to man, the world owre…”
The fairy story goes on, and “happiness ever after ” is still under the horizon of time.
George Mackay Brown, 10 February, 1976
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
George Mackay Brown (17 October 1921 – 13 April 1996) was a Scottish poet, author and dramatist, whose work has a distinctly Orcadian character. He is considered one of the great Scottish writers of the 20th century. His fiction was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, won Saltire Book of the Year, and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize. Brown was awarded an OBE in the 1974 New Year Honours List.
His writing was inspired by his native Orkney. As fellow poet and Nobel prizewinner Seamus Heaney commented: “He transforms everything by passing it through the eye of the needle of Orkney.’’
Mackay Brown was a founder of the St Magnus Festival. His work has inspired, and continues to inspire, other artists, notably composer Peter Maxwell Davies, who set over 20 of his works to music, and contemporary musicians like Idlewild’s Roddy Woomble.
In 2012 Edinburgh’s Rose Street was decorated by artist Astrid Jaekel with public art inspired by George Mackay Brown’s poem “Beachcomber”. His work is published in print form by Edinburgh publisher Birlinn, and in a new series of ebooks by John Murray.