Book review: Storm’s Edge, by Peter Marshall

​A new history of the Orkney archipelago produces a remarkable collection of history, folk tales and community memory, writes Stuart Kelly

Microhistory – a genre which looks at “large questions in small places” – was once thought cutting-edge and avant-garde, in works like Carlo Ginzburg’s The Cheese And The Worms or Robert Darnton’s The Great Cat Massacre. That it is now mainstream is a measure of its success.

Broadly speaking, Peter Marshall’s Storm’s Edge, subtitled “Life, Death and Magic in the Islands of Orkney” might be thought of as microhistorical, although, as the Hebridean poet Kevin McNeil once said to me “no-one thinks of themselves as living on the margins”. This is, to use E. P. Thompson’s famous phrase “history from below”. Marshall negotiates the local and the international, the mundane and the epochal, the representative and the anomalous with enviable skill in this volume. Orkney is the lens through which history is seen, and part of that story is its role as being “ultima Thule” to others.

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This is not a complete history of Orkney from Skara Brae to, say, the scuttling at Scapa Flow or the Yellow Cake Review. It might have been subtitled “From Reformation to Revolution” as it begins with James V travelling there in 1540 and ends with Walter Scott’s visit in 1814. Orkney’s constitutional status embodies some of the paradoxes. Christian II of Denmark claimed his father had put Orkney “at present in pawn to the crown of Scotland”, it being part of the dowry of his daughter Margeret to James III. James III however considered it “annexed and united”. Neither side recanted but neither seemed to want to push the matter; Orkney only “came into play” when it was seen as a strategic back-door for other powers to invade. Rhetorically, it was a by-word for the extent of empire. The South Orkney Islands are a part of the British Antarctic Territory, and the Falkland Islands were compared to Orkney (and more military manpower, effort and lives expended in securing them).

Peter MarshallPeter Marshall
Peter Marshall

The connection to Scandinavia had an impact on the language. Although Norn is technically extinct, it has a kind of afterlife. Kirkwall is nothing to do with defensive walls, but a corruption of Kirkjuvágr, “the bay of the church”. Likewise chapel of Damsay has no eldritch reason to be known locally as “Hellie Boot”, as it derives from heilagr bót or holy betterment. I would rather be in favour of resurrecting “boniewords” — bœnar-orð — for prayers. It is also evident in trade patterns, and Marshall wryly notes, given the dearth of trees in Orkney, the flat-pack forerunner of imported timber for the fishing trade, such as it was.

This dual inheritance also provides a telling double focus. While the Jacobite threat may have been uppermost in most minds during the first half of the eighteenth century, Orkney was convulsed to the point of the Court of Session over problems about weights and measures. Orkney used traditional beams called bismars and pundlars to calculate amounts.

Given taxes were paid in kind, the imputation of faulty or deliberately skewed calibration was serious. The legal cases rumbled from 1735 to 1759 between Sir James Stewart and the Earl of Morton. This was not just paring or adulterating, as the question about whether it was legal to use a different set of measures was a question of judicial and territorial sovereignty.

Legal cases can seem dry, but Marshall extracts a great deal of drama and import from them. Likewise, much can be gleaned from Kirk Session records. Marshall has done invaluable work here, and reading Session records might not be everyone’s idea of fun.

But one can reconstruct some otherwise inaccessible view on everyday life. Although the Kirk can be portrayed as an all-seeing, authoritarian eye, one has to wonder about its efficacy in, for example, the case of Bessie Moodie. To be brought to the Session for adultery was not unusual, to be brought 42 times almost seems like making a point.

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There is sufficient hypocrisy, backbiting and politicking to full plenty of novels: Isobel Gunn, cross-dressing to enlist on an expedition to Canada would be one example. Some later parts – Napoleon’s greatcoat, a link to the Bounty mutiny or Nelson – have just a touch of the Titanic headline, “Dundee Man Lost At Sea”.

The final part of the subtitle will most likely draw most readers. There are again continuities and differences. The appearance of seductive and shape-shifting fey-folk can be paralleled with stories at the opposite end of the country in the Borders, such as “Tam Lin”.

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On the other hand, I cannot think of any parallel for certain rituals of healing and conjuration involving groups of three stones and liminal areas such as tidal places or the transition from cultivated to wild lands. One thing that does become obvious is that accusations of witchcraft might well be higher because of the necessarily limited nature of the archipelago.

Whether it is in dynastic politics and church schisms or small scale rivalries and slights (such an accusation of being a “cowlooper dog”), the boundedness of the islands makes for a pressure cooker of resentments. You can’t avoid neighbours. If feudalism passed away, feuding certainly did not.

Storm’s Edge, by Peter Marshall, William Collins, £25

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