Book review: The History of Orkney Literature, Simon H Wall

John Donald, £20

FAR from the "great tartan monster" of the mainland, and writhing with its own mythological past, the Orkney of Simon W Hall's history enjoys a literary output which punches well above its weight. Hall sets out to demonstrate that such an embarrassment of literary riches demarcates it as a fertile sub-national territory of artistry; using a rich seam of lore to communicate itself to the world while acknowledging what Hall terms a positive "insularism" of setting, style and influence, Orkney is both of Scotland, and a land of otherness.

This, the first full cataloguing of its kind, is conducted by close readings of the works of such Orcadian writers as Walter Traill Dennison, Edwin Muir, Eric Linklater, Robert Rendall and George Mackay Brown.

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Hall is assiduous in considering Orkney's literature from its imposing and varied angles, which spews up the manifold dichotomies with which the history of the islands - and its subsequent literature - is soaked: "vikingry, peasantry, war and peace, Norn and Scots, saint and sinner, anarchy and law, paganism and Christianity, farming and fishing, time and tide." He prises apart each chosen text, tale or poem, identifying the Nordic roots and skaldic sagas, the work of Dennison in preserving the language, the swagger of Samuel Laing's translations, the absorption and adaption of new languages and ethnicities by Muir, Mitchison and Brown.

He signposts similarities and differences between the subsequent works he fillets, while situating Orkney in a geographical and historical context, contiguous with its neighbouring archipelagos, a place from which to explore the sagas' hero worship of powerful men, the role of women, the impact of an outsider's vantage, selkies and stoorworms and violent bloody war. Then he stitches it back together into a cohesive picture of what Orkney literature looks like today: emergent of "a democratic rural background", "predominantly the past, rarely the present and never the future".

And he pulls it off without dropping a stitch, without lecturing or dullifying; uncompromising in its tone and research, unafraid of parsing rhyming meters and poking its nose into Nordic word hoards, the book has a lot to recommend it to the common reader, as well as the enthusiastic scholar of Orcadian literature. It amounts to an Orkney literary tapestry, a weaving together of the diverse strands of which a robust island literature is constructed, enjoyably readable thanks to Hall's authoritative and engaged tone. For the island he sings, savouring its seas and stones, celebrating George Mackay Brown's statement - "we cannot live fully without the treasury our ancestors have left to us" - in both substance and style.

• This article was first published in Scotland on Sunday, August 1, 2010

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