J Storer Clouston: Inaugural Lecture

Hosted by ‘Another Orkney Production’ the Inaugural J. Storer Clouston Lecture was given by Professor Donna Heddle of the Institute of Northern Studies, UHI on Friday 11th May 2018.

Storer Clouston lecture

Who was J. Storer Clouston ?

Born in Cumberland on 23rd May 1870, educated at Merchiston Castle School Edinburgh and Magdalen College Oxford, Joseph Storer Clouston spent most of his life in Orkney. He wrote an amazing diverse array of books. Including the History of Orkney, The Spy in Black and the series The Lunatic at Large.  You can read more about him here: J Storer Clouston Novelist

Professor Heddle’s talk at the St Magnus Centre, Kirkwall was “Writing the Vikings: Storer Clouston and the Scandinification of Orkney Identity”. It centered on the importance of Storer’s History of Orkney and  examined it within the context of its time.

Although hugely successful as a novelist in his day J. Storer Clouston has been largely forgotten about despite the influence he has had on the way present day Orcadians think of themselves. He is very much defined by his love of Orkney but in recent years has come under fire for his Viking/ Nordic bias. Professor Heddle, however, explained what she felt were the reasons for this.

Scotland has two origin myths: the Celtic myth of Ossian lore and the Norse myth favoured by the Northern Isles, Lowland Scotland, England and Germany. The huge upheavals to society as a result of the Industrial revolution and the French Revolution caused much uncertainty throughout the 18th and into the 19th Century. Farming practices that had gone on for centuries in Orkney were undergoing rapid change. Nothing was certain anymore. It was in that context that people started searching for something they could hold onto – and that was the past – or the myth of the past.

The Norse Myth for Orcadians illustrated in the Orkneyinga Saga  when the islands were virtually autonomous gave them an image they could identify with and its emphasis on imagination and emotion. Gone was the disillusionment with the Scottish Enlightenment with its emphasis on order and reason.

The Norse Myth showed them a sophisticated society with a strong sense of community. A man was judged by his actions – not by his thoughts –  but his deeds.  Cattle die, Men die but “what never dies is a  man’s good name”.  The worst thing that could happen to you would be exclusion from society.

The Norse myth appealed very much to how Victorians saw themselves and the Age of Empire to such an extent that it was even claimed by popular commentators of the time that Queen Victoria herself was descended from Odin. Successful Victorians believed that Viking blood flowed in their blood and this explained for them the growth and strength of Britain’s Empire.

This was not exceptional to Orkney or Britain in the late 19th/ early 20th century as it can also be seen in Northern Europe including Germany. During this time the Orkneyinga Saga was translated, there was increased interest in folklore and archaeologists excavated Norse remains and interpreted runes.

Orcadians developed a local patriotism with the rediscovery of the Norse identity. Udal law, political radicalism and a strong sense of community intertwined with imagination and folklore.

Donna Heddle

In tandem with the growing strength of the Norse origin myth was the Scottish Literary Renaissance of the 20th century. Led by the colossal influence of Hugh MacDiarmid it included Orcadian Edwin Muir and Orkney artist Stanley Cursiter.

” the Scottish renaissance was far more than simply a creative boom in the literary world of Scotland. Not only did the movement involve other arts outwith literature, but its central concerns were varied and hugely influential – from the modernist concepts of technology and time, to the conscious push for a cultural and political Scottish national identity and promotion of the native languages.“Jason Henderson

Professor Heddle, setting J. Storer Clouston, in the context of his time, sees him as a British Orcadian. He was very much a man of Victorian Empire and this is demonstrated in his ‘History of Orkney’ which is suffused with an adoration of the Norse.

Storer Clouston writes of Earl Thorfinn as of a super hero. The important status given to  Earl Thorfinn is also found in other writers  Erik Linklater and Dorothy Dunnet. She even went as far as to suggest  that Macbeth and Thorfinn were the same person.

Professor Heddle was intrigued by the importance Storer Clouston placed on Thorfinn, man of action. For George MacKay Brown and later writers it is the peaceful Magnus and the politically skilled Rognvald who take centre stage in the retelling of  Orkney’s ‘history’. Magnus and Rognvald who were part of an independent minded Orkney.  For Storer Clouston, however, as a British Orcadian it was the man of action Thorfinn (the importance of the deeds not the thoughts) where you are only able to do what you can because you are part of something bigger.

This was a fascinating talk about J Storer Clouston and in particular the importance of his book ‘The History of Orkney’. Setting Clouston within the context of his time, the opposing influences prevalent in Scotland, intertwined with Professor Heddle’s incredible extensive knowledge was an excellent start to this annual series of lectures. It is Professor Heddle’s hope that future lectures will look at other aspects of J. Storer Clouston’s life and influence.

Professor Donna Heddle MA (Hons), PhD, FHEA, FSA Scot, FRSA

Donna Heddle

Professor Donna Heddle

Director of the Institute of Northern Studies at the University of the Highlands and Islands located in Orkney, Professor Donna Heddle has a distinguished academic career. She has several awards :

  • David Masson Scholarship, University of Edinburgh (1993 and again in 1994)
  • Faculty Teaching Fellowship, University of Edinburgh (1994)
  • SCRAN award for online VLE and module development (2002-3)
  • Times Higher Education Supplement Award for Most Imaginative Use of Distance Learning (2005)

Reporter: Fiona Grahame


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