Book Review: ‘Beyond the Swelkie’ – Writing Inspired By George Mackay Brown

By Bernie Bell

I have previously written of my view of GMB….., and so I welcomed the chance to read and review ‘Beyond the Swelkie’, a recently published collection of prose and poetry inspired by and in honour of the hundredth birthday of the man himself. 

The trouble with reviewing a book of a mixture of poetry, short prose and essays, is that I wouldn’t normally sit down and read one piece after another right through the book.  I’d usually read the pieces bit by bit, here and there, and therefore take quite a long time doing so.

So, how to approach a book which I would normally take quite a long time to stroll through, when a review is wanted before toooo long?  If they were all by one person I could have ‘cherry picked’ and got a general impression, and even though they are by different people that still seemed like a good way to approach the collection. 

My approach has been to pick up the book, let The Fates decree where it opened, read that piece of writing, give my impression, and thereby hope to give the reader of The Orkney News a general, overall impression of the kind of works they will find in this volume.

Here goes…..

‘No Beaches to Comb’ by Victoria McNulty

I love finding and bringing home stuff off the beach – tho’ I wouldn’t call what Mike and I do ‘beach-combing’ – we don’t ‘comb’ the beaches – that would be far too orderly and regimented!  We wander about, taking in what’s happening around us, and thinking of what might have happened there in the past.   Sometimes  we’ll pick up a bit of glass, metal, pottery, wood, bone or stone – which might have links to the past – always hoping for an absolute wonder, but happy with the small wonders that the shore and the sea provide.

This poem catches that – the bits and pieces of life on or by the sea –  maybe finding treasure! 

Or, that’s how I read it – as always with any art-work, there will be varied individual responses.

Here Lies Betty Corrigall’ by Ingrid Leonard

I’ve given my thoughts/feelings about Betty and her baby, here…

In this piece of prose Ingrid Leonard becomes Betty – speaks to us as Betty.  The piece starts with a reference to possibly finding treasure – a bit of synchronicity with Victoria McNulty’s poem.

What counts as treasure?  A young human being – Betty – who should have been treasured, but…….

I very much like how this is written – for example  “….peat and cotton stretch down to Scapa Flow and Gutter Sound, where I tried to make my home.”  And so she did – poor girl.  All my feelings of warmth for Betty came to me again reading this piece.  Not pity – I don’t pity her – who wants pity?  No – warmth and understanding of shared human weakness – that’s how I connect with Betty.

I risk going on about my response to Betty more than giving an impression of this piece of writing. I’ll present some quotes to you, which should show how this short piece can capture  a whole time and set of attitudes…..

“Words on islands are like sleet: they fall hard and fast and horizontal, into the damp air.”

“My heart was a bank with a seam hawked through it.”

“Their peace of mind bought with the dirty silver of superstition.” – This brought to mind the tale of Lilias Adie… .

I was going to quote the last line of the piece, but it would be a shame to do so – better to read it yourself.

‘The Camera Lies’ by Fiona MacInnes

Oh my lord, Fiona – you catch it – you really do – that moment.

I hadn’t looked at the picture properly – had just registered that it was of the man himself on a familiar street in Stromness.

I started to read the words, wondered what on earth you were on about – looked back at the picture.  My lord, Fiona – you catch the two worlds – but they would have known each other, in the small world that is Stromness.

Who is she?  She will know – others will know – as at that time everyone knew everyone – here.

George MacKay Brown – a Portrait’ by Alexander Moffat.

I honestly didn’t do this on purpose because his painting – his portrait – of GMB is on the cover of the book…….

The Fates opened the book at that page – well, well, well.  GMB was a magicy man – still is.

This piece of writing presents something of the reality of the life through the lens of fame which has grown up around GMB.

Alexander Moffat was there, knew GMB and his friends and associates – was part of his life and writes of that life engagingly and realistically. GMB isn’t made out to be a saint or a sinner.  He was what he was – a man – a man with an extra-ordinary vision and connection with life – and an extra-ordinary ability to express that vision and connection.

Which brings me back to part of what I say in my previous article about GMB, as mentioned at the beginning of this review. 

Having neatly come round to that, and having fortuitously hit on two poems and two pieces of prose, I’ll now finish writing this so that I can get on with reading the rest of the book – bit by bit – liking some, maybe liking some very much, maybe puttering about how did some of them get to be published at all!  Personal responses.

And you can do the same – get the book – preferably ordered from Stromness Books & Prints  which is now open again – and see what you think.

For general background information about ‘Beyond the Swelkie’……

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2 replies »

  1. Thank you for your kind review,I hope you enjoy the rest of the book. You might enjoy some of our other books of poetry and prose. As a small independent, not for profit, publisher our passion is to publish books unlikely to get published elsewhere inspite of their quality. All profits go to future publications and we work as an unpaid editorial team offering advice and support to would be authors.
    As you will no doubt appreciate we thrive on positive feedback so thank you for your review.
    Rob Hands
    Tippermuir Books Ltd

    • Good Morning Rob, from a sunny Orkney day.

      You’re very welcome – and I wasn’t being kind – I was saying what I thought! When asked to write a review, I say that I will, but on the understanding that I will say what I think. If I think something is dreadful – I prefer not to say anything at all. I have been known to find things un-readable. For me, being kind is restraining myself.
      So, I wasn’t being kind, I was appreciating something which is well worth appreciating.
      I’m still reading this volume, bit by bit, and some pieces I don’t take to at all, whereas some take me to where the writer wants to take the reader. A good mixture, or….I can’t resist it….a good mixter-maxter!

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