By ‘Islandman’ First published in the Orkney Herald 29th June 1948
The longest day of the year may be June 21st or June 22nd, whichever you prefer; and the difference of a split second doesn’t make so much difference after all.
THE QUEST FOR ENCHANTMENT
In recent years I have not properly celebrated the presence of the summer solstice, according to its due. To tell the truth, I am usually asleep at midnight on the 21st, and so I have little experience of the unique enchantment of that hour. I have heard it said, and I fully believe it, that he who stays out till midnight on midsummer has a good chance of seeing the fairies at their revels, and perhaps of being wrapt away from the drab world to a world of timeless enchantment, as Bottom was translated in a “Midsummer’s Nights Dream”.
So when I awoke on the morning of June 21st, I was determined to endure awake till beyond midnight, in the hope of seeing things that mortal eyes should not see. And the first things I saw, rather to my disgust on pulling back the blinds, was that a dull dry day had broken, with a sky like slate.
THE MAGIC OF SHAKESPEARE
Nevertheless, after breakfast I commenced the ritual of the summer solstice by reading right through ” A Midsummer’s Nights Dream ” by William Shakespeare. For me, this as the most perfect poem that Shakespeare ever wrote. Everything dissolves into moonlight, and the moonlight is enchantment made visible. And O! what moon-silvered phrases drop, in shivering ecstasy, from the lips of fairies and mortals! The play is drenched in magic, and after you have taken the last drop on your lips, it is hard after a time to return to the tangible world of tables, books, windows and writing paper.
MAZES OF MELODY
In the afternoon my friend Mac called, and after we had read together the intimidating sermon on Hell from James Joyce’s “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man”, we played music on the gramophone, till 5 o’clock striking sent Mac scuttling home. He had been under the impression that it was round about half past three, having lost all count of time in the mazes of melody we elected to wander in. These were duets from “Rigoletto”, Caruso singing “Heavenly Aida”, the Orpheus choir singing “All in the April evening”, the prize song from “The Mastersingers of Nuremburg”, and T.S. Eliot reading a fragment of his poetry in grave ecclesiastic tones.
THE QUEST BEGINS
So the longest day of the year passed; and presently, late in the evening, the broad sun wheeled into the Atlantic, and the crimson radiance drained out of the western clouds. I wrote a brief letter after supper, and my head was just beginning to nod with delicious drowsiness, when I pulled myself together sternly. It was midsummer night, and near the hour of twelve when graves give up their dead and the trows and peedie folk romp round the bases of the hills in ghostly revel. Men have disappeared on midsummer midnight, and never been heard tell of again…
Ostensibly it was to post the letter that I wrapped the scarf round my neck and walked out into the grimlings. In actuality, it was to savour the enchantment of the season, to hold converse with the fairies, and even to get lost in a world of timelessness…The door banged softly behind me.
MIDNIGHT SNAP SHOTS
The southern sky was piled with dense grey clouds, but northwards the sky had a pale primrose hue; and though the sun had disappeared, these two hours, his light, clear as wine, was still brimming over the horizon.
…A seagull flapped over the harbour, and his wings which, at noon-day, would have been a dazzling white, were now black as jet… A lady passed, taking her dog for a walk, but I could not, in the brown dusk, distinguish her until she was within ten yards…Cats, soft and subtle as shadows, slid noiselessly along the walls.
The harbour water was unflawed, a gently undulating mirror, in which the long reflections of piers, boats, and clouds trembled and shivered. On the light-ship at its pier one light burned clear, a luminous jewel in its setting of dusk. The night was one vast silence.
APOTHEOSIS OF GREEN
I slid the letter into the red pillar box and turned for home. As yet there was no sign of the peedie folk. I turned the next corner quickly, in the hope of surprising them, but the grass was empty, and greener, now at midnight, than any emerald. Saturated in dew, the grass seemed to gather to itself the last dregs of light, and glittered in vivid greenness. Grass blades are never so beautiful as on a summer midnight … A large white moth, as big as a butterfly, hovered over this patch of intense greenness. Because of the fear I have of all insects, creeping or flying, I avoided it and walked on the other side of the road.
On the golf course, the last midnight golf foursomes were coming in, and going to the clubhouse for supper. And, hearing their distant voices, thin and clear in the midnight air, I realized with a pang of disappointment that I had arrived back on my own doorstep, without having had one supernatural experience. The fairies had eluded me, and I was till here in this heavy world, conscious of time and chance and the weariness of my own bones.
I had just got in through the door, and locked it for the night, when the clock chimed twelve from the family mantlepiece. And now a strange thing did happen. The small red kitten, asleep in her chair, jumped up and began to waltz and tumble round the dark room in a kind of demoniac frenzy. He lay on his back and savagely chewed the cushion tassels. He took amazing leaps high in the air, and dug his claws wickedly into the chair legs. Then round and round the room he went at an incredible speed, the patterings of his velvet paws like drops of rain on the window-pane.
It was clear that some mischievous trow had taken possession of this innocent timid kitten, only seven weeks in the world. I seized it by the scruff of the neck and closed it in the kitchen, where it could do little damage. Then soused with fatigue, I climbed the stairs to bed; and was quickly drowned in sleep before the light of a new dawn surged up in the east.
George Mackay Brown wrote a weekly Island Diary for The Orkney Herald between 1945 and 1956. He used the pen name “Islandman” for the column.