Writing as Islandman, George Mackay Brown describes for us this time of year and a tale of old times.
Autumn comes, and then winter. Poised between the steady scent-laden warm-breathed glow of summer and the deliberate hostility of winter, this autumn season is frequently one of fleeting enchantment. A strange month, too, for across it summer clasps hands with winter, to remind each other of the ancient pact of the seasons, that ” while the earth abides, seed-time and harvest, and summer and winter, shall not fail.”
In the Orkney of long ago, it was a bustling season. In the big wooden houses of the men of note, the halls were swept clean and bare, and the benches installed. The Skald took down his harp and flicked the dust from the strings. In great kirns the Norsewomen with lovely names like Ingibiorg and Freya brewed the ale, and now and again lifted the lid anxiously to see if it was barming properly; for if the stuff was a failure their men-folks would pound them severely with their great hairy fists till the shrieking resounded through the house.
“Soon Sweyn will return from his summer cruise” – the whisper was on everyone’s tongue. Not only Sweyn and his men would return, but great treasure would be brought back to Orkney – bales of silk, golden armbands, layers of good English broad-cloth, maybe some frightened Irish girls. Surely such heroism deserved a long winter of ale drinking and merriment. Even the peaceful men who stayed at home and reaped the harvest – they enjoyed it no less.
Time and time again Sweyn returned, with his cruel laughing eyes and his purposeful voluptuous mouth. Years passed and Sweyn had white hair at his temples, but always in autumn he returned with great booty and a mighty thirst for ale.
But one year arrived when the omens were bad, and October passed into November without any sight of Sweyn’s jubilant sails on the horizon. Strong men wept into their ale-horns, the Earl bit his fingernails in consternation. December came, but brought no Sweyn home to Orkney. The songs faltered on the lips of the skalds, and the women set up a great elegiac wail. That was a sad autumn and winter in the Orkneys.
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