Greenvoe by George Mackay Brown

Polygon, 2004, 249 p, plus vi p introduction by Ali Smith.

(Not borrowed from but) returned to a threatened library.

 Greenvoe cover

Of George Mackay Brown, a native of Stromness in Orkney, Wikipedia says “he is considered one of the great Scottish poets of the 20th century.” He nevertheless also wrote plays and prose. This novel, Greenvoe, is in the list of 100 best Scottish Books. While showing many of the characteristics of Scottish writing – the descriptions of landscape and, here, seascapes, a sense of things lost, the pervasiveness of Calvinism – Greenvoe is also distinctly Orcadian.

The novel is set mainly in the titular village on the fictional island of Hellya and follows the lives of its inhabitants over the course of six days, focusing on each in turn. Over time this builds up into a convincing portrait of the village and island life but one of the drawbacks of Brown’s approach is that before we have had the opportunity to get to know them well we are thrown over twenty named characters in the first few pages thus making keeping track difficult to begin with.

The population includes three fishermen, the wastrel Bert Kerston whose wife Ellen feels much put-upon; Samuel Whaness, married to Rachel who bemoans her childlessness and The Skarf (always capitalised) who tells stories of the island’s history in the hotel bar every night. There is a concupiscent ferryman, Ivan Westray; hotel-keeper Bill Scorradale, who substitutes the whisky; an alcoholic minister, Simon McKee, whose mother, racked with guilt, daily imagines her trial on various charges; the local posh girl, Inga Fortin-Bell, home for the holidays; shopkeeper Joseph Evie and his wife Olive; the frustrated schoolmistress Miss Inverary; Alice Voar, “Every man in Hellya has lain with her,” the mother of seven children (each with a different father); elderly Ben and Bella Budge; meths drinker Timmy Folster; and a mysterious hotel guest who sits typing away all day in his room. On the third day the travelling salesman Johnny Singh arrives to make the annual rounds. This section, entirely narrated from his point of view in the form of a letter to his uncle Pannadas – the usual salesman – gives an additional perspective. In it he says, “The island is full of ghosts.” This is a foreshadowing. For like many classic Scottish novels Greenvoe is an elegy. The island life shown here is on its way out – and not merely due to the Government project, Dark Star, which arrives to hollow out the land and cover it with wire fencing. Each chapter of the book (bar the last) covers a single day and ends with a description of the (all different) initiation rites of the Ancient Mystery of The Horsemen.

In her introduction Ali Smith suggests that the core of the book is in the one character who never sets foot in Greenvoe, Mrs McKee’s niece Winifred Melville, who has an illegitimate child, refuses to marry the father, becomes a Catholic and makes a living writing novels. This would be to neglect how much island life itself is a pervasive aspect of the narrative, the almost impossibility of true privacy, the inability to avoid gossip, the depredations of the modern world.

To my mind it is Mrs McKee herself who is the fulcrum. In one of his perorations her imaginary prosecutor (in fact Mrs McKee’s conscience) tells us, “’Become a Catholic,’ said Aunt Flora. ‘What’s good about that? If you ask me it’s worse than the illegitimate child.’ Hers is, thank God, the authentic, affirming voice of religious Scotland.” Describing an incident in which Mrs McKee allowed Winnie to shelter from the rain in a Catholic Church he adds, “Mrs McKee – whose hand plucked an innocent girl out of a Highland rainstorm into – Lord have mercy on this poor Scotland of ours – the abode of The Scarlet Woman.” She it was too who introduced her son to drink by way of a medicinal toddy. Such are the scars Calvinism inflicts on the true believer.

Yet Brown also tells us, “The essence of love is pain; deep in the heart of love is a terrible wound.” Perhaps it is this pain, this wound, that Calvinism seeks, on our behalves, to avoid. Literature (thankfully?) does not.

Pedant’s corner:- (Some of these look as if they are mistakes in transcribing a handwritten manuscript.) Greenove (once, for Greenvoe,) ona (on a,) meth (methylated spirits is more usually shortened to meths but Mackay Brown uses it consistently,) “like a toby jug came to life” (come to life,) knit (knitted,) under a wide are (arc,) becareful (be careful,) “whoal” (“whoa!”?) fetor (foetor*,) “ says be to me” (“says he to me”,) blashphemous (blasphemous*,) “This lie glimmers at.” ??? Ceileidh (Ceilidh,) stange (strange?) flat heer (beer,) a lap wing (lapwing,) scorpian (scorpion,) telesceope (telescope,) mantlepiece, (mantelpiece*,) “The Window” (the context suggests a rock, The Widow, twice mentioned higher up the same page,) “Now them, Sidney,” (Now then,) Belia (Bella,) elegaic (elegiac,) “his date of birth ‘ll be in” (birth’ll,) a missing end quotation mark, Aunt Alora (Flora,) Fergus’ (Fergus’s,) “by the rose bush, Her basket was always …” (full stop for comma?) Gaderene (Gadarene?) spur (spar makes more sense,) back and fore (maybe it’s northern thing, then,) a thin keep (since this is of a wind, a thin keen?) “…an hour ago said Bill Scorradale’ He must have…” (“…an hour ago said Bill Scorradale. ‘He must have…”) “corn-beef” usually “corned beef”,) what a fine, big housel (house! ?) Wedgewood cups and saucers (Wedgwood?) Prince Street (Princes Street,) and and (one “and” would suffice,) gableends (gable ends,) but this time (by this time?)
*correctly spelled elsewhere.

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