AN ORCADIAN INHERITANCE
AS BRITISH NATIONALISTS we cherish the cultural and historical inheritance of these islands. More than this, we see our nation's cultural and historical heritage as being integral to what our nation is today.
To see Britain as only existing in accordance with the physical conditions surrounding and embracing her in the 1980's is as erroneous and futile as admiring the flower without realising and understanding its dependence on the stem, the leaves, the roots and the rich soil in which it grows. As it is, a massive injection, an overdose, of an alien drug known as cosmopolitanism has severely damaged and distorted the flower of British nationhood. Only through the preservation and nurturing of our roots, feeding on our nation's rich, cultural and historical soil, can the true flower of British nationhood blossom again.
However, this botanical analogy is thus far merely a simplified view of the whole picture. A more accurate analogy would be to compare the British nation to a lush and beautiful garden within which many different localised cultures blossom, drawing their rich nourishment from strong roots anchored in the unique soil of their own local history.
With this in mind, I picked a book called An Orkney Tapestry from the shelf of the prison library at Wormwood Scrubs during the first week of my twelve month prison sentence. Once I'd started reading it I found myself so engrossed that I couldn't put it down. Within a day I'd read all 192 pages.
Throughout those pages the author, George Mackay Brown, himself an Orcadian, a native of the Orkneys, spun his tapestry of Orkney history and culture with the romantic eloquence one would expect from one of Scotland's most distinguished poets and short story writers. As I turned each page my heart lifted at the knowledge that there was such a wealth of history and culture in this one comer of the British Isles alone.
ABYSS OF AGE
Everywhere in Orkney there is a sense of the abyss of age, of dark and dangerous days gone by, of mystery and magic, legend and lore.
The islands have been inhabited for a very long time, from before the day of the plough. The Norsemen came 1,200 years ago to a place that was already populated with fishermen, herdsmen and farmers; a clever ingenious folk who built brochs along coasts and lochs to defend themselves against sea-raiders. These primitive castles presented a high blank circular wall to any besiegers.
But the broch builders were themselves invaders. The silent vanished peoples stretch back beyond even them, laid in barrows and howes under the green waves of time. Every now and then a plough somewhere turns up another relic of these forgotten people.
The first Orkney peoples are a mystery. They are beyond the reach of legend even. describe a folk who committed themselves to the sea.
Hardly a thing is known about these first Orcadians apart from the monuments they left behind them, the huge stones of Maeshowe and Brodgar, and the pastoral village of Skara Brae in the west.
The majority of Orcadians have a kind of reverence for their history. It is a romantic reverence, for the witches, the press-gang, the smugglers and above all for the Vikings.
For the Vikings especially they keep a welcome; they are their "true ancestors" who came by the salt road, west over-sea from Norway, a thousand years ago and more; they are blood of their blood, a pure stock.
The adventures and misadventures of these Vikings were documented by the chronologers of the time, most notably in The Orkneyinga Saga.
The myths and legends which surround their deeds make fascinating reading. At Yule in the year 1013, for instance, Sigurd, Earl of Orkney, entertained an important visitor at his hall in Orphir ― Sigtrygg, King of Dublin. Sigtrygg had for an overlord Brian Boru, High King of Ireland.
Sigtrygg intended, he told Earl Sigurd, to raise an army against King Brian, and he urgently invited the Orkney Earl to take part in the war. He regarded an alliance with Earl Sigurd as of such importance that he accepted Sigurd's terms at once ― Brian's kingdom, and marriage with Sigtrygg's mother Kormlada. As an added honour, Sigurd was to be in the centre of the battle-array, as virtual commander-in-chief. We can guess only crudely at the actual course of the Battle of Clontarf. It seems from the saga accounts as if the men taking part in it were only puppets, and that the real battle fought out by supernatural beings, the heavenly legions against the principalities and powers of darkness. The battle was depicted as being fought between Christ and Odin for the soul of Ireland.
Signs from heaven showered down on the warriors; the whole action is surrounded by supernatural forces with swords and axes fighting of their own accord. There was the Earl of Orkney's raven banner which was said to carry with it the power of Odin. There was Brodir's enchanted armour that no sword or arrow could bite on. There was the web of entrails woven by the Valkyries.
In Caithness, just south of Orkney, on the day of the battle legend has it that a man called Darraud saw twelve horsewomen riding into a hillside. He followed where they seemed to go, and saw through a rock-cleft twelve women setting up a loom and singing:
The warp is stretched
For warrior's death.
The weft in the loom
Drips with blood.
The battle darkens.
Under our fingers
The tapestry grows,
Red as heart's blood
Blue as corpses,
The web of battle.
What is the woof?
The guts of men.
The weights on the warp
Their slaughtered heads.
These are our spindles,
Blood splashed spears.
An iron loom-frame;
And the reels, arrows;
With swords for shuttles
This war-web we weave,
The web of victory....
The song shuttles on for eleven verses, a lengthening tissue of ghastliness.
The imagination of the Orkney people was branded for centuries with the horror of Clontarf. Seven and a half centuries after the battle, the minister of North Ronaldsay in Orkney read aloud to some of his people Thomas Gray's paraphrase of the Valkyries' song. The islanders heard the first few stanzas out, then told their minister that they knew the poem already in their old Norn tongue.
Without doubt, this shows the power that paganism has over the Orcadian Inheritance. Yet Christianity has also forged an eternal place into the inheritance of the islands. There is the martyrdom of St Magnus the Earl at Egilsay and many reports of miracles in the area following his death. Even today, the Cathedral church of St Magnus stands in the Orkneys as a lasting monument to his martyrdom.
Then there are the many adventures which surround Rognvald Kalson, the Earl of Orkney who commenced the building of St Magnus' Cathedral in 1137. He was a soldier, statesman, poet, lover and adventurer ― perhaps the most attractive figure in the Saga of the Orkneymen, wooing princesses and waging crusades to the Holy Land.
So there we have a small part of the Orcadian Inheritance. It is bloody and battle-scarred, gruesome and gory; yet, above all, it is a triumphant triology of Warrior, Martyr and Crusader. An inheritance for which we should feel very proud and from which we should gain immense inspiration.
The Orcadian warrior, Sigurd, who fought on the pagan side at the Battle of Clontarf; the Orcadian martyr, Magnus, who faced death with the courage of his convictions and the fortitude of his faith; the Orcadian crusader, Rognvald, who led a crusade to the Holy Land and began the building of St. Magnus Cathedral which still stands in the Orkneys today.
When one looks at the wealth of history which surrounds this one small corner of the British Isles it becomes more obvious than ever that we must fight against the forces which seek to destroy the roots and rich historical soil of our Nation. If the precious flower of Orcadia is so priceless, how much more priceless is the garden in which it belongs.
St. Magnus Cathedral – a monument to the Orkney's heroic past