Category Archives: orkney

Book Review – Vinland by George Mackay Brown

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vinland

I lost my heart to Orkney years ago. I think at first it was the tranquility and the silence. Then it was realising the silence (compared to a city I mean) isn’t as quiet as I first thought; the birds, the wind and the waves are the sounds of Orkney, and I grew to love it even more. That was my first trip; on the second trip I got engaged at the Ring of Brodgar, so what was already a special place for me became even more so for us.

The second best thing to being there, is reading about Orkney through the words of Orcadian writer George Mackay Brown. ‘Vinland’ might make its way onto my list of all-time favourite books. It is utterly stunning to read and I want more. I’m not familiar with Mackay Brown’s poetry, and the only other book I’ve read by him was ‘Beside the Ocean of Time’, which I will have to pull off the shelf again, but after reading ‘Vinland’ not only did I want the story to go on and on, I also want to see what else he wrote.

This the reaction I want when I finish reading a book. If I put off reading the last few pages because I don’t want the tale to ever end, it is for me the sign of a perfect book. The book is set in the Medieval Scandinavian world, including Orkney, Iceland, Greenland, Norway, and Ireland, as well as North America. The title ‘Vinland’ is a little bit misleading, as only part of it is set in North America, when Leif Ericson tried to settle a colony there, however the dream of Vinland is carried on throughout the protagonist’s life.

The book charts the life of Ranald Sigmundson, a boy who goes to sea with his father, and ends up with Leif Ericson in Vinland. He returns home to Orkney, and evens goes to war in Ireland. I’m particularly fond of this period in history, and while I certainly don’t know as much about the Scandinavian World as I think I should, I had briefly studied the Vinland Sagas as a student, in what I would say is one of the best modules I ever had the privilege of undertaking. This book brought this world to life.

History can seem at times to be a bit cold and a bit distant, and the further back in time you go, the less evidence there is to help you reconstruct the past. The reason I enjoyed this book so much is because of the people. The political and religious turmoil certainly made the plot intriguing, but it is the characters, mainly Ranald, that makes the book so evocative. I’m sure that there is more metaphorical meaning within the work than what I have interpreted for you here, and I’m sure many of you would enjoy the book for those reasons.

For me I loved it because I didn’t just escape into a book, I also got the chance to escape into a period of history that I adore.

I remember picking up the copy of ‘Vinland’ in a lovely little bookshop in Stromness where Mackay Brown lived in Orkney. These days I’m keen on having context and a bit of life woven into the tapestry of my experience with a book. While I am planning on going back, I don’t think I can wait to go back to Orkney to get more books by him though; I think yearning for them badly enough to order them will have to be experience enough.