Christina Mackay Costie was born in Kirkwall on the 6th of August 1902. She grew up with her parents, a sister, and a brother on St Catherine’s Place, and attended Kirkwall Grammar School (then, Kirkwall Burgh School). She later moved to Willowburn Road, where she remained with her sister for the rest of her life.
Through her adult life, Costie worked for the Kirkwall law firm Macrae and Robertson, as a clerk and shorthand typist, where she was she was ‘particularly well known to generations of farmers, to whom she was able to give much practical help’ (Obituary, The Orcadian). This career has led some to describe Costie as ‘a spinster lawyer, who wrote dialect verse in her spare time’ (Maggie Fergusson, George Mackay Brown). While much of Costie’s production was in the medium of Orkney dialect, there is much to be appreciated in her poetry and short stories, beyond the limits of conventional ‘dialect verse’, and her poems span a broad range of topics, encompassing philosophical musings, religious observations, the human sufferings of war, the Orkney way of life, folklore and customs, as well as comedy.
In her spare time, Costie enjoyed the company of friends who were, like her, interested in reading and writing poetry and fiction, and in Orkney history and folklore. At the centre of this group were her next-door neighbour Ernest Marwick and his wife Janette, who opened their home to aspiring writers for cups of tea, encouragement, and discussion of a wide range of literature and other topics. In this group of friends were also writers Robert Rendall and the young George Mackay Brown. Costie and Marwick also shared an interest in local traditions and folklore, which she often drew on in her writing.
Costie’s literary production consists of two volumes published in her life-time: But-End Ballans, poetry, published in 1949 under the pen-name Lex, and Benjie’s Bodle and Other Orkney Dialect Tales, short stories, 1956. In addition, both previously published and unpublished material has been collected posthumously in The Collected Orkney Dialect Poems of C. M. Costie, The Collected Orkney Dialect Tales of C. M. Costie, and Wullie o’ Skipigoe or The True Story of the Harray Crab and other Orkney dialect poems (the latter also available on CD) .
In But-End Ballans, Costie found her form in masterpieces such as ‘De Government Inspector’, ‘De Shore Below Wir Hoose’ and ‘De Ferm Servant’. She also shows comic talent, for instance in ‘At the Ceuthes’, ‘Teu-Pitten’ and ‘At Willie’s Funeral’. However, from a retrospective point of view, But-End Ballans still lacks some of her best poems, such as ‘Speir Thoo the Wast Wind’, ‘The Peerie Grandson’, ‘The Auld Hoose Spaeks’, ‘The Memorial’ and the comical masterpiece ‘Wullie o Skipigoe or the True Story of the Harray Crab’.
Benjie’s Bodle contains 14 stories, 13 of which are set wholly or partly in Orkney. The ‘bodle’ of the title, in addition to being the title of one of the stories, may also represent the cultural treasure that is Orkney’s storytelling tradition, as Costie was concerned with preserving and passing on Orkney’s cultural heritage. As she writes in the preface: ‘The stories are, for the most part, tales of the North and South Isles, sometimes two or three small happenings being strung together to make one tale.’ This technique was also employed by the 19th century Orcadian writer and folklorist Walter Traill Dennison, and Hugh Marwick in his review of Benjie’s Bodle did indeed compare Costie’s work to Dennison’s.
Ragnhild Ljosland is lecturer in Nordic Studies at the University of the Highlands and Islands and author of Chrissie’s Bodle. Discovering Orkney’s Forgotten Writer Christina M. Costie.