The excerpt is taken from the lengthy introduction which Clouston wrote to his edited volume Records of the Earldom of Orkney, published by the Scottish History Society in 1914. The volume comprises over 200 early documents pertaining to Orkney from 1299 to 1614 with notes and appendices by Clouston. His 95-page introduction gives a synopsis of his understanding of the medieval history of Orkney in its Scandinavian context. An online version of the Records of the Earldom of Orkney 1299 to 1614 can be found at http://www.archive.org/stream/publicationsofsc27scot/publicationsofsc27scot_djvu.txt
Records of the Earldom of Orkney, 1299 to 1614
Some things to think about: Clouston was a published writer of fiction and his ability to write a strong narrative is evident in his historical work. What impact does this have on his historical writing? And what do you think of Clouston’s reasons for undertaking research?
Clouston created the Viking Golden Age, the legacy of which is still prominent in the islands. How much do you think your own views of Orkney history have been influenced by Clouston’s work?
I do hope you enjoy the excerpt and I look forward to discussing it with you.
It seems an odd thing for Clouston to be looking round the peaceful Orkney parishes and hankering after the battles, the swords and the drinking halls of the Vikings:
“How was it that high-born chieftains shrank into ‘peerie lairds’ and their drinking halls into buts and bens? Why should the swords of the Vikings be beaten so completely into ploughshares …?”
My mind flew instantly to Scandinavia and its image in the world: on the one hand insisting on the importance of a society in which we all pay into the central pot so that the weakest and sickest and least able among us are cared for; on the other the exporter of the darkest, most noirish crime fiction and TV drama on the planet.
Would Clouston have been satisfied to meander through Orkney’s peaceful parishes, if he could have gone home and watched The Killing? Is that why he wrote his own novels of spying and adventure? Is it also significant that his introduction was published in 1914, the year which saw the start of WW1?
I also thought of the outrage perpetrated by Anders Breivik in Norway. He certainly broke through the relative calm and peace of Norway with his multitude of weapons. Is he a latter day Viking?
And what of my sense of Orkney, coming back to live here after many years away? What did I think I was coming back to? Big skies and sea would be the first things that spring to mind. Green and gold fields. Rocks and shorelines. The call of whimbrels, singing to seals, beachcombing. Stones and seaglass. Skies full of stars. Dry stone dykes and wild flowers. The long, long days of summer. Wind and wild seas. But, yes, also a place where I don’t have to lock my doors all the time, where there is no knife crime, less aggression in the streets, less vandalism. A more peaceful community.
And yet, one of the crimes that shocked me most in recent years was the shooting – execution, really – of the Bangladeshi waiter Shamsuddin Mahmood in Kirkwall in 1994. Was that Orkney’s Anders Breivik moment?
What therefore does Clouston mean when he hankers after a more ‘heroic’ time? What does it mean to associate ‘heroism’ with swords and battles and plundering voyages?
‘It is as though the islands’ past had dived over a precipice and become the present at the foot,’ Clouston says. The ‘foot’ certainly suggests ‘settlement’ of some sort, no need to go anywhere else, the end of travel, the end of travail and strife. Why else would people go looking for land, unless they mean – eventually – to settle there. In peace and harmony.
I’ve been giving some thought to the piece I will write in response to the J Storer Clouston extract you sent me. I’m interested in him partly because he lived along the road from my new house in Orphir. That helps to contextualise his comments about the peaceful – for ‘peaceful’, read ‘boring’ – Orcadians who had none of the fire in their bellies that their Viking ancestors had, by JSC’s lights.
So, my thinking has developed a bit and I thought I’d run this idea by you and ask a few questions that your researches into JSC might enable you to answer.
My great grandfather, John Robertson, was a shepherd on the farm of Swanbister in Orphir. He lived with his wife Eliza Wards – who came from Gairsay – and family – including my grandfather – in the Shepherd’s Cottage in what is now Orphir Village. The single-storey cottage was on the site of what is now a two-storey house opposite the church, a few doors along from the Orphir School.
I went to the archives and checked out a few things – with Lucy’s help – and discovered what I hoped for, that my great grandfather and his family lived there at the same time as Clouston was there, at that time as a tenant of Smoogro, which he later owned. The Robertson family are in the census for 1891 and 1901. By 1911 they had moved to Viewfield in St Ola, to a farm which has since been swallowed up by Kirkwall. But in 1905 they would all have been there in Orphir and could conceivably have met.
So I’m musing over the possibilities of writing some kind of fictional encounter – probably in verse! – between Clouston and my great grandparents around the themes Clouston raises in the introduction to The Records of the Earldom of Orkney. It pleases me that my great grandfather was a shepherd, an occupation somewhat associated in its idealised form with bucolic peace and quiet and settled rural life, in contrast to the lives of the Viking adventurers Clouston idealises.
So … I wondered a couple of things. Are there any descriptions of Clouston written by his contemporaries? I know there is a photo in the volume I’ve seen of The Records of the Earldom of Orkney. Are there other photos you’ve seen?
And I wondered if there are any references to what Clouston would have been reading at the time? For example, did he like Tennyson’s work The Idylls of the King? It was published not that long before Clouston would have been receiving his education, and deals with heroic deeds and kings and mysticism and swords and funeral barges … I don’t suppose it really matters if there is any evidence of what – other than historical documents – he was reading, but I thought it would be interesting to know if you’ve picked up anything from your reading about his reading! I reckon his voice would be that of an educated Scot and that, if he ever ventured into verse, he would have been influenced by the styles of the day. My great grandfather and his family, on the other hand, would have spoken in Orkney dialect.
I don’t think Storer found Orcadians boring but I do think he wanted to teach them about their past and make them realise how different things once were, hence the deliberate comparison of sword bearer and kirk goer. I think the most important thing to remember is that Storer created the Orkney past that we all know. It was Storer who really championed promoting Orkney’s Viking ancestry. Before Storer that story did not exist: certainly not as fully or as comprehensively. We’re right at the beginning of a change. A change where people desire to be descended from Vikings whereas before they knew of them but did not wish, in the same way, to be connected with them. Storer makes Orcadians aware of the extent to which the Vikings (as he would want them called) impacted upon the landscape, the laws, the institutions, the language, the place-names, the people. He does this most clearly in his genealogies where he connects Orcadian names to Sagamen. i.e. Clouston and Hakon Klo, Flett and Thorel Flettir.
The story he tells in the introduction of the REO is there to contextualise the documents he has collected and to give Orcadians a past to be ‘proud’ of. He is deliberately making Orcadians different from everyone else, a unique race of noble Scandinavian blood – this is the time of Nationalism and Romanticism and Storer is almost glorifying Orkney’s past to give the present population hope and pride – things which he thinks have been taken from the Orcadians by years of mis-rule under the Scots. Hence his dislike of the Stewarts and his deliberate disassociation of Orkney’s medieval past from Scotland, something which we have labelled his deliberate ‘Scandinavianising’ of Orkney.
There are a few contemporary accounts of Storer, but I don’t have any to hand. I will look them up for you though. But I do know that Storer was not universally liked. He was conveyor of the council, recruited for the armed forces in the war and, like most public figures, faced criticism. I believe he was quite impatient and didn’t suffer fools at all.
I feel, from having read his archive material, that he was a man who dearly would have liked to have been part of the upper-class landowning gentry of Orkney. He was almost this, but did not have the finances to support the lifestyle in the same way as the Traills, for instance, could. He had to write fiction to earn money to support his family and maintain the lifestyle he wanted, but there are several instances where he writes to his wife asking her to see if her family can help them out financially. He also talks of the boredom of being in Orkney out of season. Implying that when the great and good have gone there is little to do. But I think much of this is because his wife and children are not there, rather than being a slur on the ordinary Orcadian.
He enjoys shooting snipe, visiting Graemeshall, Woodwick. etc. There are quite a few photographs of Storer and his family in the archives. Some show Storer in plusfours, tweed and with gun and dog, others show him in a study full of books and papers. I think these images sum him up well. His daily routine, once permanently residing in Orkney, began at 9am. He would write in the morning and exercise (walking along moors and shore – perhaps passing by your great grandfather? – excavating sites, gardening, shooting or playing golf), he then wrote and read into the early hours.
Storer was educated at Merchiston Castle School and at Magdalen College, Oxford. He was distinguished for his athletic prowess and his sense of history. He gained a degree in law at Oxford and worked as a barrister for a short time before going to Edinburgh University to read history. He didn’t want a degree, he did it because he enjoyed it.
He seems to have been writing fiction throughout his twenties, and was first published about the age of 27. His books tend to be humorous, often satirical, commentaries on contemporary society and were popular at their time of publication. This is especially true of The Lunatic books. He tends to use a lot of dialogue, and wrote several plays as well as novels. According to Ernest Marwick, Storer consciously modelled his writing style on RLS in his younger days and that he ‘could not abide careless construction or slipshod writing’. Also,according to Ernest Marwick, Storer’s favourite authors were RLS, Jane Austen, Thackeray, Henry James, Turgenev and Tolstoy. He was very fond of Sir Walter Scott’s writing and he read through the whole of the Waverley novels each winter. He didn’t like Dicken’s apart from Pickwick and The Tale of Two Cities.
As an aside, and it might just be a coincidence, there was a John Robertson, Shepherd, who lived at Naversdale in the 1880s – which of course was part of the Swanbister estate then. There were also Robertsons at Fea and South Fea at the time and earlier. Naversdale was part of Swanbister for a long time, and has a shepherd’s cottage on the land as well as the farmhouse.
To begin with, thank you for ‘fleshing out’ the character of J Storer Clouston so comprehensively for me. Although responding to the man’s words doesn’t automatically necessitate knowing about the man, because I had begun to conceive my response in terms of a fictional meeting between him and my great grandparents in Orphir, it has been really useful to have more of a picture of him. There’s only so far you can fictionalise a historical character without checking a few facts!
This project has provided me with an interesting conundrum. To start with I would never have freely chosen to respond creatively to the passage you picked. The ‘why’ of this statement is interesting to me. In the novel I’m (not!) writing at the moment, working title, The Making of Veni Isbister, which has been on the back burner for the past two years while we sold our flat in Glasgow and built a house in Orkney, I have a character who ‘looks like’ a Viking – tall, fairish hair, blue eyes – who engenders the assumption in another character that his ancestors must be Vikings. As it turns out, he has taken part in the genetic survey that was done of Orkney men in recent years and has discovered he has no Viking genes. Another character has Multiple Sclerosis and there is speculation that he must be descended from Vikings, because of the research that has suggested a link between the disease and the Norse invaders. Also, several of my characters make a journey to Norway, to Bergen and Trondheim, in the saga tradition, and draw comparisons between St Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall and Nidaros in Trondheim.
So, before you introduced me to the idea that it was Storer Clouston who revived Orcadians’ knowledge of Orkney’s Viking past, I was already tangling with it in my fiction. I’d have assumed my knowledge had come from the much more recent past, from the writing of George Mackay Brown and Eric Linklater, though less so, and of course the Orkneyinga Saga. It never occurred to me that Viking rule in Orkney might not always have been known about and remembered … (Oh oh, a dozen sheep on the road outside the house; need to phone the farmer … Job done! Managed to get them back in the field myself. Maybe some of my great grandfather’s shepherding genes have been passed down!) … so I’m grateful to you for having set the record straight for me on Clouston’s being the earlier source.
Despite acknowledging that in my fiction I’ve been attracted to the idea of the Viking links to Orkney, I found myself recoiling from some of Clouston’s phrases:
“On at least one reader of those sagas, the question has long forced itself on looking at Orkney today: What became of that heroic age? How was it that high-born chieftains shrank to ‘peerie lairds’ and their drinking halls into buts and bens? Why should the swords of the Vikings be beaten so completely into ploughshares, and their sons go so regularly to kirk?”
A statement like this needs unpacking and I find myself reacting against much of it. Your description of Clouston’s aspirations to be part of the landed gentry of Orkney is telling. His use of the phrase, ‘high-born’ might be a reflection of that, but doesn’t endear him much to this great-granddaughter of a but-and-ben-dwelling shepherd!
What of the ‘peerie lairds’? There are still people in Orkney who have memories handed down to them through their families of being cleared off the land in Rousay by ‘the peedie general’. The ‘peerie lairds’ had the power to change the lives of their tenants drastically for the worse. Or for the better. And I’m not a believer, but I’d sooner have a kirk-goer for a neighbour, than a sword-wielding Viking.
When, as an antiquarian and historian, Clouston mourns the lack of physical evidence of Orkney’s Viking past, I have much more sympathy for him:
“Those landmarks which in other places keep alive the memory of the past and carry back our imagination to it: the ruined castle, the moated grange, the ancient timbered village houses, the immemorial oaks planted by such and such a monarch … those links are lacking here. It is as though the islands’ past had dived over a precipice and become the present at the foot … apart from St Magnus Cathedral, the famous race of sea-rovers and saga-writers have scarcely left us one stone still standing on another.”
The Records of The Earldom of Orkney is an extraordinary work of scholarship and I take my hat off to Clouston for that painstaking labour of research and conservation. I also warm to the information you give that he worked at his fiction writing to earn money to keep his family. His output is astonishing.
So for me, one of the big challenges of responding to this piece was to find a way of writing about Vikings and about their place in the Orkney imagination, without getting mired in Clouston’s politics. I say ‘the Orkney imagination’ because Clouston’s statements are generalisations. But I soon realised that to find a way in, I would have to explore the Viking influence on MY imagination as an Orcadian, as a woman and as a writer. In my mind now though I couldn’t separate the Viking influence from Clouston’s promulgation of it!
And then came the free gift: the realisation that my great grandparents lived in Orphir village with their family, including my grandfather, an apprentice tailor, at the same time as Clouston lived in Smoogro, just along the road. And the coincidences seemed to pile up. The house we have just built and now live in is in Orphir, a mile or so from where my great grandparents lived and worked, which was a mile or so from Smoogro. And your e-mail with its information about the link between Naversdale, your home, and Swanbister, where my great grandfather was employed as a shepherd and the Robertsons populating the landscape, all added to the feeling that something in all this was meant!
Also in this square mile of coincidence is the Round Kirk at the Bu, all that remains above ground of buildings that included the drinking hall of a succession of Viking Jarls. I looked into the Orkneyinga Saga again for references to the Bu and found various violent goings on, including the one you mention in which Sweyn Asleifarson murders Sweyn Breastrope. But the one that caught my eye was Chapter 55, in which Earl Harald is killed by a poisoned shirt made by his mother and aunt and meant for his brother Earl Paul.
So then the fictional meeting began to take shape. What I mainly took from your descriptions of Clouston was his keen desire to teach Orcadians about their Viking past. Although it’s not mentioned in the extract you chose for me, I realised Clouston must surely have been familiar with the saga stories around the Bu in Orphir, the nearest Viking settlement to Smoogro. The story of the poisoned shirt was a gift too. I could imagine Clouston using it to engage my young grandfather, David, in conversation about Vikings, since he was an apprentice tailor at the time.
Now, the Orkneyinga Saga is of course a translation in standard English from the original Icelandic. I’ve long thought it would be interesting to try and translate it into Orkney dialect. But standard English worked fine for Clouston’s speech, which I imagined to be relatively formal, slightly legalistic, a bit bombastic. I could imagine writing a much longer piece with the voices of all my great grandfather’s family coming in. But I settled in the end for my great grandmother, Eliza, whose name my mother was given for her middle name, my great grandfather, John, the shepherd, and Clouston himself. My family’s speech I’ve tried to render in Orkney dialect.
The details you gave me of Clouston’s dress and pastimes – plus fours and snipe-shooting – found their way in. I imagine he would have seemed slightly strange to ordinary working Orcadians and that they might have been tempted to take a rise out of him. So my fictionalised real family respond to the fictional Clouston in different ways: scepticism and a bit of ridicule from Eliza, shyness from David, acceptance and enjoyment of his company from John, who tussles with his Viking talk.
Form was an issue for me too. I considered producing a series of poems, a prose piece, a short play. But in the end – lord knows why! – I decided to do it in blank verse. It was partly the idea that came to me that Clouston would very likely have read Tennyson’s Idylls of the King and admired the heroic, heraldic, mystic-sword-wielding tale, which was written in blank verse.
“So all day long the voice of battle roll’d
Among the mountains by the winter sea …”
How hard could it be, I thought, to render the different kinds of speech – standard English and Orkney dialect – in unrhymed iambic pentameter? Hah! I didn’t find it at all easy, and after I’d read out my first draft at the event in the Pier Arts Centre, I realised that most folk in the audience heard it as prose, though there was one poet there who recognised the intermittent iambic rhythm. Every line had ten syllables, but not every line was iambic. Poets like Seamus Heaney use iambic pentameter, subtle internal rhymes, modified terza rima and sonnet forms and give them a modern twist and feel, but the old forms are there like ghost structures. Take this example by Seamus Heaney from Human Chain:
“Had I not been awake I would have missed it
A wind that rose and whirled until the roof …”
I wanted to try for something that would sound like poetry, but retain the flavour of ordinary English and Orcadian speech. The version I’ve sent in is a lot closer to what I was trying to achieve than the earlier draft.
So, thank you, Sarah Jane, for all your work in choosing an extract and in introducing me to J Storer Clouston, his strengths and foibles. It’s been a great project. I said earlier that I would never have chosen the extract you did, but it’s been a really interesting challenge to step outside my writing comfort zone and try something I’d never have thought of left to my own devices.
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Sarah Jane Gibbon
Sarah Jane Gibbon was born in Orkney in 1976. She graduated from the University of Glasgow in 1998 with a Joint Honours Degree in Archaeology and History, following which in 2000 she completed a Research Masters in Norse Castles in Orkney. In 2006 she gained a PhD in archaeology from the UHI studying Orkney's medieval ecclesiastical landscape. She has worked as an archive assistant at Orkney Archives, lectured in Culture Studies and Archaeology at Orkney College, UHI, and co-led The Big Orkney Song Project. Sarah Jane now divides her time between self-employed historical and genealogical projects, archaeological projects with Orkney College, researching, writing and performing songs, helping her husband Robert with their farm, and most importantly, looking after their daughter Josie and baby son Jamie.
Alison Miller was born and grew up in Orkney before leaving for university in Aberdeen. She has lived and worked in Adult Education, Counselling & Group Work in Glasgow for most of her adult life. In 2003 she graduated with Distinction from the Creative Writing M.Litt run by Strathclyde and Glasgow universities. Her novel Demo published by Penguin in 2006, was shortlisted for the Saltire First Book Award. Alison has had fiction and poetry published in anthologies, stories broadcast on BBC Radio 4, and does occasional book reviews for the Herald and Scottish Review of Books. Currently she is Scottish Book Trust Reader in Residence in Orkney Library & Archive and produces a regular blog: http://readerinresidenceorkneylibrary.blogspot.co.uk/. She is also working on a novel, The Making of Veni Isbister, set in Orkney.