Neolithic Orkney—Literature on Location

Ring of Brodgar

The forecast was for 11⁰C, but I doubt it rose past 5⁰. The clouds were low; the sleet piercing; the wind penetrating—a perfect day to start exploring Neolithic Orkney.

It was the first time I’d physically set foot on the Orkney island of Mainland, but the almost treeless landscape already felt familiar. My reading had taken me there on several previous occasions.

I often begin to know a place through reading, whether it’s 19th century Dorset in Tracy Chevalier’s Remarkable Creatures or 14th century London in Robyn Cadwallader’s Book of Colours or 7th century Northumbria in Nicola Griffith’s Hild.

And so, before visiting the Orkneys, I had searched out books that would awaken my senses to place and landscape, climate and peoples. I wanted to reach back into Orkney history. I reached for fiction. ‘Factual’ histories are often rife with gaps and biases; historical fiction operates in time’s spaces and silences. Done well, historical fiction fills the gaps and redresses the biases; it shapes conceivable lives and probable landscapes.

Cover image courtesy of Kelpies

The first book I turned to on my Orkney discovery trail was Kathleen Fidler’s The Boy with the Bronze Axe (originally published in 1968). It introduced me to Skara Brae and the Ring of Brodgar and the burial mound of Maeshowe at a time when each was central to the life of Neolithic human communities.

Fidler, the author of over 80 books for children, prefaces The Boy with the Bronze Axe with some background information. ‘In the winter of 1850’, she writes, ‘a terrible storm struck the coasts of the Orkney Isles’. The storm ‘washed away part of the high sand dunes that fringed the Bay of Skaill and laid bare the ruins of some ancient dwellings’. That much is fact, detailed in historical records. Fidler bookends that 1850  storm with the possibility of another storm, thousands of years earlier, in which the dwellings might, just as suddenly, have been filled ‘by sand dunes moving like the waves of the sea’.

Fidler takes her readers back to the late Stone Age, on the cusp of the Bronze Age. Siblings Kali and Brockan, from the community at Skara Brae, are rescued from a rising tide by an unknown visitor from the south—Tenko, the boy bearing the bronze axe.

House #1, Skara Brae

Fidler uses the outsider’s viewpoint to illuminate life at Skara Brae.

Inside Kali and Brockan’s home, Tenko observes the ‘stone bed like a trough … filled with heather and bracken’, and the ‘stone dresser built of flat slabs resting on pillars of stone’. En route to the Ring of Brodgar, Kali’s father explains to Tenko that the quarry they pass at Bookan is where he ‘split off the great stone’ that will be added to the incomplete Ring.


And on his first visit to Maeshowe, Tenko marvels at the ‘great green mound … shaped like a cone’, rising high above the surrounding plain’. Proceeding down Maeshowe’s low, narrow tunnel, Tenko catches his breath as he enters the ‘great square chamber’, its ‘stone slabs placed one above the other, with edges projecting to make a beehive roof’.

My reading creates pictures of life at Skara Brae in my mind. I am ready to translate Fidler’s fictional world—replete with flint scrapers, bone needles, broken beads, carved stone balls, and pottery shards—into a physical encounter. When I visit the site in person, the ancient remains are  immediately familiar (and fancifully inhabited).

Of course, I continue to learn.

Standing stone, Stenness

Back home in Australia, I read more. Now—finally—I turn to factual accounts, initially to UNESCO’s World Heritage listing for the Heart of Neolithic Orkney. The property’s inscription, dated December 1999, begins: ‘The group of Neolithic monuments on Orkney consists of a large chambered tomb (Maeshowe), two ceremonial stone circles (the Stones of Stenness and the Ring of Brodgar) and a settlement (Skara Brae), together with a number of unexcavated burial, ceremonial and settlement sites … Through the combination of ceremonial, funerary and domestic sites, the Heart of Neolithic Orkney bears a unique testimony to a cultural tradition that flourished between about 3000 BC and 2000 BC.’

There are many ways of entering a landscape; of learning a place. As I get to know Neolithic Orkney, I am slowly building layers—just like the slabs that make up the walls of Maeshowe. Layers of fiction and memory and fact. Layers both real and imagined. More strata will be added but, for me, fiction provided a good starting point.

Links and Sources

Standing stones, Stenness, May 2019

Being Good for God—Patrick Gale’s ‘A Perfectly Good Man’

Barnaby Johnson, the priestly protagonist in Patrick Gale’s A Perfectly Good Man, was eight years old when his uncle offered him two gifts—the possibility of God and permission not to always be good. Barnaby accepts one gift, but largely resists the other.


Three characters in retreat

Morvah church and field systems_Wiki Commons

Morvah church and surrounding fields. Attribution: Sheila Russell. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

A Perfectly Good Man, like several of Gale’s novels, is set in Cornwall’s west country, and centres on the mining villages of Pendeen and Morvah. Into these insular villages, Gale introduces three strangers. The first to arrive is Barnaby Johnson, initially as curate, but later as priest of a small clutch of unfashionable churches. Barnaby is followed by Modest Carlson, recently released from jail after serving a sentence for the rape of one of his students. Modest insinuates himself menacingly into the life of the parish. Last to arrive is Nuala Barnes, a gifted potter and non-churchgoer, fleeing an abusive ex-husband in Melbourne. The lives from which Modest and Nuala are in retreat are clear; Barnaby’s motives in seeking out this patch of Cornwall are less transparent.

Joining Barnaby to create the local vicarage family are his solidly practical wife, Dorothy, and their two children, Carrie and Phuc, the latter adopted from Vietnam as a three-year-old.


Multiple viewpoints and discontinuous time frames

A Perfectly Good Man_cover image

Cover image courtesy of Headline UK

A Perfectly Good Man unfolds from multiple viewpoints and across discontinuous time frames. Seven of the 19 chapters are told from Barnaby’s perspective; of the remainder, two each are revealed by Dorothy, Carrie, Phuc, Modest, Nuala and Nuala’s son, Lenny. It is Lenny who provides the arresting opening to the novel.

Wheelchair-bound following a rugby accident, Lenny is meticulously preparing for his suicide. He invites Barnaby to his death watch. ‘I’m going to die,’ he tells the priest. ‘We’re all going to die,’ replies Barnaby, choosing a metaphysical response, rather than a more immediate and tangible one. When Lenny swallows his Nembutal-laced drink, Barnaby does not immediately phone for an ambulance. He first administers the rite of Extreme Unction and, only after that, does he place telephone calls for assistance. When the police arrive, Barnaby offers himself for arrest.

At the inquest that follows, Barnaby explains his decision:

I am a priest … I have few skills … But I do know that I can pray for a dying man’s eternal soul … I knew the circumstances were ambiguous. I thought it more honest to be arrested and trust in justice than just to slip away.


Gale’s forebears provide priestly inspiration

Inspiration for Barnaby’s character stems in part from Gale’s forebears. Both his grandfather and great-grandfather were priests, and Gale suspects his father might also have been ordained had not World War II intervened and shaken up his certainties.

The Imitation of Christ_cover image

Cover image courtesy of Penguin Random House.

Gale’s fictional priest is devoted—to God, parishioners and family (possibly in that order). During Barnaby’s mid-life years of ‘self-made hell’, when his faith leaves him entirely, he relies on three things: anti-depressants, the ‘sacred routine’ of service and sacrament, and a renewed study of Thomas à Kempis’s The Imitation of Christ.

Gale writes with convincing insight into a priest’s life. He acknowledges the ‘nervous smiles’ that often greet a man of the cloth, the excuses for non-attendance at church, and the reality of time spent in social work (or ‘mopping up’ as Dorothy calls it). There is an understanding of the quality of silence and the appeal of ‘mystery’ in the priestly vocation. And there is the not uncommon perception, sensed in the novel by 12-year-old Phuc, that some priests are most themselves when standing before a congregation ‘transformed by vestments into a dazzling figure’ who seems to be ‘mother and father in a single being’.


A ‘cosily guerrilla occasion’

Notes from an Exhibition_cover image

Cover image courtesy of Headline UK

Gale has described A Perfectly Good Man (2012) as an ‘echo chamber’ to his 2007 novel Notes from an Exhibition. (The 2007 novel depicts a family swirling in the maelstrom of an artist mother’s bi‑polar disorder.) The later novel makes some happy connections with the earlier one: two of Rachel Kelly’s paintings appear (one a reproduction and one, providentially, an original) as does Kelly’s daughter, Morwenna.

Notes left Morwenna in a state of breakdown and unresolved trauma. Her return in A Perfectly Good Man provides the book’s most joyous scene—in a ‘cosily guerrilla occasion’, Morwenna is married. Although her relationship has already been registered as a civil partnership, this is ‘the ceremony that counted’. It begins with the female vicar declaring: ‘We are here today to bless and celebrate the union of our friends, sisters and daughters … if not with the full approval of the Church, then in the eye of God.’


A not-so-safe cocoon

Patrick Gale cocoons his readers in A Perfectly Good Man. Having been confronted with a terrible shock in the opening chapter, we then relax and begin to recover our equilibrium.

We are unprepared for the aftershocks. In fact, the ‘aftershocks’ have mostly already happened. Our time frame is askew; our perspective awry. It is as if Gale’s narrative strategy protects us from knowing too much too soon. Like scuba divers, we repeatedly descend and re-surface, each time entering the same ocean depths, but with a new companion and on a different tide.


Wolf Rocks below Morvah Cliff. Attribution: Sheila Russell. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.


Quod erat demonstrandum

Ultimately, readers must decide the success of Barnaby Johnson’s quod erat demonstrandum. Does he, or does he not, validate Thomas à Kempis’s proof: ‘Learned arguments do not make a man holy and righteous, whereas a good life makes him dear to God’?


Links and Sources