Orkney has had more than its fair share of writers, who were either born or lived in the county. Many drew on Orkney’s landscape, history and people for inspiration and themes. Here, we explore some of our most famous literary figures.
Self-styled Orcadian novelist Eric Linklater (1899–1974) was born in South Wales but considered himself Orcadian. His father was a native. Linklater served in the trenches of the Somme as a sniper in World War One and narrowly escaped death when a bullet passed through his metal helmet. The helmet can be seen in the Orkney Museum in Kirkwall. He rose to prominence as a journalist and a novelist with an international reputation. His Orcadian novels are White-maa’s Saga (1929), The Men of Ness (1932) and Magnus Merriman (1934). He settled aged 35 in Harray, Orkney. His family home is now the Merkister Hotel. During World War Two he commanded Fortress Orkney. He is buried in the Harray kirkyard.
Poet, translator, prolific essayist, critic and novelist Edwin Muir (1887–1959) was born the son of a tenant farmer in Deerness in Orkney’s East Mainland and spent his early years on the Orkney isle of Wyre. At the age of 14 he was uprooted to endure the culture shock of industrial Glasgow. The upheaval saw his parents and two brothers die within five years. He married Shetland-born writer Willa Anderson and the couple translated 40 novels from German and Czech, including Franz Kafka’s The Trial. Muir was Director of the British Council in Prague, and later Rome. After many years travelling in Europe, in 1950 he became warden of Newbattle Abbey College in Midlothian where he encouraged fellow Orcadian writer, George Mackay Brown. Muir produced poetry from his mid-thirties, for which he was internationally acclaimed.
Robert Rendall (1898–1967) was born in Glasgow of Westray parents who moved back to Orkney when Rendall was young. He attended Kirkwall Grammar School until aged 13 and worked in the family draper shop, George Rendall. The shop was on the corner of Bridge Street and Albert Street in Kirkwall, now occupied by The Brig Larder, where a special plaque marks the building's history. Robert Rendall produced many poetry collections in the Orkney dialect and was also a keen naturalist, an expert in Orkney shells and an amateur painter. He discovered the Broch of Gurness in 1929 while sketching. His studies extended to archaeology, science, natural history and theology.
Regency novelist Mary Brunton (1778–1818) was born in Burray, Orkney, and her two complete novels propelled her into celebrity, but they are now almost forgotten. The daughter of Colonel Thomas Balfour of Elwick and Frances Ligonier, the sister of an earl, Mary eloped from the isle of Gairsay with Church of Scotland minister Alexander Brunton and settled in Edinburgh. Jane Austen branded Brunton’s novel Self-Discipline as absurd. Her novels feature independent women rather than sugary heroines.
Joseph Storer Clouston
Joseph Storer Clouston (1870–1944) was a prolific author and historian whose most famous novel was The Lunatic at Large (1899). His thriller The Spy in Black was made into a film in 1930. A fellow of the Orkney Antiquarian Society, and a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries, he also wrote A History of Orkney (1932).
Christina M Costie
Christina M Costie (1902–1967) was a Kirkwall poet whose work was penned in the Orkney dialect. Her poem Speech was a reaction to the local education director in 1952 who urged locals to abandon dialect.