George Mackay Brown (1921-1996) is one of the most important Scottish writers of the twentieth century. Born in Stromness, in the Orkney Islands, during his long career he has published collections of poetry, short stories, novels and plays, as well as numerous articles in various periodicals. In his writings the desolate landscape of Orkney Islands is the background to the events of the poor local community, linked to its traditions, which survives thanks to fishing and working in the fields. However, Brown doesn’t want to make some sort of documentary, but he blends the present with myth and history, creating narratives between reality and fantasy. In the same way, his Catholicism is always present, even if often hidden, to give hope to individuals who would otherwise be overwhelmed by the hardships and pains of life, victims of the whims of nature and of the malice of their neighbours. Above all, what is frightening is the modernity that advances relentlessly, without heart or roots, close to swallow everything.
Pictures in the Cave (1977), although aimed at younger readers, deals with the same themes. The novel is inspired by Greenvoe (1972), first of all for the fragmentary style, and it prepares the ground for Beside the Ocean of Time (1994), one of the most read and appreciated works by the Scotsman.
The plot revolves around Sigurd, an Orcadian boy who loves the sea more than school. One morning, while as usual he is loitering on the beach, he meets Shelmark, of the people of the seal-men, who tells him the stories related to the mysterious cave that is nearby, where the inhabitants of the island believe it once experienced a terrible witch. At this point Sigurd disappears from the text to return only in the final chapter, while in the previous pages Shelmark’s stories are told, all set in different centuries, where the cave is the only recurring element (the passage of time is another important theme in Brown’s novels).
If the first story talks about the wild Jennifer Stoor who does not want to marry the noble of the island, from the third chapter the various stories develop following a chronological order, from antiquity, when the Orkneys were victims from the Viking raids, up to the Second World War and the German planes that threaten the sky. Other stories tell of King Robert’s victory in Stirling against the English, or of a Spaniard who survived the sinking of an Armada galleon and then marries the girl who rescued him (this is of a well-known Scottish legend, revisited in a farcical version by Compton Mackenzie in Whiskey Galore! and mentioned in the recent TV series Shetland). The book then continues with the Bonnie Prince Charlie rebellion up to decidedly crude and dramatic episodes such as those that have as protagonists two smugglers who end up hanged or a mad suicide, the latter so in love with an imaginary siren that he is drowned. Of course, there are more sunny moments: a story, for example, involves a retarded boy who offers help to a family of gypsies on the run; in another one, the discovery of a pearl in an oyster saves father and son from eviction.
The ambiguous epilogue, another typical feature of Brown, marks the decline of an era. In fact, Sigurd returns home after a life as a globetrotting captain to discover to his great regret that the cave, guardian of eternity, is about to be destroyed with the complicity of the island’s authorities by a company interested in exploiting some mineral deposits. Finally, in order not to lose that precious treasure that is memory, Sigurd decides to entrust his stories to little Solveig, the daughter of the housekeeper, with the task of passing them on to the successive generations.
Only when no one tells them more, only when tradition will be forgotten, the island will end up like Atlantis.