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Reading Cause And Effect: Orkney, Neolithic History, And Faroese Literature

A photograph of Skara Brae

Reading Amy Liptrot’s The Outrun, I went on one of those rabbit hole reading sprees, so far that when I clicked back from a tab to one of the other many tabs I’d opened, I couldn’t remember how it was related. Then I did remember; I’m recording some of those tentatively-related findings here, too.

Orkney has a lot of Neolithic history to it. There are tombs and homes and a big tourist attraction on the ‘mainland’, Skara Brae, a settlement under the earth made of stones. A lot still remains and there are even items of stone furniture. Coastal erosion in Britain means Skara Brase is now very close to the shore (one hopes it can somehow be saved) but at the time of use it would’ve been fairly inland.

Along with a bit more astronomy, which I won’t detail as I’ve already covered the subject in another post, was fata morgana. Named after the legendary witch, fata morgana is a sort of cloud phenomenon wherein reality is reflected wrongly on the horizon. It changes the look of boats, sometimes making them look airborne, other times making them longer than they are. The blurry mirage changes over a short period of time.

A photograph of a fata morgana

My rabbit hole discovery started with a lack of geographical knowledge – I knew the Orkneys were above Scotland but where were they exactly? Once I’d read enough of Liptrot’s book to have the location to pat (below the Shetlands, not to the west – that’s Skye), and to have learned some of the names (‘mainland’ – capital: Kirkwell – Papay Westray, Stronsay, North Ronaldsay), I started to wonder about the islands more… northerly. Beyond, or above, however it should be termed, the Shetlands, come the Faroe Islands.

The Islands are more populated than the Shetlands and are considered part of Denmark. I liked the photographs of the cities and towns but what interested me most was the article on Faroese literature. The islands have been populated for centuries so stories are not new. In medieval times stories were passed down orally; traditional songs were finally written down in the 1800s.

Faroese literature, in the way we use ‘literature’ now, has been around for the last 100-200 years, which Wikipedia says is down both to the isolation of the islands and to the local language not being standardised until 1890. As with many tales of history, the ruling country’s language was promoted more. The Wikipedia page is quite something, have a look at the chronology!

Of the Danish-language contingent, famous authors include one William Heinesen who wrote a book called The Black Cauldron – from what I’ve read it seems the most likely of his works to be recognised overseas. Looking at Heinesen, who was born at the turn of the nineteenth century and lived to 91, we have someone who wrote about the capital of Faroe, Tórshavn, and placed it at the heart of his work. He wrote about destruction and creativity, about contrasts. Britannica says, ‘he combined elements of tragedy, comedy, satire, allegory, and social criticism to explore such themes as the harshness of nature and the rights of the individual as opposed to the collective good’. He rejected his nomination for the Nobel Prize as he believed it would be better to give it to a Faroese writer who wrote in the language of the islands – “If it had been given to me, it would have gone to an author who writes in Danish, and in consequence Faroese efforts to create an independent culture would have been dealt a blow”. Considering he was restricted in his language choice at the time, having to write in Danish, I think it’s a particularly awesome gesture. (The Prize went to Elias Canetti, a Bulgarian Brit who wrote in German.) Heinesen’s house on Faroe has been turned into a museum; perhaps due to his relatively recent passing it remains largely unchanged.

Bárður Oskarsson, whose name has an accent in it I’ve never seen before but I hope I’ve rendered it correctly, is a children’s writer and illustrator from our present day. He started out as the illustrator for his grandfather’s children’s book which is pretty awesome, I reckon, and kept on illustrating for a while before starting to write himself. The New York Times called a recent release “a quietly profound new picture book… about the question of how to react to the death of a stranger”. From the image included and the dollar amount at the bottom, it would seem that contrary to the Wikipedia page, Oskarsson’s work is being translated into English. Of this book, The Flat Rabbit (or Flata Kaninin) Norden says “about ethics and responsibility in a sensitive and compelling way. The subject of the book is akin to Antigone and The Iliad and the challenge is to take care of the dead body of a loved one, even though there is great risk involved”.

Oskarsson’s most famous book is Ein Hundur, Ein Ketta Og Ein Mús, A Dog, A Cat, And A Mouse.

Heðin Brú is another writer with a fair backlist. Older that Oskarsson (Brú died in 1987), this writer is considered the most important of his generation. The Old Man And His Sons (Feðgar aacute; Ferð) is his most famous work, published in 1940 and translated into English in the 70s. Brú also worked as a translator, bringing to Faroe Shakespeare, Ibsen, Dostoevsky and Lindgren amongst others.

Teacher Marianna Debes Dahl has written novels and short stories but seems not to have released any work for some years now. Marjun Syderbø Kjelnæs has been pretty prolific, publishing 17 novels, short stories, and plays since 2000. She has collaborated with musician Eivør Pálsdóttir.

So of course after that I started reading about Faroese music; it was quite a lesson overall.

What have you learned lately because of reading?



July 27, 2016, 8:35 pm

Wow, you really did dive down the rabbit hole but you found so many interesting things it was really worth it! I read a book about a month ago by women’s record holder for fastest circumnavigation of the world by bike and that took me down the rabbit hole of ultra cycling and I am so far down that hole I am probably going to try a race next year!


August 23, 2016, 1:34 pm

Stefanie: I may have only stopped because it was time for dinner…

Well related to your interests. Definitely go for the race :D



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