A Time to Keep by George Mackay Brown, 1969

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by George Mackay Brown, 1969

In the short opening sentences of "A Time to Keep" George Mackay Brown serves notice of his immediate thematic intentions: he is concerned with the eternal verities of marriage, procreation, and death. Bill, the narrator, has just married Ingi, and they are walking across white virginal snow toward their new home in the farming valley of Rackwick on the Orkney island of Hoy. It is the middle of winter, the season of death, but the couple are bringing hope of renewal to the dwindling community. Seeing the smoke rise above the farmhouse, Bill observes that the first true fire has been lit.

For all the familiar imagery, however, this is not a simple fable of life returning to a moribund society through the infusion of new blood. Bill is a freethinker and atheist who shuns the company of his fellow crofters and scorns the church. Although the dubious company of the alehouse still claims him, he is an isolated figure who turns away the hand of companionship. With his respectable father-in-law, a merchant and pillar of the community, he has no relationship at all.

Despite his unwillingness to accept Christian doctrine, Bill is not without religious feeling. He is aware of nature's subtle rhythms and of the continuity between seasons. In his wife, home, plow, and boat, he can sense a new beginning, the birth of a life different from the decay of older generations. At its most intense the emotion comes alive in his relationship with his natural surroundings. To him the valley is a green hand, open and giving, but the sea is a blue hand that takes more than it gives. Because he is a good fisherman who realizes that the sea, unlike the land, can never belong to any human, in his mind it will always takes precedence over the valley.

But Ingi is out of place in her new home. Brought up outside farming life, she cannot cook or brew ale, and she has difficulty keeping house, however much she wants to please her husband. Worse still, she has never lacked for money or belongings and has difficulty understanding Bill's constant admonitions to be careful as "we're poor people." The crisis comes when her father arrives at the croft to take her home and she refuses to leave because she is pregnant.

Her condition is mirrored by the surroundings. In the fine summer weather the cornfields ripen beneath the soft wind that "blessed it continually, sending long murmurs of fulfilment." But in that happy hour, as the crofters await their turn to help one another bring in the harvest, there is a double tragedy.

First, rain falls on the day of Bill's harvest, and his cornfield is left "squashed and tangled." The ruin forces him to accept a loan from his father-in-law, thereby restricting his independence. Then, following hard upon this disaster there is a second calamity when Ingi dies in childbirth. That the unhappy events are related is made clear by Brown, who compares Ingi's "damp hair sprawled over the pillow" to the ruined corn in the fields outside the croft.

With his customary stoicism Bill is able to endure the heavy loss, and after his wife's burial he insists that he will remain an emancipated man. He is not, however, prepared for the kindness and good sense of the people of the valley who take him and the newborn child into their care and protection. His neighbors, the Two-Waters family, agree to run his croft while he does the fishing for both homes. It is also tacitly agreed that Anna, their plain daughter, will move in with him at the end of the year to help bring up the child. And there the story ends, with snow again on the ground and Anna marveling anew at the miracle of the nativity.

Although this is a bleak tale with little human comfort, the desolation is softened by the lyrical beauty of Brown's physical descriptions. On a fine day the green hand of the valley and the blue hand of the sea are linked in the summer dawn as if in prayer. Physical pleasure is found in the naked power of hard work and in the benison of food and drink at the day's end. The harsh landscape yields beneath the sweat of the men and women who work it, while the sea is celebrated in a chance meeting between Bill and fishermen from the Scottish mainland.

Constructed in short, sharp sentences, Brown's prose has a timeless quality. Pails of water ring like bells, dead lambs resemble red rags, the cliffs towering over Bill's fishing boat are as gray as ghosts, and the baby is blessed by a fleck of spindrift as it lies in Bill's arms. All of these are accepted images in Brown's prose and help to soften the uncompromising brutality of the central plot.

Within this symbolic framework Brown has fashioned other strands, the most notable being the promise of renewal contained in the twinning of the pre-Christian winter solstice with the New Testament account of the Nativity. This is made manifest in the birth of a child through the sacrifice of its mother and the consciousness of impending salvation in the depths of winter, when night is at its darkest.

In the penultimate passage, as Anna returns from the Christmas church service, Bill notices the beasts kneeling in the byre just as they had before the Christ child in his mean and squalid stable. In that sense Brown seems to be saying that every birth is a miracle in its own right, being in some small measure a reenactment of the birth of Jesus.

—Trevor Royle