Announcement: Books and Borrowing Creative Writing Competition: Second Prize!

We are delighted to congratulate Jenny Mitchell, whose short story ‘Byron Jumps Slave Trader in Stromness’ was awarded the second prize in our Books and Borrowing Creative Writing competition. Jenny was inspired by the records of the Orkney Library, held in the Orkney Library & Archive in Kirkwall.

Jenny Mitchell

Jenny is in her late sixties. At the beginning of 2022 she started writing short stories. She lived and worked in Orkney for several years around the turn of the millennium and when she saw the competition prompts, she was very excited by the challenge of creating an historical character in this setting. She has had one other story published on-line on the Assynt Field Club website.

 Our judge, Daisy Hay, commented of Jenny’s story that:

This vividly evokes both the geography of Stromness and the interior of its library. I loved the idea of different worlds meeting in the library, and the way the writer evokes the sense of different time periods, brought together on the page by books and readers. The story captures beautifully a sense of the things that change, and the things that stay the same, and I really appreciated its points of contrast and connection with both archival objects and the physical and mental space of the library.

We are happy to present it to our readers below.

Byron Jumps Slave Trader in Stromness

In a household where thought was a closely-guarded secret – the Baptists being very prescriptive – a book might be as close as you could get to an idea. In her first book, there had been no words. It was a folio constructed of brown paper pages, pasted with pictures from The Australian Women’s Weekly. Her grandmother had bound it along the spine with strong string, and then covered the outside in a durable textured paper. One memorable picture showed a sandy-haired boy, up to his armpits in a forty-four-gallon drum, with water being poured over his head. Red dirt extending flatly, for as far as the eye could see. Now there was an idea. A dog was resting on spread paws at the foot of the drum. She knows now that it could only have been Central Australia.

Mrs Omond has been in for her Edinburgh Review. It will give her something to keep her mind occupied. She’s had a very challenging time of it these past few years. Not that she hasn’t done a sterling job. Her two lads are a tribute. And bright? I mind ten year ago, in this room, Young Robert, asking me if I knew how cold it would be on the top of Ben Nevis, at the height of a blizzard in the middle of winter? The very idea of it! They say he is going up to study medicine at the university in Edinburgh.

The walk along Dundas Street in Stromness necessitated several contemplative pauses, a kind of secular ‘stations of the cross’. She’d learned about these, for the first time, at The Italian Chapel. At stop number one she looked down towards distinctively undercut protruding walls, which faced each other and almost touched, just above head height, from opposite sides of a narrow lane. Through the gap in the honey-brown stonework, you might see blue water and the rise of The Holms. Further along, she would pause at an uninhabited dry-stone cottage on the upside of the street, with an oddly angled lichen encrusted roof. In its yard there was a wizening tree and dry, wasted ground. It was a rare free-standing building. She wondered what it had been. But she had passed the water-tower in her grandmother’s rural inland town in Victoria for years, without ever learning what that was. Sometimes that is the way of it.

The light was golden that February morning in St Magnus. Though it’s true, I’ve often seen it like that. What was it – his own grief? Some days I feel the rawness as on the day they handed me the tidings from Liverpool. Mostly, it’s one leaden footstep after another. Lucy is always near, her small hand clutching mine. The two of them together now. In the kirkyard. They said the cathedral was full. I could feel a heavy weight of silence around me, my arms encircling my boys.

On a wet day, water ricocheting off the dense flagstones would drench your calves. Who would have thought that you would need over-trousers to walk to the library? And here it was. In a site of pre-eminence at the junction of three significant by-ways. Coming along Dundas Street you approached the nicely proportioned, two-story building from below, the arched eaves of the upper windows giving its face an appraising air. The step up to the entrance, embedded in the rising slope of Hellihole Road, was almost a natural feature. Inside, the embrace of dark wood, and books would envelope you, the high windows picking out dust motes in their coloured lead light rays. The librarian was a good friend of her neighbour at Milldam. Sheltering from the weather of a Saturday, before heading down Alfred Street to the South End, she would fossick amongst early editions donated by private benefactors. She immediately saw that the library service had a keen eye for contemporary literature. Cutting her teeth on Galloway, Atkinson, Rendall, Azzopardi and MacCaig.

From William Daniell and Richard Ayton’s A Voyage round Great Britain (London, 1814-25), University of Glasgow Archives & Special Collections, Sp Coll f53-f56. With the permission of University of Glasgow ASC

That’s Byron getting a telling. “His Childe Harold, his Giaour, Conrad, Lara, Manfred, Cain, and Lucifer – are all one individual. There is the same varnish of voluptuousness on the surface – the same canker of misanthropy at the core, of all he touches. He cannot draw the changes of many-coloured life, nor transport himself into the conditions of the infinitely diversified characters by whom a stage should be peopled. The very intensity of his feelings – the loftiness of his views – the pride of his nature or his genius, withhold him from this identification; so that in personating the heroes of the scenes, he does little but repeat himself. It would be better for him, we think, if it were otherwise. We are sure it would be better for his readers.”[1] Oh dear, though I’m inclined to agree. I see that the fifth volume of William Daniell’s, “Voyage round Great Britain undertaken in the summer of 1813”[2] is out. With 28 coloured plates. I wonder if it has any illustrations of Orkney? Daniell was here. The Old Man of Hoy? I’m very tempted. I found the parliamentary papers on the slave trade distressing. I suspect George did his best to shield me. He knew all that was happening. At the bank, how could he not? Liverpool, of all places. Earle, Penny, Yates and Parr – they were all clients. Did that contribute? Negroes throwing themselves overboard and then being shot and hanged for trying to escape. After it has all been outlawed. I do think he did what he could. As they said in Westminster, unless the governments of all the countries involved – Britain, America, France, Portugal, Spain – unless all of them stop this business, together, it will never be brought to an end.[3] My Poor George.

Fingal’s Cave, Staffa, from William Daniell and Richard Ayton’s A Voyage round Great Britain (London, 1814-25), University of Glasgow Archives & Special Collections, Sp Coll f53-f56. With the permission of University of Glasgow ASC

What did they say? That thought was the mother of invention. No, that wasn’t right. It was more the idea of something being a spur to action that she was thinking of. Pictures seemed to have an inordinate effect on her own imagination. Fueling excessive desires. Or maybe just the ‘next step.’ She knew without a doubt that it was dramatic photographs of brooding glens that had brought her to Scotland. Glacial cut, although she hadn’t realized it at the time. You never really knew, till you were in-situ, how things would pan out. And then you usually had to work on it some. What amazed her was that a place could offer so much of which you had had no inkling. That first glimpse of Rackwick, sailing across the Pentland Firth. The clusters of slate brown buildings as Stromness emerged below the knob of Brinkies. The glide past the fleet of deep-water household piers and slips. Of course, it was the view from Stromness back across Hoy Sound that really took your breath away. The vertical sides of Ward Hill slightly undercutting the rounded, scree-faced lump of its top. On the other side of the valley crease, the skewed twist of the Kame, rising into The Culags. She didn’t think she would ever forget it.

Stromness in 1821 by William Daniell © Copyright Orkney Photographic Archive. By kind permission of Orkney Library & Archive

She doesn’t want to stretch the point, but there are things on her mind. With Robert away to Edinburgh and John already south, it doesn’t bear thinking about. Who knows if they will ever return? Not to live. Surely her home is in Kirkwall? Has been this twenty year. George and Lucy are here. But, but. Robert is only beginning his studies. All those dreams he had as a young boy. The endless questions. The whys, the wherefores, the what ifs? It is having a profession that counts. The money that George left will see them through till his sons are established. But after that? It will not run to supporting multiple households. This house – empty though it now feels – has, with its wide bay windows, the sandstone so smooth and some days almost warm to the touch, been her refuge. And will be. For a while yet.

These days all you need to do to access information is to press the start-up button and make sure the battery is charged. She’d rather hold a novel or a book of poetry in her hands than read it on-line, but she often uses the internet – like you would a map – as an aide-memoire. And it is incredible what you can find out. Libraries themselves, are quite often not what they were. She does miss browsing through tall stands of books, particularly in the natural history and travel sections. That could be quite riveting. However, it is still true that you never know what you will discover in a library, even if it is on-line and, especially, in another part of the world. For someone with a predilection for entering into other people’s stories, this is – perfect.

It‘s not a place she comes to often, but a neighbour’s son is making a delivery to Flett’s in Victoria Street, and she’s come for the ride. Then taken the back road through the fields. She has about an hour. She knows there is a seat, some way along, set into the drystone wall above the shore. There it is, its copestones covered in orange lichen. With her legs stretched out in front of her, her hands in her lap and her shoulders loose, she watches the long rollers sweeping in from the Atlantic. The criss-crossed, grey and brown flagstones extending from the base of the bank, are of vast proportion. Some say that St John’s Head itself is over one thousand feet high. She doesn’t think she can see it from where she is sat. On her first crossing from Scrabster, so many years ago now, the whole of Hoy had been shrouded in mist. But it’s fine the day. And so still. Is that the rollers shifting stones on the seabed, that she can hear? It must be her imagination, surely? Her eyes are drawn again to The Kame. She walked the valley path to Rackwick once. Someone took Robert up onto Ward Hill and she met them on the way back. As she rises, she thinks she’ll come again soon – it is so different to Kirkwall – and not wait for another few years to pass by in the meantime.

[1] Sardanapalus, a Tragedy. The Two Foscari, a Tragedy. Cain, a Mystery. By Lord Byron, The Edinburgh Review, vol 36 (1821-22) pp 413-452, 3.

[2] Quarterly List of New Publications, The Edinburgh Review, vol 36 (1821-22), pp 268-286.

[3] ‘Abstract of the Information Laid on the Table of the House of Commons, on the Subject of the Slave Trade, being a Report made by a Committee specially appointed for the purpose, to the Directors of the African Institution, on the 8th May 1821, and by them ordered to be printed, as a Supplement to the Annual Report of the present year’, The Edinburgh Review, vol 36 (1821-22), pp 34-52