Northwords Now Issue 38

The FREE literary magazine of the North

The Shepherd and the Morning Star

Willie Orr Birlinn (2019)

A Review by David Alston

This is a double biography in one volume. The author’s own life story (so far) is framed by that of his father, Captain ‘Billy’ Orr, who moved from his student enthralment to Dublin’s Gate Theatre, the plays of J M Synge, and Celtic Revivalism to become a Unionist MP and Grand Master of the Orange Order. In a political career which ended in the disgrace of attempted bigamy, he was succeeded as MP for South Down by Enoch Powell. Willie Orr approaches with compassion and clear sightedness the challenge of coming to terms with his father’s life. And there is much here of which it is important that we are reminded from time to time: lest we forget the origins of the Troubles in the systematic oppression of the Catholic population of Northern Ireland, the brutalities of the sectarian ‘B Special’ police force, and the first bombing campaigns organised by the Ulster Volunteer Force in 1966. His son brings a unique perspective to this part of our history and there is even a strange hopefulness in the thought that Captain Orr was not the inevitable product of his background, that he made bad choices, and that at the end he was perhaps more himself with a fishing rod than in an Orange Lodge.
    Within this frame is Willie Orr’s portrayal of his own life – by any standard a remarkable one. He has been among other things a shipyard electrician, actor, stage manager, shepherd, teacher, journalist, poet, politician, husband, and father.  Perhaps because he sought to escape the influence of his own father, Willie Orr’s account is very much one of other influences – of individuals who shaped his life and who shaped, or tried to shape, events in Scotland. And as with his father’s life story, there is much of which it is good to be reminded and perspectives which this reader valued: for example, on Tom Buchan as ‘sadly underrated as a literary figure’ and Orr's belief that Robin Hall and Jimmy Macgregor ‘rarely get enough credit for the stimulus they gave to the Scottish folk revival’.
    Orr has lived a restless life, in what he calls ‘a pattern of vagrancy’, and it is this which brought him into contact with so many who contributed to Scottish culture and left-wing politics of the past half century. This strength, when joined with the author’s interest in so many other places and events, is also the book’s weakness. Parts of it can seem a magpie collection of bright or fascinating things: an appreciation of the Hermitage in St Petersburg; opinion on Germany’s failure to recognise Croatian Republic in October 1991; and, closer to home, just over a paragraph on the allegations of ritual sexual abuse in Orkney, with Orr’s conclusion that he has ‘no doubt about the veracity’ of one child’s account of abuse. These, especially the last, deserve either much more – or silence. Perhaps this is just too short book in which to deal with two fascinating lives and so many influences.

Archie’s Lights
By Anne MacEachern
Whittles Publishing (2019)

Oor Big Braw Cosmos
By John C Brown & Rab Wilson
Luath Press (2019)

The Missing Lynx
By Ross Barnett
Bloomsbury (2019)

Non-fiction reviewed by Kenny Taylor

Lighthouses can fire the imagination. Beyond the beauty of their structures, there’s a symbolism that shines. Light beams sweeping the darkness; stability atop raging seas and remote headlands; tales of wrecks and rescues and bravery and endurance; unsolved mysteries. Think of the Flannan Isles, where the lightkeepers vanished four days before Christmas in 1900, or Sule Skerry, with its shape-shifting seals.  Then there’s the allure of the link between Robert Louis Stevenson and the family that designed most of Scotland’s lighthouses over more than 150 years. But that’s another story.

Since 1998, when the last keepers left Fair Isle South, all of Scotland’s lighthouses have been automated – controlled from afar and visited mostly by maintenance engineers.  For over two centuries until then, those lights and their associated foghorns were tended by live-in keepers; all men (though many women gave support as wives and mothers at stations where families lived). Those statistics book-end a now-vanished profession and sub-culture. So testimony from keepers can be both fascinating and historically invaluable .

‘Archie’s Lights’ is a superb memoir of a lightkeeper’s life, written from transcribed conversations between Archie MacEachern and his second wife, Anne, who compiled the book. Born into a lighthouse family in 1910, Archie’s professional connection to the Northern Lighthouse Board began in the 1920s and continued through the rest of the century. So his recollections are legion, his perspective on lighthouses, their keepers and locations superb. For anyone drawn by the allure of the lights, this book is a must-read classic.

Shifting from earth lights to the shine of countless stars, ‘Oor Big Braw Cosmos’ is one of the year’s most surprising non-fiction collaborations. In it, John Brown, Scotland’s Astronomer Royal, combines with Rab Wilson, Screiver in Residence at the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum, to give their contrasting takes on the universe. The results are both surprising and intellectually challenging.

This is a book to use both for reference (the astronomer’s summaries of many subjects, from the Big Bang to solar physics and exoplanets, are models of clarity) and sheer fun. Think of moving at one page turn from details of star clusters to a poem that describes them as ‘Sequins shewn oan ‘Strictly’/That blinter oan TV’ and you get some of the picture. But the illustrations throughout the book are also braw – a clever mix of images and art selected from recent sources. It’s a book that rewards both concentrated reading and random toe-dipping in its seas of stars and universal energies.

Back on earth, ‘rewilding’ is a term now much used and perhaps less-well understood, in our part of the planet. So ‘The Missing Lynx’ by Highland-based writer, Ross Barnett, is a welcome deep dive by a scientist into the lives of now-extinct species and the future potential for reintroduction of others. Ross’s specialization is the analysis and interpretation of ancient DNA. But as befits a prize-winner in the most recent Hugh Miller Writing Competition, this is no dry, academic text. There’s zing in the ways he describes creatures such as sabre-toothed cats and cave hyaenas and fun – with serious purpose – in how he tackles species such as beaver.

“There is no cut-off point, no box where the spectre of human-caused extinction can be confined’ he notes. So we need to find ways of avoiding such mistakes. This is a book to inform future thinking through its skillful accounts of both the distant and recent past.